Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Archive for June 2010

Parents sue after kids cut from hockey team

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Greater Toronto Hockey League

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You might expect some gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from me about the state of youth sports in America over the news that parents of two kids cut from their hockey team have sued over that decision. Except that the lawsuits are in Canada, and there are lines to be read between that make you wonder whether this is the culmination of a long, sordid conflict.

From the June 28 Toronto Star:

Two sets of parents are suing the Greater Toronto Hockey League, one of its clubs and four coaches for $25,000 each because their sons were cut by the Avalanche Minor Sports Club midget junior A team during tryouts in April.

It’s the first time parents in the GTHL have ever taken legal action against the league or one of its teams for declining the services of their children, says league president John Gardner.

Even nationally, it’s a rare event.

“We have had very few lawsuits on ice time or (player) cuts,” said Hockey Canada’s Glen McCurdie director of member services. “There are more threats than actual suits.”

Vito Valela and David Longo are both suing on behalf of their sons, Christopher and Daniel respectively. Besides the GTHL, Avalanche Minor Sports president Anthony Iantorno as well as team officials Doriano Pistarelli, Andy Vandenberk, Felice Guglielmi and Peter Posca are named as defendants in the action.

“Their direct actions have caused irreparable psychological damage to Daniel Longo’s self esteem as an impressionable teenager and demoralized Daniel as an athlete and team hockey player with his peers,” the Longo statement of claim reads. “The conduct by all defendants destroyed the dignity of my son, whom in good conscience gave his team nothing but his best efforts.”

Valela’s statement of claim states: “When Christopher was advised of his termination by my wife and I, he vowed never to play the game he loved since childhood. And, moreover, his misguided group of defendants demoralized my wife and I, whom had gone well beyond the call of duty as parents in support of the Toronto Avalanche hockey team for two seasons.”

None of the claims have been proved in court.

Irreparable damage to self-esteem? Sounds pretty pathetic, right? Well, it is.

However, these players are not 8-year-olds. They’re in a league for 15- and 16-year-olds, on the cusp of, perhaps, a pro hockey career. [EDIT: I have come to learn from a former GTHL parent that the league in question is lower-level, with these players having no hope of a pro hockey career.] These parents have probably sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into their kids’ hockey careers. I’m going to guess that, on some level, this is a fight over recouping an investment. Which is kind of sad in and of itself.

As you read the Star article further, you get the sense that this conflict didn’t just start when the kids were cut from the team.

Both complaints cite that coaches Guglielmi and Posca were suspended for a year by the GTHL for tampering on May 20, 2009 and therefore, the parents claim the men were not legitimately able to advertise themselves as coaches for 2010-2011 season, run the tryouts in April and ultimately cut their 15-year-old sons.

“They terminated my son and the GTHL supported that ‘illegal authority’,” Vito Valela told the Star.

“It wasn’t just that they (coaches) were under suspension,” Longo said. “It was the way they cut them and the method they used.”

However, GTHL executive director Scott Oakman confirmed although the coaches were under suspension, the rules permit any player or team official whose suspensions run past the conclusion of games played in a season to participate in tryouts .

The article doesn’t explain what sort of “tampering” led to a year-long suspension. But by the end of the story, you get the sense that this isn’t about bad, petulant parents who can’t take their sons’ pro dreams are over.

Well, it is about them. But it also is about youth sports politics gone so bad, you find it hard to root for anyone involved in this lawsuit.

Written by rkcookjr

June 29, 2010 at 1:57 am

Chris Henry, and why your football-playing child may already have brain damage

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GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 20: Wide receiver Ch...

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Chris Henry was a talented wide receiver, but he was far better known for almost single-handedly giving the Cincinnati Bengals the reputation as criminals thanks to his numerous arrests. When Henry died during the 2009 season after falling off the back of a moving pickup truck — on which he had jumped during a fight with his fiancee, who was driving — it appeared to be a tragic but not unexpected end for someone who just couldn’t control himself.

Now it appears there was a reason Henry was out of control: His brain was  knotted and beaten up from repeated blows to the head, according to researchers.

At age 26, he already showed signs of progressive generative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. From the June 28 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Julian Bailes and Bennet Omalu, with the Brain Injury Research Institute in Morgantown, W.Va., have examined 10 other retired players, among them ex-Steelers Mike Webster, Terry Long and Justin Strzelzcyk. The researchers found frightful similarities between those brains and that of Mr. Henry. Those men were older than Mr. Henry and had taken thousands of blows to the helmet during long football careers. …

“It didn’t look like the brain of a 26-year-old,” said Dr. Omalu, a former Allegheny County pathologist who first found CTE in an autopsy of Mr. Long in September 2005.

