By Melissa Parrelli
Dressed in blue uniforms, a group of first graders jump up and down, hugging each other after winning their Catholic Youth Organization baseball game at Randall’s Island Park. With their big grins and gloves in tow, they huddle around their coach who says, “You guys played a phenomenal game, just remember about the base running, slide into second and third. I want everyone to practice some this week with their moms and dads.”
The coach is 41-year-old David Trahan. He never had the chance to practice with his mom or dad growing up because he never played organized baseball. “I was envious of other little boys because my dad didn’t sign me up,” he said. “But I have two boys now, and I coach both teams because I want to be involved.”
Youth sports depend on parents like Trahan who want to volunteer their time, but how much do these coaches actually know about the sport they’re teaching? Although he receives guidance from league instructors, Trahan has no formal experience in baseball, and there are plenty of other youth coaches who learn on the job. There are no universal rules throughout the country requiring training for youth coaches in their respective sports. Training isn’t the only subject of concern; there also is no national rule for completing background checks on youth coaches to vet them for possible behavioral flaws like violent tendencies, police records or pedophilia.
Trahan coaches for Manhattan Athletics, a baseball program with 87 teams and more than 900 kids ages 5 to 18. The league’s executive director, Bobby Hoffman, said all of his recreational teams are coached by a parent, “but let’s face it,” Hoffman said, “I really don’t know what I get when I get them [coaches] other than that they’re fathers or mothers.” Hoffman does not run background checks on the 260 parent coaches, but he does for his 30 paid instructors. Instructors, who have experience in baseball, lead clinics before each game teaching both the coach and players the right way to practice drills.
“Certainly, I’m not going to do a background check on a volunteer who now has children to see if he was arrested any time in his past for violent tendencies,” Hoffman said. “If I see violent tendencies in him at the field, I’ll nip it in the bud in a hurry. But even the same, we have a rule — no coach is allowed to be alone with a child.”
Tom Knoff has coached his 9-year-old son, Thomas, in Manhattan Athletics for five years, and he remained a sideline parent for his 7-year-old, William, who plays on Trahan’s team. “It’s kind of self policing,” Knoff said in regards to being a coach. “This is Manhattan, there are extremely involved parents. Everybody is here [at games and practices], everyone is competitive. If they see something that’s not right, they will say something.”
On a typical Spring Saturday, some 15 baseball games take place on Randall Island from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and parents (who are not coaches) can be found everywhere — in the stands, sitting on the bench or standing on the sidelines. “We’re very involved in this organization,” Julia Clarke, the mother of a 7-year-old, said. “We are here [at the games and practices], and we watch who is coaching our children.” Jordan Bejon, another parent, added, “We signed up with an organization like CYO because we trust the organization, so we trust who they hire.”
Volunteer coaches aren’t necessarily hired, but at places like the 92nd Street Y, coaches in the sports programs are considered staff members, and therefore, all have to be cleared through Human Resources with background checks. Founded as the Young Men’s Hebrew Organization in 1874, this program has expanded and built up its sports program over the years offering everything from fencing to soccer. The gymnastics, high-level basketball and swim teams require coaches to have experience in their respective sports. For other general sports, it’s not mandatory, but encouraged. Athletic director Mike Gordon said he looks to hire coaches with experience at the college or professional level. “It’s important that our coaches have the training, but we like to have the playing side of it too because we think that adds a certain element to dealing with the kids,” he said. “They know what it’s like to be out there as opposed to just being on the sidelines.”
Having experience coaching at a high level is not always a necessity. As Samantha Tan explains, she was only 16-years-old when she was an assistant coach for the girls 6 and under micro soccer team in Long Island’s Sachem Youth Soccer League. According to Tan, she knew the president of the league through family friends and was asked to coach alongside a head coach, neither of whom had their backgrounds checked. “The actual coach of the team never played soccer before or coached it before,” Tan recalls. “Most of the other coaches were siblings and/or parents. There were no coaches that were not related to players, at least in the league I was coaching in.”
