Legal and Ethical Responsibilities of a Coach

By Rich Engelhorn, Iowa State University

How many career options can provide the excitement, challenges and satisfaction of coaching? Coaches at all levels experience the pleasure of watching young people develop sport skills and contribute to successful teams. However, coaches also have important legal and ethical obligations to their schools and their athletes. Many of these obligations or responsibilities are natural extensions of the mission and goals of the high school athletic program. Others are defined legally or are expectations of society for a “teacher” in a school activity.

Legal responsibilities are usually well-defined and are often points of emphasis in coaching certification programs. State athletic associations, departments of education and other government organizations determine the range of legal responsibilities for a coach. These responsibilities usually are formulated to maintain the safety and well-being of the athletes and to maintain the educational focus of the athletic program. Mandatory child-abuse reporting is a legal responsibility of coaches in many states and is a good example of a coach’s duty that is mandated by a governmental body.

Court rulings or other legal actions may determine other responsibilities. Providing warnings to athletes and parents of the risks associated with a sport is a responsibility that likely arose from court cases after a serious sport-related injury occurred during a practice or game. Failure to perform this duty may put a coach and athletic program at risk (Trichka, 2001).

A very important source of additional expectations for a coach is found in the accepted state and national standards for coaching published by professional organizations. The most recent and comprehensive set of standards were published in 1995 by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE). These standards are being accepted by organizations throughout the country and are being used to determine the content of coaching education programs. As these standards become more widely accepted, they will become the “standard of care” for coaches in the eyes of the legal system. It will be necessary for coaches to show that they have the training and expertise in each of the various areas detailed in this set of standards.

[NOTE: The NFHS has been actively involved in the revision of the standards for athletic coaches published by NASPE. In addition, the NFHS Coaches Education Program Bronze Level 1 courses will include curriculum to meet these standards.]

There are many lists of coaching responsibilities to be found. Some focus mainly on the legal issues and others focus more on ethical issues. The legal and ethical issues are not mutually exclusive, as many of the legal responsibilities are based upon societal ethics, doing what is morally right. Preventing discrimination and harassment of athletes is a legal duty of coaches, since these activities are illegal, but this duty is also an ethical expectation of society. Athletes in a coach’s care are expected to be safe, both physically and emotionally.

The following list of legal duties of a coach is adapted from the Coaching Youth Sports Web site (Stratton, 1999) and is very representative of the many codes of conduct and behaviors recommended for coaches.

1. conducting practices and games in a safe physical environment

2. use of current knowledge of proper skills and methods of instruction

3. use of safe and appropriate equipment

4. proper short- and long-term planning

5. proper matching of athletes in practices and games by size, experience and ability

6. provision of adequate supervision of athletes

7. provide warnings to parents and athletes of risks inherent in sport participation

8. sensitivity to the health and well-being of athletes under a coach’s care

9. provision of appropriate emergency care

[NOTE: The NFHS Coaches Association Code of Ethics for interscholastic coaches can be found at <>.]

The Iowa coaching authorization course on coaching ethics includes a few additional responsibilities (Osmundson, 2001):

1. prevent harassment and discrimination by coaching staff and athletes

2. report suspected child abuse to proper authorities

3. respect and protect the confidentiality of student personal records

4. report breaches of ethcal behavior by colleagues

These two lists include many of the “legal” responsibilities of coaches. However, a coach owes the student-athlete more than just what is required by law. There are other “ethical” responsibilities that should also be considered as an integral part of coaches’ duties. Not performing these will probably not land you in jail or result in a civil judgment against you, but you will not be achieving the mission and goals of a sound interscholastic sports program. The behaviors that reflect strong ethical conduct by the coach should be extensions of the school’s mission statement. Most schools have a general statement, and many also have specific mission statement for athletics. It is relatively easy to explore the mission statement of high schools around the country with the Internet and school Web pages. One philosophy statement which seems particularly relevant to the interscholastic domain and which supports many of the ethical responsibilities of coaching belongs to West Aurora High School in Aurora, Illinois.

For the full version of its philosophy statement, please visit its Web site (West Aurora, 2002). Excerpts from this statement will illustrate the range of ethical responsibilities that should be part of all sport programs for our youth.

1. We encourage the development of our youth into productive citizens and to develop their abilities and attitudes for further learning and success in life.

