Late in the first half of a juvenile game last summer, one team had a player sent off on a straight red card. It had been a close game to that point but this moment changed the course of the match. The other team got a few scores before half-time to open up a lead.
A man down, a few scores down, and away from home, the coach of this team had a job to do at half-time to lift their clearly sagging spirits, organise them to deal with the extra man and talk them back into the game. It was his role to be a leader to these kids.
Except this coach didn't seem to see it that way. As the players stood around on one sideline, he approached the referee and began arguing with him over the sending-off. And he argued. And he argued.
He didn't go over to his young players until moments before the second half began. It was too late. The game ended with a heavy defeat for the team, but it couldn't have been anything else given the behaviour of the coach. He abdicated his responsibility to the young people who looked to him for answers to pursue his own flawed outlook on what sport is.
Children generally look up to their mentors. Most people who played at least one sport in their youth and whose path crossed with a good coach will cite him or her as having been an important influence in their formative years.
In another game, a coach from one of the teams was sent from the pitch for verbally abusing the referee. As the match entered injury time, the sides were level when the other team was awarded a free, probably too far out to be scored but when the referee was again verbally abused, this time by a player, the ball was moved forward so that a score was now in range. This proved to be the winning score of the match. What could the coach say to the player afterwards? Having abused the referee, he had helped create the environment which cost his team the game.
During a mini-rugby game, a man strode up and down the sideline shouting abuse at the referee at every possible opportunity for the entire match. Also for the entire match he carried his young child in his arms as he hurled the abuse.
Every team sport has stories like this. These kind of people have no place inside the wire working with children. Maybe back on the training ground they are good coaches but none of that matters in the face of such inappropriate behaviour.
The sports council's code of ethics and good practice reminds us that "the trust implicit in adult-child relationships in sport places a duty of care on all adults, voluntary or professional", and that adults have a crucial leadership role to play in sport.
Volunteerism is a huge issue in sport. Most clubs in any sport are thankful to have anyone step forward and agree to look after an underage team. That is just the way it is. There have been significant improvements in that all the major sporting organisations have got the message across to their grassroots that coaches must complete the Irish Sports Council's code of ethics class, and they must at least have some kind of foundation-level coaching badge.
But after that, most clubs -- of course run by volunteers too -- find it very difficult to intervene when an adult's behaviour is out of line. To confront an individual may lead to him or her walking away from the club altogether, and maybe their family too, and maybe even their friends. It is for this reason that clubs are reluctant to intervene, and often try to work around the problem instead of facing up to it. Generally, the situation is further complicated by the fact that many coaches have their own children involved with the team.
In the long run, however, the club will lose out. As children get older, the fall-away from physical activity gets higher. There are many obvious causes of this -- especially among late teens -- but it cannot be ignored that this issue too is a factor.
As the sports council's policy document notes, coaches "can contribute to the creation of a positive sporting environment for young people. The unique nature of sport allows sports leaders to develop positive and special relationships with children. Such relationships have tremendous potential to help children to develop and express themselves in an open and secure way".