Prof. Doug Abrams recently received the 2013 Excellence in Safety Award from USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body. In his acceptance speech at the organization’s Annual Congress, Prof. Abrams distinguished between physical safety and emotional safety in youth sports.
“Emotional safety means assuring each youngster fair and equal opportunity to participate in every game and practice session, consigning no youngster to chronic benchwarming. Today’s fairness and equal opportunity remain essential to the players for the rest of their lives.
About a quarter of your players this winter are destined to lead very difficult, very challenging adult lives through no fault of their own. Years from now, they or a family member may suffer a debilitating disease, a serious accident or injury, or worse. Or they or a family member may lose permanent employment and find themselves unable to support their families as they would like. Or they may struggle through divorce or similar family disruption. Other crises may occur.
The coach doesn’t know yet which of this winter’s bright-eyed 11-year-olds will be dealt a bad hand in life; the players don’t know yet; and their parents don’t know yet. We’re not fortune tellers, but these players are in your locker room all season. They are standing right in front of you.
Just let the kids be kids while they can because childhood and adolescence are meant to be times of relative innocence in America. Sports may provide kids some of their most lasting memories of pure fun before they face life’s crises and setbacks. We owe our players these memories, because they joined the team expecting emotional safety. They did not join to warm the bench for a coach who thinks that sidelining half the team might help win a game whose score everyone will likely forget two weeks later anyway.
Coaches know that we control the kids’ hockey present, but we also control their hockey futures because nostalgia is one of the great faculties of the human mind. When adults hit a personal roadblock, we naturally seek confidence and strength by thinking back to the good times. Coaches shortchange today’s players when we deprive them of this lifelong support mechanism.
Just look in the mirror some morning early this winter and ask yourself one question: ‘How well do I treat my least talented player?’ The answer will tell plenty about how much emotional safety means on the team.”