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After a player's death, taking heat more seriously

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player-thumbLast Aug. 20, on an afternoon in which the heat index reached 94, 15-year-old Max Gilpin (right) collapsed with a 107-degree temperature after running sprints at the end of a preseason high school football practice in Louisville, Ky. Three days later, he died.

This was rare, this was tragic, but this was not unheard of. According to a report compiled for the American Football Coaches Association, there were 114 heat stroke-related deaths at all levels of football from 1960 to 2007. What’s most notable about Gilpin’s death is what happened to the coach, Jason Stinson of Pleasure Ridge Park High, who ordered him to run those gassers. Stinson, later relieved of his coaching duties, goes on trial Aug. 31 on a criminal charge of reckless homicide. He is believed to be the first coach indicted because of a player’s death in practice. (Stinson, some assistants and administrators, and Louisville’s school district are being sued by Gilpin’s divorced parents.)

Sad to say, it’s not Gilpin’s death that has suddenly has brought out a lot of worry about making sure players can handle heat, including today’s release of guidelines from the National Athletic Trainers Association designed to ease players into shape during the heat through limits on first-days practices, rather than whipping them into shape right away. It’s the possibility Stinson could be serving hard time — and that the principals, superintendents and, yes, trainers, are going to get dragged down in their wake. That’s why football coaching associations are prominent on the list of contributors to a legal defense fund for Stinson.

Most state high school athletic associations, including Kentucky’s, eevn before Gilpin’s death had standards on handling heat, including recommendations on water breaks. (A key part of the Stinson case is whether the coach refused his players water breaks the day Gilpin collapsed.)

But after Gilpin, in many states those standards are being re-examined. Meanwhile, in Kentucky it’s now state law that at least one person attending a high school practice or game must have completed a 10-hour course on handling emergencies, including heat stroke.

It might look unseemly and disrespectful that football coaching associations are prominent on the list of contributors to a legal defense fund for Stinson. Surely, they have self-preservation in mind. On the other hand, any youth coach is now going to be worried, rightfully, that they will be held liable for anything untoward that happens under their watch. What happens if I’m coaching one of my kids’ basketball teams, and someone collapses? Is it my fault? I don’t run my practices like Bear Bryant’s infamous Junction Boys camp.

But if Stinson gets convicted, I could face the very real risk of being charged myself if something horrible happened on my watch. After all, aren’t I supposed to know my players’ medical condition, or how hard I should push them? You know how many times I’ve gotten medical information on kids in four years of coaching? Zero.

That’s probably not going to happen, whatever Stinson’s fate. Though it’s not helping Stinson’s case that his old employer, the Jefferson County Public Schools, appears to be stonewalling the prosecution by being excruciatingly slow in turning over its own report on Gilpin’s death. (The school district collected the health forms for Gilpin, and would have been the ones to tell Stinson that he was taking Adderall, which can accelerate dehydration. However, it would not have known about Gilpin’s use of creatine, which also can accelerate dehydration.)

Actually, I highly doubt Stinson will get convicted. Just a hunch. But if nothing else, the threat of Stinson’s conviction — much more than Max Gilpin’s death — will get coaches and administrators to take a closer look at making sure that everyone is wiser in the heat.

Identifying and dealing with the asshole parent

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vonnegut2yv1Kurt Vonnegut, “Breakfast of Champions.”

At least in my experience as a youth sports coach, I’ve found that even the worst asshole parents are coming from a good place — trying to do the best for their kids. So I respect that. Not that I don’t think they’re “helping” in the same way my 3-year-old daughter “helps” putting her clothes away. But I break the “assholes” down into these categories:

1. Parents who are new to youth sports. They’ll yell instructions from time to time, but they’re basically harmless. I don’t confront anybody about this kind of stuff, because eventually they’ll back off when their kids get older. Plus, this is usually at an age I’m so busy paying traffic cop that I don’t have time to notice.

2. Parents who have a hard time letting go of controlling their kid. Often this overlaps with No. 1. Again, if they aren’t being disruptive, I’m not going to say anything, even if they talk through the dugout to their kid. Hey, I’m just coaching youth sports here, not running the Lakers. As long as they aren’t yelling at me or other kids, this is an issue I leave to the parents and kids to work out.

