So often, we drop our kids off at their lacrosse practices and games with no questions asked. A neighbor picks them up a couple of hours later and, when they get home, we assume they've been having fun and improving their game.
Most of the time they have, but parents should not be blind to the infrequent possibility of injury, emotional stress or even sexual abuse that can occur in the youth sports environment. Odds are it won't be your kid, but the reality is that it will be somebody's at some time. Here are a few tips on keeping your child's lacrosse experience as safe and fun as possible:
Talk with youth league administrators regarding policies and procedures for:
•Emergency medical plans for game and practice locations. This should include identifying the team's designated emergency supervisor (with 911 phone access and basic life-support training) at all events; efficient access of the nearest EMS providers and their transport procedures; availability and utilization of automated external defibrillators; parental notification procedures; and documentation of pre-participation physicals, emergency contacts and any special health concerns for players.
•Field and facilities inspection for safe playing environments, ease of public access and availability of appropriate changing and restroom facilities.
•Lightning policy with regard to weather observation, suspension of play and appropriate shelter.
•Coaching requirements: Does the league require lacrosse-specific certification through US Lacrosse? Such certification reflects commitment to the sport and is an acknowledgement that it is important for coaches to hone their skills just as players are expected to.
•Appropriate youth rules: Does the league follow US Lacrosse rules? These rules have been developed for both boys and girls and consider the physical and cognitive developmental stages of children to assure an appropriate learning progression. They also incorporate the best available health and medical information to make your child's play as safe as possible.
•Sexual and physical abuse policies that include a formal criminal background check on all coaches and adult volunteers, and a zero-tolerance policy concerning abuse, hazing and drug or alcohol use. A recent study on youth sports in Minnesota found that 10 percent of young athletes had been verbally abused with sexual innuendo and that 3 percent had been pressured into sexual activities in their sports environment.
Young athletes are at particular risk because of the close personal relationships developed with coaches, the imbalance of power between coach and player, conditioning to please coaches and follow their directions, and frequent sport related travel. For protection of kids and adults, there should always be a system in place where an adult is never completely alone with a child, and on trips each kid should be assigned a travel buddy. Warning signs for abuse may include sudden changes in mood, fear of specific people or situations, social withdrawal or age-inappropriate sexual language or behavior.
Talk to your child's coach. This should not be done on the heat of game day but at a scheduled time early in the season that is convenient for you and the coach. How can you be involved as a positive partner without interfering? What is the coach's general philosophy concerning teaching and molding young athletes? How does the coach define success for the team and individual players? How will your child's playing time be determined and improvement be assessed? What are the schedule and time commitment for practices and games?
Attend some of your child's practices. During practices, most of the kids should be active most of the time and not involved in drills that involve just a few kids while the majority are left to stand around. Also, practice should include significant time for skill development and teaching, not just scrimmaging. Ample water and rest breaks should be provided. At both practices and games, coaches and parents should always maintain a calm, respectful demeanor in interactions with other coaches, officials, parents, team members and opponents. See whether the coach's interactions reflect your values.
Talk with your kids. Stress to them that you value success both on and off the playing field and that sports should be a fun way to learn life lessons. Stress sportsmanship, respect for the game and that improvement and success are measured in many ways — not just on the scoreboard. Regularly ask them whether they are having fun and to tell you about their day at practice or a game. Ask them directly whether there have been any unusual or uncomfortable interactions with any of the supervising adults on the team. Look for any warning signs, such as dreading going to practice, frequently talking about quitting for no reason or coming home unhappy.
Don't take your child's youth lacrosse experience for granted. Understand the environment in which you have placed your child, and get to know the adults to whom you have entrusted him or her. Be a good consumer, but also a positive partner. Youth coaches, officials and administrators are usually involved because of their love of the game. The good ones will welcome your questions and your involvement.
Dr. Richard Hinton is director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship at Union Memorial Hospital and a team physician for the Towson men's and women's teams as well as the U.S. women's national team. Steve Stenersen is president and CEO of US Lacrosse.