On August 19, high school students will fan out across fields all over the state for the first day of practice for the fall season. Taking the field with them will be coaches trained in basic first aid, CPR and concussion recognition, as required by the Maine Principals’ Association.

As early as Aug. 10, the younger brothers and sisters of those high school athletes and thousands of other young children will have begun practicing for their fall season. And whether it be football, field hockey, soccer or cheerleading, many of them will be coached by adults who are not required to have any first aid or concussion training, or even undergo background checks.

According to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, children ages 5-14 account for 40 percent of sports-related injuries for all age groups. Yet many of the organizations which operate the leagues and teams in which those children play — often under the auspices of town and city recreation departments — are not regulated and do not follow the safety standards used by high school sports.

“One glaring problem across the youth sports landscape today is that there still remain far too many park and recreation departments that operate with an, ‘I’ll-keep my-fingers-crossed’ approach,” said John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. “(They) simply hope that their volunteers will do the right thing rather than taking a proactive approach by utilizing training which can pay big dividends in the quality of the kids’ experiences.”

Youth sports safety advocates said awareness is growing, especially in the area of  concussions, but much of the focus has been on professional, college and scholastic athletics. Not enough has trickled down to where athletes are most vulnerable.

“I think it’s less of a standard expectation,” said Dr. Michael Bergeron, executive director of the National Youth Sports Health and Safety Institute. “The schools are certainly concerned about the liability, and maybe the community sports should be as well but don’t pay as much attention to that. But I think you’re starting to see more and more community sports (take the issue seriously).”


Local recreation and youth sports officials and coaches said their leagues and teams have come a long way in safety over the years and continue to try to make them safer for the kids.

“Whatever we can do to reduce the risk, even though it will still exist, we want to reduce it,” Auburn Parks and Recreation director Ravi Sharma said.

But they are also limited in how much they can do. Many leagues operate on shoestring budgets that get little or no municipal support and rely on donations and fundraising to keep sign-up fees affordable. Most of that money goes to uniforms, paying officials, and buying new protective equipment or maintaining the aging equipment they have.

Many are operated almost exclusively by volunteers, most of whom participate when their own kids are playing then leave, with little continuity from year to year. Requiring safety training for coaches is sometimes financially and logistically impossible, and asking volunteers to assume the burden wouldn’t be fair or in the league’s best interests for survival.

“You never want costs transferred down to the coaches,” said Scott Gauvin, president of Rumford Area Youth Football. “These guys are donating their time.”

Safety starts at top


Leagues affiliated with a centralized authority are more likely to have stricter safety rules and require training for coaches. Little League Baseball and Softball requires its affiliates to appoint a safety officer and distribute an approved safety manual to volunteers. Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth Baseball requires coaches get certification which includes safety training.

Many youth hockey organizations in Maine are part of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association, which requires all coaches under its auspices to receive USA Hockey certification. Depending upon what level they coach, all coaches are required to complete up to four levels of certification, and renew their certification annually or biennially.

Jamie Belleau, who coaches both Lewiston High School varsity hockey and the Lewiston-based Maine Gladiators squirt team, said USA Hockey provides an abundance of information and extensive training on safety, first aid, concussions, hygiene, nutrition and off-ice training.

“I’ve always joked that I’ve got to have more certifications to coach at the youth level than I do at the high school level,” said Belleau, who has two sons and a daughter involved in youth sports.

“I think the Gladiator organization (and) youth hockey associations in Maine are far ahead of the game simply because most state amateur hockey associations require USA certification,” he added.

This summer, Belleau attended a three-day seminar in Massachusetts and completed Level 4 certification. The Gladiators paid for him and other coaches to  receive the training.


Many organizations, particularly those in rural areas, do not have the budget to train coaches. Many also don’t perform background checks on coaches or have policies governing their behavior or guiding their decision-making if a player is injured.

Rumford AYF, which has roughly 100 kids in grades 3-6 on four teams, doesn’t require training for its coaches or have specific policies for injuries. Gauvin, who is a coach in addition to being league president, said he would like more formal training, but right now it is limited to the more experienced coaches sharing their knowledge with newcomers.

“We teach what we know. It’s not regulated by anything,” Gauvin said.

Rumford AYF has taken other steps to make the game safer in recent years. Several years ago, it donated an automated external defibrillator (AED) to the Rumford parks and rec department for the Hosmer Field complex, where its teams play their home games in the Sandy Andy Football League. Each team has a medical kit supplied by the local ambulance provider, MedCare, which also provides an on-call ambulance for games at Hosmer Field.

