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Using Tragedy As A Teachable Moment About Sports Safety

The recent death of twenty six year old open water swimmer Fran Crippen, during a competition in Abu Dhuabi, is a tragedy and a hard thing for parents and children to digest, but it also is a teachable moment, providing parents a good opportunity to start a dialogue with their kids about sports safety and risk taking. Father adjusting son's bike helmet

Death of a friend

I had not experienced the death of anyone particularly close to me until the untimely death of twenty-four-year-old professional cyclist Nicole Reinhart on September 17th, 2000. She was just two years older than I, and I grew up aspiring to be like her.

Later in our cycling careers we trained, raced and traveled together. I was at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia when I received a phone call informing me of her death. She had been participating in a race when she crashed and hit her head on a curb. She was wearing a helmet.

Taking it hard

I reacted in shock to the news. My legs gave out and I fell to my knees. A few days after Nicole's death I learned another cyclist, with whom I was acquainted, had been paralyzed in a cycling accident. A few of my own cycling accidents had left me with an almost unhealthy fear of crashing, and their accidents made me extra cautious. The whole thing was hard for me to wrap my brain around. I knew that my sport could be dangerous, but kids weren't supposed to die doing it; especially when they wore helmets and knew what they were doing. I found myself struggling with my anxieties and contemplating my own mortality.

It's hard to say how your child will react to a story like Fran Crippen's. He may be experiencing some of the same anxieties and thoughts I was. Sometimes, tragedies can offer a unique opportunity to broach a difficult subject with your child. Nicole's Reinhart's family and friends have honored her memory by doing good things for the sport of cycling. As a parent you can honor her memory, and other's like her, by using her story to help start a conversation with your child about safety and risk taking.

Making safety a priority

As parents we all sign waivers acknowledging the dangerous nature of sports, but most of us still consider sports to be a relatively safe and healthy activity for our children to participate in, and most of the time sports are. While we probably allow ourselves to consider the possibility of a broken arm or concussion, we certainly don't consider - or at least very often - that our child's participation may lead to death. While deaths are rare, and certainly not something to dwell on, it's worthwhile to make sure that your child understands the importance and reasoning behind measures taken in their sport to minimize that risk.

Sports are a great opportunity for your child. I personally feel the positives far outweigh the negatives and potential risk, but safety has to be a priority for children, parents, coaches, teams and leagues.

Each sport has its own set of risks and your child may not understand the value or logic behind the equipment he is required to wear. If you ask him why he wears a particular piece of equipment, or is required to follow a certain rule, you may get some rather humorous responses, but, more importantly, you may find out that he doesn't understand their importance. There is no need to scare him, but he should understand why the equipment and rules are necessary.

Risk taking

Your child takes risks every day. He crosses the street, drives in a car and plays sports. Risks are a fact of life, and success doesn't come without taking some risks, but some risks are worth taking and some aren't. There will always be factors out of your child's control, but whether he is out on the field or hanging out with his friends, he need to learn to weigh the potential risks versus the rewards. Have an honest conversation with your child about which risks he feels are worth taking and which aren't. Remember, many of his opinions about risk are likely modeled from family, coaches and friends.

Regardless of his risk threshold, he needs to understand that no medal, award or social status is worth risking his life.

I extend my heartfelt sympathies to Fran Crippen's family and friends. Take the opportunity to honor his memory, and others like him, by having a serious conversation with your child about safety and risk.

Erin Mirabella is a two-time Olympic track cyclist and mother and MomsTeam's track cycling expert.  Shawn Sheep The Soccer Star and Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race are available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, borders.com, velogear.com, and at The Olympic Training Centers and select stores.  For more information visit www.erinmirabella.com.

Created November 5, 2010