Feature Article - February 2022
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Protect & Serve

The Challenging Task of Youth Sports Safety

By Joe Bush

Safety for youth sports is the top priority for administrators and staff. Always has been and always will be, from fitness rooms and practice fields to ballfields, fieldhouses and stadiums on gameday. It's all about the athletes until there are real opponents, and then spectator safety complicates the issue.

To the constant worry of logistics, nutrition and hydration, equipment readiness, staffing, training, emergency plans, crowd monitoring, coaching safe techniques, conditioning and injury care, the year 2020 added a pandemic that shows little signs of allowing life to return to life before COVID-19. A difficult job has become even more difficult.

"The role of athletic director has become more professionalized," said Gary Stevens, director of athletics and student activities at Thornton Academy in Saco, Maine. "It used to be the coaches would do it, and the job involved scheduling and buying some equipment, but now it's a more professionalized type of situation, and it's become less of a management role and more a leadership role so there's more information, more training.

"We know more than we used to, and therefore if we know more we should be able to foresee more, and as the content experts on athletics in our buildings we're held to a higher standard than we've ever been."

Stevens was one of six youth sports administrators across the country who spoke with Recreation Management on the topic of safety in youth sports in general, since COVID specifically, and what the effects of COVID protocols might be in the post-pandemic world.

The six shared their concerns in the context of safety foundations that have always been true—injury, crowd control and planning—and those that have emerged in the 21st century, like school shootings, a litigation-happy society, mental health awareness, social media and of course the more recent COVID upheaval.

"People seeing you care about (COVID protocols) gives people a level of comfort," said Lisa Palisi, director of Recreation District 11 for St. Tammany Parish in Louisiana. "It was a lot of extra work, but we were willing to do whatever it took for kids to play ball because especially with the shutdown, it was like the kids were being punished. It's not normal to not socialize."

Others sharing their time and expertise were: Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS); Joseph Longoria, executive director of the National Center for Sports Safety (NCSS); Dena Scott, director of athletics for the Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas; and Lisa Licata, senior director of professional administrators for the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS).

The Coronavirus Effect

A youth sports safety story can't be written without addressing the virus that has shaken up the world.

In March 2020, sports at all levels stopped, and when they resumed in the summer fans weren't allowed to attend events. When fans did return, numbers were strictly controlled and seating was distanced, everything was sanitized, handshake lines eliminated and masks were required of all but the athletes playing.

These new restrictions added stress to already-stressed officials and necessitated creativity in many cases. Palisi said her organization removed bleachers for outdoor games because she didn't have enough staffing to mark them and clean them between events. Folks just brought their own seating and were required to distance from others. Stevens had senior parents act as staff on Senior Night to get around no-spectator rules.

Stevens said political divides mattered. Enforcement of masking and distancing was easier for his area, where the population was more likely to comply than in an area 200 miles north that had a populace more resistant to health and safety guidelines. He said communications tools have been crucial, from Zoom calls with parents, recorded and distributed, to messaging each week on away games and what the host school requires for visiting fans.

"We are potentially at this for a while," said Stevens. "Outdoor sports are easier to manage. I hope spring is like last spring—fairly normal. We have a ways to get out of this. The dangers of the time we spend on COVID are, we can't forget our responsibilities in the other areas: management of time and people, facilities with safety challenges. Those things don't go away. COVID has changed our focus, but the other things haven't gone anywhere."