Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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When the motherly instinct goes wrong

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The headline says: “Charges filed in Little League brouhaha.” The story appears to be another case of a parent gone wild in a toxic youth sports environment. Me, I see many, many small, bad decisions that escalated to a large, unfortunate case that is going to stain the life of a mother who mistakenly thought she was doing the right thing by sticking up for her child.

pic.phpThe case involves Jodi Scheffler, 41, of Kirkland, Wash., seen at right wearing a very unfortunate hat for her Facebook profile given the circumstances: she’s charged with assaulting a 12-year-old after a Little League game. Here is the story as told by KOMO-TV in Seattle.

The reports say … Scheffler …  left her side of the field and got into an altercation with boys from the visiting team. Name-calling escalated and then Scheffler allegedly grabbed the boy’s face.

Scheffler told Kirkland police that the 12-year-old visiting player was calling her son a loser and taunting him during the game.

Charging papers say she told the boy and his brother to stop talking to her son. They told her to shut up and called her a “dumb blond.” The report says she then called them “white trash,” then allegedly grabbed the boy’s face.

Now the mother of the 12-year-old boy, Michelle McLaughlin, is furious and speaking out.

“He’s scared,” McLaughlin says. “He asks me every day we play a game, ‘Is she gonna be there? Is she gonna hit me?'”

But Scheffler told police that McLaughlin’s husband chest-butted her.

“According to witnesses, the only thing my husband did was yelling at her from 30 feet away to get away from my kids – and charged up to her, asking her politely to go away, ‘Back up, get away from my kids,'” says McLaughlin. “But as far as the chest-butting – that’s a lie.”

No charges have been filed against McLaughlin’s husband. She says she’s the one who decided to file charges against Scheffler.

“Maybe she’ll learn to keep her anger to herself,” McLaughlin says.

The Little League president calls this an unfortunate incident. Longtime coaches, meanwhile, say they haven’t seen anything like it.

Some parents feel the whole thing is being blown out of proportion. But Scheffler faces a year in jail if she’s convicted.

I wasn’t there, but I think, from my informed-enough-to-be-dangerous knowledge of sports parent-child interactions, what mistakes might have been made along the way to turn this game into a brouhaha. Or maybe it’s more like a row. Or a set-to. Maybe a melee.

The first one was made by Scheffler, of course. I know it stinks to watch little brats trash your baby. The parents should have taught their children to be respectful, and the coaches should have tried to stop the trash-talking (maybe they did — the story doesn’t say). Even after she confronted the boys, that’s pretty ballsy of 12-year-olds to call a grown woman a “dumb blond.”

But no adult should never, never, never, never, never, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, confront someone else’s kid before, during or after a game. As a parent, you can (calmly) talk to your own coach. You can talk to the league vice president or president. But there’s no point in jumping on someone else’s kid, or even the opposing coach, in the heat of the moment. If you’re that upset, better to just pack you stuff and go home. The 24-hour rule applies. Otherwise, you risk making an ass out of yourself, embarrassing your child, and risking assault charges.

The second one was made by Michelle McLaughlin. Let’s assume her husband did not chest-bump anyone, though it would be a first for me to see a charged up/ask politely combination. Like Scheffler, it sounds like in this report that McLaughlin could wear a drama queen hat herself. As stupid as it was for Scheffler to do what she did, all McLaughlin needed to do was take her kids and go home. She seems ready to have Scheffler charged just out of spite — “maybe she’ll learn to keep her anger to herself.” Takes one to know one.

I highly doubt Scheffler will face a year in jail. I wouldn’t be shocked if the charges are dropped for something so relatively petty. However the legal case turns out, nobody — not Scheffler, not McLaughlin, not the kids in question — acquitted themselves well. But I’m not going to add my overreaction to the overreaction at hand. The league should ban Scheffler from games, and let players and coaches know they will be ejected from games and/or suspended if taunting continues.

In fact, the league itself should take a closer look at the conduct during its games. I would guess that Jodi Scheffler isn’t the first Little League mom to have the urge to attack when no one was doing anything to protect their kids.

I review until it hurts. I mean, “Until It Hurts.”

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Mark Hyman’s “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids,” is a concise (140 pages) look at how, well, America’s obsession with youth sports is harming our kids. It was an interesting read, and I must give Hyman some credit for his taste in blogs.

