We’re all slowly coming to terms with the magnitude of this current crisis. While many of us lament the sudden loss of our seasons, some cut short with heart-wrenching cruelty for our athletes, it’s a hard justification to claim the importance of youth sport in these times. But there’s a role to be played in this moment that is of critical importance and unfortunate lack of attention. Our jobs as coaches must evolve to meet the needs of the moment and serve the children under our charge.
I’m impressed by all the creativity I see out there to fill this gap for sports training and activity with youth. Online content, viral video challenges, video-conferences with athletes and teams, homework opportunities for development off the fields of play. There’s a strong attitude of “adapt and overcome” that I believe is serving to inspire us to not give up in this moment. I’m proud of my colleagues for stepping up to be sources of stability and normalization for children in these uncertain times. Many of them doing so while they juggle their own personal challenges and when they’re keenly aware that their own livelihoods could be threatened by the economic fallout of this.
But our jobs today are not about just continuing to develop youth athletes. There’s a psychological and child-safety crisis brewing here with the imposed isolation of our youth, and we have to find our ways to help address it. Home alone with your family is not the same for every child. Not every child is blessed with a home that is a safe place for them. Think about all the potentially increased stressors; job loss, financial insecurity, food insecurity, the psychological well-being of parents, and the very real threat of a pandemic with rising death tolls. The list could go on. Consider the frame of reference for the children you’re working with, how does an 8-, 12-, 16-year-old process all of this? They see the numbers of rising death tolls, what does this mean to them? Think through the implications of how they could be reacting or how their environments could be changing around them.
A gap in our social safety network for children has suddenly appeared. For obvious reasons, teachers have historically always been on the front-lines of child welfare awareness, but now we’ve pulled them away and they’re over-taxed with trying to suddenly adapt their curriculum to Zoom meetings and emails. They’re going to do their best because quite honestly, they’re some of the most amazing people our society has to show for itself. But this gap is a dangerous one. I suggest that we as coaches can help fill some of it, but we have to move beyond “101 drills you can do with the ball at home” videos. Here are my suggestions…
1. Remember the Individual
In our digital age, the concept of content or systems that “scale up” has become critical and this type of content creation and focus of work makes sense for that. But the great need for our youth is the individual touch and interaction. Don’t just make videos for your athletes, also check in with them on a 1-on-1 basis. Show them through your actions that you care about them as an individual person, not just one of many that could get lost in the crowd. This can help keep an open door of communication that could be critical for a child’s experience through these times.
a. There’s a big caveat with suggestion No. 1, do all you can to avoid 1-on-1 digital interactions with minors. These can easily be misconstrued or could open liability issues. Try to find ways to address the individual but in manners that stay open and transparent with other adults.
2. Turn your Radar on High
Inform yourselves of danger signs about child welfare and listen more to the language and tone of the kids you’re engaging with. Maintain rapport with the kids you work with and keep an open door to them. Allow time for them to talk and express themselves. And most importantly, do more of the thing that many of us coaches tend to struggle with, listen. Some resources to consider from the Mayo Clinic:
3. Know your Limitations
Know how, when, and where to make a referral. We’re coaches, not trained therapists. Understand that you can provide a much-needed level of emotional support at this difficult time. You can help lift spirits, motivate, and continue to provide stability in a child’s life. But if you do see warning signs of mental concerns like depression or signs of abuse, know that attempting to intervene yourself could make things more dangerous for a child. Reach out to the leaders of your organization to learn the proper process for filing a report. Familiarize yourself with local and state child welfare policies and mandated-reporter laws. Find out what resources there are locally to connect children and families to.
4. Think Beyond your own Teams
That’s great that the kids on your team have a coach that cares about them as human beings as well as a part of the roster. But the majority of youth are not involved in sports or other extra-curricular activities. Here is our teaching moment for the kids we work with to do more to look out after one another. Encourage them to take this moment to check in with their peers. Challenge them to develop a new friendship with someone from their class that they’ve never spoken to before. Help them find ways to help one another and look out for another.
I’m sure there’s a thousand more implications I haven’t considered in writing this and problems with some of the ideas I’ve outlined. I hope this finds you in a safe situation, but I also hope you take a moment to consider our most important duty as coaches, the safety and welfare of the youth we work with. I encourage you to think of more ideas on how we can support them in these times as more than just athletes and share them with one another. I encourage you to stay connected.
(Nick Lusson is the Athletic Director of Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs' Activities League/Sheriffs Fútbol Club in Northern California's East Bay. Lusson also serves as NorCal Premier Soccer's Club Services Coordinator. He holds a USSF license, a master's degree in Sports Psychology and is a USSF coach education instructor. Lusson previously served as director of Dublin United Soccer League, director and coach of San Francisco Elite Academy, and has coached college and W-League soccer. )