Archive for December 2009
Texas Tech fired Mike Leach as its football coach on Dec. 30, ostensibly because he sent wide receiver Adam James to solitary confinement in a shed and electrical closet (says James’ father Craig, a former NFL running back and current ESPN college football analyst) or in a garage and a media room (says Leach and his attorney) after James was diagnosed with a mild concussion.
Of course, as clear by the argument over what to call where James was stashed, the situation is more complicated than that, with Leach accusing James of being a prima donna and malingerer, and his father of being overbearing like a “Little League parent,” players coming out pro and con on how Leach treated them, and the specter of Leach’s past, very contentious contract negotiations providing some insight as to why the Texas Tech athletic department thought him more pain in the ass than their previous feeling, savior of a generally hidebound program. (He’s the second Big 12 coach to make that fall in a month, following Kansas’ Mark Mangino, fired after players and parents alleged various mental and physical abuse.)
Mike Leach shouldn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
As a youth coach, I look at a situation like Leach’s and wonder, is there something I and other coaches can learn from this? Why, yes indeedy there is. While I am never going be fired before I get an $800,000 bonus (because I never will be getting an $800,000 bonus), I can see some lessons here on the relationship between a coach and a player who, for the sake of argument, was a prima donna and malingerer with an overbearing, Little League parent. There are three main lessons I see coming out of this, for youth coaches on any level — even (or especially) the college level:
1. You can’t magically turn a prima donna into a model citizen.
The speculation in the Leach case is that if James wasn’t being punished for being hurt, this was a chance for Leach to punish him for being an asshole. After all, what doctor recommends a concussion patient be sent to solitary confinement in a shed, garage, electrical closet, media room or Windsor Castle? Leach and other Texas Tech coaches portray James as being a prima donna, and apparently tried to hard-ass the prima donna right out of him.
My experience — at the kindergarten- to eighth-grade level — is that if a kid has a lousy attitude, you can’t yell it out of them. You can’t run it out of them. You can’t lock them in a closet out of them. One of the traits of a prima donna is a disrespect and distrust for authority, and you getting all Sgt. Hartman on them is not going to change that. Particularly at the youth level. You only have players for a short amount of time, and it’s not like you can threaten to take away their scholarship.
I’ve found the first step to dealing with a prima donna is to accept that the player is a prima donna. That way, you don’t overreact to everything and end up creating friction on the team. For example, on a basketball team I coached, I kicked one particular pain-in-the-ass to the sideline. Not only did that have no effect on him, but it also had his teammates wondering why they had to keep working when they were following the rules. I tried running the kid — same problem. It didn’t work on him, and his teammates were distracted because one of their own wasn’t doing drills with them.
The best I can do now is try to impress upon him the importance of being part of the team, and point out (which is true) that we win when his attitude is good, and we lose when it’s bad. I do this because I know his mood swings are subject to whether he thinks his team is good enough to be around him, and whether we’re winning or losing. You might find other ways to motivate a prima donna. But I don’t expect miracles, and neither should you. Your best hope is that, eventually, the prima donna gets to trust you and see it your way. Whatever I do with prima donnas, I tell them, whether they believe or not, that I like and respect them. Then I hope for the best.
I am a coach, not a magician, no matter how much I might like to think I have an incredible life force that turns children into the greatest human beings of all-time.
2. You’re a coach, not a doctor.
In Leach’s case, he had a team doctor to advise him on what to do, although team doctors are notorious for bending to the wishes of coaches to get players back on the field right away rather than their long-term health. Generally, unless you are a doctor also serving as a youth coach, it’s not up to you to judge whether someone is capable of playing. If they say they’re hurt, you have to lean toward taking them at their word.
That doesn’t mean you can’t teach them how to push through small amounts of pain. When my coed fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team had only five players show last week, I told them there wasn’t going to be any rest, so they would have to save being tired until game’s end. I also once had a kid tell me he couldn’t do a passing drill because his arm hurt. I said, OK, take a rest. When he went back out onto the court to shoot three-pointers, I told him he lost the argument about his arm. I’m no doctor, but if your arm hurts, you’re not shooting long bombs.
