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Elaine Raakman (Justplay Founder): Abusive Youth Sports Coaches Should Not Be Cultural Norm

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Being the mother of an athlete is a challenging yet rewarding role. So momsTEAM has designated May as Sports Moms Month and is celebrating by asking some of our favorite sports moms to share their wisdom by responding to a series of questions.

So far this month we have heard from a fascinating range of sports moms, from a mom of an Olympic athlete to moms who were themselves Olympic athletes, from a mom of two former minor league baseball players to a Minnesota hockey mom and author.

Today, we hear from Canadian youth sports reform advocate and sports mom, Elaine Raakman:

MomsTEAM: Were you an athlete and what sports did you play as a youth (under 19)?Elaine Raakman

Raakman: Unfortunately, I didn't become athletic until I married my first husband (in my early twenties), a professional cyclist. I soon became obsessed with being fit, active and healthy. It really set the tone for the rest of my life, and I enjoy athletics to this day.

MomsTEAM: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a sports mom?

Raakman: Without a doubt the most rewarding aspect for me of being a sports mom is, watching my child grow into themselves, discover a deep sense of themselves through the challenges that sport inherently offers.

MomsTEAM: What lesson has your sports active child taught you?

Raakman: This is a great question and I immediately thought of sharing some insights about my oldest son, Kohen. From a very young age he was what most would call a natural athlete. He played soccer and basketball. And although he was a great soccer player, he abandoned the sport by age 12, unhappy with the arrogance, attitude and poor sportsmanship associated with the Rep teams on which he played. He continued to play basketball until he graduated from high school, playing for his school team.

However, it was skateboarding that became his great passion. To this day - a young man in his early 20's about to begin post- graduate studies - he skateboards almost every day. He is good at it, but more importantly, he loves it. As it became increasingly obvious that Kohen was more committed to skateboarding than basketball and other mainstream sports, family members and even friends became concerned that he was wasting his talents with a hobby like skateboarding (Kohen's dad had been a very successful professional cyclist, so there was a lot of pressure). Kohen Raakman and skateboarding buddy

Yet, he persevered, with my full support and encouragement. His courage and determination to be his own person, and follow his own passion despite the public and private pressures taught me one of the most valuable lessons a sport parent can learn: it's not about us, it's about them. The best we can do is support their choices with unconditional love - and remind them to wear a helmet!

MomsTEAM: What is the most important lesson your child is learning from his/her sport?

Raakman: The other day I sent my son an email asking what he felt skateboarding has taught him over the years. I received a lengthy response. I'll share the last few lines with you,

It's something that lets me be free and makes me so happy that I come away from it just feeling calm. It is something difficult and easy at the same time. Basically, I've just learned a lot about the world, other people and myself through skating. So I guess it has taught me that finding something you love to do in life that much is essential to being a good person. I just feel proud of myself being a skateboarder. "

If you could "flip a switch" and change one thing about the culture of youth sports what would it be?

Raakman: If I could change one thing about the culture of youth sport, it would be the normalization of abuse from coaches in particular, but adults in general. Research indicates that we have come to accept certain coaching behaviors as a cultural norm in youth sport. These behaviors include yelling, swearing, physical altercations, threats, physical and emotional outbursts, as well as withholding and isolation. Evidence suggests that repeated exposure to these types of behavior has serious, negative, long-term emotional consequences - and they violate the rights of children.

MomsTEAM: What have you done to make sports better for kids? Please share.

Raakman: About a decade ago I created a program known as Justplay which monitors the behavior of coaches, spectators and players. Reports generated by the program empower youth sport administrators to make data-driven staffing and policy decisions regarding any action or inaction that may be necessary to anticipate, avoid or respond to problematic behaviour among coaches, spectators and participants. It allows sport associations and governing bodies to identify positive and negative trends and other variables that contribute to problem behaviour.

Over the past few years, while working towards my Masters degree, I have been collaborating with researchers here in Canada and internationally to analyze the data we have collected and investigate many behavioral trends that have been identified. I travel around the world attending and presenting at conferences that focus on the context of youth sport. Child welfare - the well-being of child participants - is the new buzz word. What are we doing to protect our children from abusive behavior in sports? How will these efforts improve participation rates, impact obesity rates, affect the self-efficacy, self-confidence, and enjoyment that children experience in sport? How do we ensure that sport is inclusive and contributes positively to personal development and healthy, vibrant, engaged communities?

I believe we start by changing the culture.

Elaine Raakman graduated from Brock University with an Honours Degree in Sport Management in 2000.  As founder and president of Justplay, Elaine has traveled around the world presenting the program and program message of sportsmanship and good citizenship to stakeholders in the youth sport environment. Elaine has presented at various international conferences, collaborated with respected researchers, and been published in a variety of academic and professional journals. In April 2009 she began her Masters Degree of Science at the University of Regina, as a distance education student. The experience of studying at U of R has been virtually (pun intended) unrivaled. The support and encouragement, the intellectual challenges and the opportunities to collaborate with respected researchers have re-kindled a lifelong dream of acquiring a doctoral degree.

Elaine is also a wife and the proud mother of a son who is beginning his Master's degree at the University of Toronto, a daughter studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and a recently adopted six-year-old. Despite the demands of school and family, Elaine is passionate about a new project she has developed called Deliberate Acts of Kindness, which is also receiving international support and helping to foster more compassionate, tolerant communities and workplaces. 

For more blogs in MomsTEAM's May is Sports Moms Month series, click here.