An old line of thinking used to state that “the coach is always right.” As amazing as most coaches are, they are also human, and can make mistakes. These mistakes can range from actual willful negligence in the worst cases, to the more common mistake of overestimating an athlete’s ability level, whether physical or mental.
In order to help foster a program that is based in safe practices, coaches should be willing to open up lines of communication and even take constructive criticism themselves.
From the very beginning, as teams are in the selection process, coaches should communicate to cheerleaders and parents about how the program is structured, what is to be expected, and how to bring issues to their attention. These issues can range from other cheerleaders that may be participating in destructive or unsafe behavior to possible violations of safety rules to expressing fear of a particular skill. None of these infer that a coach is not in charge of their program. In fact, quite the opposite is true; a coach cannot be in charge of her program if she is not aware of everything that is going on in it.
Consider a situation where a coach may have joined a program from a college coed background, and is not working with a high school coed team. She may have been hired with the specific directive from the school that they want the high school program to mimic what they saw in her college program. Further, there may be a long history of this high school program performing college level skills. If the coach does not properly educate herself on the different safety rules allowed for high school programs, it could result in a preventable injury from a college-only skill, which also opens up the coach and school to a higher level of liability exposure. If the coach runs the program in such a way that no parent feels comfortable bringing up the fact that the skill is not allowed for high school teams, they will have mistakenly caused an accident and a lawsuit.
Similarly, closing lines of communication may result in an injury when a coach puts more pressure or has a higher level of expectation for an athlete than they can safely handle. The coach is not omniscient. They may not know that earlier in the day, the top person and back spot had a major falling out at school and aren’t speaking to each other. Working with multiple groups, she may not be in a position to see that the backspot isn’t putting as much effort into catching the top person as she should. After all, these skills have been checked off as proficient for weeks. She may not realize that the top person also sprained her ankle in PE during second period and is covering it up by not walking until the coach isn’t looking. And, the top person may remember that the last time someone mentioned the possibility that they couldn’t safely do a skill, they were pulled from the position entirely.
In each of these scenarios, the program would be in a safer position by having the coach initially, repeatedly, and genuinely express that the lines of communication are open and that she will listen to all feedback. This is a new day in sports, and while coaches are still in charge of their programs and should be directing athletes to become better at their positions, it is still important to remember that the lines of communication should remain open so that cheerleaders and parents feel comfortable bringing safety issues forward without repercussion.