3. Parents who really feel like their kid has a chance to be a star. Many times you do find these parents coaching, usually to the detriment of your kid, whom they’re ignoring to promote Freddie Futuremajorleaguer. But if they’re not coaching, they’re paying people plenty of money to do so, and they’re yelling at you for failing their child. I look at this like George being run off the floor by Coach Dale in Hoosiers: “Look, mister, there’s… two kinds of dumb, uh… guy that gets naked and runs out in the snow and barks at the moon, and, uh, guy who does the same thing in my living room. First one don’t matter, the second one you’re kinda forced to deal with.” Except in this case I get to run off the parent. If a parent really thinks I’m a problem and wants to pull their kids off the team, I say, have at it. It’s just better for everyone involved. This is also why (except for rec league basketball) I don’t coach past about age 10. At least in basketball I know a little bit what I’m doing. I just don’t know enough in other sports, and don’t have the time commitment to make, to help anyone, future star or not.

4. Parents who feel like you’re picking on their kid. In the rare times I’ve dealt with this, I’ve felt the looming background of twisted family dynamics that I don’t want to get into. That’s kinda why with the other categories I don’t get any more confrontive than I have to — I don’t know, and I don’t want to know, what’s going on behind closed doors. They can see a therapist to work that out.

5. Parents who gossip about you, or organize against you behind your back. I’m going to guess this happens more with travel teams. Anyway, whatever the reason, if this has happened to me (and I’ve tried to remain as blissfully unaware as possible), I’ve just stayed out of it. I’m done at season’s end, and we’ll all go our separate ways. Life’s too short. Unless the someone it gets taken out on my kid. But I’ve never seen anything like that.

6. Finally, parents who are just plain assholes. They’re loud, they’re drunk, they’re stupid. Fortunately, the other parents help you with these folks, because they’re just as sick of them as you are.

Mark Abboud paves the road to hell

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A Minnesota soccer coach, on his blog, says he was clear from last fall on: if his 12-and-under girls’ soccer somehow pulled off the miracle of looking like it would beat an affiliated, elite 13-and-under team in tournament competition, he would, in his words, “probably find a way for the 13s to go through over our team.”

And, by god, that’s exactly what happened. And now Mark Abboud, a former pro player, is out of a job as technical director of the elite Minnesota Thunder Academy program and is busy working as the latest youth sports morality play.

The academy, which runs recreational and elite programs, tossed out Abboud, fined him $600 (to be paid to charity) and only kept him on as a 12s coach for the rest of the season by the grace of the girls, for an incident May 17.

Abboud slowly and painfully recounts the day in his season blog, giving both the reader and Abboud himself the imagery of seeing a car wreck before it happens, yet not being able to avoid it.

Abboud’s team of 12s, as he recounts, was basically in a state cup tournament for the experience. In past years, Abboud had seen a predecessor team to the Thunder, a team he coached, lose to a younger squad, then get smacked in the state tournament. He didn’t feel it was valuable to younger girls to get clobbered, nor did he believe it was best for the program for that to happen. No one objected when he put that idea forth — after all, what are the odds?

So game day comes when Abboud’s team faces the Thunder’s elite 13-year-olds, and he tells his girls to go out and play hard. He even switches up his offensive and defensive set to improve his girls’ chances. In a tribute to Abboud’s skills, it works — too well. “My thoughts were a-whirl,” Abboud wrote May 18. “The 13s are a better team overall than we were. They would do our club proud at Regionals if they got past either the White team or EP (game was to be played after ours). It would be better for the club and for MN to have them represent the state at the Midwest Region Championships. We were here for the experience. I was silently cheering for the 13s to score a goal.”

The game is tied at 1 at the end of regulation. And at the end of two overtimes. Time for penalty kicks.

And Abboud makes good on his vow. He instructs his girls to kick slowly to the 13s goalie. Apparently the 12s didn’t get the message, because they reportedly were sobbing at the news. (I understand — I worked at a magazine where we were told by the publisher no matter how well we did, the focus always would be on making the sister magazine we spun out thrive, with us left to die. I found a new job not too long after that inspiring pep talk.)

