Two recent sexual abuse scandals in youth sports have many parents wondering how they can ensure the same never happens to their own children. Over 200 athletes have come forward to accuse USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, and he has been sentenced to 40–125 years in prison. News continues to come out about the more than 250 coaches and staff affiliated with USA Swimming who have been disciplined or charged over a 20-year span for sexual misconduct and abuse.
How can parents ensure this never happens ever again? It starts by asking questions of the sports programs and activities your child participates in. Being aware of policies and protocols will go a long way in ensuring a safe environment for your children. Quality programs should be able to answer many of the following questions.
What training and certifications do your coaches/teachers have?
First off, you want to know what type of experience your coach has in the sport or activity. If she is a dance teacher, who did she study with and what conventions does she attend for professional development? If he coaches a team sport, how many years has he played, and what types of teams has he led or assisted with in the past? Hockey or figure skating, what tests have they passed in their own careers and in what system were they in (ISI, USFSA, USA Hockey)?
In addition, you want to ask about their first aid and CPR certifications. They should be certified and up to date. You may also want to look into whether they have taken coursework in education (i.e., early childhood ed, developmental or coaching psychology) and or kinesiology (body mechanics). Those experiences aren’t necessary, but they might enhance the coaching your child receives.
If my child is injured during practice or competition, what is the protocol?
One thing the USA Gymnastics controversy brought to light was the possibility of abuse while being treated for injury. Another aspect of the Nassar case was that the gymnasts ended up not having their injuries treated at all. How can you make sure your child is treated appropriately and safely for any injury that may occur during a game or practice?
For minor injuries, is there a safe place on the sidelines or away from equipment where they can take a time out and treat it? Is a first-aid kit easily accessible?
If there is a training or treatment room, where is it located? Who is allowed in there? How is treatment documented? Can you be with your child when they receive treatment? Trainers should not be alone with just one child in a private room giving treatment.
If the injury is major, what hospital would your child be transported to? If you aren’t around when the injury occurs, when would coaches notify you? Where is emergency contact information kept?
Lastly, what is the program’s concussion protocol? Some programs (especially for older children and teenagers) may ask your child to go through baseline testing prior to getting started to establish a norm they can be tested against if a concussion is ever suspected.
What are your hiring practices for assistant coaches or other staff who will be involved?
Many activities and sports will promote teenage students to assistant coach or teacher positions. (In fact, that’s how I started my education career 20 years ago — a 16-year-old assistant dance teacher!) Many children love being able to play and learn from the “big kids,” and the teenagers get valuable experience in the process.
However, you may still want to ask what the criteria is for a student to be elevated to an assistant position? How many years of training do they need? Do they need to have the same first aid and CPR certifications as the head coaches and teachers? (For instance, when I was 16 I had those certifications because I was also babysitting, but my studio didn’t require it.)
There also might be other staff involved in the program — athletic trainers, choreographers, strength trainers, substitute coaches, office assistants. Do they have to meet the same requirements as the coaches? Are they background checked?
Ensuring that youth sports are safe takes a village of dedicated coaches, mindful administrators, and aware parents. After you do your due diligence as a parent, make sure your child knows that if anything doesn’t feel right about the activity, they need to let you know immediately.