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Helping youth coaches prevent sports injuries

By Kevin Scarbinsky

Joe Ackerson wasn’t your typical Pop Warner defensive coordinator. Sure, like so many youth coaches, he was a dad with a son on the team, but he also was a pediatric neuropsychologist and member of the Alabama Statewide Head Injury Task Force.

Long before the movie “Concussion,” he was acutely aware of the potential dangers of head injuries. He asked some of his fellow coaches about the team’s concussion protocol.

“They said young kids don’t get concussions,” Ackerson says. “At that point, I knew we had a problem on our hands.”

Ackerson’s concern and his position helped spur the state of Alabama to deal with that problem. The state formed a Sports Concussion Task Force, which consulted with the Alabama High School Athletic Association as it adopted the strict guidelines for the recognition and management of sports-related concussions. That effort was followed by 2011 legislation that requires coaches at all levels in Alabama to receive concussion training.

Ackerson, who chairs that Sports Concussion Task Force, saw a larger issue beyond concussions.

“We had well-intentioned dads out there like you and me not really knowing what we were doing,” he says. “We needed to get in prevention mode with youth coaches.”

What about recognizing other medical concerns for athletes age 14 and under, such as overuse injuries and heat-related illnesses? What about preventing injuries as much as possible by implementing best practices in terms of training? Who was educating the approximately 60,000 youth coaches in Alabama so they could make sports as safe and healthy as possible for the state’s youth?

The answer was no one, until 2018 when the Alabama Legislature passed the Coach Safely Act, which was developed and championed by the non-profit CoachSafely Foundation. The first bill of its kind in the nation, whose advocates include such thought leaders as renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews and Alabama football coach Nick Saban, the Coach Safely Act was designed to provide youth coaches the fundamental knowledge to prevent injuries if possible and recognize them when necessary.

The law requires all government or sub-government agencies in Alabama with property used for high-risk sports to train their coaches in an online or classroom course focusing on the prevention and recognition of injuries for athletes age 14 and under. High-risk sports include, but are not limited to, football, soccer, basketball, baseball, softball and lacrosse.

“We’re the first state in the country to pass such a law,” says Drew Ferguson, a CoachSafely Foundation Board Member and the Director of Sports Medicine at Children’s of Alabama. “This training course will help us educate coaches to improve safety and reduce risk for all children in terms of their sports participation.”

Creating a safe environment

The CoachSafely Foundation has created a standard with its training course, which all youth coaches in Alabama must complete online or in person. The course was introduced in Trussville to more than 500 coaches before becoming the model for the Coach Safely Act.

Drew Peterson, superintendent of the Trussville Parks and Recreation Department, called that pilot program “instrumental in creating a safe but competitive environment for the children of Trussville. Parents will feel comfortable sending their child to practice or games when they know their coach has been through this program.”

To help distribute the training course to coaches across the state, the CoachSafely Foundation has partnered in a joint venture with the Alabama Recreation and Parks Foundation.

The Alabama Recreation and Parks Association, representing the Alabama Recreation and Parks Foundation, has 900 members in 92 of the state’s largest cities, representing the majority of the state’s population. Under the terms of the joint venture, the CoachSafely Foundation delivers its training course to state agencies at no direct cost exclusively through the network of the ARPA membership. Original funding for the program has been provided through major charitable gifts.

“Sports safety for the youth in our communities is of the utmost importance, and the Coach Safely Act becoming law in 2018 is evidence of just how important coaches’ education really is,” said Natalie Norman, executive director of the Alabama Recreation and Parks Foundation.

“Through the Alabama Recreation and Parks Association, we are here to deliver that education to coaches of athletes age 14 and under as we strive to make the recreational sports environments, in which our youth are participating, as safe and injury-free as possible.”

Gone should be the days when youth coaches use outdated training methods like the Oklahoma drill in football, where a running back, offensive lineman and defensive lineman compete in a confined space. Ackerson, in his quest more than a decade ago to do a good job for his son’s Pop Warner football team, tried to run that drill.

The team’s head coach asked, “What are you doing?”

Ackerson replied, “You’ve got to teach the kids to hit.”

The head coach said, “That’s silly.”

That head coach was Bobby Humphrey. It’s rare to find a youth coach who’s been a former NFL running back and also has coached a professional team as Humphrey did with the Birmingham Steeldogs of the AF2, an affiliate of the Arena Football League.

“If you want to change the injury risk factor, you have to change how coaches are coaching,” Ackerson says. “We want kids to be physically active and out there playing. We just want them doing it in a smart way. Bobby showed me the smart way to do it.”

The Coach Safely initiative will show youth coaches throughout Alabama the smart way to coach our kids.ν

For more information, visit coachsafely.org.