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Intelligencer Journal/New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

Student athletes can be just as inappropriate on social media as any other teen, coaches around the county say.

Trash talking other teams, bullying fellow teammates, posting inappropriate photos, even jeopardizing strategy.

What can be done?

As school districts struggle to deal with potentially damaging social media postings, high-profile coaches from Warwick, Hempfield and Penn Manor are finding their own, often very different, ways to protect their programs from the athletes themselves.

Their methods range from coaches actually following athletes on social media to secret monitoring to warnings of zero tolerance.

But social media interaction between adult teachers and coaches and their kids has been strictly discouraged for years, creating a very fine line on which coaches can walk.

Matt Soto, Penn Manor field hockey coach, has found a way to walk that line with some very good results.

Soto, two-time state champion coach, has developed a plan that keeps his athletes responsible on social media by making sure that one of the two female assistant coaches has access to whatever social media the students use.

If the kids are on Twitter, assistant coach Denise Gobrecht, a retired teacher, or assistant coach Brittany Clugston, a current Penn Manor teacher, are followers. If a player has a Facebook page then one of the coaches has to be a friend of the player. If they have an Instagram account or Snapchat, one of the assistant coaches must have access.

That way, if the athlete is thinking of posting something negative or harmful, they know that a coach could see it, Soto explained.

One parent who read recent Lancaster Newspapers stories on "Twitter Crushes" worried about whether his own kids were on the sometimes sexually explicit site.

He was relieved to find that his daughter was not a follower of the Twitter page because she's a field hockey player and knew her coach wouldn't think it was appropriate.

"We support his (Soto's) policy that the athletes need to be friends with one of the coaches on the staff," said the Penn Manor parent, who did not want to be identified.

"We had a few speed bumps the first year but the last two have been smooth," Soto reported, saying he's clear with his expectations from the start of the season.

Steve Beck has a different policy about inappropriate social media postings by athletes on his team.

"You do it and you're out," said Hempfield's longtime successful swim coach.

"It's the same zero policy we have about drinking," Beck said. "I don't need that stuff.

"We don't do the trash talking, we're a team-oriented sport," Beck said. "I tell the team and the parents at the beginning of the season. We have a zero policy and if you're caught when you're a freshman, that means you're out for four years."

Beck said it's not a school-mandated policy, it's his policy.

"I think kids are addicted to it (social media) and addicted to their phones. It's good if they use it for great things like research, but all this trash talk and negative stuff, I don't get it," Beck said. "It takes away from the team and the focus is on the team."

Beck said he hasn't had a problem with his athletes being inappropriate on social media and he credits his strict policy.

Just in case, assistant coach Brittany Bertoli handles the electronic information for the team, such as sending out emails to students and parents, and also keeps a check on the social media postings.

"I've heard of other programs having problems with kids on social media," Bertoli said. "We haven't had any real problems but I keep an eye out. Once in a while I've told a student to take something down."

Alexander Rogers, 17, uses Twitter more than any other social media site. And he swims for Hempfield.

"If I'm upset or something, I leave it on the pool deck," said Rogers, who said he's seen athletes in other sports programs take to social media to air their frustration with a coach or another team.

"It's stupid," Rogers said.

His teammate, Katherine Nichols, 17, agreed.

"It could blow up to a level that could affect you getting a job or into college," she said.

Plus, they both agreed, their coach would not stand for it.

Like Beck, Bob Derr is a very successful coach.

With three state field hockey championships and numerous other titles to his credit, the Warwick coach said he is concerned that kids do not do or say anything that could interfere with the program.

"There is something in the works from the district," Derr said. "But they don't want me to talk about it yet."

"I myself am not on Facebook, I don't Instragram, I don't tweet," Derr said. "The district is doing some monitoring but I can't say exactly what."

Derr said he is interested to see what schools will do with the issue of student athletes and social media as it evolves.

"Sometimes kids are not thinking and they are caught up in the moment and they post something and then they think 'oh crap' and it's not as funny anymore," said Derr, who acknowledged he has run across some problems with his team and social media.

"I think every coach today understands that this is an issue," Derr said. "Before, the ramifications weren't as high. But that's part of being a coach, to help them and be there for them and let them know when they crossed the line."

Derr said being a good role model as a coach can have a positive impact on individual players.

"I teach them that good sportsmanship is all part of it; you don't do trash talking and things like that. It's about being a good citizen in life."

Soto's policy is based on collegiate models at the universities of Massachusetts and Louisville.

"We have a very strict code of conduct in the areas of substances and alcohol and behavior," Soto said. "We want to make sure our girls are not participating in damaging social media problems."

Even though Lauren Schaefer, now 26, did not play for Soto when she played field hockey at Penn Manor, she went on to play for one of the collegiate powerhouses in the sport, the University of Louisville, and she's now glad the school had a very strict policy on social media.

"When I was a freshman, Facebook was just starting to include photos and (as field hockey players) we weren't allowed to be in a photo with red cups because it indicated drinking," Schaefer said. "Someone who had these silly pictures posted was told to take them down because it looked like she was drunk."

Schaefer said inappropriate social media postings have caused problems with the NCAA for individual athletes and whole teams.

"But because my program was so strict, I never had to go back and clean up my pictures and worry about anything when I was looking for a job or an internship," Schaefer said. "At the time it was annoying, especially when everyone was turning 21. But it turns out, they were right."

"It's a good idea," said Penn Manor's athletic director, Jeff Roth, of Soto's policy. "It's responsible on the coach's part to try and teach kids that actions and words they put out there (on the Internet) are seen by many people and they never go away."

But Roth acknowledges the "thin line" that Soto's established has been crossed by both adults and athletes in the past, making it difficult waters to tread.

"Every district has experienced problems because of social media," Roth said. "Certainly with adults, let alone the kids."

Soto doesn't get involved in any of the social networking in which his team or assistant coaches participate.

"I don't have an Instragram account, I'm not on Twitter and I don't friend any of my athletes or former athletes on Facebook," Soto said. "I have one program called GroupMe which is a texting account so I can send out a group text to the team about practice changes or things like that."

Soto also said his assistant coaches don't "stalk" the players on social media.

"If they hear about a problem, they check it out," he said.

Mike Vogel, coach of Hempfield, arguably the most successful volleyball program around, does not have a written policy about social media but he expects, in time, that that will change.

"What I do every season, I talk to the kids and their parents and tell them not to do anything that will embarass the program," said Vogel, who has won eight state volleyball championships, two with girls teams and six with boys.

"I'm the broken record," he said. "Every day I tell them, 'Don't post things that will be negative.' I think the kids I have are pretty good."

Vogel said he doesn't tolerate bullying on the court between players and he certainly is not going to tolerate it on social media sites.

"A senior is there to help an underclassman; help them get better," said Vogel. "I think part of the reason why we're successful is that we are a team and you have to get along to be a team."

Vogel said he instructs his players not to "ever trash talk your opponent. Why give them any ammunition or incentive to beat you on the court?"

 

January 8, 2014

 

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