“This is not something to celebrate. It is not something to be joyful about. It is something that is very humbling, very introspective. It is a call to action.

“I’m not calling for the eradication of football; no, I’m asking for full disclosure to the players. Like the surgeon general considers smoking to be dangerous to your health, repeated impacts of the brain are dangerous to your health and will affect you later in life. Period. The players need to know this.

“I think it’s an epidemic. It’s beneath the radar. We simply didn’t identify it [early and properly]. The more I encounter NFL players, the more I realize … it is much more prevalent than we had identified.”

For all the laudable attention on ensuring that children are promptly identified and treated for concussions, the implications of this look at Henry means that brain damage among football players is more extensive and pervasive than we could have ever dreamed. Despite not having reached 30, Henry’s brain, and the dementia he was likely suffering, were much like that seen in an 80-to-90-year-old.

So what do we do with this information? Ban football? Take the head out of the game? There are some serious questions to be answered, because who knows how many high schoolers, having played since age 6 or 7, are already on their way to serious brain damage.

One thing the doctors in Henry’s case recommend is genetic testing, because there is one gene that is common to all the players they’ve examined who have suffered extensive damage: Apolipoprotein E, which is found in roughly 25 percent of the general population. APOE is considered one of the biggest genetic risk factors for development of Alzheimer’s Disease. Does that mean every baby should be tested for APOE, and if found positive, should never play a sport with a high risk of head injury?

I don’t know. But I do know I’m feeling even better about my kids having no interest in playing football.

Jennifer Capriati: A cautionary tale

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Mug shot of Jennifer Capriati.

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Sometimes, a parent’s goal is not just that his or her child go pro. It’s that the child’s accomplishment — whether it’s sports or something else that can draw a high profile (I’m looking at you, Sunderland family) — is done at the youngest possible age.

As we know from the tragedy’s of child sitcom stars, this early success often comes at a severe personal price. And Jennifer Capriati — whose  “accidental” overdose of prescription medication was first reported June 27 by TMZ — is still paying it.

Jennifer Capriati made waves in 1990 when she became a 13-year-old tennis pro, young even by the standards of women’s tennis, where then — as now — pushy-to-the-point-of-abusive parents are often key to a player’s development. (In Jennifer’s case, Stefano Capriati was the horror dad.)

Alas,  Capriati, after an initial wave of success that included an Olympic gold medal in 1992, by 17 had been busted for shoplifting and marijuana possession as she became the tragic early sports burnout to top all tragic early burnouts. Her mugshot (at left) was a cautionary tale all by itself. Was she rebelling against tennis? Her father? At that point, that Capriati would live was more of a concern than whether she played tennis. (The U.S. Tennis Association even passed a “Capriati rule” in 1994 so no more 13-year-olds could play and follow do Capriati’s dark path.)

But Capriati came back, cleaning herself up and winning two Grand Slams in 2001 — the Australian and the French. Was it a love of tennis that propelled her? Or was it that her identity didn’t allow her to do anything else? A few years later, a shoulder injury forced Capriati to retire — and face problems with depression and suicidal thoughts. This is from a 2007 New York Daily News profile of Capriati:

“When I stopped playing, that’s when all this came crumbling down,” Capriati says. “If I don’t have (tennis), who am I? What am I? I was just alive because of this. I’ve had to ask, ‘Well, who is Jennifer? What if this is gone now?’ I can’t live off of this the rest of my life.” …

“When someone that young has such an incredible level of talent and promise, and the whole world identifies them with it, it can short-circuit the natural process of identity formation,” says Dr. Fred Wertz, chairman of Fordham’s psychology department. The result is that you see yourself in one way, doing one thing. Other options don’t even compute.

Despite the Capriati family’s insistence that her prescription drug overdose was accidental, many were freely speculating, based on Capriati’s past, that maybe it wasn’t so accidental.

I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, so I don’t know how many of Capriati’s problems were due to her tennis-stunted upbringing, and how many are due to clinical depression that might have manifested itself even if she had a “normal” childhood and had grown up to become an accountant.

Every athlete, particularly an elite athlete, struggles with what to do after the fame and the games are gone. But it’s particularly sad to see someone who struggled so much to keep from burning out at 17, and now looks to be in serious crisis at the mere age of 34.

The lesson for parents is not necessarily in what happens if your child is an early pro achiever. Most of us will never know that. However, there is a lesson is what happens if your child specializes early, and mentally or physically burns out by, say, high school. How will you handle that? How will your child handle that? Do you and your child have enough perspective on sports to be prepared for the day a knee injury or mental struggles means a whole way of life has come to an end?

