[Op-Ed] Every Young Person Needs Their Coach Right Now

2020 has been a year of fast, unpredictable change for all Americans and has served as a much needed time to reexamine many of our country’s systems and structures. This unique time offers the youth sports community an opportunity to reflect on the state of youth sports, what new challenges are emerging, what challenges have been exacerbated by our current context, and what can be done to leverage sport to its greatest potential in the future. For the team at We Coach, our mission has become more important than ever. We know the immense power of sports to heal and the vital role that highly trained coaches can play in supporting youth dealing with the uncertainty and fear of the COVID-19 outbreak and the unrelenting stress of systemic oppression against the Black community. We feel a responsibility to share what we know and advocate for sport as an important part of a therapeutic network of services for young people.

Through our work training sports coaches on youth development and trauma-informed strategies, the We Coach team has had the privilege of meeting thousands of coaches all over the country. This experience has confirmed for us what the research shows: coaches are incredibly important in shaping the sport experience for young people. We’ve seen that coaches bring a wealth of experiences and knowledge to their teams, and that many have not had the opportunity to be formally trained on the parts of their job beyond the X’s and O’s. We know that a little knowledge can lead to perspective shifts that make all the difference, particularly when it comes to working with those young people who have experienced overwhelming stress or trauma. We’ve heard countless stories of how relatively small shifts in how coaches understand their athletes can make huge differences and lead to relationships that are truly healing.

Transitioning into new normals in a year marked by a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and broader public attention on the fight for racial justice, we believe that youth sports coaches matter more than ever. Youth trauma was already a prevalent issue in our country, and now the whole country has been through a time of extreme stress and uncertainty. And the communities that have always been more impacted by community trauma and systemic injustices are, again, disproportionately impacted. And the limited resources that these communities have available are being taken away, including availability of youth sports opportunities.

All kids have always needed coaches who know how past experiences and current contexts impact their teams and communities, but now it is vital that these important coach to player relationships are leveraged for mutual healing and growth. Young people are going to need opportunities to heal and grow more than ever. They are going to need supportive adults and peers, and they are going to need the physical and mental benefits of sport. They need sport to be at its best.

In order for sport to be at its best, coaches cannot continue to be underappreciated, undersupported, and undertrained. We need coaches to be fully equipped to do the work of showing up for their players and helping them to grow as athletes and humans, but we cannot ask them to embrace this important task without sufficient systems and supports in place. Coaches are, after all, full humans who have been through their own difficult experiences and are dealing with their own individual, family, and community traumas. We cannot expect them to show up to a flawed youth sports system and meet an even greater list of demands for what it means to be a youth sports coach without significant changes. In order to ensure that youth sports coaches are able to do the work of creating positive sport experiences that enable young people to grow, develop, and heal, we need a significant shift in mindset and resources.

Mindset Shift: As a country, we cannot continue to view sport as a “nice to have” activity. The research clearly shows that sport can be a powerful tool for positive change in the lives of young people and that youth sports coaches can be the difference between a good experience and a bad experience. Youth sports coaches have to be valued and a major focus of the way we approach coming back to sports. Coaches need to be viewed as an important part of the support system young people desperately need right now. They need to be viewed as vital contributors to the development of young people, not in opposition to their academic success or personal development. Coaches need to be viewed as one of the biggest resources we have to help young people overcome the overwhelming stress and trauma that they have experienced.

Resource Shift: Along with changing the way that sports coaches are viewed, we have to change the way that resources are distributed in the youth sports sector. Because of the significant role we know coaches can play in young people’s lives, there needs to be investment in a more robust coach training infrastructure and consistent standards across sport, location, and competition level for the “non-sport” concepts that coaches need to know. Within the nonprofit sector, funders should consider the extent to which coaches are paid, trained, and supported when making funding decisions and allow for those costs to be a significant part of grantee budgets. Stakeholders with positions of power need to use their platforms to highlight the work that coaches are doing and look for opportunities to share power with organizations on the ground who directly support coaches and young people.

At We Coach, we are excited to be a part of transforming the youth sports sector into a more equitable and consistently youth-centered environment. For us, this simply can’t be done without lifting up coaches. There is a lot of work to be done, but we are grateful to have a community of dedicated organizations, funders, and practitioners ready and equipped to do this work. We hope you will join us in shifting mindsets and resources so that more coaches can receive the support they deserve and more young people can access the healing power of sport.

If you are ready to engage in this work, check out what we have been working on and join in the conversation:

  • Why Trauma-Informed Sport is Vital: Read our white paper for more practical ways that sport can contribute to the healing of young people
  • Brain Trust: A Conversation on Stress and Sport with Dr. Bruce Perry: Watch this conversation on the power of sport to buffer stress in uncertain times
  • PLAY Sports Coalition: We Coach has served on the advisory committee for this national effort to secure relief funds for youth sports organizations, with a specific focus on organizations serving kids in low-income communities. Follow along with this ongoing initiative.
  • Milwaukee Youth Sports Alliance (MYSA): Watch a recording of the virtual event, Youth Sports During Coronavirus: Where Do We Go From Here in Milwaukee? We Coach facilitated this event, which targeted funders in Milwaukee to make the case for further investment in youth sports across the city.
  • Sport for Good Chicago: As proud members of Sport for Good Chicago, we are working with other sport-based youth development organizations in Chicago to mobilize our collective power and advocate for further investment in coach training.