The Double-Edged Sword of Volunteer Coaches


One of the cornerstones of Canadian society is the volunteer, and many of these volunteers are involved in coaching sports teams. Most of the time this is a wonderful idea. People with expertise in an activity donate their time to pass on the skills and ethos of our society to our children. Whoopee ding.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In an ideal world, these adults would be mature and sensible, with no ulterior motives and no personal character flaws. I know this brings up the popular nightmare of sexual abuse, but I’m talking about a situation much more prevalent. I’m talking about inept and untrained people who do not understand the skills and responsibilities of looking after young people, especially large groups of them.

I recall my early days of teaching. A teacher at our school was our sensei, and our karate class practised in the gymnasium of the school. So we were in the building at times when most teachers were not. Like just before our practice, when the Boy Scouts were using the gym.

Imagine the horror of the teachers in our group when the Scout leader opened the door of the equipment room and told the boys to amuse themselves while he prepared for the next activity. Imagine twenty, 10- to 15-year old boys given access to any sports equipment they wanted and turned loose with no supervision. Imagine the mayhem. Balls of all sizes and densities flying in all directions. Kids roaring around on four-wheel dollies. Tennis and badminton racquets swung with abandon. Well, nobody got killed, anyway.

Teachers are trained and cautioned about their responsibilities vis-a-vis the safety of their students, and most are acutely aware of the possibility of accidents. But these leaders were not sufficiently trained, and I suspect that scene plays itself out in schools, gyms and sports playgrounds all over the country every day.

I worked in a school once where end-of-the-year class bike trips were popular. One teacher, however, took her class biking along the Fraser River, which was in spring freshet. The park they were headed towards was flooded. She was alone with 30 grade 7 students. She had no tools, no tire patching equipment, no appropriate clothing, no backup vehicle. The kids had a fine time roaring through the knee-deep water on the trails, coming home soaked but happy. As far as I could determine, nothing was ever said to her. Nobody was drowned or run over, after all.

The Thai Cave Rescue

Yes, it made a great story: drama, danger, international cooperation, tragedy. But the original cause, as happens so often with dramatic wilderness rescues, was stupidity. There are warning signs outside the cave. Local children are abjured not to go inside. But this assistant coach though he knew better. Sure, there are mitigating circumstances. Apparently the rains came early. But the only time the rains come early is when they don’t come late, which is about half the time. It’s the results that count. He played with the odds, and a volunteer diver paid with his life.

Ontario Canoe Trip Drowning

This one is even worse because the person in charge was a professional. This experienced teacher took a group of kids on a canoe trip, despite the fact that several of them had failed a mandatory swim test and had not taken the mandatory lessons. Oh, I’m sure the teacher had his reasons. They needed enough kids to make the trip affordable. Those kids needed that sort of activity so much. Being left out would destroy their self-image.

The teacher seems to have neglected the other half of the equation; kids are stupid, and teenage boys are the worst of the lot. If you obeyed all the safety regulations the School Board might impose, somebody could still get hurt. But it seems that he ignored the danger and his responsibility, and a family paid.

Should the teacher be charged with negligence? Of course. Should he be convicted? No idea. He’s already been pilloried by the usual media circus. If he’s guilty, the court of law is the proper venue to find out. If he’s not guilty, it will be good to have his reputation cleared. Who knows, maybe somebody further up the food chain ordered him to take them. It will be noted that the boy died while swimming, so the lack of a life jacket and the whole canoe trip scenario is a bit of a red herring. The fact that a non-swimmer died while swimming does suggest improper supervision. All idle speculation.

The School Board I worked for demanded that if the students were swimming there had to be a qualified lifeguard in attendance at all times. Nobody ever argued with that one, although I suspect there are teachers whose definitions of “swimming” and “wading” are a bit blurred. Remember, 50% of teachers are of below-average teaching ability.

So What’s My Point?

In our helicopter society, we are always decrying the tendency of parents to hover over the shoulders of teachers and coaches, second-guessing us at every turn. It takes the wind out of our argument when a few of us give those parents every right to be fearful.

We also tend to complain that government interferes too much in our lives, so it is appropriate to discuss whether more oversight is needed in this case.

If you want to look, there are already plenty of regulations around. However, it’s pretty obvious that enough supervisors, both amateurs and professionals, are willing to ignore those regulations, whether through ignorance, stupidity, or good intentions gone wrong. The solution isn’t more rules. It’s better training. I know it’s an added burden for non-profit organizations, but I think anyone dealing with vulnerable people needs to be properly trained.

I work as a volunteer for a couple of non-profit organizations, and I was required to take a training session and have a criminal record check before I could start. That sort of thing should be standard for sports coaches, Arts teachers, anyone who volunteers with the vulnerable, and their supervisors. We can’t risk allowing volunteers to learn the need for safety through bitter experience. If the regulations are in place but the professionals in charge do not make sure that the volunteers are aware of the rules and following them, no parents can be sure that their children are safe.

Post Script: Insurance

And by the way: if you’re a volunteer, ENSURE YOU’RE INSURED!

I was directing a play for a volunteer group a few years ago, and an elderly lady tripped over a stage brace and stubbed her toe. No big deal. Then it got infected, and the infection didn’t clear up. She ended up having to attend the outpatient clinic at the hospital for two hours every day for two weeks to have intravenous antibiotic injections. She could have lost the leg. I was the director, responsible for the safety of my cast. I could have lost my home. The teacher in charge of the drama room we were performing in was responsible for the environment (i.e. enough safety lighting). She could have lost her job.

As it turned out, the infection disappeared, the drama group reimbursed her for $4-an-hour parking at the hospital, and all was well. But it opened my eyes. Those rules are created for our safety as well as that of our charges. Follow them.

2 comments for “The Double-Edged Sword of Volunteer Coaches

  1. Bb
    August 6, 2018 at 6:15 am

    I dont know about the other topic you are referring to.But for sure,I dont think you know much about the Thai cave rescue to write this article,you are just making a fool of yourself.
    -The cave is a public park.Thailand has at least 100 parks like this.
    -The sign in front of the cave state that you can’t enter in July-Nov, and they went in june(check the picture in the news).
    -They even went during the business hour.
    -The monsoon season weren’t supposed to start for another 3 weeks.
    -The local kids are allowed to go visit, or the park would not stay open.
    This is quite unusual circumstances, it call accident.

    • renaissanceadmin
      August 13, 2018 at 2:08 am

      My point exactly. Your list is the list of excuses that are always given when things go wrong. Like accidents can’t happen in public parks during business hours? The monsoon came early? In 2011 the monsoons started in March and April. The Monsoons are highly variable. When you are in charge of other people’s children, you have to prepare for unusual circumstances. This happens all the time. People don’t use their brains and put children in dangerous situations, and then claim, “It was an accident.” Accidents are usually caused by people making more than one mistake. Each mistake by itself is not fatal. Only the combination is. It was no accident that those kids were in a dangerous place. It was no accident that someone in charge wasn’t paying close enough attention to the situation until it was too late. It was no accident that when the situation got bad, they went farther into the cave instead of out of it. Those were all choices made through thoughtlessness and lack of local knowledge.

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