Last year approximately 4,000 children participated in city-sponsored sports. Who’s coaching them and what are they learning?
The city offers an array of sports options that has increased throughout the years. The increasing number of sports requires more volunteer coaches and there is already a shortage of those. “We are really in a position to take almost anyone who volunteers,” said Lawrence “Lucky” Elliott, the Youth Sports Supervisor for the Department of Parks Recreation and Cultural Activities. “We screen them, of course, and require all coaches to have a criminal background check, but we really don’t know how coaches are going to do until they start coaching.”
Coaches volunteer for a variety of reasons, according to Elliott. “About 75 percent of them volunteer because their children are participants,” Elliott said. “Many parents see this as a way to bond with their children. We really encourage parents to volunteer because they have a reason to want the children to have a good experience and hopefully don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their own children so they will behave appropriately.”
A smaller number of volunteers want to be involved because they played the sport in school. “These people just love sports and want to continue to participate at some level,” Elliott said. “
Still others just like working with children. “We do have some coaches who volunteer because they want to make sure that kids have the opportunity to participate in sports,” Elliott said.
Dana Lawhorn is a detective with the Alexandria Police Department and a volunteer basketball coach. He got involved because his daughter’s team needed a coach.
“I went to a seminar that was mandatory where they talked about coaches’ behavior and the psychology of coaching children,” Lawhorn said. “We were also given some guidelines but they were fairly general and mostly referred to the National Youth Sports Coaching Association rules.”
The main items contained in the rules were warnings about “use of profane language by coaches or players, coaches are required to control players and spectators and inappropriate behavior that is considered detrimental to the program can result in suspension."
Lawhorn doesn’t believe that this is sufficient. “It is good to have rules but if the sanctions are not enforced, there really is no point,” he said.
Elliott says that sanctions are imposed. In a recent episode where a coach refused to shake hands at the end of a game involving two 10-year-old teams, the coach was “counseled.” Another coach who was thrown out of a game, again involving 10-year-olds, because of inappropriate behavior with a referee, was given a one game suspension.
“Some coaches have gotten too focused on winning,” Elliott said. “They set a tone and the kids and the parents respond to that tone. We deal with every situation individually.”
Sandra Whitmore, the director of the recreation department, is concerned. “I have seen a lot of inappropriate behavior from parents, spectators, players and coaches over the years,” she said. “However, when you start seeing coaches who are involved in sports for 10-year-olds behave in this way, it is really of concern. It is a national phenomena so Alexandria certainly isn’t alone but it is also unacceptable.”
Players have also become a problem. In the past three weeks, there have been at least two fights between opposing teams at recreation department basketball games. In both instances, the police were involved. On Feb. 9, police were called to the William Ramsay Recreation Center because a coach was in his car, surrounded by 15 and 16-year-old girls from a team that his team had just played. A parent described what happened.
“It was a very physical game and the referees let it get out of hand,” she said. The parent, who has been watching her children participate in city-sponsored sports for the past 12 years, asked not to be identified. “One of the girls from the losing team threatened one of the girls from the winning team. The coach told her that this was not appropriate behavior and a spectator took exception to the coach talking to the teenager.”
Girls from the losing team followed the coach out of the facility and would not allow him to leave. The police arrived but were able to get the situation under control with the help of the recreation center staff so no charges were filed.
The sanctions for this incident? The girl who made the threats was suspended and the spectator has been banned from the recreation center until further notice. What about the girls who surrounded the car? No action was taken because no one was able to definitively identify them.
“I don’t understand that,” Lawhorn said. “The coach who is responsible for those girls should have called her team together and told them that if she didn’t find out who was involved, she would simply forfeit the rest of the season,” he said. “We are supposed to be teaching more than just basketball here.”
In another incident that occurred last weekend at George “Washington Middle School, two teams of 17-year-old boys got into a fight after a basketball game.
“We do have police officers at some of the youth sports activities,” said Amy Bertsch, a spokesperson for the Alexandria Police Department. “Sometimes we tell recreation department staff that we want them to have extra security at an event because we have heard that there is going to be a problem and sometimes they ask for assistance. I know there are always police officers at adult soccer games but the youth programs are evaluated individually.”
MAKING IT BETTER
Have things gotten worse over the years? “I’m not sure that they have gotten worse but they haven’t gotten better,” said Mayor Kerry J. Donley, whose five daughters have, and continue to participate in, city-sponsored sports. “I really think that coaches have to set the tone for parents and for the kids. Some of them do a great job and send out notices before the season begins about their expectations for the way that children and fans will behave. Others get too focused on winning.”
Donley reflected on a code of conduct that he saw posted at T. C. Williams. “The banner talked about sportsmanship and treating players, officials and coaches with respect,” he said. “Also, perhaps the city could take a lesson from the Catholic Youth Organization League. Before every game, the kids meet in the center of the court and listen to an official talk about sportsmanship. Everyone shakes hands and the game begins. It sets a positive tone before the game ever starts.”
K. Johnson, the athletic director at T. C. Williams High School believes that more involvement by high school coaches could help. “We are working with the recreation department in football, specifically,” he said. “We are giving the volunteers some training and working with them so that the kids are learning things that will help them be better able to participate in high school sports. We need to do more of that, in all sports. Volunteers are hard to find but we must recognize, just as we do at the high school level, when someone just is not suited for coaching.”
Johnson had a suggestion for how the city might encourage more volunteers. “If we really want to get more people involved in these sports, maybe we could give city employees an hour or two of paid leave to spend time coaching a team each week. It certainly might encourage some people who would like to volunteer but simply don’t have the time.”
Lawhorn would like to see more organization. “There should be a way for me to register a concern – I mean a more formal way so that I can register my concern and get some feedback as to what was done. Now, I call someone and tell them that I have an issue and they say alright and I never know what has happened,”” he said.
Also, there is the issue of officiating. “We see a lot of beginning officials,” Elliott said. “The associations use youth sports events as a way to train officials who hope to go on to coach high school but I have tried to get them to agree to send one trainee and one experienced official. Officiating isn’t consistent.”
Elliott said that, even with the problems, Alexandria has a good program. “We don’t have nearly the kinds of problems that they are having in the surrounding jurisdictions,” he said. “I think our program is one of the best in the area.”