But in some cities across the U.S., being a relative of a player doesn’t automatically give the coach a free pass on a background check even if the coach was a professional athlete. Shonda Schilling, the wife of former Red Sox and Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling, said even her husband had to be cleared when he began coaching their son’s Babe Ruth baseball team in Medfield, Mass. Shonda also went through background checks to coach her daughter Gabby’s youth basketball and softball teams over the past seven years.
“I know in girls sports they would much rather see a girl be the role model, a mom, which is definitely much different than what it was years ago,” she said. “I think female athletics are important because in life, women are pitted against each other for some reason. So for me, it’s a big part of teaching them how to work with other women. There’s always that underlying lesson of you have to learn to work with a team, lose as a team, win as a team and work together, but I also believe it takes it a step further when it comes to girl teams.
Shonda played softball, basketball and field hockey through high school, and now her 13-year-old daughter plays middle school softball, Junior Olympic softball and Junior Olympic volleyball. Shonda said she has seen many of her daughter’s coaches act poorly during games. “It’s just repulsive to see a coach of 13-year-olds taking things so seriously,” Schilling said. “They are zapping the fun out of the sport. There’s certainly been coaches where I think, ‘My god they’re pushing their ideas and opinions onto my child,’ but in the same respect, they’re also giving up their time.”
The Junior Olympic softball program that Schilling’s daughter is in runs under the Amateur Softball Association (ASA). It provides uniform rules and regulations to more than 80,000 recreational and championship teams around the country. But according to John Miller, ASA’s assistant director of membership services, there’s no common rule when it comes to selecting coaches. The ASA has 76 local associations in the U.S., and each association has the ability to set its own standards when looking for coaches. The national office suggests that each association has some type of application so the volunteers can put in writing whether they’ve coached before or have a criminal record.
“Where I was from in Northern California, it was mandatory that every coach have a background check that wanted to be on the field of play, whether it was for ASA championship play or recreational softball,” said Miller. “Whether it was in a little church league, a city run program or a non profit program — all those people had to have a background check prior to the time that they got on the field with the young people, but some associations do not do any background checks other than for their coaches and teams that play in our championship series.”
Championship softball is a higher level of play for girls and boys ages 10 to 18. Three years ago, coaches of teams at that level were required to have background checks, but having prior experience in the sport was not essential, Miller said. There is an ACE (Achieve, Certify, Educate) Coaching Certification Program where coaches can become certified by watching online videos about how to deal with parents and how to teach techniques of the game. It’s not required for recreational coaches to become certified, but for championship play, there has to be at least one ACE certified coach on the field at all times. This, however, does not protect the ASA from lawsuits every year. “We’ve had coaches male or female that have tried to hit on different girls or have got them to run away with them at some point in time,” Miller said. “It all goes to court, and sometimes the cases are thrown out and sometimes they’re left in, but are we responsible for raising children and teaching them the values of life?”
Miller would not comment on the exact number of lawsuits his organization faces each year, but he said it’s far less than 100. Out of 300,000 ASA coaches, about 50,000 have background checks, including some of the coaches involved in the incidents, but some states, by law, only allow the organization to check seven years back and others, to a person’s 18th birthday.
Since there’s no common set of rules for governing volunteer coaches in non-school sports, some organizations, like New York’s SUNY Youth Sports Institute, have been established to create standards and a curriculum. “They [youth coaches] may be accountants, television executives, school teachers, but they all have something in common,” director Tim Donovan said. “They’re all spending an inordinate amount of time coaching kids. We help coaches understand athletics from a comprehensive, developmental standpoint.”
In three years, Donovan’s program has certified and trained more than 9,000 coaches in New York state. They’re also trying to help change the culture of youth sports because the days of kids playing shinny on a Saturday morning or a pick-up game of wiffle ball in the street are basically gone. Donovan said that spontaneity is lacking in today’s youth sports organizations, and coaches have the leadership role to change that.
“The kids don’t play a sport,” Donovan said. “Kids play a game. The sport begins with numbers and colors, when everything’s organized. Everything else is a game, and that’s what we try to teach our coaches, that the kids are really playing a game, and the adults are doing the sport. It’s one of those things that if we [Americans] actually understood that a little bit better, we might have some people who can help it [youth sports] develop into a real positive culture and keep it a building block for civilization.”