Balancing the Liability of Club Sport Coaches

October 18, 2015

Lexi Chaput
Assistant Director – Club Sports
University of Michigan

As a Club Sports program shapes policies and procedures, the role of coaches in the program is often one that comes with a great deal of concerns and question marks.

Will the University recognize them in any capacity, and are they covered under the University’s liability insurance? Do we want to associate the University and our department with someone who has such a loose affiliation? What are we going to require of the coach to make sure our students are safe? What are we going to require of the coach to keep ourselves covered? Who is going to “supervise” the coach?

Many departments tend to think of Club Sports coaches as a source of risk, or a liability for the department and their program. But handled correctly, the relationship with a non-University employed coach can be a great asset to the program and to the teams with which they work.

How else can coaches contribute?
There still seems to be a collective shudder by Club Sports professionals with the idea that a coach can contribute to a Club Sport in more ways than developing practice plans, roster selection and the X’s and O’s of the game. Yes – we are dedicated to developing student leaders, to the student led and run model that so greatly impacts the students in our programs, but as many Universities shift toward a model of tighter control and oversight over their Club Sports, help in supervision and guidance of our students can present itself in new and interesting ways.

While performing an audit of the Club Sports program, the University of Michigan established that non-student coaches would be required for each Club Sport in the program. Since the completion of the audit in December 2013, the relationship and connection with coaches has led to a very valuable link between the Department of Recreational Sports, the student leaders in the 31 Club Sports, and the coaches who play a very important role in the program.

Making the relationship mutually beneficial.
The first thing that must be established when deciding the way that coaches can benefit the program is to also understand what the university is willing to offer. While it may seem questionable to some, a University commitment to recognizing and providing basic liability coverage for a Club Sport coach can be a motivating factor to a coach feeling the connection necessary to help hold them accountable. At the University of Michigan, coaches making $5,000 or less per year are classified as University Volunteers, receive liability insurance coverage in their role as a coach, and must commit to a level of expectation, established by the University and Department of Recreational Sports. Those making over $5,000 a year are considered Independent Contractors and must provide their own liability coverage, but also sign a University contract that establishes a relationship and sets those same behavioral expectations of the volunteers.

Turning expectations into a relationship.
While expectations should be clearly documented, this formal relationship must be cultivated into something more personal. At Michigan, there are two required coaches meetings per year. The reality is that there are a few coaches who the Club Sports staff will not see or hear from outside of those two days. However, something as simple as these two opportunities for in-person interaction changes “Club Sports” from being an ‘office’ into a partnership of individuals. These two meetings are an important opportunity to educate coaches on the things they need to know, but even more importantly, it is an opportunity to look them in the eye and help them understand that you are there, just as they are, to help the teams and the students to be successful. Yes, we all know that policies and procedures are important, but that is what a handbooks and online resources are for; this is an occasion to combat the potential for “us vs. them” feelings and to recognize how important their partnership is to everyone’s success. Offer to engage in conversation with them, acknowledge them as an additional “adult voice” in the lives of the students, and commit to support them should they have to step in as the voice of reason and protector of the interests of the students and University. It is OK to bolster the oversight of student activities, and it does not have to be with full-time staff or student employees; it can be with a group of Volunteer coaches.

Offering flexibility to student leaders
The opportunity to lead a Club Sport is an extremely valuable experience for a college student, and the transferable skills that can developed are among some of the most valuable that University Recreation departments are able to provide to students on a consistent basis. There is, however, room for Club Sports programs to evolve in the way that students are encouraged to use the resources provided to them, specifically in their coaches. For example, if the hockey coach works in finance, why not encourage our students to use them as a resource? They are just as capable at educating students on how to build and track a budget, and may be willing to make a larger impact on the program by educating other Clubs in their area of expertise.

As we have allowed our coaches to be more involved in guiding the leaders of our clubs, it has developed a higher level of investment by coaches as well as adding another partner in the work that it takes to help students find success. No, we will never allow our coaches to request payments or request facilities, but as long as there are controls in place that still require that students are involved in all aspects of the Club’s operation, then the student led model will be maintained.

How can I do this on my campus?
Start the conversation – work with University administrators to help them understand the importance of recognizing Club Sports coaches; talk with the students to better understand that areas that they feel a coach could contribute; create a culture where coaches are partners who buy-in to the fundamentals of Club Sports on a college campus – safety, success and development of leaders.

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