Archive for January 2009
On March 28, 2003, when I was doing a weekly sports column for Flak Magazine, I posted a piece titled “The Harsh World of Kindergarten Soccer.” It was based on my oldest son’s first foray into competitive sports. It’s interesting to me to look at my knee-jerk reaction to his first game, and how much my perspective has changed in the intervening six years in youth sports parenting and coaching.
Oh my… that kindergarten panda is playing soccer with another panda’s decapitated head!
Here is the piece, interspersed with some thoughts on what I would say to my six-years-ago self:
Just when it seems there’s no place in sports as pure and innocent as it appears to be, you get the chance to watch a bunch of kindergartners play league soccer for the first time.
Being that they’re kindergartners and have spent the school year learning about respect toward others and playing fair, both sides — home team Sacred Heart on Chicago’s Southeast Side and visitor St. Catherine of Alexandria from suburban Oak Lawn — seem shocked at having adults tell them to go after the team in the different-colored shirts for no apparent reason. Five-year-olds understand getting mad because somebody took your toy or called you a name, not because somebody is wearing the wrong clothes. That doesn’t come until junior high.
The kids are so polite that in the first minutes of the game no one challenges another player when he or she (it’s a coed league) tries to kick the ball. You can’t steal the ball from anyone — that’s wrong!
Soon, though, exhorted by their coaches, the just-out-of-diaper dandies catch on to the idea that they should try to kick the ball into the other team’s net. At that point, almost all the players chase the ball and gather around it, kicking with such vigor it looks like it’s being attacked by a hyperactive millipede. I say “almost” because each team has, of course, a goalie, and two defenders, who spend the game thinking about candy or the new Harry Potter DVD until the ball comes their way and they’re suddenly called on to participate, and with one swift kick the other way they can get back to their thoughts.
During all this, the parents cheer approvingly and supportively.
In looking back, I can’t underestimate how weird it is for everyone — players, coaches and parents — when everyone is making their first stab at youth sports. I know that most of my son’s team was made up of oldest children, so it wasn’t like there were been-there, done-that parents who were killing time, or parents who already had it in their minds that this was the first stop toward professional glory.
But as the second half begins, the first chinks in the kindergartners’ purity and innocence begin to appear, though they won’t realize this on this cool, sunny Saturday afternoon in late April, nor until years later, possibly.
By this time, every parent and coach has figured out who the really good players are. St. Catherine has a girl who looks like the second coming of Mia Hamm. It’s not just that she was fast and could kick and run at the same time. Where she really stood out was her awareness and control in keeping the ball inbounds, this in a game where the field width was expanded 10 yards because the ball was kicked out of bounds so frequently. Parents begin talking to each other about this girl and her ability; one even jokes about how other St. Catherine players were “getting in her way.”
This girl will go unnamed because, in an age where scouting services tell you who is the best fifth-grade basketball player in the country, there’s a danger some scout is going to show up at her games, and autograph seekers will come calling, figuring that by now she should know how to write her name.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said the kindergartners’ innocence and purity were being lost. I’m implying it here, but the loss of innocence is on their parents. Youth sports can be the first chance to measure up your kid against another, if you so choose. That’s one of the many reasons why parents freak out at games — the whole my-kid-is-a-reflection-on-me thing. By the way, that does not extend to the mother of future Mia Hamm, who looked genuinely shocked at how adept her daughter was. No shock, this girl has continued to have great athletic success, and fortunately her family has been supportive without becoming stage parents from hell. I play basketball with this girls’ stepdad, and he’s as nice a guy as they come.
As for other players, you can sense parents mentally keeping track of how long their children have been sitting on the bench. Or maybe that’s just me. My 5-year-old son plays for St. Catherine and, like the other kids, gets a lot of playing time. The coaches seem very aware of making sure everyone gets to play an equal amount. But the parent in me can’t help but get antsy if it seems like my boy was benched a nanosecond longer than he has to be. As a parent, you get overprotective, in part because if your child feels like he hasn’t played long enough, you’ll have to deal with the crying and complaining all the way home.
I didn’t technically say the child would be crying. It could be a spouse, or yourself.