The extraordinarily long odds of making the NBA

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 15:  The official Spald...

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Indianapolis has always considered itself a hotbed of basketball, and having (along with Los Angeles) five straight years with a native as a first-round pick has made that thought more than just Hoosier hype. (That number doesn’t count second-round pick and current Indiana Pacer Josh McRoberts, who grew up literally right around the corner from my parent’s house in Carmel, Ind.)

However, Jeff Rabjohns of The Indianapolis Star has a story with a message for all those little Indianapolis-area kids who are dreaming of keeping that streak alive: You are indeed dreaming if you think you can. Just in case that message wasn’t clear, Rabjohns noted the incredibly long odds of your kid making the NBA:

Just 0.00545 percent of the 550,000 boys playing high school basketball each year in the United States become a first-round draft pick — 1 in 18,333. Considering, on average, foreign players accounted for five of those spots in the past 12 drafts, the numbers shrink to 0.00454 percent — 1 in 22,000. …

From 1998-2007, fewer than 30 percent of the annual top 100 high school seniors eventually (290 out of 1,000) were drafted in the first or second round. The misses included 14 players ranked in the top 10 of their recruiting class.

Alas, like the lottery, as a parent you’re sold on the idea that you can’ t win if you don’t play, so plenty of parents and kids throw their money and time down that rabbit hole of an NBA dream. Part of the temptation is that if you’re a player who competed — well — at some point against someone who does get drafted, you wonder: Where’s my spot? Again, from the Star:

Robert Glenn, who played against [2007 No. 1 pick Greg] Oden and [2009 first-round pick Jeff] Teague in high school and followed [2008 first-round pick George] Hill at IUPUI, adopted that approach after watching them make it.”It makes it seem that much closer,” said Glenn, who had NBA workouts but was a long shot to be drafted. “I see people I’ve played with make it, and I know I’m good too. I know I can step up and do the same thing they’re doing.”

No, Robert, you probably can’t.

This is the sort of story that proves my maxim that Your Kid’s Not Going Pro. I really don’t mean that be as negative as it sounds. I like to use that phrase as something liberating for parents and children. With the pressure of feeling like a pro career is a real thing, parents and children can make decisions on sports on what is enjoyable, rather than the best (often the most expensive) track for a pro career that won’t come.

If your child does make it, wonderful. But counting on your child making it? Not so wonderful. Heck, it’s extremely difficult to get a college athletic scholarship, much less go pro.

Written by rkcookjr

June 28, 2010 at 12:03 am

Too competitive to coach?

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There are certain personalities that aren’t made for youth sports coaching, though that doesn’t stop them from coaching anyway. Jennifer Gish, a parenting columnist for the Times-Union in Albany, N.Y., thinks she is one of those personalities.

She wrote a series of columns about a baseball team of 7- to 9-year-olds the Times-Union co-sponsored, and by her own description she played an over-the-top competitive team owner. But then as the team’s season drew to a close, Gish — a mother of toddler twins yet to reach the age of getting yelled at by other people’s parents for their sports abilities — came to an unnerving conclusion. Maybe her columnist persona wasn’t an act. From her Times-Union blog:

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An early rough of “The Jennifer Gish Story.”

So, I’ve already barred myself from coaching Andrew and Matilda in any future athletic pursuits. And maybe dance class. And maybe I won’t help them get ready for the school spelling bee, either.

Looking over at the t-ball fields one day, I thought maybe I’d be OK at that level, but I’m not so sure. I have issues, people.

I’ve always been competitive, and I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to turn that off, even when it comes to kids. I had a tension headache all day the day of my Little League team’s playoff game, and felt queasy through every inning. Meanwhile, the kids, who are 7- to 9-years-old after all, kept busy debating whose dad was oldest.

I don’t think I’m at the level of keying some umpire’s car over a bad call. And I probably wouldn’t be the parent who gets tossed out of a game, but I don’t like what was going on in my head. And I’d hate to project that to the kids.

So this mom’s benched. For life.

I’d like to first congratulate Jennifer Gish on her self-awareness. Better to discover this flaw now, then when she’s actually coaching a team and becomes single-handedly responsible for her kids’ future therapy sessions, as well as the future therapy sessions of every other kid on the team, as well as the future therapy sessions of every parent, opposing coach, league official and umpire who ever crosses her path.

However, she has passed the first step on the 12-step program to becoming a good youth coach. (Sometimes the admitting you have a problem is not about competitiveness — it may be about a lack of competitiveness, a lack of knowledge of the sport in question, or a lack of motivation to coach for any reason beyond grooming kids for their future molestation by you.)

