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2019 BETTER COACHING; coachmorgansullivan.com; Coaches' Corner All Rights Reserved

Anyone who occupies a position that can affect the welfare of children, including a youth coach, has a rightful (and legal) responsibility to provide a safe experience

A coach who fails to carry out this responsibility (either by acting irresponsibly or by failing to act responsibly) can be sued and found guilty of negligence. 

Duty 1 - Plan the Activity Properly

 

Plan your practices and ensure they fit the age and developmental level of your athletes. Do not practice advanced skills until your athletes are ready for them as this could become dangerous. Likewise, adapt training regimens to the current conditioning level of your team. 

 

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • develop a season long plan that incorporates skill-appropriate teaching progressions

  • evaluate athletes to determine their skill levels and physical conditioning

  • write lesson plans for all practices

  • adjust your teaching progression to the individual characteristics of your athletes

  • closely follow your plans

  • keep records of our athlete evaluations and practice plans

 

Duty 2 - Provide Proper Instruction

 

Several sport techniques, such as spear tackling in football and head-first sliding in baseball, have been linked with a high risk of injury and have been deemed as unsafe to use. Legal judgments against coaches have affirmed that such techniques should never be taught to young athletes or even permitted for them.  Coaches have a duty to teach technical and tactical skills correctly in accordance with accepted procedures of the sport, thereby reducing the likelihood of injury. Moreover, coaches are inherently responsible for teaching proper technique within the sport in order to best provide for the development of the athletes. These duties include an obligation to learn safe and correct procedures via reading sports safety literature, researching safety videos and correct mechanical instruction, and/or attending safety and coaching clinics. 

 

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • be knowledgeable about current instructional standards for your sport and apply them in your teaching

  • teach techniques, strategies, and rules according to accepted methods of your sport and the maturational level of your athletes

  • provide instructions in a clear, complete, and consistent manner, including adequate feedback on skill-learning progressions

  • closely supervise all instructional/practice and competition activities at all times, even when others are delegated a role of leadership

 

Duty 3 - Warn Athletes and Parents of Inherent Risks

 

Every sport has associated risks, and many lawsuits have been based on the claim, "I was never warned that this could happen." Youth sports programs are often working with parents that never played the sport, and truly don't understand some of the risks involved. This is a topic to cover in the preseason parents meeting. Athletes should also be warned of the risks involved in the sport. The goal is not to frighten the athletes or parents, but to provide a reasonable basis for the decisions about assuming the risks inherent in the sport. 

 

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • warn athletes and parents of the inherent risks of the sport to enable them to know, understand, and appreciate the dangers of participation

  • use written notices, releases, videos, and repeated warnings to ensure the risks are fully comprehended

 

Duty 4 - Provide a Safe Sport Environment

 

As a coach, you are responsible for regularly and thoroughly inspecting the safety of the sports equipment, the playing facility, and all warm-up, training, and dressing areas. This involves making sure there are no hazards, such as holes, broken glass, exposed sprinkler heads, or sharp corners. If there are hazards that you cannot remedy, you have a duty to (1) notify the facility manager and (2) warn your athletes about the hazardous conditions and steer the activity away from the danger. 

 

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • regularly inspect the sports environment, noting and remedying (or reporting) hazardous conditions

  • develop and regularly use a facilities-and-equipment inspection checklist, (another good example) and keep completed checklists on file

  • correct dangerous conditions and/or reduce the hazards to the best of your ability; warn athletes of hazards and notify the facility manager

  • give athletes safety rules; regularly remind them of the rules, and consistently enforce the rules

  • monitor changing sports environments, and make prudent judgments about continued participation if conditions become hazardous

Duty 5 - Provide Adequate and Proper Equipment

Baseball bats with loose grips, masks incorrectly mounted on the helmet (football, hockey, softball, etc), and loose bolts on gymnastic equipment are all examples of accidents waiting to happen. As the coach, you are responsible for providing athletes with the best equipment in order to provide the greatest degree of safety possible. Courts have ruled that coaches must be diligent in the manner in which equipment is selected, distributed, used, and repaired. If equipment is used improperly, the coach can be held liable for any resulting injuries to athletes.