On the other hand, I have two asthmatics on my team. Even if they were among the five that had showed up on the day we only had five (and neither did), I would have never told them to work through the pain of being tired and losing your breath. I tell those kids to raise their hands immediately when they need a rest. I tell the referees to please stop the game when they do so. I also tell their parents to feel free to run onto the court if something looks wrong. They know better than I do.
3. You have to deal with parents.
It is every coach’s dream to have parents who drop their kids off at practice and games, and never make a peep. Every coach lives in fear of the overbearing parents who questions everything they do. Well, every coach has to get over that. You’re the coach, but you’re being trusted with somebody’s child. You will have many children under your watch for a short time. The parent has only that one child, or a few more, under their watch forever. Any parent who feels like a coach is risking their child’s well-being should speak up. That’s a good parent.
The problem with most parent-coach confrontations is that they’re confrontations. The parent comes flying in upset about something, and the coach gets defensive and tells them to pound sand. As a coach, you have to have this attitude: on first blush, the parents has every right to be unreasonable. It is your job as a coach to explain why you do what you do, and why you feel like that is in the child’s best interests. I’ve had a parent pull his kids off a team I’ve coached because he didn’t like what we were doing (he thought we weren’t intense enough). My reaction: I’m sorry to hear that, but they are your children, and you know best.
I’m not sure Mike Leach could make any reasonable explanation for locking a player in solitary confinement for any reason. But as a coach, you have to accept that parents have the right to ask you anything. You have the job of giving an even-keeled response. That might not help. The parent might not always be right. You might have to get others in your league involved. It’s a pain in the ass. But when you’re dealing with children, you’re also dealing with parents, so you had best accept it.
Dec. 31, 2009, will be a momentous occasion — the one-year anniversary of when I began blogging about youth sports. You expected something else?
Being as I started this blog elsewhere, taking this moment to look at the top 10 youth sports stories of the year is not only a cheap way to create a little content, but it’s also a chance for you all to see what my fingertips have obsessed over since Dec. 31, 2008. I’ll break this up over two days: five today, and five tomorrow. And then the regulation youth-size ball drops on a new year of new youth sports wackiness.
10. “Beware the Green Death”
Poor Michael Kinahan. Here he was, trying to inject a little humor into his introductory note to parents as a coach of 7-year-old girls’ soccer in Scituate, Mass., and instead he loses his gig and becomes a worldwide cause celebre. Then again, if you didn’t know the guy, and you got a letter like this, you’d do a little cause celebre-ing yourself. Among the highlights:
… According to my wife, my emails get too wordy, so for those of you read too slowly, are easily offended, or are too busy, you can stop here. For the others……
OK, here’s the real deal: Team 7 will be called Green Death. … I only expect 110% at every game and practice. We do not cater to superstars, but prefer the gritty determination of journeymen who bring their lunch pail to work every week, chase every ball and dig in corners like a Michael Vick pit bull. Unless there is an issue concerning the health of my players or inside info on the opposition, you probably don’t need to talk to me. …
Some say soccer at this age is about fun and I completely agree. However, I believe winning is fun and losing is for losers. … The political correctness police are not welcome on my sidelines. America’s youth is becoming fat, lazy and non-competitive because competition is viewed as “bad”. I argue that competition is good and is important to the evolution of our species and our survival in what has become an increasingly competitive global economy and dangerous world. … I expect that the ladies be put on a diet of fish, undercooked red meat and lots of veggies. No junk food. Protein shakes are encouraged, and while blood doping and HGH use is frowned upon, there is no testing policy. And at the risk of stating the obvious, blue slushies are for winners.
…[I]t is imperative that we all fight the good fight, get involved now and resist the urge to become sweat-xedo-wearing yuppies who sit on the sidelines in their LL Bean chairs sipping mocha-latte-half-caf-chinos while discussing reality TV and home decorating with other feeble-minded folks. I want to hear cheering, I want to hear encouragement, I want to get the team pumped up at each and every game and know they are playing for something.
