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A Gameplan for Risk Management

By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Developing offensive and defensive game plans is old hat for coaches. This article, however, is about a new type of game plan: a defensive strategy to lower the chance of injuries and the likelihood of a coach being blamed for one. 

Lowering the risk of injury to your athletes is not a one-time task. It is an ongoing commitment that should take place in-season and out-of-season, on the field and off. In this article, I provide a risk management game plan for coaches to use throughout the year.

To start, carefully re-read your athletic department’s handbook and any school policies that pertain to coaching. Next, make sure your own rules are in agreement with the department’s directives. Finally, meet with your athletic director to review policies and procedures. Get the answers to your safety concerns before problems arise.

Make sure you have met all state association certification regulations. Read and follow the rulebook. Read it every year, even if there haven’t been any changes from the previous year.

Check all your equipment, uniforms, and facilities. When buying new equipment, purchase only from reputable dealers. Follow all manufacturers’ guidelines. Wait until so-called “state-of-the-art” equipment becomes widely accepted before purchasing it, and avoid using any “homemade” equipment.

Hold a parent information meeting to preview the season and outline the risks and benefits of participation. Take time to answer parents’ questions about safety issues. Go over the informed-consent form.

Make sure every player has passed a physical exam. Obtain a completed emergency information card and an informed-consent form for each athlete, and make sure all forms are signed.

Review all safety rules with your players. Remind your athletes that they play an important role in their own safety and the safety of others on the playing field.

To avoid injuries, provide your athletes with progressive conditioning and instruction. Do not allow them to attempt a new move or play if you feel they are not ready for it. Always assess their capabilities as you instruct them.

Reinforce safety rules throughout the season. Immediately correct any unsafe situation. If you cannot correct a problem, notify the administration immediately.

Use the word “no.” “No, we won’t use that broken backstop.” “No, we won’t practice on that field.” “No, we won’t play with that equipment.” 

Know that proper supervision means having a staff member present at the practice or contest site at all times. Know what general and specific supervision is, as well as the supervisory technique known as “scanning.”

Have “buffer” or safety zones for practices and games. Always try for a “first down” (30 feet) in outdoor situations (including keeping 60 feet between two adjacent playing areas) and five to 10 feet for indoor play. If that is impossible, adjust the situation. That may mean padding the potential hazard, adjusting the playing field, or decreasing the number of participants. 

Avoid mismatching your athletes in competition and practice. Look at factors such as age, experience level, maturity, sport, size, strength, skill, and stamina.

If an injury occurs, always follow the directions of qualified medical personnel. Avoid post-injury discussions with anyone except your supervisor. Accident and incident reports should be factual and to the point. An athlete should not return to play after an injury or illness without a completed “return to play” form signed by a qualified medical professional.

Have an emergency plan in place. Review it to make sure it works. Test your plan at every venue you use for practice or competition. Have a plan for away contests.

Understand the importance of athletic safety public relations. Avoid terms such as “blood alley,” “bell ringer,” or “suicide drill.” Yes, words can come back to haunt you.

Walk into every situation and ask yourself, “Have I done all that is reasonable to lower the chance of injury to those in my charge?” and “What can I do to make the setting safer?”

After the season ends, re-examine your program from a risk management point of view. Take a look at all your forms, records, and procedures. Ask yourself, “How can I make it better?” Another idea is to seek outside evaluations of your risk management program from a coach or athletic administrator at another school. 

Consider implementing an out-of-season conditioning program for athletes who are not participating in other sports. Make sure any conditioning program is progressive, well taught, and appropriate for your athletes’ age level.

Attend seminars and workshops, and continue your education in all areas of coaching. Join professional groups and subscribe to professional magazines. 

Hire qualified assistant coaches. Along with being well-versed in coaching techniques, viable candidates should be caring individuals with your athletes’ welfare as their top priority. Encourage your assistant coaches to continue their professional development. 

As you review this game plan, remember these three major points:

1. You are measured by the standard of care for your profession and not by standards of practice. “Lots of other coaches do it that way” is not an excuse for an unsafe practice. The profession’s standard of care and your standard of practice should be the same. 

2. Know your legal duties as a coach. You have a duty to properly condition, supervise, give instruction, provide correct equipment and safe facilities, offer emergency care, and warn players of potential injuries. 

3. The key to lessening liability is being a competent, caring professional who runs a worthwhile program. This establishes your professional credibility, which goes a long way toward decreasing your chance of being sued.

Using this defensive game plan accomplishes two important things. It decreases the chance of injury to your athletes and establishes you as a caring, vigilant, and credible professional. Both will appreciably decrease the claims against you as a coach.


Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CMAA, is a sport safety consultant based in Narberth, Pa., and the former Director of Physical Education and Athletics at the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa. His most recent book is titled "A Risk Management Handbook for Physical Educators."

We’ll send ALL OF YOUR COACHES a weekly email newsletter containing instruction, advice and valuable information on:
  • PROPER COMMUNICATION: With your athletes, parents, administrators and the coaches
  • SUCCESSFUL OPERATIONS: Pre-Season, In-Season, Off-Season
  • LEADERSHIP TECHNIQUES: Creating the proper environment for teaching athletes life skills
  • RISK MANAGEMENT: Keeping your athletes safe at practices, during games, off-eason training, etc.
  • ATHLETE PERFORMANCE: Tips in areas of Conditioning, Nutrition, Mental Training, etc., that help your athletes perform at their best and improve their overall wellness
  • PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Ways to help your coaches be the best they can be