How Park and Recreation Agencies Can Empower Coaches in the Return to Play

By Jon Solomon | Posted on May 12, 2021

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When local conditions allow for a safe return to play, we must prioritize kids’ gradual return to physical activity during and after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — which requires knowledgeable coaches focused on health and safety as kids resume youth sports.

Given most injuries occur during preseasons or early in the season, doctors encourage deconditioned athletes not to rush back into competition. A good rule of thumb? Ramp up increased physical activity by about 10 percent each week.

How many kids return to sports, and when, remains an open question. According to research from the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative and Utah State University, only 53 percent of parents expect their child to resume sports activity at the same or a higher amount when current COVID-19 restrictions are removed. To lessen any concerns, coaches need to be mindful and communicative of how they prioritize health and safety in the return to play, especially since so many kids have lacked physical activity during sports shutdowns.

Park and recreation professionals identified coach training on safety and health as a top priority in youth sports (71 percent), according to a survey by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). And while many park and recreation agencies require coach training in the prevention of concussions and health-related risks, it’s important to note that park and recreation departments don’t need to have all the answers for training coaches. There are many free resources agencies can leverage to boost their coach training offerings, meanwhile eliminating the burden of creating resources of their own.

Below are a series of best practices park and recreation agencies can utilize as they support coaches in ensuring youth safely return to play. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued Guidance for Youth Sports Administrators outlining how to safely resume youth sports programming based on rates of community transmission, and when local conditions allow, all youth sports providers should follow these guidelines to ensure a safe return to play.  

Return to play guidance for coaches must include clear protocols related to limiting the transmission of COVID-19.

According to the CDC, there are critical areas that organizations’ COVID-19 protocols need to address. These include assessing risk, promoting behaviors that reduce the spread and maintaining healthy environments. While most guidelines are community and sport-specific, park and recreation agencies can support coaches by directing them to resources and providing training. In addition, Project Play’s Return to Sport Risk Assessment Tool can help guide coaches on relative risk in their sport and connect them with sport-specific guidance.  

NRPA recently released a statement in support of healthy youth development through equitable access to youth sports during the pandemic recovery. While applauding the tireless effort of park and recreation professionals to keep parks, trails and green spaces open to support the physical and mental health of their communities, the statement called for restrictions and requirements imposed upon youth sports providers to be applied equitably across all public and private organizations. Thus, in addition to clarity, coaches need to be receiving and held accountable to the same guidance for all entities providing youth sports.

Coach training should include components of injury prevention, including injuries due to overuse.

Injuries can end a child’s sports experience and cause long-term health problems. More than 3.5 million children under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries annually, according to the CDC. More than half of all sports injuries are considered preventable — with nearly half of those injuries due to overuse, in part because coaches are not well versed in best practices related to duration and intensity of practices and treating injuries. In 2019, only 37 percent of youth sports coaches were trained in CPR and first aid, and just 34 percent were trained in general safety and injury prevention, according to the Aspen Institute. Injuries are one of the easiest ways for a child to stop playing sports.

One way to train coaches in injury prevention is to explore partnerships with sport or medical organizations that can offer community trainings. Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) has a Youth Sports Safety Program that offers free workshops and on-demand resources, including information for coaches on how to lead a neurodynamic warmup with exercises that reduce the risk of ACL injury for young athletes.

Also, with one in five high school athletes sustaining a concussion, TeachAids offers its interactive CrashCourse curriculum to help coaches, athletes and parents with the latest medical knowledge on preventing and treating concussions. A study presented at a recent Association of Academy Physiatrists meeting reported that athletes who took CrashCourse showed higher concussion-reporting intention levels immediately after the education compared to athletes who were educated through other materials.

Coaches with basic knowledge in sport skills and tactics will improve the quality of a child’s experience.

Many volunteer coaches understandably enter their first coaching experience with fright and confusion, worried about how they will learn to coach the children in front of them. Coaches don’t need to be great in X’s and O’s to provide a positive experience, but learning some skills and tactics is important. A published study in the 1990s found that only 5 percent of kids who played for a trained coach quit the next year; the attrition rate was 26 percent for kids who played for an untrained coach.

Technology is changing how coaches can be trained. How to Coach Kids, a resource created by Nike and the U.S. Olympic Committee in partnership with the Aspen Institute, offers resources on how to coach various sports, girls, youth with disabilities and other audience segments as well as sports-specific training resources. Another new resource is Mojo, a digital platform to help coaches run practice. While currently only available for soccer, the app builds personalized practices customized to the age, skill level and preferences of each team based on a curriculum developed by coaches and experts in the fields of youth sports and child psychology.

Trained coaches are essential to creating environments where youth and their families feel confident kids can safely return to sport and play. Park and recreation agencies play a unique role in providing coaches with a diversity of resources to ensure health, safety and wellbeing for all.

Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, whose main initiative is Project Play. Future stories in this series with the National Recreation and Park Association will explore how park and recreation departments are creatively serving their communities during the pandemic.