I left a comment on Gish’s blog, which as of this writing is not up because it is in the dreaded limbo of “awaiting moderation.” But I make these points:

1. If you’re that bad, maybe you shouldn’t even go to your kids’ games.

2. However, this competitiveness is common. As a coach, I feel like parents of younger kids (except, perhaps, those who have older kids and have been through this before) run in only two directions: over-the-top competitive, or over-the-top believing that fun at sports means no coaching, no scores, no nothing.

3. That there is time to modulate whatever extreme you have as a parent of young children. I recommended to Gish that she go to kids’ games in which she has no rooting interest. Once she sees all the parents and coaches acting like loons, that should take the edge off her competitiveness a bit.

Written by rkcookjr

June 27, 2010 at 11:15 pm

The greatest 10-and-under girls softball game I ever saw

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Believe it or not, there are times when youth sports really are all about the kids, playing now, at this moment. Not about parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, or who’s bringing the snack. All of a sudden, a game gets so good and compelling, and the young players’ nerves of steel so awe-inspiring, that all you can do is watch and enjoy the ride.

Tonight, that was my 10-year-old daughter’s third-place softball game for in the kinda-sexist-named Petite Division of the Oak Lawn, Ill., house softball program.

Usually, a third-place game (I managed that same daughter in one two years ago) is a loose affair, what with the pressure of a championship gone. (Thank God.) My daughter Grace’s team is pretty loose to begin with, so they can practically barely stand erect as her Frost, the fourth-place team in the regular season, played the Storm, the second-place team.

The Frost went up 2-0 in the top of the first inning, and the Storm tied it in the bottom of the second. The bottom of the third wasn’t so good for the Frost. They gave up the maximum six runs in an inning, were down 8-2, and looked outmatched by a team that had four travel players to their one. The girls looked dispirited coming into the dugout — and didn’t look any better when they went down 1-2 in the top of the fourth. The coaches’ voices didn’t change pitch, but the Frost coaches seemed much louder as they urged their players.

But then, the magic started happening. The Frost scored four runs in the bottom of that inning, the last two, if I may brag, on a two-run opposite-field single by Grace. Now down only 8-6, the Frost’s spirits were back up, and the parents started getting a little more interested in the game. A few by me joked about not wanting to go to the bathroom, lest they miss anything. All that toilet talk made me have to use the bathroom (where, by the way, I was saw my daughter’s manager in the next stall).

Actually, not just the parents were zooming in their focus. This Frost-Storm game was taking long enough, games were finishing on other fields, and hearing about the comeback under way, players and their families decided to stick around and watch. Slowly more people were circling the field, cheering good plays (by either team), and making more of a buzz and ruckus than your average Florida Marlins home game.

I don’t know much about the Storm. But what they were seeing out of the Frost was pure guts. Players who normally didn’t hit were smacking balls. The Frost would get pushed to the edge of the abyss, then come fighting back. Again in the bottom of the fifth, the Frost got two quick outs. But then came four more runs — on two-run singles placed to about the same spot Grace placed hers. By the end of five-and-half innings, a 8-2 Frost deficit had become a 10-10 tie. More fans streamed toward the field, out of the impending darkness, to check out what was going on.

What was going on was two teams of 9- to freshly minted 11-year-old girls who were as cool and loose as the crowd was wound tight, especially we parents. It’s always difficult to watch your child play because you can’t protect them from injury or failure. It’s even harder when they are being put in situations that would make major-leaguers fold. In the Frost’s comeback, all of the eight runs they scored after falling behind came with two outs. A lot of them came with two strikes. I don’t think they even heard the parents or coaches anymore. I didn’t. I didn’t know of anything that wasn’t happening in front of me.

The Storm came back with one run in the bottom of the fifth to go up 11-10. That meant, for the Frost, score in the top of the sixth, or the game is over.

Grace was up first. She had two hard singles her first two at-bats. But she struck out against the same pitcher she already hit twice. If you followed me on Twitter and Facebook (and why wouldn’t you?), you would have seen this:

Grace strikes out to start 6th. Just setting team up for more two-out heroics.

Hey, after what I had seen the previous two innings, that was not a cocky thing to say. Meanwhile, the players and coaches for the Petite championship game, which was already supposed to have started, were now gathering around to watch.

It turns out the heroics were after one out. More girls smacked base hits to that same magic spot in right field, and the Frost ended the top of the sixth up 13-11. Do you believe in miracles?

The Storm didn’t become a second-place team by folding up easily, either. Though they appeared rattled at times that the Frost wouldn’t go away, they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the sixth and final regulation inning. They had the bases loaded with two out. One walk, and the game was over.