Lastly, we are all cognizant of the soft bigotry that expects women and especially little girls, to be dainty and submissive; I wholeheartedly reject such drivel. My overarching goal is develop ladies who are confident and fearless, who will stand up for their beliefs and challenge the status quo. Girls who will kick ass and take names on the field, off the field and throughout their lives. I want these girls to be winners in the game of life. Who’s with me?
Go Green Death!
Lesson to you coaches out there: parents are humorless, and they will forward you witty emails to the media.
9. Leaving early for a pro career — real early
In many nations, young players leave home at young ages for professional sports academies, or apprenticeships, or junior leagues that are clear in their status as hothouses of future pros. America is not one of those nations. We, unlike the rest of the world, like to pretend our young athletes are students first and just happen to be in sports for the pure joy of it. (Michael Kinahan would like to have a word with you about that.)
So that’s why it became a big deal when Jeremy Tyler of San Diego went pro after his junior year — of high school. He went to play basketball in Europe after high school competition for a 6-foot-11 dunking machine was a little unchallenging. Meanwhile, Bryce Harper of Las Vegas one-upped Tyler by declaring he would leave high school after his sophomore year, get his GED and play at a community college so he could get into the Major League Baseball draft earlier.
Will they be successful? Who knows? Who cares? As far as the American student-athlete complex goes, few are even remotely talented enough to try this, whether Tyler and Harper succeed or fail.
8. The bankruptcy of Count Me In
Never heard of Count Me In? Then you didn’t have an affiliation with a youth sports organization that got its money sucked up by the Seattle-based company. Count Me In was sued and sent into bankruptcy by some of the organizations that sent it $5 million that the company never returned. How did that happen? Count Me In sold league-registration software. So someone would register for a league, pay the fees, and Count Me In would forward that money to the league. Except that it ran into financial troubles, and didn’t. One New Jersey soccer club that sued Count Me In and founder Terry Drayton said it was out $142,000.
As it turned out, in May a savior emerged for Count Me In: Terry Drayton. He formed another company that paid $200,000 to buy Count Me In out of bankruptcy. Drayton says he still plans on paying everyone back (if he hasn’t already). Being a self-described serial entrepreneur is never have to say you failed.
7. H1N1 screws up the sports landscape
Swine flu ensured in many areas that your little piggie stayed home from the game. H1N1 hysteria was especially evident when it first broke out in the spring, with school districts across the country canceling sporting events. Most notably, the organization running Texas high school sports created a scheduling clusterfuck when it postponed all activities in the first two weeks of May, a timeframe that included the state track and field championships. When H1N1 broke out again in the fall, cancellation fever didn’t follow (even though there were postponements here and there). Instead, the emphasis was on making sure the illness wasn’t spread at events, which threatened to make the post-game handshake an endangered species.
6. Kids and/or parents and/or fans fight at games
This isn’t necessarily newsworthy. I figured I should include it because whenever I post video of youth sports fights, people flock to it like sports porn.
Later: the top five youth sports stories!
If it’s year-end, then that means the turn of the calendar instantly makes passe some of the activities you participated in so intensely over the past 12 months. Mainly, that’s because we in the media (I think I count) needs some space-filler at year’s end, and a new way to sell you old things, so that’s why it’s time for the official Your Kid’s Not Going Pro Not! Not! Not! and Hot! Hot! Hot! Sports Parenting Trends for 2010.
How do I know what makes the official Your Kid’s Not Going Pro Not! Not! Not! and Hot! Hot! Hot! Sports Parenting Trends for 2010? The same way everyone else makes their lists — by looking at what appears to be hot in 2009, and declaring the opposite so for 2010. (See, I even put not before hot — opposites!) And, to be really witty, making just a slight twist to what was hot, enough that you can do mostly the same thing but can feel bad for not doing it in the right frame of mind. In other words, I pull them out of my ass.
