smsThese days everyone has a cellphone, including kids. LOTs of kids. My son got one when he was 11, and my daughter will likely get one in the next week or two (she’s ten). Crazy you say? Perhaps – but my kids play on traveling sports teams, and sometimes we can’t make their away matches – they go with teammates. Or even something as simple as going to practice. I’m usually elsewhere in the complex coaching and SoccerMom is chasing the two youngest SoccerKids. So we want them to have a phone they can use to reach us if they need to. Not as a false sene of security, but more to let them know they can reach us and vice versa. We’re not alone in this.

I encountered the first players on my girl’s team with a cellphone when the team first formed at U11. I think four or five of the girls had them. By the Spring season, we had an absolute ‘No Cellphone’ rule for practice because so many had them. When they got to the field, the phones went into their backpacks. Now the one or two girls still without them are putting a LOT of pressure on their parents. I expect every player will have one by summer.

Coaching girls as a male coach means you have to constantly be aware of situations as they develop and how they ‘might’ be interpreted or how they can open you up to accusations of impropriety. Many will describe it as a minefield and I think that’s appropriate. Most coaches have fairly stock rules of thumb like making the 2nd to last family stay until the last player’s family arrives to pick them up, never be alone with players – ever, don’t wait with players inside vehicles after cold practices, etc. Those are the easy ones. But then things come up where it’s not so cut and dried.

Cellphone text messaging is one of those situations.

Stories of teenagers getting into trouble with cellphones and ‘sexting’ are becoming more common. And if the teenagers are doing it among themselves, the predators are sure to be as well:

An Attleboro youth soccer coach who allegedly messaged a photo of his genitals to a 13-year-old girl’s cell phone has been fired and court-ordered to submit to GPS monitoring and stay away from minors. Lucas Ruano, 21, who lives in Attleboro, was arraigned Wednesday in Attleboro District Court on charges of possession of obscene material, enticing a child under 16, and dissemination of matter harmful to a minor.

Nice. Proof positive that risk management can’t catch first time offenders.

But it didn’t take stories like these to get me wondering about cellphones and texting. When I started coaching the team, I had no intention of sharing my number with the players. Their parents had it and I communicate with them. That lasted, oh, one week, when one of the players found my cellphone while rummaging in my coach’s bag for something and promptly texted the number to the whole team. I wasn’t that worried about it. But then they started texting me. Rarely. But when they did – it often necessitated a response:

  • Coach, can’t make practice 2nite
  • What time is practice? thnx!
  • Where is the game 2morw?
  • Let’s kick some (insert opponent here) butt! – sent to the whole team

And thus we have a situation that isn’t as cut and dried as it seems.

Sure – it’s easy to say as a coach you’ll never send a txt message to a player and tell your players never to send you one. But is fear of an improper appearance enough to nullify how technology is changing our lives? It’s a very tough call and obviously depends a lot on your parents, the players themselves, and how you handle it. Over the past year, I’ve come up with some rules I abide by that balance the need to be careful and using a new form of communication that is becoming a part of all of our lives. Are they foolproof? No. Is there some small risk? Possibly – but no more so than any other normal interactions I have with the players.

  1. I don’t message players initially unless absolutely necessary (player is off with friends at a soccer complex during a tournament and match time is fast approaching – “Where R U????”). Obviously I’ve checked with their parents, friends, etc. So a simple text makes sense.
  2. In lieu of me messaging the girls directly, if I want to get a message to the whole team, I have a player do it. We had one player make it a point of ensuring she had everyones number, so she’s the spokesperson. I think the message carries more weight this way. The girls know where the message came from, but the spokesperson doesn’t care. I can rotate who it is from time to time. I may change this rule since it’s a team wide thing. Still not sure.
  3. If they txt me, I will reply if it’s a general question (‘When is practice?’, ‘Is practice canceled?’) or to acknowledge one (“I can’t make practice”, “I’ll be late to the match”), etc. A simple ‘OK’. Otherwise we talk about it in person as a team since it generally revolves around the team.
  4. Beyond that – doesn’t happen.

Of course even #4 is an absolute that some circumstances will weaken. I had a player absolutely crushed after a match and convinced we as a team and she shouldn’t be playing at the level we are. She shared this via txt on the way home from a tough loss, and 15 txts later I think she was calmed down enough not to make a rash decision. Her mom was in the car with her and noted that it helped calm her down a lot. Was it worth violating Rule #4? I thought it was, because I knew the player was with her parents and didn’t want to wait to address her concerns until the next practice.

I share these experiences to highlight the murky waters that can surround new communications and media when it comes to soccer players. The ‘safest’ route is to ban all cellphone communications between players and coaches, but is that realistic? I’d say it really depends on the soccer families on your team. Be upfront about it – explain what is and isn’t done and what your rules and expectations are as a coach. Respect the feedback and expectations from the parents. And if you coach a team for a while, it can be easy to fall into a comfort zone where players feel as comfortable texting you as they do talking to you on the field. That’s when the danger arises, so you have to stay vigilant. It’s not easy. You’ll have to ignore some messages and sometimes tell a player not to text you unless it’s a, b, or c. But I think it can help a team communicate better.

What do you think as parents and coaches? How are you handling cellphones and players?

ADDING: And just wait – if you think your players won’t find your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts, your kidding yourself. What will you do when they friend/follow you?