The Frost’s pitcher, Jackie, who in her first game pitching cried herself to distraction after her rough outing (so much I had Grace make a point to tell her everything was OK and her teammates had her back), was now in her third inning tonight — and she wasn’t backing down. Sure, she might get a little frustrated over a bad pitch, but her eyes were lasers into the catcher’s glove. The count works to two balls and two strikes. At this point, the 15,000 people were standing or on the literal edges of their seats to see what would happen. Discussion over how a 10-year-old girl can stomach this much pressure was rampant. If anybody brought Maalox, they were chugging it.

Jackie throws a pitch catching the outside part of the plate. Called strike three. Game is tied.

You know the cliche that it’s a shame somebody has to lose this game? (Ask John Isner and Nicolas Mahut about that one.) As it turned out, in Frost v. Storm for third place, no one had to. It was 8:35 p.m., 35 minutes after the championship game was supposed to have started. So no extra innings — there’s a tie for third.

For this game, there really was no other appropriate way to end it. I don’t know how the Storm felt. But the Frost players were beaming and jumping around with excitement over grinding out such a tough, um, not-win. After each game in their league, a team will form a line with players on each side, slapping hands and chanting, “We. Are. Proud of you, yeah, we are proud of you,” as the other team runs underneath — and then the teams reverse the lineup. In this case, I think the 27,000 fans who saw the end were ready to do the same chant with each team.

Oh, of course, there were some dimbulbs who couldn’t grasp the excitement of the moment. One old fart sitting next to me was ripping the coaches and the players like he was watching a Chicago White Sox game. Dude, these are volunteers coaches and 10-year-old girls, not full-time millionaire pros. Another guy was upset the Frost and Storm couldn’t play extra innings. I mean, really whining about it. Another parent mentioned to Grace’s coach that it’s too bad the Frost made so many errors, or they would have won.

My response is to quote my late father: If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.

Who cares? Each team makes errors. Half the fun of watching this age group play is seeing how they recover from their mistakes — and both teams improved by leaps and bounds in learning how to forget their mistakes and move on.

It’s nearly three hours after the Frost-Storm game, and I’m still feeling a buzz about it. It’s the kind of buzz that keeps me excited about my kids’ games, even when around me there’s hassles with parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, and who’s bringing the snack.

Your 2010 Frost, after losing to the eventual champion. Yep, they’re a loose group.

The fine line between coaching and tyranny

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[youtubevid id="Yk8T9xAlsvE"]

David St. Hubbins knows of fine lines.

As a coach — or anyone who manages people of any age, for that matter — one of the trickiest parts of the job is knowing when to push, and knowing when to step off the gas. Making that trick even more complicated is that you want your players, even if they detest you at the time for pushing them, to look back someday (the next day, the next week, when they’re sitting with their grandkids) and realize that you did the right thing. As a youth coach, you hope the parents feel the same way — especially because the definition of “pushing too hard” is very, very flexible in their collective eyes.

In one of my favorite books, Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls,” a history of the American Basketball Association, a general manager explains this philosophy as he relates ex-NBA all-star Cliff Hagan’s mindset when he became an ABA coach: “I had eight coaches in the pros. I liked six of them and hated the other two. The only ones we won with were the guys I hated.”

Of course, executing this philosophy was a little simpler for Hagan than it is for your everyday youth coach today. For one thing, Hagan was managing pros, so he didn’t have to worry about parents, equal playing time, or the after-game snack. Also, this was the 1960s, when coaches from pee-wee level up were practically expected to yell, or else it didn’t sound like coaching. (Part of what made the late John Wooden so radical was that he didn’t raise his voice.) As a youth coach, you always have to strike a tricky balance between teaching and pushing your kids to excel, and not pushing otherwise engaged kids right out of the sport — or pushing parents to yell at you.

Recently an article appeared that had me thinking of the high-wire act that is coaching my 7-year-old son’s baseball team. On the Chicago Tribune website, the story was titled: “Teacher or Tyrant? What do you do when your kid’s hard-driving coach — or ballet teacher — steps over the line into full-fledged cruelty?”

When former U.S. Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu said her coach Martha Karolyi once slammed her face into a phone and that Martha’s husband, Bela, twice berated her for her weight in front of teammates, the sports world was shocked.

Kind of.

Other gymnasts downplayed the complaints of Moceanu, who was only 14 when she competed on the 1996 gold-medal team, and praised the Karolyis’ results. …

And therein lies the dilemma for parents of children who are seriously involved in sports and the arts. Many of the best coaches and instructors are disciplinarians who push kids hard and get results; a few are tyrants who push their players too hard or berate them cruelly.