Not! Not! Not!: Helicopter parenting — Hot! Hot! Hot!: F-16 parenting
Not! Not! Not!: Yelling at your kid’s coach — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Making nasty comments about your kid’s coach in your Facebook status update
Not! Not! Not!: Win at all costs — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Win at a discount (we’re in a recession, you know)
Not! Not! Not!: Tommy John surgery for your overworked 14-year-old — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Drool cup for your multiply concussed 14-year-old
Not! Not! Not!: Every kid gets a trophy — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Every kid gets creatine
Not! Not! Not!: Cities using youth sports as an economic development tool — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Cities using illegal child labor as an economic development tool
Not! Not! Not!: Coaches getting arrested for fondling players — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Coaches getting arrested for selling drugs to players, then fondling them
Not! Not! Not!: Spending lots of money on your kids’ traveling teams — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Picking just one kid for the travel team, then spending all your money on him or her (we’re in a recession, you know)
Not! Not! Not!: Positive reinforcement — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Neglect
Not! Not! Not!: Sports leagues for 3- and 4-year-olds — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Sports leagues for prenatals
Not! Not! Not!: Childhood obesity — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Childhood morbid obesity
Not! Not! Not!: Paying user fees for school sports — Hot! Hot! Hot!: Saving your money for club sports (we’re in a recession, you know)
You think committing your child to a sport is a big deal. I, and my 12-year-old son, had to sign a long “contract” outlining his commitment as the Wizard in his school’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” I felt like I should have had Scott Boras over to advise me.
I don’t make a habit of highlighting every sex-related arrest involving a youth coach, mostly because it would be too depressing, and because I would have to quit full-time work to have time to track them all. Just in the last few days, there have been arrests involving a guidance counselor and basketball coach in Lassiter, Ga., a girls’ high school coach in Indianapolis, an ex-girls’ soccer coach in Wright Township, Pa., a basketball coach in Ashland, Miss., and in what local police called the most gruesome case they had ever seen, a 53-year-old tween-age girls’ softball coach in Taylor, Mich., who allegedly had naked pictures of girls all over his bedroom wall, with head shots of his fiancee’s 15- and 12-year-old daughters superimposed. (The fiancee hadn’t seen the room because she was in prison for armed robbery.)
For all the hoops leagues make coaches jump through — justifiably — to make sure known child predators don’t get close to coaching your kid, it’s clear the problem is this: you don’t know your kid’s coach is a creep until an arrest has been made. (I should say alleged creep, what with this case in Texas where a teacher and coach is trying to get his school board to pay his legal fees after he was acquitted of groping a teenage girl in the library.)
Even a sweeping plan in Great Britain, which makes everyone working with children pay to get in a national not-a-child-molester database, fails because it can’t catch people who are targeting young children, but who themselves have not yet been caught. (It’s been pointed out that the school employee whose murder of two girls inspired the British law was not on any child predator list.)
So as a parent, what are you supposed to do? Other than lock your children in your house?
My best, knows-enough-to-be-dangerous guess comes in the form of a list below. This is gleaned from reading over law enforcement sites, child protection sites, my Catholic church Virtus training, and my own past experience as a journalists covering cops and courts:
1. Don’t assume your child could never be a victim. This does not mean be paranoid and assume every coach is a child rapist. But it does mean taking some basic precautions that ensure their chances of being a victim are reduced.
2. Background checks aren’t always effective, but at least they’re some sort of minimum. If your league doesn’t do them, look for another league.
3. Don’t assume a child molester looks or sounds creepy, or that someone who sounds creepy is automatically targeting your child. The numbers show that those convicted of sex crimes against children pretty much hew to demographics on race, education and religion in general. That’s the danger — that the creepy coach lurks among us in the most banal of existences.
4. Make sure your child’s league has policies that prevent any adult from being alone with a child or children at any time. Heck, even my church requires an adult chaperon when the children’s bell choir rehearses, and there’s one adult leader with 15 kids. The more-than-one-adult-in-the-room rule does two things: minimizes the chances an adult could put a child in a compromising situation, and minimizes the chance that anyone could falsely accuse anyone of anything.
