A team of lanky 13-year-olds trails Coach Mike Del Valle into a hallway outside a Canisius College gymnasium.

“You played hard. You never quit. You can be proud,” Del Valle assures the Niagara Rapids girls. Their defeat — to the powerhouse Blessed Sacrament Yellow Jackets of Hamilton, Ontario — came in the opening round of an Amateur Athletic Union super-regional basketball tournament in Buffalo, N.Y.

It is the first weekend in May and Del Valle is spending his 64th birthday like so many before — coaching young athletes. He tells his players to stretch, as he draws upon training and experience that tell him conditioning after a game prevents sprains and joint problems in growing muscles.

Del Valle, who works for a bank in Buffalo, has carried clipboards for football, softball, baseball and basketball teams for 40 years. He has volunteered for most of those jobs. He has more training than most of his peers.

While AAU has no specific training requirements for coaches, Del Valle also is head coach of the North High School Lady Spartans in Williamsville, N.Y. As a scholastic coach in New York, he must prove he has completed a coaching philosophy and principles class, a sports health class and a techniques class for his particular sport, girls basketball. He must be certified in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Since he is not a teacher, he must take a class in child abuse recognition.

New York’s rules for scholastic coaches are among the most rigorous in the United States, a CNHI News Service survey found. But most states are at the other end of the spectrum. A police background check in some states is the only requirement to coach.

Doctors and advocates say training coaches is key to preventing injuries among young athletes. More athletic organizations are now recognizing that as they reexamine their programs and make rules to emphasize safety.

Jim Flannery, director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, says injury prevention isn’t the only motivation.

“We believe we are losing sight of the purpose and mission of high school sports,” Flannery said. “Schools are for education. Coaches enhance educational outcomes using their sports.”

Del Valle, who has attended dozens of workshops in addition to those required by the state, says he finds the greatest benefit in the people seated next to him.

“I have attended coaches' clinics over the years to pick the brains of other coaches,” he said. “Everything I do in coaching, I stole from someone else.”

Spotty requirements

Legal concerns and lack of experience among coaches usually are what lead schools or youth groups to create training rules. But while many states require some form of training for school coaches, programs usually touch only on helping athletes avoid injury, the CNHI News Service study showed.

Half the states require teachers to take courses in basic first aid or sports first aid before becoming coaches, and 34 require first aid classes for coaches not trained as teachers.

Coaches usually meet these requirements by taking online courses from the American Sport Education Program or the National Federation of High School Associations. The first aid programs address injury prevention but focus mainly on how to handle medical emergencies.

Seven states – Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Virginia – have no training requirements at all, the survey found. Another 12 states require no additional training for teachers who become coaches.

Only three states – Iowa, Wyoming and Connecticut – require specific training in sports injury prevention.

The world outside interscholastic sports is even less regulated. Some national youth sports groups do not require training for coaches. Even if they did, local leagues are not always affiliated with national groups.

Coaches need training

Schools began adopting training rules when they started looking for coaches outside the teaching staff, says Roch King, who coordinates the graduate coaching program at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

“In the past, all coaches used to be physical education teachers,” King said. “As the number of teams grew and the physical education faculty diminished, other teachers stepped in.”

Now, King says, the majority of scholastic coaches are hired with no formal teaching education or experience.

“It has become an apprenticeship model,” he said, “where coaches have played or worked for other coaches.”

School administrators in more than half the states said they enroll coaches in classes that teach the principles of responsible coaching and first aid.

The American Sport Education Program is behind many of these classes, said spokesman Jerry Reeder. The program, which has been teaching coaches for 25 years, developed courses. It also helped the National Federation of High School Associations design its own courses in coaching fundamentals and first aid, which are now required in 28 states, with another 12 states saying they plan to adopt the classes.

“The thing we try to impress on our coaches is the physical safety of an athlete has to come first,” Reeder said. “The next thing is the mental and emotional safety of an athlete.”

States or youth groups that adopt the courses also want to avoid what King calls the “hassle factor” of parental complaints, and potential lawsuits, about how their children are trained and treated.

Litigation and the threat of it have expanded coach education everywhere, said Gregg Heinzmann, director of the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers University. More than 20 years ago, New Jersey adopted the country’s first law giving coaches limited immunity from civil lawsuits filed by parents.

The law was passed in the wake of a lawsuit filed by parents of Joey Fort, a Little League player struck in the face by a baseball during warm-ups before an all-star game.

The boy’s parents claimed his four coaches were negligent in moving the 10-year-old from second base to the outfield without teaching him to shield his eyes from the sun to catch fly balls. A league official told the New York Times the injury was “an act of God.”

The case was settled, and terms were not made public.

But, said Heinzmann, it chilled interest in coaching.

“When the news hit, people started saying, ‘I’m not going to risk my livelihood to go out there and coach,’” he said.

Three other states – Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Dakota – have since enacted similar laws.

Array of standards

In states that do not encourage or require training, athletic association officials are quick to note that local schools or districts can set their own requirements.

But Jeff Dietze, who runs a training program for the Virginia High School League, which has no specific requirement for coaches, admits few local districts take that step.

“We are getting more, although it’s really slow,” he said.

Dietze uses a theatrical flourish to make his point about the value of training coaches when he begins each new class. Asking for two volunteers, he sits one in a chair and hands the other a pair of shears.

“He’s going to give you a haircut,” he tells the seated volunteer. “Is that all right?”

After some nervous looks and discussion, Dietze takes away the scissors.

“I tell them it takes months to get (cosmetology) certification, and the hair grows back,” he said. “We are putting coaches out … who don’t have training. That is the importance of this program.”

Virginia is the only state with its own accredited coaches’ training program. Efforts to make it mandatory have failed due to resistance from rural, and sometimes poorer, schools in the western part of the state.

Randy Griffith is a reporter at the Johnstown, Pa., Tribune-Democrat. He may be reached at rgriffith@tribdem.com.

Coming this Sunday: Part two.

React to this story:


Recommended for you