2. We encourage participation and would like to involve as many students as possible in a competitive, interscholastic experience.

3. All team members, regardless of ability, will be afforded opportunities to develop their work ethic, sense of commitment, and social and athletic skills.

4. The athletic program seeks to educate athletes about community support and encourages them to return that support both now and throughout their lives.

5. The goal is to win, but to win the correct way. Never sacrifice character for wins.

These five excerpts from the West Aurora Philosophy Statement illustrate quite well the ethical obligations a coach and athletic program should have to the athletes. It is apparent that although sport is important in the life of the athlete, learning to be a productive citizen with character and social values is even more important. It is a responsibility of every coach to teach and model good citizenship and sportsmanship. This should include respect for opposing teams and fans, coaches, parents and officials. A unique aspect of the philosophy statement relates to the community focus. Achieving the goal of educating the student-athlete about the relationship between the athletic program and the community is very reflective of the emphasis in this program of producing not only successful athletic teams, but also caring and concerned citizens of good character.

Another ethical responsibility derived from the philosophy statement supports the educational value of sports participation. All athletes involved in sport must be given the attention and time necessary to develop the skills of the sport and for life. The focus of a program cannot be on the select few elite players on a team. A program should not be so narrowly focused on winning that the educational values of the program are lost. Helping all athletes on teams to develop the “work ethic, commitment, and social and athletic skills” necessary for success in sport and life is perhaps the best test of the educational commitment of an interscholastic sports program.

To summarize the coach’s ethical responsibilities, it is useful to list some of the important ethical responsibilities that guarantee the achievement of the educational mission of an interscholastic athletic program.

1. Create a healthy and safe emotional environment, free of fear, discrimination, abuse and harassment. Athletes cannot enjoy their experience without this.

2. Teach and more importantly model good citizenship and sportsmanship. Athletes must understand your commitment to helping them develop character and moral reasoning.

3. Respect the spirit of a rule as well as the letter of the rule. Respect the difficult job officials have in enforcing the rules of any game. Taking advantage of rules

to gain an advantage is not ethical. It indicates an unhealthy focus on winning.

4. Be fair in the selection of players for teams and in the allocation of practice and playing time.  Empathize with the young athletes attempting to gain a place on your team.

5. Respect the role of sport in the life of a child and the commitment the athlete has to family, friends and other interests outside of sport. Athletes must be allowed to experience other sports as well as to participate in the arts if they desire. Off-season conditioning activities may be beneficial to a high school athlete, but these activities must be chosen by the athlete and not dictated in such a way that it limits the freedom of the individual to freely participate in other activities of interest to the student.

Interscholastic sport is important in the lives of many young people today. In addition, as Gerdy (2000) suggests: “Sport’s ability to bring a community or school together cannot be overestimated. Our schools and communities would be much less vibrant without it.” In order to maintain the importance of sport in the lives of the youth and of our communities, it is imperative that sport contributes to the educational mission of the school. If a coach adopts and practices the legal and ethical responsibilities described, interscholastic sport will grow and prosper and benefit all who participate.


Gerdy, J. (2000) Want value for education dollars? Try music! In Gerdy, J., Editor, Sports in School.. New York: Teachers College Press.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (1995). Quality coaches, quality sports: National Standards./orAthletic Coaches. Reston, VA.

Osmundson, D. (2001) Ethics - coaching and the athletic director. Presentation at the Iowa High School Athletic Directors Association Annual Conference, Des Moines.

Stratton, R. (1999) The legal duties of a coach. CYS Coach Neusletter.

Trichka, R. (2001) Conduct of the Activity. In Cotton, D., Wolohan, J., and Wilde, T. (editors.), Law for Recreation and Sport Managers. Dubuque: Kendall-Ilunt.

West Aurora (2002). West Aurora Blackhawk Athletics - Philosophies and Policies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rich Engelhorn, Ph.D, is an associate professor in the department of health and human performance at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He has taught at Iowa State since 1984 and was at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, for five years before joining the ISU faculty. He was founder and director the past 17 years of the Summer Youth Fitness Program at Iowa State. Engelhorn, who has an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and graduate degrees from Washington State University and the University of Illinois, coached track and cross country at University High School in Urbana, Illinois, in 1968-69. He also has coached a number of sports at the youth level. He officiated volleyball in Iowa for four years, and he was a three-sport (basketball, baseball and track) participant in high school.