Article first appeared as “Protect the Kids; Honor the Coaches” in The Scarsdale Inquirer, September 21, 2012
People don’t buy what they need, they buy what they want. Powerful influence addresses a person’s reasons for wanting something—not his or her need of it. It’s true for anything people buy or buy into: cars, watches, and even rules.
NFL Youth Sports Health and Safety
I recently attended the inaugural NFL Youth Sports Health and Safety Workshop, hosted by Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner. During the gathering, experts from a variety of disciplines presented credible information about the actions needed to make youth sports safer and more enjoyable.
The speakers focused on our need to know about concussions and sport safety and our need to follow the rules of the games we play. In the end, he, and his collection of experts, stated that we’re really talking about a change in the culture of youth sports. Clearly something must change if 57% of parents say they are less likely to allow their kids to play youth football.
But remember, we are motivated by our desires more than our needs. Don’t believe me; think about obesity. Americans are well informed about the dangers of poor nutrition and inactivity, yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68% of adults over the age 20 are either fat or obese.
Poor diets and rising obesity rates among Americans have persisted despite increased awareness and publicity regarding the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. The model predicts that dietary knowledge will have less influence on food choices in the face of immediate visceral factors. — “Is Dietary Knowledge Enough? Hunger, Stress, and Other Roadblocks to Healthy Eating” by Lisa Mancino, United States Dept. of Agriculture
Visceral is the opposite of reasoned
The motives for everything we do are based on our emotional desires not our logical needs, therefore before we can create a compelling argument in favor of changing the culture of youth sports, we have to understand the emotional desires of all the stakeholders, starting with the coaches.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
I am grateful to all the parents who generously volunteer to coach. Without you we wouldn’t have a program, and so it becomes vital that actions taken to increase safety consider the emotional desires that move parents into action. It’s simple: If we don’t give the coaches what they want, they won’t want to coach.
What happens if a compelling argument in favor of a new coaching strategy flies in the face of a generous parent’s underlying motive for coaching? Here’s a hypothetical example:
Stock broker father of a 3rd grade youth football player volunteers to coach. Here are just a few of the reasons he might have wanted to volunteer:
- Time to bond with son / offsetting busy professional obligations
- Social opportunity with peer coaches
- Reliving fond memories as youth player / his dad coached him
- Recognized in community as athletic, generous, and successful leader
- Excuse to avoid other obligations
- Business networking opportunity
- Fulfills secret dream to be a football coach or youth leader
- Lacks faith in current coaching program
- Ensure safety and training effectiveness
- Ensure playing time and position / no favoritism
- Ensure child’s positive experience
Now, consider a few USA Football and NFL actions and initiatives:
- Coaches should be specifically trained by an accredited agency for the age group he/she coaches and have full background checks that include criminal and sex offender searches
- Encourage “Coach Mom” programs in which mothers of players are encouraged to coach
- Include ongoing involvement of a league ‘Player Safety Coach’
- Coaches should encourage active parent participation
- Educating parents about daily practice plans, proper equipment fitting, rules, technique, etc.
- Demonstrate to parents the coach’s suitability/training before coaching and allow parents to track individual coach’s on-going performance and training through on-line methods
- Invite parents into the coaching and decision-making process
This is only a small sampling of the actions discussed by USA Football and the NFL. With growing concussion awareness, I expect there will be more initiatives and possibly a greater emphasis on flag football. It’s all logically sound and yet youth coaches are resisting.
An Abundance of Ideas
In preparation for the August 22, 2012 NFL event, I educated myself by talking with experts.
- Field and equipment safety experts talk about science and testing.
- Youth sport coaches from across the country talk about strategy, pressure, and winning.
- Former NFL players talk about the tragic price they’re paying now for the former glory of the grid iron.
- Medical experts providing treatment for kids suffering sports related brain injuries talk about frustration and the growing numbers.
- Parents of young athletes talk about risk and reward.
Concern is the common message behind all the ideas; concern that youth sports may become too risky.
I spoke to Scarsdale, New York’s, Melanie Spivak, former Middle School PTA President and Vice President PT Council, and mother of two Scarsdale alumni, Russell, now a senior at MIT, starting defensive lineman and team captain for the MIT Engineers, and Amanda, graduate of Syracuse University Whitmman School of Management. We talked mostly about Russell’s experience in youth sports and she is quick to credit youth football for its role his success. “He’s a bright and sensitive kid. Football was dangerous, but it was the best thing he did both academically and socially.” She talked about discipline, organizational skills, and the energy release that allowed him to focus. She also talked about the social benefits, “Football gave him the option to be part of a social group as he entered his freshman year of high school and college.”
As the wife of Dr. Jeffrey Spivak, Director of the NYU Langone Hospital for Joint Diseases Spine Center, she is well aware of the risks and dangers of football. The decision to allow Russell’s play was carefully considered by the Spivak family. Melanie Spivak isn’t so different from any other parent I spoke to. The biggest concerns are about control: the powerful control of a coach “Once the kids are under the wing of the coach, it’s all about the coach. Many times I’d have a question about something or something just didn’t sit well. I found out that even though parents matter, the coach tips the scale.” She advocates two strategies to help parents feel better about allowing kids to play:
- Stiffen rules and the penalties for infractions to support parents, players, and coaches.
- Find a way to simulate the experience of traumatic brain injury. Much like the drunk driving simulator sponsored by the Scarsdale Task Force on Drugs and Alcohol, in which high school students can experience driving under the influence of varying amounts of alcohol, Spivak thinks coaches, players, and parents would willing use greater caution if they could experience concussion first hand.
While I don’t believe the technology is available just yet, I believe the idea honors the vital role emotional desire plays in cultural change.
Honor the Why in the Buy
Coaches are people first. Without honoring the person behind the clipboard we ultimately can’t honor our kids. A change in youth sport culture starts by first understanding why people engage in youth sports and helping them want to play safe. Sure, this will take time and be contentious; it’s nonetheless vital. In the meantime, I’m grateful that we have organizations like NFL and USA Football, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and outspoken parents, like Melanie Spivak, stepping out to lead us into the future.
“We accept the role of leadership and we believe we can make a difference.” –Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner
Image courtesy of 89studio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net