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How Can Coaches Help Make a Safe and Inclusive Playing Environment for Players?

How Can Coaches Help Make a Safe and Inclusive Playing Environment for Players?

This is the second article in our Big Questions in Youth Sports” series. For many parents, there are pressing questions related to youth sports that they just can't find the right answers to. SportsEngine wanted to provide some insights from youth and high school coaches in different sports, from across the country, who have achieved success and earned a reputation for positively developing student-athletes in different sports. Safety should always be the top priority in youth sports, and cultivating an inclusive environment is also essential. But assuring both can be very challenging to organizations, given the sheer number of athletes and coaches.

Here are some of the answers from coaches:

"Honest and open communication with players is critical. Coaching is centered on relationships, and coaches need to focus on building relationships and culture every day.  Coaches also need to be very open about role definition at the Varsity level. Lower levels should allow quality playing time for all players who commit to coming to practice and improving."

Greg Berge has been the Boys Varsity Basketball Coach at Lake City High School in Minnesota for 17 years. He's led his program to 10 conference titles and two State Tournament appearances, including a third-place finish in 2019. He's also coached an assortment of other sports for boys and girls as young as 6 years old.

"Coaches need to practice daily behaviors that make each athlete feel valued. That means having eye contact, asking about their school/ family, knowing and revisiting player goals, and commenting in front of the entire team when a player shows great character or deserves praise. This goes for the “most” skilled, but especially “less” skilled players."

Ruth Brennan Morrey played Division I soccer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she was a co-captain in 1998. In 1999, relatively new to running marathons, Ruth qualified for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials with a time of 2 hours, 48 minutes and 20 seconds. A professional triathlete, she is a Girls Head Coach with Minnesota Rush in Rochester, Minnesota, and possesses a USSF D license and completed the T1 and T2 courses for TOVO.

"My primary purpose when I take on a coaching assignment is to create a fun, challenging and safe environment for learning. That begins with respect for every player – regardless of their current baseline level. I create a sense of belonging for every young athlete in my charge. Under the age of 13, I assure equivalent playing time for every member of the team. I do not tolerate any form of bullying or belittling between teammates, and I set an equal standard of expectations consistent for every player. Kids who play for me know, first and foremost, that I care about each and every one of them!"

Sean Canty was an all-league high school forward who played club soccer throughout his childhood. He has been coaching in the greater Reno and Tahoe area since 1993, mainly with soccer. Currently a coach with Sierra Surf SC and MVLA Reno, Canty holds a USSF C license, and a USYS National Youth license. He's also completed the T1 and T2 courses for TOVO, a program based in Spain.

Kathy Jenkins, Lacrosse Coach

"I think you have to try to bring in bonding activities and games or activities, building the chemistry of the team. I feel like in lacrosse, there's 12 players on the field, and there's one ball, so you really have to work hard to get everyone feeling a part of the game and that they're important, and their role on the field is important. So the more yo can do (bonding activities), the more it brings the team together. When they trust each other, they really enjoy playing with each other. But if you have that one star that just goes to goal every time, that really isn't fun for the rest of the team, and they get frustrated. I've had coaches come and watch a game and say to me, 'I'm watching how your girls work off the ball, how you keep them involved.' So they might not touch the ball, but they're making great cuts."

Kathy Jenkins started the girls lacrosse program in 1976 at St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia. As Head Coach, Jenkins has led the program to a national record 832 wins, along with 10 state titles, 30 league titles and 31 conference tournament championships. She's also founded multiple lacrosse programs and co-owns Triple Threat Lacrosse Camp.

"Let all athletes know you care. Get to know each and every athlete in your program on a personal level. Talk to them one-on-one, ask them about their family, ask them about their career goals, make it a point to build a relationship with the athlete."

Mike Kirschner had successful runs at two Indianapolis area high schools, including leading Ben Davis High to two state titles. But in 2021, he returned to his alma mater, Warren Central High. Kirschner has coached multiple sports over three decades, starting as a youth football coach in 1984, and he was honored to coach at the Army All-American Bowl in 2015 and 2017. He was also once a MaxPreps finalist for National Coach of the Year.

"Communication, communication, communication. It takes time and dedication to plan and prepare in advance of a season or even daily practice. Having sound and secure expectations and communicating (written and spoken) them effectively and often is key to creating a safe and inclusive environment for players." 

Megan Magnuson has been coaching girls and boys in middle and high school swimming for over 20 years in and around Rochester, Minnesota. Currently the Head Coach at Rochester Century High School, she is a middle school teacher and has certifications in aquatics, aqua yoga, coaching, cycling and fitness. She's also currently competing in triathlons.

"I personally understand how it feels to have a coach treat you unfair, and to be downgraded, verbally abused and threatened, intimidated and not cared for. Its not a good place to be. I coach and lead with positivity, love and fairness.I care for all the athletes in my gym, and look out for their well-being and mental health. In my gym, everyone is equal, feels welcomed, heard and are coached in that same matter. They are my family and I treat them that way. I appreciate all the athletes and their families. I make time for my athletes to talk. I respect them and understand they are growing individuals who need guidance and sometimes a listening ear. I celebrate their accomplishments — big or small — in the sport, church, school etc...  They are comfortable making mistakes because they have a coach who coaches to build them up, not tear them down. I ask of their best, not anyone else's. When you coach in these ways, then your athletes feel safe and included."

Breasha Pruitt was a two-time U.S. Junior National Team member and a member of the the University of Georgia's gymnastics team that won third place at the 2003 NCAA Championship. The owner of Breasha Pruitt Elite Gymnastics in Evansville, Indiana, she earned the Positive Coaching Alliance's Coach of the Year award in 2022.

Terri Simonetti Frost, Field Hockey Coach

"You’re talking to a coach who believes the MORE coaches the better! Surround yourself with excellent assistant coaches who want to do create a positive culture and develop athletes into fantastic leaders, students and players. Then the entire coaching staff can get involved doing daily check-ins with the players and create that relationship that is so valuable on and off the field. When your athletes know you care about them as people, they will trust you unconditionally and come ready to work hard."

Terri Simonetti Frost was recently named one of the National High School Coaches of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which serves 19,500 high schools and more than 12 million student-athletes. She has led Thomas Worthington High in Ohio to six state championships in Field Hockey, and she's racked up 365 career victories.

The above coaches place a premium on interacting with athletes as individuals, trying to make a personal connection. There also is a clear intentionality on the culture of their team or program, as well as fostering trust within the team.

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Safety Coach, Parent SportsEngine