Abboud, in his own words, immediately regretted his presumably well-reasoned, well-thought out decision.

What did I just do? I took the decision out of the girls’ hands and dictated a controllable ending to a match against the spirit of competition and of the game itself. Albeit I still stand behind the rationale used in this case, I’m thinking again it was not the right way to deal with the situation. It would have been helpful to have a club coach or director around to bounce this idea off of prior to acting it out.

The look of disappointment and betrayal that some of them held in their eyes was crushing to me. I was so frustrated with the whole thing that I accidentally said “Some of you are going to be poutty and b-i-t-c-h-y to me because of this, but I hope you understand my thought process.” I’ve never used that language with a youth team before, though I’m sure they’ve heard far worse. The b-word broke the ice, eliciting chuckles from almost every girl, but I still regretted the slip. And regret was already building about other things.

Though many other MTA coaches and directors were supportive later that afternoon to my face, we’ll see what the next days bring. I thought it was the right decision to make at the time (and for the entire last year), I take full responsibility for any repercussions, and through this writing that is always insightful and constructive to me, I’m starting to regret the choice.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune did a story on Abboud’s Sophie’s Choice that didn’t shy away from what Abboud did, but was pretty sympathetic, though the 132 reader comments (as of this writing) are, uh, not.

I’ll say this first: Abboud must be pretty well-liked for his 12s to accept him after being shafted, so much so that they begged the Thunder to let him stay on as coach. But not to pile on to Abboud’s self-flagellation, that was a dumb decision. Especially dumb because he had so much time to think about it. He decided last fall this would happen? Did he run this by his board of directors? Maybe the parents or others didn’t object, because they probably didn’t think anything of it — until it became reality.

It’s funny that while the usual complaints about youth sports is coach’s win-at-all-costs attitude, Abboud gets slammed for losing on purpose. But the idea is to try. If the 13s can’t beat the 12s, that’s their problem. You can’t decide they would do better later, that they’re having an off day, so you have to game the results for them. Abboud was trying to help, but like my wife says when I throw her delicates in the dryer, you’re not helping.

I know, from reading his blog, that Abboud knows all that. However, I would lose my license as a sports pundit if I didn’t same something. (And Coach Abboud, feel free to contact me if you wish to speak further about this.)

By the way, the Thunder isn’t the only one handing out punishment over this. Inside Minnesota Soccer reported June 1 that the Minnesota Youth Soccer Youth Association not only banned Abboud from coaching in state cup competition through 2010, but they handed the same sanction to the 13s coach, Andy Kassa, as well. (Apparently there was evidence Abboud tipped off Kassa to what he was doing.) The 13s also were booted out of state competition — so much for getting the better team ahead.

Abboud wrote in his blog — not updated since May 21 — that he figured some punishment would be coming down. After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re shaving points because you’re in cahoots with gamblers or shaving points because you think you’re helping your club — even in no-score leagues, people don’t take kindly to coaches who tell their players to stop trying.

As the Stinson turns (big break for the defense edition)

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player-thumbIt’s a shame that Max Gilpin, the 15-year-old who died after a football practice last August in Louisville, Ky., is growing more and more of a footnote in the aftermath of his demise. But that’s how it goes when stuff like this happens.

From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

A Bullitt County circuit judge this morning [Tuesday] issued a domestic violence order against Jeffery Dean Gilpin, the father of the Pleasure Ridge Park football player who died after he collapsed at a practice.

During a court hearing, Gilpin’s wife, Lois Louise Gilpin, alleged that her husband had been abusive in the past and had recently threatened harm if she did anything to “dishonor” her stepson, Max Gilpin, who died at a practice on Aug. 23.

Jeff Gilpin, represented by attorneys, denied the allegations.

Nevertheless, Judge Elise Spainhour told Jeff Gilpin to avoid all contact with his wife and to enter anger counseling, along with grief counseling. The pair plan to divorce, they said.

“I’m very sorry you lost your child,” Spainhour told Jeff Gilpin. “You need to try to salvage your life. You don’t want to live in a sea of anger.”

