Earlier this week, the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association triggered controversy when they reportedly instituted an edict to coaches that forbid them from having any physical contact with their players on the bench. An email to coaches read that “under no circumstances should there be contact with the players, in any way, putting hands on shoulders, slapping butts, tapping them on the helmet, NOTHING… so no contact period.”
Because this was said to include innocent interactions such as patting a player on the shoulders or even tapping them on the helmet, the reaction came pouring in from all corners. The story generated so much negative attention that the league was actually forced to issue a statement the following day indicating that these were merely suggested guidelines—and that no hard and fast rules had actually been implemented.
“The idea is not to prevent reasonable celebrations and acts of positive encouragement, but to ensure these acts are appropriate and comfortable to everyone involved,” Leaside Girls Hockey Association president Jennifer Smith wrote. “We encourage coaches to consider that not all players welcome such contact equally.”
Whatever the case, this opened up a very interesting debate in the sports world over the past couple of days. Should coaches be allowed to have any physical contact with the kids on their team? And if so, where do you draw the line?
For starters, we can all agree it’s time to retire the “butt-slap” of encouragement. This may have been acceptable in the 1980s, but there is really no reason for an adult to tap a child’s butt. It’s awkward. It’s creepy. And there’s really no need for it. So I don’t think anybody had a problem with the “slapping butts” portion of this controversy.
But would you have a problem with a coach putting their hands on your child’s shoulders on the bench? Does it matter if it’s a male coach with a female player—or is gender thrown out the window? That does appear to be the crux of the problem in this particular case with Leaside, since you have male coaches dealing with female players.
It’s always been an accepted part of sports that a coach will tap a player on the shoulder for a variety of reasons. It most often happens when a coach wants a certain player on the ice, because tapping them on the shoulder is often the quickest way to get their attention—especially inside a noisy arena. You could do a shoulder-tap to encourage a player, like a pat on the back. You could also do it to make a player aware of a situation on the ice, such as, “Hey, you have to watch out for No. 12 out there.”
All of these instances are fairly harmless and when you consider that these interactions would be done out in public—with the eyes of dozens of parents watching from the stands—it’s hard to conjure up a scenario in which a coach would abuse a player in this manner. In this regard, I think the “no-touch” policy would seem absurd. The same would go for the helmet-tap, where it was suggested that this practice could result in concussions for the girls. Unless you are conducting the helmet-tap with a sledgehammer, I don’t think you are running the risk of giving a child a concussion.
I think it’s worth pointing out that physical contact between a coach and a player behind closed doors is something to be frowned upon. In those scenarios, you are opening up the door to potential problems down the road, especially if there aren’t other coaches or parents present in the room. I should point out that Hockey Canada—the governing body for the sport in this country—does have a set of guidelines for coaches and a mandatory course that explains what is acceptable and what isn’t when you are in charge of a group of kids.
I’m a believer that there is a positive way to physically interact with kids and it can be healthy. Things like high-fives, helmet-taps and pats on the shoulder fall into this category. If you ban all physical contact, we are making it impossible for kids to distinguish between positive touching and negative touching. In essence, we are saying that all touching is bad—and that’s simply not true. I can’t help but think of a particular episode of The Simpsons where Marge Simpson innocently puts her hand on Ralph Wiggum’s shoulder and he yells out, “Help! She’s touching my special area!” We need to make sure our kids are aware that there is such a thing as positive physical contact.
While creating a zero-tolerance policy on touching might make for an easier road to navigate when it comes to lawsuits, it does undermine the spirit of why we put our kids into sports in the first place. Positive reinforcement can come from a variety of methods—including physical contact—if it’s done in the right manner.
Follow along as Ottawa-based sports radio host Ian Mendes gets candid about raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with his wife, Sonia. Read all of Ian’s The Good Sport posts and follow him on Twitter @ian_mendes.