Fortunately, this is a passing feeling for me, though it made me understand how parents get so nutty at children’s sporting events that some leagues have banned any cheering or noise whatsoever. First, you worry about playing time. Then, you start complaining about the refs. Next, you’re hitting the coach over the head with his clipboard.
Perhaps the greatest loss of innocence — or greatest life lesson, depending on your point of view — is that a score is kept. When the aforementioned Mia Hamm-in-the-making scores, the St. Catherine players erupt with a joy comparable to that on Christmas morning. When the clock runs out with the score still 1-0, a similar joy results … once the players are told the game is over and they’ve won. On the Sacred Heart side, the young players just mill about until they’re told what to do. The teams may not understand exactly why winning or losing is important, but the ultimate loss of innocence is knowing that it matters.
That last sentence now makes me want to barf. Kids know winning and losing matters from the earliest of ages. Why else does “MINE!” enter the vocabulary so early? The only difference here is that the kids are learning their winning and losing matters to OTHER people so much. And that part of what separates those who will stay with sports with those who don’t is the ability to get het up about winning on demand, rather than just whenever you feel like it.
Another sign of Barack Obama’s ability to stimulate the economy, among other things.
Don’t let President Obama’s love of basketball fool you — the $825 billion stimulus package, as passed by the House, leaves youth sports and athletics in general decidedly unstimulated.
For example, here is the complete list of school projects you CAN’T pay for with stimulus money:
IMPERMISSIBLE USES OF FUNDS.—No funds received under this section may be used for—
(1) payment of maintenance costs; or
(2) stadiums or other facilities primarily used for athletic contests or exhibitions or other events for which admission is charged to the general public.
If you thought that money would be used to build your junior high a new football field, forget it. However, there might be some wiggle room for the basketball arena if it’s also used for PE classes and general school activity, as long as the work relates to updating it to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, or removing asbestos, or making it more energy-efficient.
Otherwise, there’s no mention of sports-related projects. Searching for “ball” only gets you sentences containing “suballocated.” Searching for “sport” gives you “transportation.” The “youth activities” are all related to job training.
Maybe someone will be able to finagle a hockey arena out of this, but the bill is very clear on what is and isn’t covered, and that every dime has to be accounted for and reported to somebody. So don’t expect to attend a ribbon-cutting at your town’s new, squeaky-clean, state-of-the-art Stimulus Fieldhouse.
The watering can at your child’s next football practice.
The reckless homicide charge filed against Louisville high school football coach Jason Stinson is in part based on witness testimony that he denied his players’ requests for water, thus leading to the heat stroke-related death of 15-year-old Max Gilpin during summer practice. Stinson pleaded not guilty and denies he withheld water.
Whatever the case, it’s becoming clearer that coaches, players and parents, even those who are aware of the need for frequent water breaks, underestimate just how much water their children need to stay hydrated, particularly during hot weather.
As a youth basketball coach, often I’m begging kids to use a water break for drinking water. Not that anyone has collapsed, or come close, but I have kid who say they’re not thristy, or who don’t feel like going. I don’t know how much water they need, exactly, but I do know none is too little. When kids come to the bench during a game, I have them drink water, and I don’t deny any kid who needs to run to the drinking fountain because he or she didn’t bring a bottle.
The point about underestimating water needs was made very well by a caller to the NPR show “Talk of the Nation,” a man who identified himself as a football coach from Chillicothe, Ohio. The Jan. 27 show was devoted to the Jason Stinson indictment.
The caller, who comes in fairly early in the show, says he’s coached football for nine years, and that he is insistent that players take frequent breaks, as well as drink if they’re waiting in line to do a drill in summer practice. Even still, he has had kids succumb to heat exhaustion, and had one case of heat stroke that required the coaches to strip a player down to his shorts and stick him in a cold shower.
Why? Because in this coach’s estimation, the water consumed during practice takes care of only about 15 percent of a player’s hydration needs.
I don’t know out of what orifice he pulled that figure, but it sounds good. He recommends that players drink plenty of water before and after practice. That way, you’re keeping your body consistently hydrated and reducing the risk of overheating. That sounds like good advice for any sport.
