Archive for January 2010
Today at my church, the pastor, as usual, brought the kids to the altar for a little conversation. She began by asking them if they played on any sports teams, and if so, if they would rather be the star, or the person in charge of carrying the equipment or some role other than star. Of course, the kids wanted to be stars, although I think some of the wiser ones, who didn’t raise their hands, knew the trick that when asked something by a pastor, the answer is always B) Not the One You’d Pick.
The reason she brought this up was that today’s lesson was about one of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ eight Big Statements from the Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the cheesemakers?”
The Beatitude in question is: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” Now I’ve been sufficiently smart-assed about people using the Bible for their own youth sports purposes, but you don’t have to play Jesusball to see how this line, and my pastor’s lesson to the kids from it, fits in snugly with sports.
From the professional level on down, just about every coach preaches (speaking of pastors) that playing for your own glory doesn’t cut it. True success comes when, in whatever role you fill, serving your teammates. While meek might mean gentle, it doesn’t necessarily mean sitting back and saying nothing. In this context, meekness is about servitude.
If you want a rule of thumb of how to identify a championship team at any level before it actually wins a title, look for two things. Is the team’s best player a good teammate, trying to make everyone better and more confident, and complementing what the coach is trying to teach? And is the coach slow to credit himself or herself, instead working to improve his or her team and giving all credit to that team for any improvements? If the answer to both questions is yes, you have a team that already is in championship contention. Certainly, talent and knowledge help, but if your top player or the coach is only out for personal glory, as San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary famously ranted: “Cannot play with ’em. Cannot win with ’em. Cannot coach with ’em. Can’t do it.”
Samurai Mike’s infamous 2008 Vernon Davis rant, from which the above quote is taken. Given Singletary’s Christian bent, it’s safe to say he’s familiar with “Blessed are the meek,” though that might be argued by running backs he nearly decapitated.
It is very easy for me to figure out if a team I’m coaching is going to have a good season. Not necessarily a championship season, but one that at least the kids enjoy themselves and each other’s company. The simple formula rests on the team’s best player, and if you don’t think even first-graders figure out in a hurry who that is, you’re deluding yourself. They know. If the team’s best player has a good attitude, listens to his or her coach, and dedicates himself or herself to making teammates better, then it will be a good season.
A few years ago, when coaching my oldest son’s fifth- and sixth-grade coed basketball team, I had a kid who was a great, talented, hard-nosed player. One practice I noticed him talking to another kid while I was talking, and I busted his chops for it. Turns out what he was doing was relaying, in kid language, what I wanted so the kid could play better. Later on, midway through the season when one boy scored his first-ever basket, this great, talented, hard-nosed player was the first to run over to congratulate him. I just about broke out in happy tears right on the spot. That year we won our league championship, no doubt because every kid on that team knew their best player had their back.
By the way, referencing my chops-busting earlier, the key to whether a team reaches or exceeds its perceived potential isn’t just the best player being a good person. That’s a big load to put on a young kid, and I’ve coached kids who wanted to do this, but just weren’t ready to handle that kind of responsibility. But the other key is the coach also not being a glory hound. Early on in coaching, I made a mistake common to many coaches, a mistake that many coaches can’t get over — worrying about outside perception of my own genius.
When I started coaching, I worried about that not so much because I wanted everything telling me what a great coach I was, but because I didn’t want everything telling each other what a dope I was. That manifested itself into being way too concerned about discipline, too concerned that everyone marched in lockstep to what I was telling them. (I started at the late elementary levels — even I, in my deluded state, wouldn’t have been so worried about this had I coached first-graders.)
What I had to get over, and I’m not sure I totally have, is that I’m coaching kids who may or may not care, and that I can’t make them care, or make them great teammates, just because I demand they do. I’ve had to learn when to push, and when to back off. Like with the kid I mentioned earlier helping translate me to his teammate. Instead of worrying about OH NO SOMEONE IS TALKING ON MY TIME, I should have let it go. That’s because at that moment I was doing it because I was exerting my authority instead of serving my team.
At the ages and skill levels I coach, my job is not to worry about whether I look good because we’re winning, but to teach a sport to the best of my ability so the kids can make an educated decision as to whether they enjoy it and would like to keep playing it, or whether it’s not their bag. Would I like to be a star coach? Who wouldn’t? But a little meekness in that position can take a team a long way.
