Not many people wake up in the morning and think, I look forward to getting yelled at, berated, and insulted. Yet, that's what happens to youth sports officials, which is unfortunate, since their main purpose is to keep the game safe and to help prevent injuries whenever possible.

Officials help prevent and reduce injuries to players by utilizing rule penalties to properly discipline dangerous plays. Many youth sports organizations have taken steps to reduce the dangerous behaviors by creating stricter rules - changes focused specifically on penalizing dangerous behaviors that were once considered rough but acceptable – and expanding the associated penalties. For example, my colleague, Chelsea Ward at CIRP@CHOP, a referee for USA Hockey, the governing body in the US for youth ice hockey, told me about two of the multiple rule changes implemented over the years to keep players focused on the sport and not trying to hurt one another:

  • Increasing the age where body checks become legal from the boys' 12-and-under "Peewee" classification to the boys' 14-and-under "Bantam" classification.  This has helped players continue to develop basic hockey skills without the threat of body checking and potential injuries, including concussions, which stem from body checking.
  • Increasing the severity of the minimum penalty options. For instance, contact to an opposing player's head now carries at minimum a 2-minute penalty for which the team is penalized, plus an additional 10-minute penalty the player must serve.

These rule changes help officials not only keep the game safer, but also reinforce a code of conduct and give them the opportunity to educate players on what they can and cannot do. By properly calling the rulebook and taking the time to educate players about overly aggressive and dangerous moves, officials protect players and teams from unnecessary injuries, including concussions and fractures, and promote fair play.

As a parent, it's important to respect officials for their knowledge of the game and their role in preventing injuries and to encourage your child and coaches to do the same. Being belligerent when a call is missed or doesn't go their way doesn't help anyone, least of all the youths that are on the court, rink, or field.

Here are some tips to help support officials in keeping your kids safe:

Be the example. Practice self-control whenever possible. When you perceive a missed call, instead of reacting in a negative way, take a deep breath, turn away from the action and count to 10. Then quickly refocus on the next play.

Ask the coach to hold a parent meeting. During the meeting, emphasize a code of conduct when dealing with officials—control emotions, interact respectfully, and honor the game even when others don't.

Seize teachable moments. There are many benefits to sports participation, including physical fitness and the development of teamwork, leadership, and resilience. Another is honor. Congratulate your child for playing by the rules and showing respect for others. While it's great to win, it's not worth it if it means embarrassing their coach or teammates.

Advocate for changes in rules to promote safety while maintaining a focus on key skill development. For instance, flag football helps children develop speed and agility, while minimizing risk of head injury. Restrictions on heading the ball in soccer can reduce the risk of concussion in soccer.

It's also important to remember that most youth sports officials have other jobs and referee for their love of the game. Their numbers are dwindling due to name-calling, disrespect, and even violence. We need to keep them in the game.

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