* Many times in youth sports, the equipment is provided by the league. This equipment is often recycled year after year and is not in the best shape. The coach must discern between faulty equipment and old equipment. Ultimately it's the coach that must confront the league officials with faulty equipment and demand replacement.

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • provide the best age/skill-appropriate equipment that reasonably can be afforded

  • teach your athletes how to properly fit, use, and inspect their equipment and encourage them to return ill-fitting or defective equipment

  • inspect all equipment often for wear and tear, and ensure that it continues to comply with safety standards

  • allow only qualified people to install, fit, adjust, and repair equipment

  • warn athletes of potentially hazardous equipment, and give proper instructions on using it

  • keep up-to-date on accepted standards for equipment of your sport

Duty 6 - Match Your Athletes Appropriately

The responsibility here is to avoid placing youngsters at risk by matching them against others who are much larger, stronger, or physically skilled. This is particularly important in contact sports (football, wrestling, etc.) but is also relevant in sports that involve throwing or striking balls. Consider the effects of a one-on-one tackling drill in football with the ball carrier at 110 lbs. and the tackler over 200 - this is the basis for negligence on behalf of the coach.

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • match athletes according to age, size, maturity, skill, and experience in order to avoid situations in which the risk of injury is increased

  • enforce rules designated to promote equitable and safe competition

  • avoid mismatches, but modify practices and drills to appropriately accommodate them when the do occur

  • make appropriate safety adjustments for mismatches associated with between-sex competition, athletes returning to participation after recovering from injury, and athletes with disabilities

Duty 7 - Evaluate Athletes for Injury or Incapacity

Another situation that can place an athlete at significant physical risk is health problems or a previous injury. Most programs at junior high and above require a preseason physical exam - most youth leagues don't. The coaches responsibility is also tested in judgment for a player to return after an injury. It should be noted that this decision is not solely the coach's - mostly it's out of the coach's hands. It's shared with the parents, the athletic trainer, and the physician.

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • ensure each athlete's health is satisfactory for participation at the beginning of the season

  • determine whether an illness or injury is sufficiently threatening to warrant discontinuation of participation in practice or competition

  • ensure that injured athletes are fully recovered before allowing them to return to play

Duty 8 - Supervise the Activity Closely

As a supervisor, the head coach is in charge of the assistant coaches and the players.

 

General supervision is to maintain visual and auditory contact with the area and individuals under supervision, and to be able to respond quickly. In addition to the sport playing area, examples include the locker room, shower, equipment rooms, bleachers, hallways, etc.

Specific supervision is instructional in nature toward the actual teaching or coaching of an activity or skill. It occurs at the immediate location of an activity and is more action oriented than general supervision. As a rule, the more dangerous the activity, the more specific the supervision should be. Additionally, more specific supervision is required with younger and less experienced athletes.

 

Supervision is a learned skill. A qualified supervisor is a person who has adequate education and certification to appropriately perform instructional tasks.

 

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • provide general supervision for athletic facilities and playing areas

  • provide specific supervision when teaching new skills and when the risk of injury increases

  • know your sport well enough so you can anticipate potentially dangerous situations and be able to proactively remedy them

  • use informational messages to supplement your supervision

  • prohibit reckless or overly assertive behavior that threatens the well-being and/or safety of any athlete

Duty 9 - Provide Appropriate Emergency Assistance

 

Coaches have a responsibility to provide or secure appropriate medical assistance for injured athletes. If appropriate medical assistance is not immediately available, coaches have the duty to provide immediate and temporary care. Therefore, training in first aid and CPR must be conducted on an annual basis.

When an injury occurs, the coach should provide only the first aid he or she is qualified to perform, and transfer the risk associated with emergencies to more qualified people. Most leagues have an injury report form. Ensure this is completed and returned to the league office as quickly as possible.

To fulfill these duties, the coach must:

  • obtain a consent form from each athlete at the beginning of the season

  • protect injured athletes from further harm

  • provide immediate and appropriate first aid

  • attempt to maintain or restore life using CPR when required

  • provide comfort and reassurance to injured athletes

  • activate an emergency plan that includes transfer of treatment responsibility to trained medical professionals

  • complete an injury report form as soon as possible after the injury

Again, this is a quick overview of the broader concept of sport law and how it applies to coaches.