5. Get to know your coach a little bit. Talk to him or her after practice. Email or call from time to time. This is a good idea in general as a way to build a relationship with the coach, and a good coach will appreciate it. Be friendly. If the coach is a potential child predator, he or she will at least get the message that you’re watching. Not that it would prevent everything, but the classic molester MO is to groom victims who have little or no parental involvement, or come from troubled homes.
6. Don’t tell your kid, “Do whatever the coach says.” Children, even teenagers, are literal. You might unwittingly be setting up your child for disaster if you make the coach into an all-powerful authority figure.
7. Talk to your kids about what happened at practice. You don’t need to be at every practice — that just makes everybody, your child included, unnecessarily nervous. But get some details on what happened. You should let your child know you’re watching.
8. Make it clear to your child that you’re willing to listen to them. This isn’t something that’s just about fending off creepy coaches. If you make a habit of listening to your child — not interrupting with a lecture, but listening — your child might come to you if there’s a problem. Also, by listening, you’ll know enough to hear the alarm bells ringing in your head if something just feels wrong with your child or the team situation.
Actually, a lot of these rules have more to do with everyday parenting than they do with sports alone.
Despite the sheer number of coaches that get popped for sex crimes, it’s safe to say that in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, your child will be coached by someone who, if he or she says has a team of good-looking kids, is talking about their athletic ability. I’m not going to offer my tips as foolproof, because you never know what can happen, and all it takes is one bad coach to ruin lives. But if you keep your antenna up and stay involved, at least there’s demonstrated evidence that any dangerous coach will keep his hands to himself when your child is around.
Oh, by the way: as a coach, I would not be offended if you did any and all these things with me. I would probably thank you for being such a good parent.
About four years’ back, Deadspin alerted us to a pint-sized, 12 -year-old Indianapolis rapper named Lil Ronnie, whose oeuvre was dedicated to extolling the virtues of his local Colts. Young Ronnie Dietz was never going to become a Colts, but latching onto the team, and the attention from Deadspin, helped him build his budding rap career. Well, such as it exists.
With Lil Ronnie having gone through puberty and all his Colts-related material, a vacuum existed for children to extol the virtues of Peyton Manning and company in song. And that vacuum has been filled by the Faber Boys, combined age of 12 (eight and four), who in the preseason wrote and recorded “We Are the Colts.”
Actually, I presume their parents were involved somewhat, given the production values are a step up, slightly, from wiffle-bat-to-the-crotch shots on “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” and given that even at their combine age they’re too young to have registered for their own MySpace account.
They’re going to have to update those lyrics to note that offensive coordinator Tom Moore and offensive line assistant Howard Mudd are still on the coaching roster (they retired briefly because of pension issues, but returned once those were settled), and that most every defensive player they mention is on injured reserve.
Otherwise, with the Colts remaining undefeated after 14 games, the Faber Boys might have a chance at riding that bandwagon to future success as pro musicians, rather than pro football players. Well, given that Lil Ronnie is pretty much an unknown, maybe the chances of going pro as a musician glomming onto pro players are as remote as becoming a pro player.
Indiana’s New Castle Fieldhouse, with 9,300 seats, might be the largest high school basketball arena in the world, and it’s down the block from the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. But it’s No. 2, the Anderson Wigwam, four seats short of 9,000, that’s considered the real shrine to the craziness that is Hoosier Hysteria, a Taj Mahal of basketball, the heart and soul of a game identified as part of Indiana’s essence, along with John Mellencamp, giant fried pork tenderloins on little buns with a pickle in the middle, and trying to live down the Klan governor of the 1920s.
But it looks like the Taj Mahal is going to be boarded up.
The entrance to Anderson’s Wigwam, 2007. (Photo by Konner Smith, posted to Flickr)
The Anderson school board recently voted to shut one of the city’s two remaining high schools (which one is yet to be determined), as well as four elementary schools, as enrollment tumbles in the aftereffects of the decline of General Motors and its affiliates, once having employed about 30,000-40,000 people in a city of 70,000, and as of 2006 employing zero in a city of 58,000. As part of its cost-cutting plan, the board also said it would seriously consider closing the Wigwam, an idea that not long ago would have been considered as a sacrilege on par with shutting down the Vatican.
