Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State Scandal: We Owe it to our Children to Carefully Select and Train Coaches

Growing up as a multi-sport athlete in Western Pennsylvania one thing was always clear - football is king. And Penn State football was at the heart of our love for football. Penn State was something to be proud of, pound your chest about, wear the Nittany Lion logo with swagger. Back in 1987 Penn State beat big, bad Miami as a huge underdog to win the national championship. Penn State won the Big 10 in its second year and went undefeated. Coach Joe Paterno's "Grand Experiment" to win in Division 1 football and be successful academically was, well, successful. Joe Pa was someone who was above the cheating and scandals that are commonplace today. You put your faith in Joe Pa and Penn State that things were being done the right way.

Now we have been rocked by the child abuse scandal and the institution's alleged lack of reporting an incident to the authorities. I don't know how this has affected you, if at all, since this is not a football blog, and certainly not a Nittany Lion football blog, but it has shaken my belief. For you it should serve as a serious reminder that what looks good on the surface may not always be the case.

I am not going to pile on Joe Paterno or others at Penn State. In my heart I believe Coach Paterno is a good man that made a mistake. One that cost him his legacy and his deserved right to retire on his own timetable when he was ready.

I love sport. Sport, and the people who coached me and that I competed and coached with, have shaped who I am today. But, as a parent, a coach, and a sport psychology consultant I realize that youth sport is an environment that may draw those people that would abuse others.

Let's be clear about two things. Mr. Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty. The media does not get to decide if he goes to prison. Furthermore, he was not coaching at the time the 2002 alleged incident occurred. Nonetheless, the scandal at Penn State is a reminder that we owe it to our children to make sure we select coaches that are positive role models. We do this by using background checks. But, this is not enough. We must also educate coaches about appropriate methods for interacting with children. And, finally, we must monitor our coaches to make sure they are "doing no harm".

Policies related to the selection and training of coaches in the US are largely ignored. We have no mandate to educate coaches because we do not treat it like a profession. And, we assume a background check eliminates any chance of abuse occurring. These are big mistakes.

Sport in our country also must do a better job of creating avenues for children to understand what is inappropriate and create reporting systems that are confidential and respectful of the victim. We need to empower children to say "no", get out of the situation, and know what do about it.

While Penn State and Western Pa. has been scarred by the scandal they will recover eventually. I hope the same for the victims in the case, but I cannot imagine the pain that the victims and their families feel. All we can do is pledge to not let it happen in our community. It is time to do everything in power to keep these things from occurring. How? Parents here are a few things to do right away:

1. Ask for your coach to be certified and know their qualifications
2. Get to know the coach on and off the court
3. Monitor the situation, but don't be a helicopter parent
4. Always communicate with your child and listen to them
5. Avoid situations where the coach and the child are spending too much time together alone (both for the child and being fair to the coach)
6. Request your organization to look in to the CDC's educational materials on abuse and violence (or at least make yourself knowledgeable)

Coaches ask for your certifying organization, club, etc. to provide education because it is the right thing to do. It will protect your community from what happened at Penn State.

This is a tragic story. Start taking steps now to make sure it does not happen in your community.

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