By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski
Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CMAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa. The former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., his most recent book is titled Coaching for Safety, A Risk Management Handbook for High School Coaches, published by ESD112.
Coaching Management, 13.4, April 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1304/safetyblitz.htm
There are few coaching topics seen as more mundane than safety. Even fewer may be more important to both your players' health and your career. Yet, safety often is ignored until a serious injury occurs.
Coaches must know and appreciate their risk management duties. The implementation of solid safety rules will not make your players injury free, but it can reduce the chances of both common and catastrophic injuries. Taking steps to minimize the risk of injury also lowers the likelihood of time-consuming, program-shattering lawsuits.
Your basic legal responsibilities as a coach follow. My suggestions are based on a consensus of opinions held by people in athletics, an ongoing review of court cases, and my years of experience as an athletic risk manager.
They're the kind of things a good coach does naturally while offering a worthwhile athletic experience that minimizes the risk of injury. If after reading this article, you have any doubts about your own responsibilities, seek the advice of your school's legal counsel-before the avoidable injury.
The Right Attitude
The first step in lowering risk is stressing the importance of safety by making it a constant priority. Always address any safety problems you see immediately. Correct any unsafe techniques, or say, "No, we won't play," if presented with hazardous playing conditions that can't be corrected.
The major concern in football is catastrophic injury, due primarily to the use of the head as an initial contact point. The helmet is designed to protect the head-it is not meant to be a weapon. Spearing, cheap shots, and taking someone "out of the game" must not be part of football.
Teach players the proper way to tackle. Explain to them that it's dangerous to turn themselves into a missile by lowering their head and hitting with the top of their helmet, even if that's what they sometimes see on television.
Sell athletic safety to players in both your actions and speech. Teach student-athletes to help keep playing areas clear of extraneous objects, such as helmets and other equipment. Explain to your athletes the danger of rough housing and horseplay before, during, and after practice. Remind your players of their responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others on the field.
Also consider your own actions come game time. Coaches who teach unsportsmanlike techniques to get an edge on opponents turn football into an inappropriate activity. On the flip side, if you sideline a player for an illegal or dangerous hit, you are making a strong statement about the importance of safety in your program.
When athletes hear you preach safety, they will be less apt to attempt risky behavior. When parents see that you take safety seriously, they will trust you and your judgement, even after an injury happens. When you put a priority on safety in your own planning, you will be able to spot hazards more easily.
The days of giving old, worn-down equipment to the freshman team are over. Equipment lasts for only a certain length of time. Replace equipment before it is no longer functional and becomes dangerous. Also, teach your players to check their equipment on a regular basis, since it can deteriorate quickly with the wear and tear of games and practices.
It's vital to make sure that all players have equipment that fits properly. Even the best-designed helmet is of little use if it's too big or too small. Also, make sure players know the proper way to wear and use the equipment. This is especially important if you have any players who are new to the game, since they may be reluctant to ask for help.
In addition, buy only from established and reputable companies. Avoid purchasing new "state of the art" equipment until it becomes established equipment. Years ago, a heavy, spring-loaded dummy that came down an overhead track was considered a great piece of equipment for blocking and tackling practice. That opinion quickly changed after several catastrophic injuries.
Avoid modifying equipment or using it for any activity other than what it was intended for. Makeshift blocking and tackling dummies, for example, may contain hidden dangers that put both players and coaches at risk.
Warn of Risks
Some coaches feel that if you inform student-athletes of potential injuries, they will stop participating. This has proven to be untrue. In fact, warning of the inherent dangers of the game and obtaining an informed-consent form from players and parents is an established duty, and informing people about the potential risks of participating in any activity actually reduces injuries.
It may seem obvious that an athlete can get hurt playing football, but informed-consent forms spell out the potential risks. The form should include pertinent words in large print, such as "Warning," "Attention," and "Please Read." The heading on the form should also be in large print. The form should cover all phases, sites, and time frames of the season. Your legal counsel should review the informed-consent form. After it has been signed, give a copy to each student-athlete's parents and keep the original.
It is important that the recipient understands the seriousness of the consent form. Have an informational meeting with parents to discuss the risks and benefits of participation. Ask parents and players if they have any questions and if they understand what they are signing. They should know that signing the form is voluntary, and that by doing so, they are agreeing to accept the risks that come with participation.
Even after the form has been signed, warnings and reminders should be regularly issued within the context of normal instruction. Some pieces of equipment come with their own warnings. Make sure players read and understand these labels as well.
Lack of supervision is the most-cited complaint against coaches in wrongful injury lawsuits. The coaches' presence during an activity is the first line of defense against potential problems. Permitting players to remain on the field for extra work without supervision is no longer an option.
Being present, however, is only the first step. Supervision means controlling the situation through your knowledge and planning. First, you must be completely familiar with the activity you are supervising. You must plan appropriate activities for the group you are working with, taking time to foresee any potential problems.
Second, you should always be scanning the activity from the best vantage point. Think of keeping "back to the wall," so you can take in as much of the scene as possible.
Avoid distractions. While you're supervising a drill is not the time to talk with others.
All coaches have a duty to inspect the facility that they are going to use. One of the most important things to look for is a sufficient buffer zone. A good rule of thumb is to always go for a "first down," meaning there should be at least 30 feet of open space around the edges of the playing area. Adjacent playing fields should have at least 60 feet between them.