Blanket coverage of Florida quarterback/living anti-abortion protest Tim Tebow tends to be annoying, though it’s a godsend (no pun intended, quarterback-who-wears-Bible-verses-on-his-eyeblack) for the first week of the Super Bowl pregame trudge. The coverage of Tebow’s appearance in Saturday’s upcoming Senior Bowl college all-star game has focused on how a player considered one of the greatest college football players ever is going to suck at the professional level.
The consensus is that Tebow, who led his team to two national titles and won the Heisman Trophy his sophomore year, doesn’t have the quick throwing motion or pinpoint accuracy necessary for the NFL. To hear some scouts talk, it’s amazing Tebow would be able even to walk onto an NFL field without his someone tying his shoes for him. From USA Today:
Tim Tebow did not elevate himself into a top-echelon NFL draft QB prospect at this week’s Senior Bowl practices, ESPN analyst Todd McShay said Thursday.
Tebow, who drew attention on Monday when he struggled taking snaps under center in practice, still has talent but doesn’t yet have the makeup for a successful pro quarterback, McShay reasoned.
“He’s practiced, he’s gone through every drill, he’s shown improvement in terms of getting snaps under center and he’s working at it,” McShay said. “But he’s just not there.”
So what does this have to do with your kid?
Every time your athletic child advances a level — whether from 7-year-old to 8-year-old or junior high to high school — the competition gets tougher. Kids who aren’t interested or aren’t able drop out, but the strongest ones stay in. Where they were five leagues, there might now be the same number of kids competing for spots in three. Three junior highs feed into one high school. On a younger level, kids who grew way ahead of everyone else find others catching up to their size, or their ability.
The key to success at negotiating up each level is not the innate talent and mastery of opponents displayed at the earlier level. If that were the case, Tim Tebow would be a top-five NFL pick. Moving up is a process of starting over again, and, yes, while advantages in talent and size help, what helps more is the young athlete’s (and his or her parents’) ability to handle the initial setbacks. If the child athlete can learn from them and improve, then he or she has a shot at continuing to move up. If the child athlete is nothing but frustrated — and this can happen with kids who have shown ability as well as those who have struggled at earlier levels — then it might be time to start thinking about how much of a future a certain sport might have.
Certainly, Tebow is going to be going pro. The Jacksonville Jaguars might want him in hopes he sells tickets to a franchise whose attendance has stumbled. But other teams might say that even though things that worked in college for Tebow won’t work in the pros, he’s shown the mental fortitude to overcome those initial setbacks and improve his game. That will be the determination of whether he thrives in the NFL. And that, usually, is the determination of whether your 9-year-old can handle moving up the ladder as a 10-year-old.
If you were to look at media reports, Twitter feeds and this here blog, it might be easy for you to come to the conclusion that everyone involved in youth sports is either a child molester, a thief, or generally a crazy person, and that the kids are out for blood, too. However, loyal readers of Valpolife.com, the official blog of the Porter Health (Valparaiso, Ind.) hospital system — and you are a loyal reader, aren’t you? — are getting a different, radical message: that, generally speaking, kids are having fun in youth sports, and adults are helping them in that pursuit.
I’ll wait a minute for you to compose yourself before I go on.
Anyway, here is the evidence Valpolife.com is citing to reach its conclusion:
The Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council recently completed a study of over 5,000 publications keying in on the phrases “youth sports” and “violence.” Going back over 20 years, the results yielded over 1,000 citations, but many were “false positives” that focused on an unrelated topic and only passively mentioned violence in youth sports. “The investigation failed to produce any evidence to substantiate the belief that violence in youth sports had reached epidemic proportions in recent year,” wrote study author Gregg S. Heinzmann, Director of the Youth Sports Research Council.
The even better news, according to the article is that there are still “millions of volunteers and parents involved in youth sports that are doing all the right things, teaching valuable skill lessons, and providing fun and healthy environments where young athletes can compete and create lifetime memories.”
In my experience as a coach and parent, it’s an unusual day when a parent confronts a coach, or a fight breaks out, or a parent or relative in the stands is screaming at the ref full-bore. But the definition of news is something unusual, and it is unusual, believe it or not, when a coach is a child molester. You don’t hear breathless reports about the planes that landed safely that day. You only hear about the ones that crash.