LEGAL LIABILITY

Lawsuits are a way of life now and no one, even coaches, are exempt. The purpose here is to alert you to some basic information about legal liability in coaching and to offer some suggestions to help you avoid legal problems. The advice here does not replace deep legal research into your local area's laws and regulations.

Based on the above basic responsibilities, below are some common claims of negligence and proper defenses against those claims.

Claims of Negligence

When an injury occurs in athletics, the plaintiff (injured party) may allege that the injury was caused or aggravated as a result of the coach's negligence. Negligence in this case can either be an act of omission or commission. The critical question must be answered is, should the coach, through reasonable prudence and foresight, have anticipated danger or injury to a student under the particular set of circumstances in question? If the answer is "yes" then the coach was negligent in the performance of his or her duties.

Several factors that commonly contribute to negligence claims in athletics are:

  • The absence of protective measures. A coach is expected to anticipate the hazards involved in any activity and to take whatever steps may be necessary to protect the safety of the athlete.

  • Poor selection of activities. A coach must select activities appropriate to the age, size, and skill of the student. Failure to do so can lead to serious injury and constitutes an act of negligence.

  • Unsafe conditions of facilities and equipment. Before using any practice area, a coach should always examine it carefully to be sure it is free of hazards. Such things as broken glass or holes on playing fields often lead to serious injury. No athlete should be allowed to use a piece of equipment until you have examined it to ensure its safe operation and freedom from defect.

  • Inadequate supervision. The question of supervision involves both a qualitative and quantitative judgment. Coaches must be knowledgeable in the specific activity they are supervising, and must then provide supervision during the course of the activity. There are two kinds of supervision - general and specific. General supervision means the coach must be within the area, overseeing the whole activity. Specific supervision means the coach must be at a specific location of an activity such as the high bar in gymnastics. Under no circumstances should athletes be permitted to play or practice without proper supervision (or a signed physical card).

  • Inadequate control measures. Closely tied with the question of supervision is that of control measures. The actions of one youngster or a group should never be allowed to create a hazardous situation for others. Horseplay not only impedes learning, it can lead to injury.

  • Failure to warn. Warning players of their potential for injury is essential. However, coaches frequently ignore this warning for fear it will have a negative effect on players - particularly in contact sports. Nevertheless, parents and players both should be informed about the risks involved and should be given written material describing ways in which injuries can be avoided.

  • Poor judgment. The area of a coach's judgment is rather broad and can encompass a wide variety of situations in which the coach fails to apply common sense and prudent judgment and a student suffers harm as a result. Examples include:

    • asking a student to assume an unreasonable risk, such as climbing on top of the school to "build courage."

    • failure to apply first aid, or exceeding the limits of your training when applying first aid.

    • punishing a player with excessive running or other physically demanding exercises or drills.

Defense against negligence Claims

Several defenses against negligence claims can be used in legal actions. The best defense, of course, is providing the extra ounce of care that prevents an accident from happening in the first place. Sometimes however, an accident occurs despite the most conscientious efforts. In such cases, employ the following defenses:

  • Proximate cause. The element of proximate cause must be proven in any case involving negligence. It is not sufficient to merely allege that a coach was negligent in his or her duties. One must prove additionally that this negligence was the actual reason the accident occurred.

  • Act of God. This I san action attributable to forces of nature, such a lightening or a limb from a tree falling on a player. However, if a prudent person would have foreseen the likelihood of such an occurrence, then an act of God is not a valid defense.

  • Contributory negligence. This attributes part of the blame for an injury to the injured party. It usually arises when a player was injured while doing something that he or she had clearly been warned not to do. In some states, proof of contributory negligence constitutes sufficient cause for dismissal of a negligence claim. Another concept that has been introduced is that of comparative negligence, whereby the youngsters are liable only to a degree to which they caused their own injuries, and the coach can still be held liable in part.

  • Assumption of Risk. In the past, courts ruled that anyone who participates in sports and physical activities assumes that there are certain dangers built into the very nature of the activity. Since coaches cannot protect students from such built-in dangers, they cannot be held liable for their occurrence. This is no longer totally the case, as many courts now make exceptions to this when athletes allege proper supervision, inferior equipment, or some other failure to conform to reasonable standards.