Gilpin already has one ex-wife: Max’s mother, who is joining him in filing a civil lawsuit against former coach David Jason Stinson, as well as other coaches and the Louisville school district. They filed on the basis of wrongful death, saying Stinson denied water to players and pushed them too hard on a day when the heat index reached 94 degrees.

But what really made Max Gilpin’s case stand out is that Stinson is facing an August court date after a grand jury indicted him on reckless homicide charges as a result of the player’s death.

Presumably, Jeff Gilpin’s home life shouldn’ t have anything to do with Stinson’s guilt or innocence. But for sure Stinson’s lawyers will be poring through his divorce filings (if they haven’t already) looking for anything they can use. Already, Jeff Gilpin did them a favor during his civil trial deposition by saying he wasn’t sure that Stinson denied anyone water — a key fact on which the civil and criminal cases turn.

Stinson’s attorneys are going to be especially aggressive not only because they have a client to defend, but also because they know (thanks to the contributions they’re receiving from coaches nationwide) that Stinson’s guilt or innocence is going to have a profound effect on coaches’ authority. Especially their authority to inflict physical punishment like “gassers,” the sprint drills Stinson was alleged to have his players run because of a perceived lack of hustle, a coaching technique as old as coaching itself. With that at stake, and with his father’s personal foibles coming into the spotlight, it’s unfortunate Max Gilpin himself is more and more of an afterthought and symbol than a boy who died tragically.

Jodi Scheffler, meet Phillip Sandford

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In writing the other day about Jodi Scheffler, the Kirkland, Wash., mom facing criminal charges for allegedly attacking a 12-year-old Little League player she said was taunting her son, I gave the unsolicited advice that you never, never, never, never, never, ever, ever, ever as a parent/adult take conflicts between kids into your own hands. Give or take a never or ever.

Alas, that advice came way too late for Phillip Sandford. In 2007, the 46-year-old rec league wrestling coach from Old Bridge, N.J., decided he had to step in after seeing an opposing wrestler throw a punch at his charge, who also happened to be Sandford’s son.

Here is a video of the incident, shot by the opposing team from Sayreville, N.J.

The tape shows the wrestlers falling outside the circle, the referee blowing the whistle, and Sandford appearing out of nowhere to tackle the opposing wrestler.

Except that Sandford claims he wasn’t tackling — he tripped and fell. And he ran out there because the opposing wrestler was throwing punches. You can’t see that on the video, though the wrestlers are out of camera range when the alleged punches were thrown.

Unlike Scheffler, Sandford was a coach — I say was because he wasn’t anymore after that tackle/trip-and-fall. So he had some right to be there. But, again, while it’s admirable Sandford wants to protect his son, any father, coach or not, should let the referee handle things. That’s what he’s there for. If the referee isn’t handling things to your satisfaction, you’re better to take it up with a league or tournament official after a cooling-off period rather than racing across the wrestling mat, ready to strike.

Like Scheffler, Sandford was hit with a criminal charge. Here’s, reporting from Sandford’s trial last week.

Sandford was charged under a relatively new law that elevates a simple assault, normally a disorderly persons offense, to aggravated assault, an indictable offense, if it occurs at a community or sporting event attended by children younger than 16. The charge is a fourth-degree offense.

The jury had to decide whether Sandford meant to hurt Patrick Ronan of Sayreville, who was then 16, when he ran over and grabbed the Ronan, who was wrestling Sandford’s 14-year-old son.

Last Thursday, a jury in New Brunswick, N.J., couldn’t agree on that question, so the judge declared a mistrial. The parties are due back in court May 29.

Stuff like this makes you wonder whether there should be some partition between parents, coaches and players, like the one my 6-year-old son/, his friend/T-ball teammate and I had to stand behind to see the naked mole rats at Brookfield Zoo Friday so we didn’t disturb their newborns.


I don’t even want to think what search string is going to end up disappointing the perverts out there.

As the Stinson turns (barely)

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David Jason Stinson, he of the reckless-homicide-charged-and-being-sued-former-football-coach-whose-player-died-of-dehydration-days-after-running-gassers-at-a-hot-preseason-practice David Jason Stinsons, appeared in court in Louisville, Ky., today for a pretrial conference in his criminal case.

Nothing happened.