How are parents of hard-driving kids supposed to tell the difference? And even if you know you have a tyrant on your hands, how much can you really do to contain the behavior of an adult with the power to bench your sports-loving son or derail your daughter’s college scholarship?

First, to answer that question before I get to how this applies to those of us who coach or have kids in far less elite situations. If you and your child (or just you, pushing your child) are investing heavily in a career as an elite anything, at some point your child is going to get pushed — hard. With so many parents and children competing for the same spots, coaches know that if you don’t like it, there are 1,000 others waiting in line to take whatever guff they’ll give. Don’t count on other parents, even if they are appalled by the coach’s behavior, to join you in some sort of boycott or fight.

In most cases, your option, cruel as it sounds, is like it or lump it. If the cost of being an elite athlete or performer is you and/or your child’s sanity, maybe that Olympic gold is worth too much.

Now, for the rest of us: where is that fine line between coaching and tyranny? In the eye of the beholder, that’s where.

In the 1960s, as a coach I could be Cliff Hagan, yelling at kids, and no one would have thought anything of it, in part because parents didn’t go to every practice and game like they do now, so they would have never seen it. When my father pulled my brother and I off a Little League baseball team in 1980 because he thought the coach was such a raging asshole, even for that time that was an unusual move. (It paid off — the next year my brother and I were on a different team with more mellow coach, and we won our league championship, while raging asshole’s team was at the bottom of the league.)

People write stories about whether coaches yell more than they used to, but the truth is that coaches on the whole probably do so less than they did even back in my day, when I was walking with no shoes in a snowstorm to school, which was five miles away, uphill both ways. Parents at the time hoped that sports would be a positive experience, but they didn’t demand it be a positive experience as they do now. Not that the demand is a bad thing. But what it’s done is, for some parents, move the fine line between coaching and tyranny to a place where a coach might not able to say anything without getting grief.

Twice this season in coach my son’s 7-year-old baseball team, I’ve had parents upset with me because they’ve felt I’ve pushed their kids — and the whole team — too hard. No doubt, I do push. I expect the kids to pay attention, to be good teammates, to not climb the backstop fence, to not hit each other, to do what their coaches ask. As I explained to one parent, I’m not asking anything that their teachers don’t ask them to do in school. I know I have a loud voice, and I know that sometimes I test the limits of how far to push a 7-year-old. It’s a no-score league, so I’m not pushing them to win. I’m pushing them to become better baseball players and teammates. (Note: It’s my blog, so I can make myself sound like the hero.)

That parents would quibble with my style is to be expected. It happens to every coach. What has shocked me, however, is something I’ve never heard, ever, until now. Both sets of complaining parents, when I said that I expect the kids to listen (say, when I’m giving instruction, or when I’m telling them not to swing a bat in the dugout), responded, each with almost these exact words: “They’re just kids. If they don’t want to listen, you shouldn’t make them.”

Is that where the fine line between coaching and tyranny is? That if I expect kids to do anything other than exactly what they want at the time they want it, I’m a raging asshole?

The second incident with a parent came after I told their kid he wasn’t going to bat because he refused my request for him to pinch-run for a teammate. His teammate, the first batter up, got hit on the hand with a pretty fast pitch, and was very sore and upset. I asked this particular kid to pinch-run because he was last in the batting order. He said, no, he wouldn’t. I asked him again. He said no. I asked him again. He said no. I said he wouldn’t have his turn at bat if he didn’t get on first base. He said no. So I sent another kid out (who dutifully and smartly put on a helmet and ran to first base), and told the refusenik he wasn’t going to get his turn at bat.

That might seem harsh, but I try to teach these kids that there are consequences for your actions. I wasn’t asking the kid to clean the dugout with his tongue. I was asking him to do what 7-year-olds normally love to do — run the bases. (Again, it’s my blog, so I can be the hero.)

The reason this fine line between coaching and tyranny can be so tricky at a youth level is because, particularly with younger kids, you’re colliding with parenting styles. Maybe, at home, there are parents who let their kids do what they want, when they want, and there’s never a consequence for doing anything wrong. I don’t know. But I do know that when you’re coaching, one parent can praise you as a good coach and teacher, while the next thinks you’re a raging asshole.

And if you’re a youth coach, that’s how things are going to be. Like it or lump it.

Is cheerleading a sport?

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TOKYO - AUGUST 24:  Members of the Nippon Spor...

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“Is cheerleading a sport?” isn’t some sort of semantic question, like “is bowling a sport,” “is auto racing a sport,” or “is challenge pissing a sport.” (The link is NSFW language, but it’s not what you think. Or hope, if you’re R. Kelly.)

