**This post is sponsored by NATA, National Athletic Trainers Association. All opinions are my own.**
I’ve been a sports mom for over 15 years.
I embrace it, I love it, and I go hard.
But, when I began this journey with my kids, I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea what a large role sports were going to ultimately play in their lives or my own –I signed my son up because I thought two-year-olds looked cute in shin guards and teeny cleats.
Apparently, he was immediately hooked because he will celebrate his 17th birthday later this year and he has played every single soccer season since his first in 2003.
As we added children to our family, we also began to add sports –gymnastics, swimming, basketball, t-ball, lacrosse, baseball, taekwondo and, eventually, tackle youth football.
My middle son was 5 when he brought it up and, initially, I was entirely against it –I wasn’t about to stand there and watch some huge kid take down my baby.
I gave him a laundry list of reasons why he should stick with soccer like his brother and we spent another year chasing little people around the soccer field.
We were able to avoid the youth football thing when he asked again the next year.
But, following his 7th birthday, when he marched into the kitchen and informed me that he NEEEEEEDS to play football and was giving up soccer no matter what, I realized that “the football thing” wasn’t going away as I’d hoped.
I finally agreed to let him play (with a bunch of ifs, and buts) even though I was basically scared out of mind that he would get hurt.
Fear is a thing I usually defeat with education.
So, I signed him up and immediately tasked myself with learning every single thing I could about youth football.
I read the research, I investigated youth football organizations, I talked to coaches and moms and even his doctor. I learned all there was to learn about youth sports safety and the safe playing of youth football and what I could do as a mom to make it even safer.
Which, at the time, wasn’t much.
Then, a miracle opportunity came to me that allowed me to get involved with the NFL and their partnership with USA Football.
After several meetings and learning sessions, I was asked to become a part of their Heads Up Football Advisory Committee. We were tasked with helping promote the mission of changing the culture and the playing of tackle football to make it a better, safer game for youth to play.
Totally my jam!
My participation in the committee aligned with the start of my son’s first youth football season and while he was busy learning the ins and outs of football on the field, I was busy learning the ins and outs of keeping kids safe while they play it.
We spent several weeks building our knowledge base and expertise on American football, youth football, and youth sports safety. We went to conferences, we had meetings, we were trained in heads up tackling, we went to the NFL Combine, the NFL Draft, and even the NFL Hall of Fame to learn about where football has been and where it was headed. Over the course of the next year, we met several times and learned everything there was to know about youth football safety from experts in the field (see me right there? Next to my boy Dion?!).
It was this education that helped me truly learn about things like sudden cardiac arrest and heat illnesses as well as the value of athletic trainers for helping athletes prevent and recover from injuries. I had no idea the depth of knowledge athletic trainers could bring to a sports program or that they could provide actual medical services including diagnoses and treatments of injuries and conditions. In fact, it wasn’t until my collaboration with the Heads Up Football committee that I truly learned the difference between athletic trainers and personal trainers, and let me tell you, it is vast!
When NATA, the National Athletic Trainers Association, contacted me to partner with them, I was more than happy to share my story and to help promote what they do to help make youth athletes safer as they engage in the sports they love. The work they do is on the ground –providing treatment, education, and support to athletes, coaches, and parents, and it is so important to ensure proper medical care and healing for young players.
My mission to empower moms aligns so well with theirs and, while it may not be based in medical science, it is based on years of personal experience and safe play training.
As our family began to get more involved in youth tackle football, I began to note the absence of the mom voice in most decision making elements of our organization.
Aside from a couple of team moms (most of whom were married to the coaches), and the ladies schlepping the hot dogs in their bedazzled football mom tees, there just weren’t many women participating in the sport in more meaningful ways.
There were no female coaches, no women on the leadership team, not a single mom who had a voice when it came to things like player safety and/or coaching level decisions. It’s not that they weren’t welcome to participate really, it was more that they just didn’t know how to try.
But it wasn’t because they didn’t care.
I knew I had so many questions about things on a daily basis and I figured other moms were feeling the same way, so I found a way to give them the information I knew they wanted and needed -writing about on DudeMom of course.
My youth sports writing started to be noticed by several outlets and eventually I became a columnist for both USAFootball.com and NFL.com, where I wrote about the life of a football mom as well as the work I was doing with the NFL to help encourage youth sports safety.
Moms in my community began to seek me out at the field to share their concerns with me. Though I constantly advised them to speak to their coaches about these things, I was most often met with reluctance.
They were afraid.
Afraid of being made to feel foolish and insignificant because they’d never played football, afraid to advocate for their child for fear of hurting his opportunities to play, afraid of being labeled that mom.
And whether this fear was real or perceived, I wanted to make it go away.
Because I wasn’t afraid.
My concerns are valid because I’m a mother, I’m trained and educated about safe practices and, I don’t need to have played football to understand the game or, more importantly, how young people learn (and I have a master’s degree in that), I won’t allow my child to be punished for my actions, and I don’t care if people think I’m that mom.
Because, honestly, I guess I am.
I am that mom that knows how to detect the signs and symptoms of a concussion. I am that mom who is going to share what I know about heat acclimatization and hydration, especially when protocols are being ignored. I am that mom who cares about the amount of contact my kid is participating in at practice each week, because I also know that 62% of organized sports-related injuries occur during practice. And, I am that mom who is going to stand up and say something if I think my son is being mistreated.
I wanted all moms to feel empowered to be advocates for their youth athlete in this way, so I asked my commissioner to appoint me parent advocate for my organization. When he agreed, I became the only woman on our youth football leadership committee at that time.
That was 4 years ago and today there are several.
I love how far our organization has come in creating a better, safer game for our children and I am proud of the role I and those who supported me, were able to play in this progress.
Becoming an advocate for your athlete can be challenging, but there are things you can do to help ensure success.
How to Advocate for Youth Sports Safety
It’s hard to advocate for something if you don’t truly understand it, but once you’re educated about the sport, how it’s played, how it can be safer, and ways you can help design realistic solutions, you will be armed with what you need to effect the change you desire. You can learn a ton about youth sports safety and health issues on the At Your Own Risk website: The Role of Parents
Communicate with your child’s coach.
Communication is important in any relationship, and you and your child’s coach are meant to be partners in the athletic development of your child. Ask him or her early in the season about communication preferences and share your expectations as a parent. If you’re both on the same page, it will help eliminate misunderstandings.
Don’t be a complainer.
Be a problem solver. Everyone is eager to point out problems, but not as many are willing to be a part of the solution. In fact, if you want to voice a problem, it’s best of you come armed with a reasonable solution and the willingness to work towards one at the same time.
Never doubt your right to have a voice when it comes to the health and safety of your child. You may not be able to determine which plays they call in a game, but you have every right to require that they adhere to safety standards at all times.
Build a team.
Having a supportive team of youth sports safety and health advocates working with you will make your job easier and keep kids safer. Think about starting a player safety committee to help educate families and monitor player safety in your organization.
If you’d like to learn more about youth sports safety, visit AtYourOwnRisk.org, NATA’s public advocacy campaign designed to educate the public on important sports-related health and safety issues. Download the Parent Checklist for Youth Sports Safety for seven things every parent should know before allowing your child to play sports.