Political science

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This post will be about politics in sports, but I came up with the headline  as an excuse to post Randy Newman doing “Political Science.”

Greg Sellnow of the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin isn’t a sportswriter by trade, but he’s been a sports parent and coach for a long while. So it makes sense he used his bully pulpit to preach on about the complaints regarding youth sports, and whether they are grounded in any reality.

I won’t go through all of them, but I will highlight two that struck me as most interesting.

Complaint: Youth sports are too “political.” The top traveling teams are picked by a few rich and powerful parents who control the selection process.

Reality: Sure, there are some coaches and youth sports board members who are listened to more than others. And it’s time that some of these folks give it up and allow some “new blood” to get involved.

But, by and large, the people who serve in these influential positions are there because they’re willing to donate a ton of time and effort to the kids. It’s been my experience that many of the parents who complain the loudest about youth sports being “political” are those who are least willing to volunteer to get involved.

Politics is politics, whether it’s the President of the United States or the president of the 9-year-old girls softball travel team. The ones in power are most influenced by anyone who gets their ear, which is why there are people who dedicate their lives to getting the ear of either president. Or finding a way to get themselves involved in the political system so the president has to listen to them.

The parents who put in the time to help run leagues are often doing yeoman’s work, a thankless job that’s noticed only if someone is pissed off. If that gets their kid a little bump ahead, what the heck? At least everyone knows that kid’s parents is helping to keep things moving.

On the other hand, mee-ow, Greg. Space constraints might have explained why you left it as the bitching parents being those “least willing” to get involved. They might have a legitimate reason not to get involved — job conflict, taking care of a sick mother, taking care of multiple kids, etc. I’m sure you and anyone else in sports have gotten crap from parents who just seem to like to complain, or don’t find out why something happened before yelling about the injustice. But it’s a disservice to all involved if the people involved in running youth sports believe those who aren’t at their meetings are people who don’t give a shit.

On the third hand, if you’re a parent who is upset at how something went down, it wouldn’t hurt to find out how the whole process works. In most cases, the decision-making is far less diabolical than you would believe.

Here is the other nugget from Greg Sellnow’s column I wanted to point out:

Complaint: Kids are encouraged to become one-sport athletes at an early age.

Reality: There’s a lot of truth to this. When my son was in middle school, an assistant youth football coach berated me in front of my child for picking him up early from football practice so he could attend hockey practice. I thought my son showed his dedication to both teams by wanting to fit in half of each practice, rather than skip one altogether. The assistant coach didn’t see it that way.

I’ve always thought kids should be encouraged to participate in multiple sports and a variety of other after-school activities, especially elementary and middle school students.

After all, very few of these kids are going to go on to play competitive sports in college. Many of them won’t even play varsity high school sports. Why not allow them the benefit of a little variety when they’re in elementary and middle school?

I must admit — I’ve been the dickish coach who Sellnow describes.

When I coached my son’s basketball team in fourth grade, I had a kid who also had hockey practice the same night as our practice. No problem. I worked it out with his parents that he alternate between hockey and basketball. I was assured the hockey coach would sign on.

Presumably, he did not. Because this kid probably went to only one or two basketball practices all year.

I was, to say the least, peeved. I had a rule that a kid who missed a practice without letting me know had to sit out the first half, and the parents of the hockey kid didn’t care for that. But the other parents were ticked that this kid never showed up to practice and yet was playing at all. I ended up dropping the rule — that was a bit hard-core for fourth-grade. But also, I was angry at the parents for never following up as to why their kid wasn’t showing up to practices.

What I learned from that was, hey, douchebag, you’re a fourth-grade coach, not Phil Jackson. I probably made the situation bigger than it should have been because I was all, “You must be at practice! This is serious!” What I also learned was that parents and coaches need to communicate with each other in a double-sport situation.

Looking back, the issue wasn’t that the kid wasn’t at my practices. The issue was that the parents said he would be at certain practices, and didn’t bring him. I suspect the hockey coach didn’t agree, and that’s why he didn’t show. But it would have been nice to have been told. If you’re going to have your kid in multiple sports at one time, you owe to your child and your coach to be upfront and make arrangements.


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