“Is cheerleading a sport” is a question that will be answered in a courtroom, and it could have an effect on how boys and girls are counted when it comes to Title IX, the federal law guaranteeing equal access by gender for any student in any school that receives federal money.

A trial started Mon., June 21 against Quinnipiac University (the Fighting Pollsters!) of Hamden, Conn., which is being sued by six women’s volleyball players over the school’s dropping their program. The players contend the elimination, as part of budget cuts, violated Title IX federal guidelines. A judge has already sort-of agreed, granting a temporary injunction to keep women’s vollyeball alive at Quinnipiac and granted the lawsuit class-action status.

That’s all well and good. But more interesting is one way Quinnipiac sought to prove that its female athletic participation is in step with its 62-38 female-male ratio: by elevating competitive cheer, with its 40 female members, to the rank of “sport.” From the New Haven (Conn.) Register:

The trial could ultimately be a referendum on competitive cheer, the gymnastic-like sport that is neither recognized as a varsity sport by the NCAA nor listed as an emerging sport. Quinnipiac initially intended to replace the 11-member volleyball program with a much larger competitive cheer squad.

According to published reports, cost estimates for a roster of 40 in competitive cheer is approximately $50,000. The volleyball budget was over $70,000 for 11 players last year.

Competitive cheer has many of the qualities of gymnastics, yet to some, it’s just an extension of “sideline cheer,” which is commonly seen at collegiate sporting events.

Others see competitive cheer as a low-cost loophole used to inflate the proportionality of female athletes at a school.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which sets the guidelines for Title IX student participation does not have a specific ruling to allow or disallow competitive cheer, but in 2008 issued a “Dear Colleague letter” which provided clarifying information to help institutions determine which intercollegiate or interscholastic athletic activities can be counted for the purpose of Title IX compliance. The letter indicates that when OCR conducts an investigation to determine whether an institution provides equal athletic opportunities as required by Title IX regulations, OCR evaluates the opportunities provided by the institution on a case by case basis.

Quinnipiac is currently in an alliance called the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association which includes the universities of Maryland, Oregon, Baylor, Ohio State (club team), Fairmont State of West Virginia, Azusa Pacific of California and Fort Valley State of Georgia.

If this were a movie, there would be a climatic scene in which the competitive cheer team performs in court, and the judge, so moved, declares: “You ARE a sport after all!” And everybody hugs.

In 2009, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared cheerleading was a sport — and a contact sport at that, in that competitors were in physical contact with each other. (And given the high injury rates for competitive cheer, you’d be safer on the football field instead.) However, that ruling wasn’t for Title IX purposes. It was to disallow a cheerleader’s right to sue the partner who failed to catch her, as well as the school and its insurance company to pay for treating her injuries.

In some states, the high school athletic ruling body includes competitive cheer under its jurisdiction, although often it seems like it does so to pull the same kind of Title IX shenanigans in which Quinnipiac is accused of engaging. For example, in 2009 the Florida High School Athletic Association had plans to cut back every sport but football (which it declared was coed because three girls played) and competitive cheer. Those plans were beaten back by Title IX activists, among others. And Florida’s inclusion of competitive cheer also seemed similar to why catchers have to report with pitchers to spring training. Somebody’s gotta cheer for the football team, and somebody has to catch the ball.

As of this writing, the Quinnipiac trial is ongoing.

USA Swimming getting lessons in how not to molest children

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USA Swimming, apparently not able to figure out itself how not to have coaches abuse children, is partnering with the Child Welfare League of America to teach it. Here is USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, explaining in a joint June 21 news release how this uncomfortable marriage came to be.

“As a youth sports organization, we recognized the importance of obtaining concentrated input from independent experts in the field of child welfare.  After meeting with the CWLA and reviewing the long and distinguished history of the organization, we are confident that we have the best people helping us with our ongoing efforts to serve our membership.”

If Wielgus hadn’t been so stinking clueless and dismissive about problems with swim coaches in ways that would make Pope Benedict blanch, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that this move has please-don’t-sue-me written all over it. Hey, I’ve sat through how-not-to-molest-children training required to coach a Catholic school team, training developed by the church’s liability insurer, so I know a please-don’t-sue-me-move when I see it.

Of course, there are multiple lawsuits already against USA Swimming for various sexual misconduct alleged against coaches, cases that have inspired ex-Olympians such as Diana Nyad and Deena Deardurff Schmidt to step forward to say they were victims, too.