So says Charlie Sheen. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
It is denying an injured cheerleader the right to sue the male spotter who missed catching her during a practice routine, as well as the right to sue her school district and the district’s insurer.
At issue in the case was whether cheerleaders qualify for immunity under a Wisconsin law that prevents participants in contact sports from suing each other for unintentional injuries.
It does not spell out which sports are contact sports. The District 4 Court of Appeals ruled last year cheerleading doesn’t qualify because there’s no contact between opposing teams.
But all seven members of the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to overturn that decision. In the opinion, Justice Annette Ziegler said cheerleading involves “a significant amount of physical contact between the cheerleaders.” As an example, she cited stunts in which cheerleaders are tossed in the air.
If you’ve ever seen cheerleaders tossing each other around at a football or basketball game at the college level or younger, you realize your child would be much safer taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from a young Troy Polamalu or taking a charge from Shaquille O’Neal than they would doing 25-story pyramids or being tossed over the Sears Tower or whatever other death-defying routines the clearly sadistic cheerleader coach has mandated. The AP story to which I linked notes there have been 100 “catastrophic” cheerleading injuries since 1982.
Sure, you’re laughing now, boys. But you won’t be laughing when her broken self sees you in court.
Hopefully, this ruling will force high school football coaches to substitute cheerleading for dancing as the implicitly pansy-ass contact sport that they contrast to football as the not-pansy-ass collision sport.
A Pennsylvania girls high school basketball coach goes all Ron Artest on a heckling parent but gets acquitted of criminal charges. From the Allentown Morning Call:
A Lehigh County district judge ruled Tuesday that the former girls basketball coach at Salisbury High School was not guilty of disorderly conduct when he went into the stands during a game last month and scuffled with a player’s father for heckling him all game long.
“I know the popular belief is that the worst part of coaching youth sports is dealing with parents,” said District Judge Anthony Rapp. “If there ever was a case where that is true, it’s here.”
Ken Shankweiler, who resigned from the team days after the Dec. 20 incident, had been charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly placing his hands around the neck of John Hrebik, the father of junior guard Caitlin Hrebik, during a game against Wilson Area High School, which Salisbury lost 62-19.
Shankweiler, 52, of Hanover Township, Northampton County, admitted Tuesday that he had been trying to avoid Hrebik’s repeated heckling as his team struggled early in the game against Wilson, but ultimately couldn’t. He said he had previous run-ins with Hrebik, who admitted that he had been told by school officials to tone down his criticism or stop going to games.
Artest Shankweiler has jumped over the scorers’ table, and is trying to get down to the bench! Artest Shankweiler is in the stands! Oh, this is awful!”
Yes, a true jury of Shankweiler’s peers — coaches who have had it with overbearing parents — would have set him free. In this case, it was just a judge. Not that Shankweiler got off scot-free. He resigned as coach on Dec. 22, two days after the incident. He also apologized for his actions.
The judge didn’t exactly give a hearty endorsement of Shankweiler’s Terry O’Reilly impersonation:
While he could not find Shankweiler guilty, Rapp said “morally, I think the whole thing stinks.”
“We are supposed to be the intelligent, responsible adults and we let a basketball game come to this,” he said. “What happened to letting the kids have fun first?”
The judge let the dork parent have it, too:
“If you are going to be attending anymore games, be a spectator, a silent spectator,” he said. “These are not professional athletes.”
Interestingly, Hrebik referees local ballgames and is a basketball tournament organizer. The sports editor of the Allentown Morning Call had to recuse himself from the story because he identified Hrebik as a “good friend.”
No word on whether Wilson Area High School was apologetic about the 43-point scoring margin, or whether the head coach was fired for it.
It’s back to bowling season for my 6-year-old. He bowls two games every Saturday. They can be divided neatly into what snacks his four-player team consumes during the session. The first is the popcorn game, and the second is the french fries game. My major responsibility is standing in line at the concession counter for the fries.
Meanwhile, my sixth-grade son is moving up to seventh- and eighth-grade coed ball after completing his fifth- and sixth-grade league. The league needed sixth-graders to come in to fill out spots so there were four eight-member teams. My son is the only sixth-grader on his team, but after one practice, he seems to be doing OK. The competition is strong, include a few girls from a local junior high school team.