It’s easy to react to Hyman’s book by demanding that the entire parent/coaching/merchandising establishment be rounded up and shot for the child abuse they call youth sports. But I didn’t have that reaction, in part because I’m a heartless bastard, and in part because I was a history minor. (The two might be related.) Instead, I found snippets that were telling about why all this crazy sports parenting might not be so crazy after all.

Hyman opens his book talking about looking at a picture of his son Ben at 18 months old out in the snow with a T-ball set. “Whose idea was it to hone the swing of a toddler in the dead of winter? Mine. What was I thinking? I wish I had an answer.” This guilt is a running theme as Hyman exorcises his own demons of Ben needing arm surgery as a teenager after a series of coaches, including himself, pitched him too much. The book ends with Ben have a grand old time pitching on a college club team, no adults coaches to be found.

Hyman has plenty of other stories of athletes burned out, mentally and physically, by specializing in a sport from an early age, pushed by adults to succeed. Did you know, for example, that Michael Phelps’ sister Whitney was the original Olympic hope of the family, until her body burned out by age 16?

cover-of-until-it-hurts1Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I would have loved to have read a lot more about the history of organized youth sports, and how it evolved. It seems pretty clear that adults from day one had purposes other than just fun and games; usually it had something to do with preparing for war. There’s great stuff in the book like how Little League Baseball, by 1955, had frozen out Carl Stotz, who only founded LLB in 1939. He had the temerity to question the wisdom of an LLB World Series.

An interesting history as well would have talked about something not quite so youth sport-y, but something that drives the nuttiness we see today — how the demands of college recruiters and the money to be made in pro sports has changed the youth sports dynamic.

While old-time coaches like UCLA volleyball coach Al Scates and Hawaii baseball coach Les Murakamai speak out against the year-round specialization that provides the Hurts of the book, newer coaches like Quinnipiac women’s soccer coach Dave Clarke refuse to look at any player who hasn’t survived the rigors of club soccer. To him, school soccer is, and I paraphrase, for losers.

Hyman lays out the overwhelming odds against your kid not getting a college scholarship, much less going pro. (In most nonrevenue sports, few athletes are getting scholarships of any kind. That’s why you always see a few football players on the baseball team or track team.) But you’re not going to have a chance if your kid doesn’t specialize early and aim for that elusive scholarship. Given how colleges recruit and who pros sign, parents (and their children) who go down this road are not crazy. They’re making a rational decision based on the available evidence.

It’s like the lottery — you don’t win if you don’t play. Like the lottery, if you win, you win huge. But if you fall short, you have a lot of regrets and money pissed down the toilet. Hyman’s book focuses on how much is being pissed away, and how adults are squeezing the bladder. However, there’s still a book to be written to explain, in further detail and with less author’s guilt, how we got here.

(Oh, and a personal note to Mark Hyman, in case he reads this — don’t feel guilty. Like any parents, you made the best decisions you could with the information you had on hand. Plus, who doesn’t get caught up in their kids playing a sports, especially when they’re good? It’s nerve-wracking to watch you kid out there alone, especially as a pitcher, in control of everything when you’re not. As for that picture, my daughters dragged bats and balls out in the dead of winter when they were 18 months old. I suspect the idea to have Ben hit off a tee at that age and that time was not all yours.)

How can parents hold coaches accountable…

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…without being an asshole about it?

I wrote the last portion of that question, but that’s a statement often implied when someone is, say, turning to the Positive Coaching Alliance to get an answer to the thorny questions of youth sports. In this case, an anonymous parent wondering, basically, why everyone else has to sign a code of conduct promising to be a goody-goody while the coaches get to carry on like Bob Knight with a case of flaming hemorrhoids.

3125518865_b1e16afd10_mPossible case of ‘roid rage.

The exact question posed to the readers of the blog of the Positive Coaching Alliance:

My daughter goes to a very competitive public high school with a winning tradition. However, some of the coaches with the best winning traditions are also some of the worst coaches when it comes to how they treat the kids. These coaches are allowed to scream and yell at our children with no consequences.

Our kids are put down amongst their peers and even cursed at in public. Yet the teams win and nothing is done. A few years ago our school implemented a Code of Conduct for all athletes and parents to sign. The Code is not strictly enforced, even though athletes and parents must sign a new one for each new season or sport.

What kind of Code of Conduct should the coaches be held accountable to? When the Code is broken by a coach, how should it be dealt with? Our coaches are also teachers in the school and they are part of the union, which makes it difficult for parents to question a coach’s tactics and behavior because of the fear of retribution not only to the athlete (playing time, etc.) but also to the student and their grades. I cannot sit on the sidelines any more and something must be done. I need your help!

