Soccer: Making safety your goal

Introduction

According to U.S. Youth Soccer, the number of children participating in their programs has increased from 100,000 in 1974 to more than 3,200,000 in 2003. Soccer has eclipsed baseball as the favorite sport of America’s youth—U.S. Youth Soccer has more registered players than Little League. As the popularity of the sport has grown, so too have concerns about safety and injuries.

The American Academy of Pediatrics completed a review of soccer-related injuries in 2000. Of the approximately 150,000 soccer-related injuries that occur each year, 45% occur in participants under the age of 15. This study does not include injuries to spectators, volunteer coaches, and other parents who are involved in the sport.

The purpose of this safety guide is to help you create a safe environment in which young athletes can compete. It covers procedures that coaches and parent volunteers can follow in the event of an emergency, critical injury, and sudden severe weather. It also describes the steps you can take to keep players and spectators safe from hazards and injuries during soccer events.

Understanding the coach's responsibilities

Coaches involved in youth sports have a tremendous obligation to safeguard the welfare of the children involved in their programs. Parents trust a coach to be not only a coach, but also a teacher, mentor, safety expert, doctor, and yes, even a babysitter. Volunteer coaches are now being held to a higher standard of care because of the importance parents place on sports.

By analyzing the coach’s responsibilities, you can clearly identify areas that can expose your soccer program to liability. The way coaches manage themselves and their players’ activities is critical to keeping players safe and injury-free.

The Coalition of Americans to Protect Sports (CAPS) suggests a coach is responsible for performing nine legal duties:

  1. Properly planning the activity.
  2. Providing proper instruction.
  3. Providing a safe physical environment.
  4. Providing adequate and proper equipment.
  5. Matching athletes by ability, age, and size.
  6. Evaluating athletes for injury or incapacity.
  7. Supervising the activity closely.
  8. Warning of inherent risks.
  9. Providing appropriate emergency assistance.

Many experts agree that coaches have additional responsibilities. Tom Appenzeller, author of Youth Sport and the Law: A Guide to Legal Issues, feels there are six basic guidelines for the youth sports coach to remember:

  • Explain, demonstrate, communicate, and enforce rules.
  • Supervise practice and games.
  • Warn participants and parents about the risks and dangers of the activity.
  • Teach proper and correct techniques and skills.
  • Plan, and always prepare, for practice and games.
  • Put the child’s welfare first.

By incorporating these guidelines and legal responsibilities into your soccer program, a coach can create and maintain a winning environment for players, spectators, and volunteers.

Supervising athletes

Supervision is more than just overseeing a soccer player’s activities. Many experts estimate that 80% of athletic injuries result from a lapse of direct or indirect supervision.  
Although soccer programs differ based on the age, gender, and skill level of the players, the activities associated with supervising them are very similar. These areas include:

  • Facility supervision: Provide for overall facility supervision, including the safe arrival and departure of participants. Include procedures for special care when an athlete is stranded after a practice or game. Always have two adults present and encourage parental involvement with transportation. Make sure all participants are aware of schedules, and begin and end practice on time.
  • Field activity supervision: Attend to field-of-play safety issues, spectator safety, and the use of proper equipment. Some activities can be supervised from a distance; some may require close proximity for supervision to be effective.
  • Class/activity supervision: Recognize the hazards and potential injury-causing elements of a particular activity. Here again, close-proximity supervision may be required, especially if a young athlete is attempting an activity for the first time.
  • Gender-sensitive supervision: Recognize the potential for sexual abuse and molestation, and take steps to prevent it from occurring. Develop, publish, and follow plans and policies to supervise opposite-gender athletes. Maintain a general rule that an individual coach should never be alone with an individual athlete. Institute a policy of requiring background checks on anyone who may act in a supervisory capacity, volunteer coaches included.
  • Emergency supervision: Train supervisors and coaches to be aware of all emergency procedures, how to handle an injury, how to get help, and how to handle peripheral problems until emergency personnel arrive at the scene.

When engaging in supervisory activities as a coach, or assigning supervisory activities to an assistant coach or volunteer parent, it is important to set a high standard of professionalism and accountability to make the supervisory activity effective. Allow for quick reaction time in the event of an emergency and allow for no distractions while an activity is being supervised. Have a plan and a backup plan. Don’t place inexperienced and unskilled supervisors in situations beyond their experience and abilities. (In the event of a lawsuit, plaintiff’s counsel will closely scrutinize this aspect of your supervisory practices.) If possible, match different teaching styles with different learning and training situations.

The person who is accountable for supervision, be it the team coach, assistant coach, or parent volunteer, must be mature enough to handle situations that may arise during practices or games. At a minimum, a coach should be 18 years old. Unless there is a sibling relationship, under no circumstances should a young child be left in the care of another child under the age of 18.

Performing background checks

It’s critical to the success of your soccer program to provide an environment that both players and parents can trust. In today’s world, there is a growing concern over the inappropriate behavior of adults that may lead to child abuse. This abuse may be in the form of either physical or sexual abuse. Criminal record and sexual offender checks are tools you can use to verify that coaches or parent volunteers will meet the standard of integrity necessary to coach young athletes.
Depending on the resources available, there are a number of ways to obtain a background check on any adult wishing to coach or volunteer. Many states provide a background check system through their state police authority. There are also a variety of commercial vendors that conduct these checks.
If you choose a commercial vendor to conduct background checks, make sure the check includes the following:
•    Multi-state criminal search
•    Multi-state sex offender registry
•    Identity verification/address history
If coaches or parent volunteers will transport children to and from practices or games, it’s also a good idea to check their driving records.

This document is intended for general information purposes only, and should not be construed as advice or opinions on any specific facts or circumstances. The content of this document is made available on an “as is” basis, without warranty of any kind. This document can’t be assumed to contain every acceptable safety and compliance procedures or that additional procedures might not be appropriate under the circumstances. Markel does not guarantee that this information is or can be relied on for compliance with any law or regulation, assurance against preventable losses, or freedom from legal liability. This publication is not intended to be legal, underwriting, or any other type of professional advice. Persons requiring advice should consult an independent adviser. Markel does not guarantee any particular outcome and makes no commitment to update any information herein, or remove any items that are no longer accurate or complete. Furthermore, Markel does not assume any liability to any person or organization for loss of damage caused by or resulting from any reliance placed on that content.

*Markel Specialty is a business division of Markel Service, Incorporated, the underwriting manager for the Markel affiliated insurance companies.
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