Not to say that everyone is holding hands and celebrating how wonderful we all are to our children. The caveat in Valpolife.com’s sunny picture of youth sports is how money changes the dynamic. If we’re all noticing parents getting more ornery, it might be as much as protecting their investment as protecting their child. And with more school districts going with pay-to-play in sports, parents are going to, probably rightly, demand more from coaches and the whole sports experience. After all, you have a $3 T-shirt rip, it’s a minor annoyance. If that T-shirt is $100 — and you didn’t have a lot of spare cash lying around even when you bought it — that becomes a very big deal.
Indiana University professor and chair of the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies Lynn Jamieson agrees that while the data doesn’t suggest any epidemic of violence, the negative influence of financial pressure has.
“I know a woman who worked two full-time jobs so her child could compete with a traveling team,” said Jamieson. “When your life revolves around the sport and competition, the stress and frustration can manifest itself in the player and parents.”
Over 99-percent of high school athletes will complete their athletic career on the prep stage. A tiny percentage will be able to leverage their athletic prowess into a scholarship or professional contract; yet there remains an unreasonable pressure by some parents to push their children beyond a logical point in pursuit of athletic greatness with hopes of financial gain.
Jamieson suggests a better alternative for parents is to leverage a portion of the dollars spent on athletics in a college savings plan. “Every dollar spent on leisure could be saved for higher education,” said Jamieson.
Wait a minute — taking your travel team money and putting it toward college? Now there’s a radical idea.
You don’t misbehave on Erich Schifter’s mat!
According to the Tecumseh (Mich.) Herald, which shot the above video, during a Jan. 23 meet Schifter went all ape-schift on Tecumseh High’s Tim Elkins, pushing him by the throat, for the sin of going back after his opponent after Schifter had whistled them out of bounds. The video doesn’t start until the throat-push, and the story also doesn’t make clear whether Elkins was going all ape-schift himself on the other wrestler, or whether he merely was unaware he needed to wait for Schifter to reposition him on the mat before resuming wrestling.
The school can file a complaint if it wishes with the Michigan High School Athletic Association for Schifter getting all Bob Knight-Neil Reed on its wrestler. No word yet on if it is planning to do so. For what it’s worth, Schifter has more than 30 years’ experience officiating wrestling for the MHSAA. At the least, Schifter should get some sort of reprimand. I understand he wanted to separate the wrestlers, but a little hand to the chest could have accomplished that. Plus, what is with him yelling that this is “my mat!” Did he pay for it? I think not.
By the way, the best part of the Tecumseh Herald video is not the actual throat push, but the slo-mo version the paper included, complete with slowed-down, James Earl Jones-on-ludes voices like a Saturday Night Live parody of a suspense movie: “Thhhhhhhaaaaaaaaasssssss myyyyyyyyyyyy maaaaaaaaaattttttttt!!!!”
(Hat tip to sportsjournalists.com.)
Have you ever driven by a Little League baseball field and thought, “Where’s the GOT-damn scoreboard? How am I supposed to know what’s going on in this game?”
Well, now your worries are over, thanks to the Gamechanger!
It’s, well, a game changer for how we follow youth sports. No longer do you have to ask some other parent, “What inning are we in? Is this ever going to be over?” Now, thanks to this smartphone app, you can look and say, “Fucking shit. It’s only the third inning. I’m never getting out of here.”
Developed by former Cleveland Indians single-A minor-league pitcher Ted Sullivan, the Gamechanger allows a scorekeeper at the game to update statistics, which are then accessible by mobile phone to anyone who logs into the Gamechanger network. It’s the perfect gift for guilt-ridden parents who aren’t able to make it to their kid’s game because they’re working late and/or banging the secretary.
“As a busy father, I have always wished that I could follow my sons’ games even when I couldn’t be there,” said Steve Hansen, the CEO of Weplay, a celebrity-endorsed youth sports portal, in a Jan. 27 statement announcing Gamechanger’s availability to any league that uses Weplay services. “With GameChanger, Weplay now is on the field on an iPhone, broadcasting and sharing youth sports memories with the people who care most.” (For the record, I would never mean to imply that Steve Hanson has ever banged his secretary. I don’t even know if he has a secretary.)