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An attorney in one of the lawsuits dismissed USA Swimming’s announcement, telling The Associated Press that the Child Welfare League of America is a lobbying organization, not one that knows anything about developing youth sports protection guidelines. The league would argue otherwise, but that’s besides the point. After rushing out a seven-point action plan following a devastating report by ABC’s “20/20″ on the grabby-hands problem, USA Swimming is hiding behind a brand-name organization so that the next time someone sues, it can say, see, we tried to do something about it. We can’t stop everyone, you know.

Also, USA Swimming’s move would reek a little more of sincerity if it hadn’t, since the “20/20″ report, removed coaches critical of its policies from high-profile assignments. Geez, even the Catholic Church lets priests critical of its conduct (or lack thereof) keep their parishes.

Being a sports dad, or how to screw up your children

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Robert Lipsyte has a great piece on CBSNews.com about the mixed legacy of the sports dad. He describes his own father, who was “bookish” and not “ballish,” with whom he never “had a catch.” (Is it just me, or I am the only one outside of “Field of Dreams” who says “play catch?”) He describes his own parenting, informed by his sportswriting career, in which he pulled his son Sam (who grew up to be a writer himself) off of a baseball team with an “ubermacho” coach, and refused to let him play high school football because of all the effects of playing hurt.

Not that his kids didn’t play sports (Sam was a shot-putter, daughter Susannah was an all-state hockey forward), but Lipsyte contrasts this with the famous father of big-time sports heroes, who pushed a lot harder than Lipsyte’s father, and Lipsyte, ever did.

As fathers (assuming we’re involved with our children), there is always a struggle to know how much to push our kids, particularly when it comes to sports. A lot of us have sports we love (mine being basketball), and it seems to validate us as people and parents when our kids choose that sport, and do it well. Of course, we’re the heroes of youth sports league for having provided half the DNA to the star athlete. And if we can coach that star athlete and make great players out of others, all the better.

Even when we know otherwise, we fathers are very tempted to push harder to make our children into the athletes we presume they dream of being. We don’t want our children to look back and wish they pushed us more. We don’t want our children to ask us why we didn’t pay for this travel league, or sign them up for lessons, or “have a catch” often enough.

On the other hand, as Lipsyte points out, when fathers are involved with developing their kids into big-time athletes, they tend to be raging assholes.

Five years ago, for Flak Magazine, I did a “tribute” to some of the worst sports fathers. Amazingly I was able to do it without confining it just to women’s tennis players and Marv Marinovich. Click through to read the anti-inspiring stories of how fathers created great athletes and future therapist patients in sports such as hockey and golf, and are-parents-really-getting-worked-up-over-this activities as table tennis and chess.

There are plenty of athlete bios — Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, Ichiro Suzuki and Dwyane Wade immediately come to mind — where dad made The Great Santini look like a hands-off, live-and-let-live father.

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“Gotta win by two baskets!”

And those are the ones who “succeeded.” As you can see at youth sports every day, any case of benign neglect (like with the Lipsytes) is balanced by the malignant involvement of fathers. From Lipsyte’s article:

The literature of the sports dad has trended ever darker over recent years.  Poet Donald Hall’s elegiac view of baseball as “fathers playing catch with sons” has given way to the current rash of cautionary tales of Pee Wee pops beating their kids to make them “winners” or beating on their kids’ coaches for not giving them more playing time. (One dirty little secret in the performance-enhancing drug story of recent years is how often dads ignore, enable, or sometimes even directly finance chemical help for their kids.)

Over the last several years, talking to high school students about Raiders Night, a young adult novel of mine that deals with a football player and his driven dad, I’ve been struck by how regularly boys tense up when the subject of just why they play arises.

Remarkably often, once you get past the easy answers — the prestige of the varsity, the thrill of contact, the friendships, and the girls — it comes down to seeking the love and attention of dad. When dad manages to use his son as an avatar in his obsessive sports dreams, that love and attention become a whip and a cage. Ask Tiger. …

I know there are concert pianists, rocket scientists, and brain surgeons who had the equivalent of sports dads. Who knows what I’ve done (what my kids have done, what my grandkids are starting to do) to get love and attention. But after so many decades in the Game, I think the father-son dynamic is more vivid and charged in sports because the relationship blooms in all its loving and violent forms at such a vulnerable time in a kid’s development. That’s why so many grown-ups adore or despise sports.

On some level, as a father it seems you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Don’t push enough, and your child wonder why you denied him or her an opportunity. Push too hard, and your best shot is a money-making athlete who is a shell of a person. (Lipsyte says he’s happy to lean toward benign neglect.)

I wish I had some easy advice for how to strike a balance. The best thing I can come up with is, pay attention to your child and the interests he or she shows, and the intensity he or she shows about them. Then you go from there. That’s the best I can do.

Your humble blogger and his 4-year-old daughter, having a bat.

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