The league has also made rule changes to make games safer and stresses teaching proper blocking and tackling technique. While there are no rules regarding equipment maintenance, Gauvin estimates roughly 80 percent of AYF’s helmets have been replaced with new ones over the past three years.”

Area Youth Sports, which consists of the towns of Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls, is also a member of the Sandy Andy Football League. For the first time this year, AYS is requiring its coaches for middle-school-aged teams in the Sandy-Andy Football League to complete the free National Federation of State High School Association’s concussion course. AYS president Tom Fortier said it is considering expanding that to all AYS youth football coaches. It is also considering reimbursing coaches who pay fees for other NFHS courses.


“It’s the right thing to do,” Fortier said.

But AYS, which offers about a dozen programs in various sports for youth age 4-15, wants coaches to determine if kids need to be taken off the field, not what happens to them if they are sidelined.

“Coaches will evaluate. Ultimately, it falls on the parents if their child is injured,” Fortier said.

In Auburn, youth football coaches receive training in concussion awareness provided by the Edward Little High School coaching staff, which, like all high school coaches, is required by the MPA to watch concussion training videos.

Coaches in some of the nearly two-dozen programs Auburn Recreation offers do undergo additional National Alliance for Youth Sports training, but they are not required to have first aid training. A staff member with first aid and CPR certification is usually present at games, Sharma said, and has access to an AED and first aid kit.

The recreation department has its equipment certified from year-to-year, meeting minimum safety standards. While the department is funded by the city, fees still have to be increased occasionally to offset the costs of maintaining and replacing equipment.


“It’s usually not a hard sell to parents that the cost has increased because we’re trying to look out for the safety of the kids,” Sharma said.

Inherent risk

Sharma, who participated in Auburn recreation programs as a child, said he has seen a shift in safety consciousness “amongst everybody, whether it’s parents, kids, coaches, even opposing teams and coaches, they’re looking out for the safety in your players as well.”

“You’re seeing it in other sports now where it hasn’t had a lot of focus, anything from soccer to basketball to lacrosse, anything that has the possibility of body-to-body contact, and even some (sports) that don’t,” Sharma said. “There’s just inherent risk with any sort of recreation when it comes to athletics.”

Bergeron said communities can decrease that risk by making fundamental changes to the way games are played. He believes youth football and hockey leagues shouldn’t allow tackling or checking.

“There’s really no reason why third or fourth graders, or fifth graders even, should be playing tackle football,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be emphasized to develop skills related to the game that are going to pay off later.”


“It’s not the hitting or the tackling that is making them a better player,” Bergeron said. “I think at the early age there needs to be more of an emphasis on skill sets and the pattern of play than the hitting. That’s more for the parents, I think, than for the kids’ welfare.”

More parents are taking their kids’ welfare into account and keeping them out of football because of the growing awareness of head injuries.

“What we’ve really seen is a decline in football and a growth in soccer,” Fortier said. “Typically, the parents feel soccer is a little safer.”

That’s not necessarily true. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, soccer has a higher injury rate than many contact/collision sports, including field hockey, rugby, basketball and football. Soccer also has one of the highest rates of concussions.

Youth sports safety advocates point to that misconception and others to remind parents that they need to learn as much as possible about a sport, team and league before they sign their child up. They also need to speak up if they find the safety standards lacking when the games begin.

“There simply isn’t enough buy-in from the people who have the power that the same type of trainings (at the high school level) are necessary at the youth level,” Engh said. “It seems that just because scholastic coaches are paid, and thus professionals, that it is easier to mandate certifications, etc. And it is done statewide and nationwide. But in the recreational arena, we are talking about the same kids and, at most times, much younger kids who often are subject to much more vigorous schedules because there is no regulation. So this should be concerning to parents.”


Youth sports advocates and organizers agree that everyone involved in youth sports, from commissioners to coaches, from parents to players, should remember its ultimate purpose and how vital safety is to kids getting the most out of it.

“They go hand-in-hand together,” Sharma said. “If you can’t keep somebody safe, it’s very difficult to ensure that they have fun as well.”

Youth sports injuries statistics from U.S. SAFE KIDS Campaign and the American Academy of Pediatrics:

– Nearly 30 million children and adolescents participate in youth sports in the United States.

– Approximately 3.5 million children under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year.

– Children age 5-14 account for 40 percent of sports-related injuries for all age groups.

– 62 percent of organized sports-related injuries occur during practice.

– Sports and recreational activities contribute to approximately 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries among American children and adolescents.

– The majority of head injuries sustained in sports or recreational activities occur during bicycling, skateboarding, or skating incidents.

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