Any fences, tracks, or other obstacles within the buffer zone that can't be moved should be well padded to reduce the risk of injury. If you practice near a sidewalk, hill, or other possible danger that can't be padded up, the whole team needs to be very aware of the danger. Moving the action as far away from the hazard as you can is the first step. If that's not always possible, place players in front of these areas to serve as active barriers. In addition, use a very quick whistle around the area.
Make sure that playing areas are free from stray equipment, such as water bottles, extra helmets and pads, or kicking nets and tees. This is especially important during practice when different groups may be working on different schedules close to each other.
Know The Rules
You are required to know the rules of your sport and fulfill the requirements of the national and state associations. Read the rulebook every season. Attend state and local rules meetings. Never ignore any regulation that pertains to safety. There is no excuse for not staying current with all rules and regulations.
Follow your athletic department's rules and regulations. Consider talking with your athletic director at least once a year about safety issues. If you have questions, seek outside opinions.
Know the basic rules of health safety. You are not expected to know all that an athletic trainer knows, but it's important for you to stay current on the major guidelines. For example, it would be considered a breach of your duty as a coach if you prevented your players from taking water breaks during practice or failed to have a first aid kit on the bench.
A key part of risk management is instructing players in a safe manner. You have a responsibility to develop a sequence of progressive practice sessions and offer game preparation and strategies that result in worthwhile and safe experiences for your student-athletes.
This begins with your strength and conditioning program. Progression is the key to proper conditioning, and rest is a vital component. Trying to do too much too soon is a bad mistake coaches sometimes make.
Another part of proper progression is keeping competitions as equal as possible. Skill, experience, maturity, height, weight, age, mental state, and the activity itself all play a part in avoiding competitive mismatches. For example, avoid matching a smaller, less-experienced player against a returning all-state fullback in tackling drills. Some coaches may feel this is a good way to "toughen players up," but it can also increase their potential for injury and your potential for liability.
Along with developing proper progressions, you must provide appropriate instruction. You not only have a duty to instruct your athletes to play well, you must also teach proper techniques to lower the chances of injury.
The repetition of fundamental skills is one of the major, and often neglected, techniques used to lower risk. Have skills demonstrated and let the players practice them in various ways before using them in a game. Teach before you test. Never, ever place an athlete into a situation he is not prepared for.
In addition, coach only that which you really know. Continue to improve your knowledge by attending workshops.
After An Injury
Regardless of the excellence of a risk management program, injuries will still occur. Coaches are expected to have a basic knowledge of what should and should not be done when a player is injured.
Most important, you must know how to implement your emergency plan. Do you know what to do at an away game when there is a serious injury? Whom do you call? Do you have a cell phone? Where is the nearest exit? Practice your emergency game plan before an emergency happens.
Coaches should have training in basic first aid and CPR. Obtain an AED and make sure someone present knows how to use it. Maintain a first aid kit that includes individual emergency medical forms. Obtain a higher level of medical care as quickly as possible after an injury.
Protect your players from further harm, and comfort your athletes, but do not offer medical assistance beyond your ability. Remember the golden rule of injury assessment and first aid care: Always assume and treat for the worst possible injury.
Report and document all incidents as soon as possible. Accident reports should be factual and to the point. Do not editorialize. Avoid offering information to those in the area except your supervisors or medical personnel.
An athlete should not return to play after an injury or illness without a completed "return-to-play" form. Athletes who return to competition too early often suffer injuries that would have been avoided had they fully recovered before playing again.
Along with being knowledgeable in first aid care, the single most important thing you can do when your athletes are injured is to show them and their parents that you care. Although it sounds simple, parents are less apt to take a coach to court if he seems to have been genuinely concerned about the welfare of their child.
As often as possible, put things in writing and keep records. This includes checklists, practice plans, training plans, medical examination forms, athletic handbooks, informed-consent forms, and return-to-play agreements. Following a written plan lowers the chance of forgetting an issue and demonstrates your professionalism. It will also save you a great deal of time in the future.
Check with your athletic administrator about the length of time that you should retain these records. My sources suggest four to seven years.
One more note here: The records you keep on file must reflect what you actually did in a situation. If your written rules state athletes cannot practice without passing a physical and then you permit a student to play who hasn't, you may be found negligent.
On A Daily Basis
Whether you're going to a practice, strength workout, or game, as you walk into every situation, ask yourself, have I done all that is reasonable to lower the chance of injury to my athletes? Have I checked for possible hazards? Have I reviewed the safety of the drills? Have I taught my athletes how to be safe?
The best defense against injuries and possible lawsuits is to understand, appreciate, and meet your legal duties as a coach. You may have noticed that they are the same as the basic responsibilities of being a good coach.
Risk management is a matter of staying vigilant and caring about those who play for you. By doing so, you can improve your chances of staying in the calm waters of risk management and avoiding the tumult of an avoidable injury.
For more articles on risk management by Dr. Borkowski, visit our Web site at: www.AthleticSearch.com and type "Borkowski" into the search window.
A version of this article has appeared in previous editions of Coaching Management.
Sidebar: A Short List
•Every football coach needs to:
•Recognize that risks exist.
•Identify those risks.
•Evaluate the risks.
•Have a plan to reduce the risks.
•Closely supervise the program.
•Remind participants of their role in controlling risks.
•Always remain vigilant. Risk management is a continual process.
•Review and revise the program when necessary.
•Ask for assistance from supervisors.
•Care about the welfare of all athletes.