Mark Wilson, J.D., is an attorney and former college sports administrator. As managing director of Harrison Kent Advisors LLC, Wilson helps coaches and athletics departments improve their camp operations and create a durable competitive advantage for their camps. Email him at markwilson@hkadvisors.com or visit http://www.hkadvisors.com.

Collegiate sports camps continue to grow and provide a unique revenue stream and recruiting platform that are vital to collegiate teams’ success. But with these opportunities also come risks.

Camper injuries rank as the primary risk at sports camps. Such injuries range from minor scrapes to lacerations, torn muscles and broken limbs. There’s also a risk of catastrophic injuries (e.g., head, neck and spine) that could permanently disable a young student-athlete.

In my experience, coaches genuinely want campers to return home in the same condition in which they arrived, albeit tired and happy. Many of these same coaches, however, consider camp injuries to be an inherent and unavoidable risk of sports participation. Coaches’ experience with their collegiate student-athletes would support their perspective that the risk of many sports injuries can’t be eliminated.

What, then, can a prudent coach do to manage the risks of camper injuries?

Sports pundits frequently proclaim that the best defense is a good offense. So the best advice I can offer a coach or athletics director is to be proactive. In other words, it’s better to be on your toes than back on your heels.

Before examining risk-management measures that a coach could implement, let’s consider a common form of risk protection that camps generally rely upon — the waiver of liability. While the text of any waiver document may vary slightly, all waivers have the common goal of eliminating, or at least minimizing, financial liability.

The months leading up to the start of summer camps provide coaches and athletics administrators with ample time to carefully examine the risks created by their camps’ operations. This examination should focus on the key components of each camp — activities, participants, premises and staff.

  • Activities: Even though coaches might operate camps in their same sport, camp activities can still vary widely. Some coaches may emphasize a technique through drills done at half-speed while others may use simulated live action to teach the same technique. It’s ideal to achieve a balance that limits risk of injury while still delivering a high-quality, instructional experience.
    • Recommendation: Coaches should consider disclosing the nature and intensity of camp activities in the camp brochure and other marketing channels (e.g., camp website). This should allow campers and their parents to determine whether the camp fits their needs.
  • Participants: When programming a camp’s activities, consider such key factors as the age, athletic skill and maturity of each camper. Younger campers are more dependent on adults to keep them safe. And while older campers generally require less supervision, their physical maturity presents its own challenges. Camp staff must closely monitor drills, scrimmages and other camp activities when contact is expected or likely. Strict enforcement of all established permissible contact rules is crucial to maintaining a safe learning environment.
    • Recommendation: For camps serving participants younger than 10, I recommend a staff-to-camper ratio of 1 to 8. This allows for closer supervision of campers during activities and, importantly, during transitions from one area or activity to another.
  • Premises: A camp’s activities should take place on the same surface (or substantially similar) of the respective sport. Given the demand for facilities during the summer camp season, however, coaches must be more flexible about the space used than they would for their teams’ activities. For example, a soccer coach might run a part of her camp in the outfield of the athletics department’s baseball stadium. Because outfield walls, dugouts, pitcher’s mounds, and even dirt infields aren’t normally part of a soccer field, they may create unexpected hazards for campers who are accustomed to playing soccer on a full-sized, flat, wide-open soccer field.
    • Recommendation: Prior to the start of camp, coaches should inspect each facility for hazards. This inspection should be repeated daily. At the beginning of camp, coaches should review the layout of facilities with campers and camp staff, pointing out any unique features and any off-limits areas.
  • Staff: Camp staff generally perform two important functions as instructor and supervisor. When it comes to reducing the risk of injury, camp staff must ensure campers learn and practice new skills in the correct manner. Staff should also warn campers about any risk of injury if a skill isn’t done properly.
    • Recommendation: Serious injuries have occurred at camps when campers wander into drills or stand too close to other action. This risk is heightened when a large number of campers working on different drills are all in a small area. Camp staff should arrange drills so there’s an adequate buffer between activities.

In addition, the emergence of satellite camps as a recruiting strategy may require legal counsel to create different forms of waiver documents that are enforceable in the respective jurisdictions in which the camp will operate.

Protecting campers from the pain and disruption of an injury should be enough motivation for coaches to proactively examine camp risks. A failure to take this proactive step, however, will not only put a camper at risk, but it can also harm the reputation of the coach, athletics department and school, while also negatively impacting their finances.