Here is my answer, which I have submitted to the PCA blog:

You know what you can do about this? Most likely, shut up and take it.

That’s not the answer you wanted, and that’s not the answer I want to give. But if you’re at a competitively public high school with a winning tradition (like my old high school, where I for a while ran track and cross country for a coach with multiple state championships), these coaches are beloved by many for their results, and that support includes many alumni and fellow parents, as well as the current school administration. If you want an indication of the loyalty a seemingly over-the-top coach can engender, go to Support Our Stinson to see the massive amount of love pouring out for a coach facing a reckless homicide charge after one his players died as a result of one of his practices. The teachers’ union is the least of your problems.

If you (and your child) find the coaches too much, you have one relatively easy option — taking your child off the team. I say “relatively” because I presume you fear some sort of backlash from coaches, or some negative change in your child’s social circle. At the least, your child can finish the season, then quit the sport and concentrate on intramural, rec league or club-level competition.

Otherwise, if you are planning to fight what is going on with the coach, the first thing I would recommend is taking your emotions out of this. Yes, it’s your child, your baby. But you have to ask yourself — is there a reason the coach is acting the way he or she acts? Talk to other parents whose child has played for that coach, for example. Don’t ask, “How could your child stand such a tyrant?” Ask, “What did you think of that coach? What did you think of the way that coach handled players?” If you don’t want to be seen as the crazy, overprotective parent, don’t act like one. If you sense a lot of anger and upset among the parents, then you can come to the administration as a group. The administration might not do anything, but it can’t ignore a large group of parents making the same complaint.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with asking to talk to the coach. Again, it’s about approach. If you introduce the conversation as one where you want to ask the coach why he’s such a jerk, prepare to be brushed off or patronized. Instead, introduce yourself and ask if there would be an opportunity to chat one-on-one as a new parent wishing to get to know him (or her) or the program better. The coach is probably still going to be nervous that you’re some crazy, overprotective parent. But a good coach will make a little time and explain why he or she does what he does. You might not agree with it, but at least you might understand it better.

One other thing you can do: talk to your child. Does the coach’s conduct bother your child? How do teammates respond to it? What is the team morale? If your child feels like the coach is coming from a positive place, then maybe the best thing for you to do is back off.

Do no-score leagues cause killing sprees?

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Many will blame youth sports for the, as George Carlin put it in his later, crankier, much unfunnier years (in a line stolen by many crankier, much more unfunny hacks), the “wussification” of America. You know, kids not learning there are winners and losers, and not learning everybody doesn’t get a trophy, and demanding as grownups they be treated like 5-year-old soccer players. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe they sound like Mr. MacAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie,” bitching about kids.

But the “wussification” of youth sports as a reason behind killing sprees? That hypothesis, offered by Athens State (Ala.) University psychology professor Mark Durm in an interview with the Athens News-Courier, is a new one on me.

Killing sprees are on his mind, and the local News-Courier’s, because Athens is 20 miles from Priceville. That’s where on Tuesday a man, on the eve of his divorce hearing, killed his estranged wife and three other family members, burned down their house, and then killed himself. In the last month there have been at least eight mass killings — three of them in Alabama.

Mark Durm, an Athens State University instructor, said because of early childhood training, when adults don’t get what they want they react with “knee-jerk hostility.”

While Durm said there are “undoubtedly many other variables” when someone goes on a killing rampage, early conditioning plays a big part in how people deal with frustration.

Here is the excerpt from Durm’s interview with the News-Courier that had me rubbing my eyeballs in disbelief:

Durm said he has given a lot of thought to mass killings, especially since the slaying of 15 people at an immigration office last week by someone who had lost his job.

“I think we also no longer teach children how to handle emotions, but it is deeper in some ways,” he said. “We are a society where no one can lose. Sometimes in youth sports leagues they don’t keep score so no one loses. When they get to be adults and lose the person they love, they don’t know how to tolerate it.

“You need to learn how to lose before you can win.”

Really? The implications are staggering — millions of children, their psyches no longer soothed because everybody no longer gets a trophy, going on mass killing sprees when things don’t go their way. I had a hard time believing Durm was serious. I thought he might have been misquoted.

A little research on Durm finds that he is the antithesis to a no-score league, a tough grader who has studied extensively the history of handing out A’s and B’s, and F’s. (He’s also a debunker of paranormal activity and Alabama’s religiosity.) You also can find his email address — so I contacted him to ask about what he was quoted as saying in the News-Courier.