The Weplay deal is a coup for the Gamechanger — a game changer, if you will — because otherwise Sullivan was looking at, league by league, trying to sell $2 per month subscriptions to parents whose leagues might or might not be feeding data to the application.
Now, even George Clooney in “Up in the Air” can know that little Johnny is 2-for-4 with an error in his 9-year-old Little League game. Grandma in Spokane can see how little Sasha in Fort Wayne is playing. Then she can call her parents and ask them why Sasha sucks so hard.
To me, as a coach, the best thing about the Gamechanger is that parents stop asking me what inning it is, or what the score is. (I’m annoyed because usually I don’t know without looking at the scorebook.) Better yet, the dad that would call my 10-year-old daughter’s softball manager during games to get details on score, inning and how his hotshot travel-team daughter was doing could look at the app and find out, leaving the poor manager alone with his thoughts and the incessant cheers of a 10-year-old girls’ softball team.
There are many other constituencies for tracking games with the Gamechanger. Such as:
– Ice cream truck drivers, so they know when to show up to a game and park and play their grating song OVER and OVER and OVER and OVER and OVER and OVER until you HAVE to buy FUCKING SPONGEBOB ICE CREAM BARS just to GET THEM TO GO AWAY, GODDAMNIT.
– Coaches who think they’re running a friggin’ major-league team and want to use it for “scouting.”
— Parents pounding shots at the bar, wanting a sure signal on what time they should start sobering up to pick up their kid.
— Commissioners and owners of youth-league fantasy baseball team.
From my wife, overheard during the back-to-back basketball practices for my 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son:
Mom to third-grade son: “Next year, you can be on a real basketball team.” Kid replied, “But I can’t play basketball. I’m going to be a doctor!”
A little inside True/Slant baseball. This morning I got an email from the site’s own Kashmir Hill, saying she thought of me when she saw a story about a private school volleyball coach busted for kissing a 14-year-old girl. (This school, Brooklyn Poly Prep Country Day, is still reeling from the realization its late, longtime football coach was a child predator.) I thanked Kashmir for thinking of me, hoping it was because of this blog and not because I’ve given any indication of being a perv myself. I also mentioned that given the volumen of stories I see, I could probably make this site nothing but coach/student sex scandals (“That’s depressing,” Kashmir responded). I said I would leave most of that to Badjocks.com.
Well, thanks to Badjocks, I discovered a story that goes beyond the pale of the usual coach/student ickiness.
So in Palm Desert, Calif., the high school softball coach, Ashley Nieto, got fired for having a sex offender helping her out. That sex offender: her husband, Ronald Nieto. That husband’s victim: the softball coach herself.
But to crib a line from the great Captain Underpants series — OK, maybe a principal who runs around in his underpants is not the best literary character to cite in a piece like this — but before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one.
According to the Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.), Ashley Nieto, used her husband an assistant in 2004, until the district informed her and other coaches that every coach would have to be fingerprinted for a background check. Coach Nieto told the school about her husband’s sex offender past — a 1998 guilty plea to two counts of lewd activity with child younger than 16 — and was told her husband’s services in the dugout were no longer needed.
Except that he eventually made his way back to the dugout and helped work out the kids. The Nietos said there was a vendetta because a deputy district attorney’s daughter didn’t make varsity, although several parents came forward over the summer to tell the school Ronald Nieto worked with the girls on conditioning drills. Vendetta or not, and even though there was no evidence he ever harmed any Palm Desert player, Ronald Nieto couldn’t be working with the team. and on Dec. 3, Ronald Nieto pleaded not guilty on Dec. 3 to charges of not disclosing his sex offender status, working with minors as a registered sex offender and being on campus without school officials’ permission.
Now about that Ashley-being-a-victim-of-Ronald thing.
Ronald’s conviction came when he was 38, and Ashley was 14. (He is now 50, she, 26.) Her contention is that she never wanted to press charges, but that her father demanded them. Parents just don’t understand, do they?
Apparently, neither do the police, the school district, or just about anyone else. There is a time and place to argue that maybe we’ve gone overboard with putting people in the sex offender list (someone arrested for peeing outside? Really?), but this isn’t that place. If Ashley Nieto needs to work out her daddy issues or whatever with her aged husband, that’s her business. The Palm Desert softball team doesn’t need to be a part of it. That’s depressing.