Youth Sport & Adult Violence: what will it take for communities to use the field of Conflict Resolution as a preventative resource?

One adult physically beat another adult at a youth football practice in Wilmington, Massachusetts this past weekend. There’s commentary in the papers regarding what might have actually happened leading to the fight and who actually threw the first punch. I don’t care about what happened. I care that it did happen. And it’s happened before. Fortunately, this time no one died. Others have died: Michael Costin, for example, in 2002. If we’re waiting to dissect the particulars of how or why these incidents occur, then we’re already too late, and frankly, it’ll happen again. It will keep happening, in fact.

Simply put, when individuals and institutions don’t have the skills and training in conflict de-escalation then conflict often escalates. When healthy conflict resolution isn’t part of a given culture then conflict often escalates.

Here’s what I suggest we do to prevent violent incidents from occurring in our communities in relation to youth sports (and as a mediator by profession, I’m stepping outside my role a bit by actually making suggestions).

1. The individual or individuals who are administrating the youth program attend a basic conflict resolution or mediation course as soon as possible to be able to identify and address conflict before it escalates and to be able to work toward developing conflict resolution mechanisms for their youth sports programs.
2. A mandatory conflict resolution training program be developed and administered for all youth coaches.
3. A mandatory conflict resolution training program be developed and administered for all youth referees.
4. An optional (yet strongly encouraged) conflict resolution training program be developed and administered for parents of youth involved in sports.
5. Develop a process for coaches, players, parents and/or referees to file grievances about coaches, players, parents and/or referees and have those grievances addressed. This could include a mediation program. (I have developed mediation programs that cost virtually nothing and are run by volunteers, so it is possible to do this on the cheap with enough local support and investment.).
6. Parents sign a “conflict resolution” agreement in order for their children to participate in a given sport. This would commit parents to a culture of healthy conflict resolution and it would make parents accountable to one another, to the young people, and to the youth sports program at large.
7. At the start of each season, someone trained in conflict resolution (and this could be a coach and/or administrator and/or parent) spend a few minutes at practice with each team discussing and role-playing healthy conflict resolution skills.
8. If team conflict is affecting a team’s performance, bring in someone trained in multi-party dispute resolution that has experience with sports teams to mediate (or have a framework where the coach could mediate if he/she has been trained in mediation).

In sports, I realize credentials are important so here are mine: I’ve been coaching sports (primarily soccer and some basketball) on and off since I was a teenager. I’ve coached various youth teams and I’ve coached division three college women’s soccer. I started playing soccer when I was in kindergarten and was on many winning teams, including our high school soccer team that were state semi-finalists my senior year. I was the captain of both my soccer and basketball teams my senior year in high school. I played soccer at Kenyon College for four years and received various awards during that time including team MVP my sophomore and senior years and the First Team All Conference NCAC All Star team my senior year. I focused my Master of Arts degree final project in dispute resolution on conflicts in sports.

It’s too easy to excuse violence connected to youth sports as isolated “freak” incidents that could never happen here. There is research that collects data regarding such incidents and breaks it down. Yet it’s too easy to take that information and use it to dismiss the possibility that it could ever happen in our community. It can, and it has, and there are things that can be done to prevent it from occurring.

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By Laura L. Noah
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