The Wigwam has survived a lot of hits over the years. The original Wigwam burned down in 1958. Its attached school, Anderson High, closed in 1997, though the name survives after merging with the deceased Madison Heights High, and the Wigwam remained Anderon’s home gym. The closed-down Anderson High burned down in a 1999 fire; the Wigwam was the only part of the building not damaged. The citizens turned down a tax levy in 2000 that would have allowed renovations to the Wigwam. In March, Anderson’s school board narrowly voted to keep the Wigwam open as it otherwise closed schools.
But in the last decade, even some of Anderson’s own citizens have come to see the Wigwam as a tax-money-sucking anachronism, and not just because it’s called a Wigwam and features two non-Native Americans doing an Indian and Maiden dance before every boys’ game.
Even University of Illinois grads pining for the return of Chief Illiniwek find this just a teensy bit racist.
The Wigwam represents a time when the post-World War II industrial boom, Indiana’s well-established love of basketball, school consolidation, state tournament sites awarded based on gym capacity, and a lack of entertainment options (and girls’ sports) resulted in schools statewide building mini-arenas that often dwarfed the schools themselves. You ended up with ridiculousness like Huntingburg High (now Southridge High) hosted a gym seating 7,200, which was enough to fit everyone in Huntingburg with more than 1,000 seats to spare. Anderson has long been part of the mighty North Central Conference, notable for its smallest gym being Logansport, with a mere 5,200 seats.
The North Central Conference in general is Hoosier might now made meek through economic ruin: conference members come from industry-battered, mid-sized cities turning smaller such as Muncie, Richmond, Marion, Kokomo and, yes, New Castle, which added the huge local employer, Chrysler, to its high school name in 1979, and is now dropping it as of 2011, what with Chrysler dropping the city itself nearly 10 years ago, and its successor company, Metaldyne, shutting down this year.
The Wigwam and these other huge gyms used to be filled by the auto workers and their families, who then passed on their love of the local hoops team to the next generation working at the auto plant. But beginning with the recession of the early 1980s, Anderson and industrial Indiana have bled population as jobs have dried up and a younger generation goes elsewhere for work. Anderson can see much more prosperous Indianapolis and its suburbs just a few miles south on Interstate 69, but while neighboring Hamilton County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country and the wealthiest in Indiana, Anderson can’t get a piece of that. It gets a few new employers to fill those empty GM plants, but no one is bringing 30,000 high-paying, low-skill jobs anytime soon.
Increasingly, despite the Wigwam’s exalted status, it’s getting harder for Anderson and its citizens to justify the cost of keeping up a nearly 50-year-old arena with no attached school, hosting a boys’ basketball team that is never going to fill it ever again. Even if Anderson has another boom — hey, it survived the natural gas bust of the mid-1910s by transitioning quickly to the auto industry — it’s doubtful kids are going to find watching high school basketball the ultimate in Friday night entertainment. There are too many more options, starting with the Xbox in the basement.
As an Indiana basketball fan, it saddens me that the gym infrastructure is crumbling in Anderson, and elsewhere. Even as high school basketball captures more attention, mostly in the context of scouting the next pro star, and even as the intensity of Indiana high school basketball remains a cut above anywhere else, the downsizing that’s happening everywhere else in the economy appears to be on the verge of downsizing Indiana’s notably large gyms. But if it’s gyms or schools, even the hoops fan in me says the gym has to go.
I would recommend if you want to see what Hoosier Hysteria was and is about, even if the stands aren’t full and two white kids do that damnable Indian and Maiden dance, it’s worth a trip to Anderson, Ind., to see the Wigwam. What makes the Wigwam so special is not just the great players who have passed through there over the years, or the large crowds, but that the Wigwam, even at 9,000 seats, feels like a gym, not an arena. (The pull-out bleachers help with that vibe.) The school board hasn’t said yet when D-day is coming, but it seems assured that this season will be the last, so you only have a few months left to soak in the Wigwam and pay it last respects.