Here is a slightly edited back-and-forth we had today (mostly edited to take out the rambling introduction to myself I wrote for Durm, and his inquiry about whether I had gotten one of his notes because he was having computer problems):

Your Kid’s Not Going Pro: Is this [opinion] conjecture on your part, or is this something you’ve researched? What is the connection between that sort of treatment in youth sports (or otherwise as children) and what’s happening now? Is there any research you can point to on this subject? … If there’s any bias I have on the subject of no-score leagues, it’s that in my experience I feel like they’ve been used to guarantee the parents will shut up. The kids usually know the score.

Mark Durm: Bob..its mainly conjecture on my part… my knowledge there is very little, if any, research on “no losing” sports. Several years ago we were sold a lot of hogwash about hurting a child’s self esteem…………but one can never get up if one has never fallen down.

YKNGP: My follow-up would be then, how does one make the connection, even through conjecture, from “no losing” sports to mass killings, even as a small factor in why we appear to be seeing more of them? For example, in cases like the shooter in Binghamton, the evidence presented thus far appears to be of a man who had fallen down repeatedly, not one who went off after the first time things went wrong.

Durm: Specifically the man in binghamton had an Asian mindset [Editor’s note: the shooter was from Vietnam]…… my knowledge he had just “lost face”. The connection in our culture, in my opinion, is if I do not get my way you pay.

YKNGP: One more question. Given the cultural norms you talk about it, why don’t we see more of
these deadly outbursts? After all, we lose face or don’t get our way frequently.

Durm: Because “spurned” people extract different level of payments……………..those with the least control(and many variables come into play here) extract the payment of your life.

So while it’s a stretch to say he thinks no-score leagues turn children into mass killers, he’s definitely saying, it doesn’t help to not turn them into killers.

The conversation ended because I had no more immediate questions. Why didn’t I ask about the Asian thing, which seems, um, a bit of a broad brush? My purpose was to find out Durm’s opinion on youth sports’ connection to the violence we see, not his thoughts and impressions of Asian cultures. You can fill in your own blanks on that one. I just wanted to confirm Durm meant what he told the newspaper.

I will say that I think Durm is guilty of what many are guilty of, both on the subject of youth sports and mass murder — gross oversimplification. No-score leagues, as part of a self-esteem curriculum, might accentuate some already-spoiled kids’ diva tendencies — but as of yet there’s no empirical evidence (even by Durm’s own admission) they turn children into adults incapable of handling setbacks, much less ones who will act out violently when they don’t get their way.

And it’s hardly Durm who pins some sort of easy, overarching cause to mass shootings. Of course, there’s the old standby, easy access to guns. These days, there’s always economic oppression.

I don’t know more than anybody else why we’re seeing so many mass killings. It might be one of these things. It might be all of these things, and more. But I have a hard time believing no-score leagues will turn an otherwise stable child into a future spree killer. Or a future wuss.

Unnecessary roughness

leave a comment » (hat tip: On The Pitch) has a good piece about how to deal with rough play in youth soccer.

268309060_7f3364e85a_m1Let me first say that the issue of dirty and abusive play does not start with the referee or the players, it begins with coaching. The tolerance level of the coach has a direct bearing on the ethics of players. The best coaches will reprimand their own players for foul play. I have seen good coaches pull their own players even before the referee takes action. …

Do not “dive” when you have not been fouled in an attempt to attract sympathy from the official [Editor’s note: apparently this message isn’t taking on the international level]. Nothing irritates fans, players and referees as much as this. If you are caught diving, not only may you receive a yellow card, but you may never be taken seriously by the referee. You must also avoid retaliation and returning any verbal comments. This will give the defender the idea that they are getting to your psyche which will reinforce and escalate their behavior.

On dead ball situations, have your captain ask the ref to check into the pattern of recurring fouls. If the issue continues, have the coach visit with the official at halftime. If this is unsuccessful, have the fouled player go down with injury to create an opportunity to speak with the referee and once again reinforce the violent play [Editor’s note: didn’t you just say no diving? Maybe you can say something at the next dead ball?]. Your captain and coach must do their jobs here. It is their duty to the team.

If a referee ever loses control of the match and play gets out of hand, remember that your goal is to live to play another day. Nothing is worth a broken leg or a broken nose in a bench clearing brawl. As a coach (or parent), simply indicate to the referee that in the interest of safety, it is best that you calmly remove your players from the field of play and accept whatever consequences come with this. Stay in a group after the game. Do NOT have players and parents walk alone to their cars.