The hardest thing for me is that I’m an assistant coach, switching places with my brother-in-law, who was my assistant for the fifth- and sixth-grade league. I’m used to being in charge and yakking whenever I feel like it, so I have to hold back and let my brother-in-law take the lead. He knows what he’s doing; the difficult part is that I have a naturally loud voice (an actor’s voice, not a yelling voice), and I am ready and willing to use it.
Block out, already!
Just in case you thought the election of Barack Obama brought us into a post-racial society:
From Phillipsburg, Pa., comes an oldie but a baddie, the allegation of racial slurs at a youth sports game. This one, basketball. From LehighValleyLive.com:
A Phillipsburg youth basketball coach said players and fans from an opposing team yelled racial slurs at his players during a Community Basketball League game Friday night in Palmer Township.
Todd Opitz coaches the Phillipsburg Police Athletic League Enforcers, a 17-and-under team in the league. He has 10 players on the team, three of whom are black. Opitz said he is white.
Let me interrupt for a moment to point out the familiar pattern in youth sports controversy stories. Somehow, well after the fact, word gets to a reporter or someone in the outside world about, say, an extreme girls basketball beatdown. No reporters were there to witness it, mainly because these are the sort of events no one outside immediate family and a few friends. How can I tell in this story? “Opitz said he is white.” Either that, or the reporter never takes anything at face value. (/rim shot)
Or, maybe the coach was a certain Mr. White.
Sorry, I digress. Let’s continue:
Friday’s game at the Chrin Community Center was the first between the Enforcers and the Palmer Wildcats this season. About 100 fans were in the stands, Opitz said.
Opitz said when his team started winning near the end of the first half, opposing players and fans started using threats with racial slurs.
Phillipsburg player Monsio Jlaka, 16, said it started off as friendly trash talking.
“Then it just started getting out of hand. They just kept talking a lot, using the n-word,” Jlaka said. “I told them to stop saying it because it was getting me really mad.”
Opitz said he told the referee about the slurs, but the official “said he couldn’t do anything about it.”
The teams returned for the second half of the game and after a few minutes, “it just started in again,” Opitz said.
Jlaka said he had to be taken out of the game because he was getting so angry. The Community Basketball League has a no-tolerance policy when it comes to fighting at games.
“I did not hear anything and no one brought anything to my attention — players, coaches or referees,” said Scott Sanguinito, the Wildcats assistant coach.
Perhaps Opitz, who says he is white, and his player are mishearing the opposing team’s play-calling signals: “Chigger.” “Digger.” “Bigger.” “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Or the Wildcats coach needs a cochlear implant. Or, more than likely, someone is fibbin’.
Opitz, who says he is white, and his player had more to say:
The taunting continued into the parking lot and Phillipsburg parents and fans worked to keep their players under control, Opitz said.
“It was just chaos, basically,” Jlaka said.
Opitz, who has coached the Phillipsburg team for three years, and Jlaka both said they have never seen anything like what happened Friday.
“It was disgusting,” Opitz said. “It just ticks me off that this had to happen at a kids’ basketball game. No kid should have to tolerate hearing those things — period. It was uncalled for.”
Even discounting that this league has had a couple of parent rumbles in the last few years, according to the story, he’s right: no kid should have to tolerate hearing those things — period.
If all of this is true — and it’s not stretching the bounds of reason to think that it is, especially because it’s an area of Pennsylvania that Obama sent Joe Biden to often to assure the locals that their possible new president would not be a Scary Negro — it makes me wonder: what exactly possesses people to do this? Especially at a youth sports event?
“Billy’s got a game tonight. And there’s gonna be darkie kids playin’!”
“Thank the Lord! Now I can get all my pent-up darkie-yellin’ outta my system!”
None of the league officials were available to the reporter for the above story. Hopefully, they’ll come out of their hole and check all this out, and make clear that if a team and its fans are going to engage in this kind of behavior, it will give referees the power to boot them out, and if it doesn’t stop, give the league itself the power to boot a team out of the league. It’s crazy the league has a no-tolerance policy toward fighting, yet racial slurs are apparently a-OK.