Great advice — for any sport.

Why does rough play start with coaches? Because they set the ground rules. They are the ones who draw the line between good, aggressive play and outright thuggery, mainly because they are the ones who (should) know the difference.

For example, I teach my basketball players that on a fast break, there’s nothing wrong with committing a foul if you’re behind the player but you’re going for the ball first. However, it IS wrong to push a player from behind, or wrap your arms around him or her, or try to pull him or her down without making a play on the ball.

460718873_3fa4403b28_mIn most cases, players don’t realize that what they’re doing might hurt someone. In my 7th- and 8th-grade basketball league, the only time I talked to the refs about foul calls was one very tall, strong girl who had a tendency to swing her elbows after she got a rebound. In one case, she elbowed one of my players in the throat. (Ouch.) I don’t think she meant to hurt anyone — she was just trying to clear space. I asked if the ref could call that more tightly because it was clear her coach was not advising her to stop swinging her elbows, and I was afraid more kids might get hurt. Unfortunately, the ref relayed to me that they called fouls looser because this was a rec league, and they didn’t want to slow the game down. Fortunately, no one else got hurt.

Here’s a case of a coach stepping in. One coach asked me to help him to take one of his sixth-graders (a kid I coached the previous year, which is why he talked to me) out of the 5th- and 6th-grade league we coached in and limit the kid to the 7th- and 8th-grade league. He was too strong and aggressive (in a good way) for the kids his age, and we wanted him to be able to play hard without worrying about hurting somebody. (Though later one of the refs, to me before a 7th- and 8th-grade game, related he thought that kid was a “thug.” That was the same ref who wouldn’t call the elbows on the other girl. Anyway, his assessment was seriously harsh, given this kid was aggressive in a good way, and as nice a kid as I’ve ever coached. Hence, unfortunate examples A and B of not counting on refs to sort things out.)

By the way, my interest in this post was not necessitated by my own son’s injury. He sprained his right foot on a clean, common basketball play — rolling off someone’s show when he landed after jumping. Sometimes play gets rough when kids are putting out a full effort, and that just goes with the territory. The important thing for coaches and parents is not to blow up in the heat of the moment.

Rather than argue with a coach or official, give yourself 24 hours, then talk to whomever runs the league about what happened, if there’s anything that person can do to control rough play. More often that not, someone will then contact the officials or coach to recommend putting a lid on certain activities, or at least send the message that they won’t be tolerated in case, say, the coach is an asshole and is going to argue instead of listen. Also, the coach needs to be ready to explain to his or her players and their parents the difference between aggressive play and rough play.

After all, as Zenfooty says, the goal is to live and play another day.

I think the Scots are laughing at us

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From the Herald, a Scottish newspaper:

In America, a soccer coach has been misbehaving. Mike Kinahan told parents of the six-year-old girls in his team that he expected the kids to “kick ass” and to “bleed” for the cause.

In an e-mail to parents last week, Kinahan declared his team would be known as “the Green Death”, the girls should be fed red meat and that “while blood doping and HGH use is frowned upon, there is no testing policy.”

Kinahan had to resign.

He argued his e-mail was “meant as a satire of those who take youth sports too seriously for the wrong reasons” but, frankly, the notion that Americans would not understand irony is far too implausible for us.

I understand irony! It’s 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife!

1420683079_9291f872dbA little too ironic?

Take your crazy sports parenting out of real life…

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…and put it online!

626990667_0742536ecb_m1Yes, crazy sports parents, the technology exists so you can still be as intense as ever, yet not make a scene! Here are five steps to using techonology to your crazy sporting advantage, and make yourself less likely to end up in the police blotter:

1. Don’t say spiteful things about the coach during the game. Instead, form a “I Hate Coach [Blank]” Facebook group!

2. Don’t scream at the refs. Send them angry text messages! “U SUCK LOLOLOLOLOL :(”

3. Don’t fight with parents, coaches, referees or even kids from the other team at the heat of the moment. Instead, send an Evite to fight them later! “You’re invited… to get your punk ass kicked by me in the alley behind the biker bar! Confirmed guests:  My fists of rock.”

4. Do you find yourself generating a constant stream of bitter chatter? Get a Twitter account! “@13YOREF FU and DIAF (updated one minute ago) @RECCOACH Ur a fukkin idiot (updated two minutes ago) …”

5. If you say, “I’m not a crazy parent!” and think you’re superior to those you believe are, start a smart-alecky blog!


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