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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.

Press, press…

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Pull.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author for whom you can blame 1,000 sales conference references to “The Tipping Point,” strikes again in the New Yorker with another lengthy article delving into the secrets of innovation and success. And this time, he’s completely full of shit.

I’m not a steady Gladwell reader, but all I know is that “How David Beats Goliath” takes eight web pages to say, with dubious evidence, what Sun Tzu said about 2,500 years earlier in 18 words: “So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”

My particular youth sports beef comes with Gladwell using as evidence how a supposedly unskilled team of 12-year-old girls from Redwood City, Calif., were shaped into an elite basketball fighting force because their coach used a press defense. He wonders why more teams don’t use it, pointing to example’s of Digger Phelps’ undermanned 1971 Fordham team upsetting a UMass squad featuring Julius Erving, and Rick Pitino’s continued success with a press defense even though his talent is supposedly so thin, Antoine Walker is his only notable pro.

Gladwell might know tipping points, but I’m not sure he’s so wise on basketball strategy. The press works if you have a team that relentlessly practices it, and a team playing against you that doesn’t know it’s coming or doesn’t practice for it. I would guess that 100 percent of the teams Redwood City played never played anyone else with a press defense, and didn’t have a college basketball-playing daughter of a former NFL star helping out in practice.

Plus, the effectiveness of the press goes down the higher level you go. Yeah, a press can work great at the 12-year-old level because most kids’ ballhandling skills aren’t good enough to overcome it. But when Pitino tried that in the NBA, he got hammered. Even on the college level, for every Fordham-over-Dr.-J’s UMass upset with the press, there are 100 teams that try it and watch the ball fly past them for easy layups. Apparently Gladwell also missed how slow and methodical Michigan State bounced Pitino’s Louisville team out of this year’s NCAA tournament.

The rec leagues I’ve coached in (junior high/late elementary coed) limit the press to either a certain point of a game (elementary level) or when you’re down (junior high). By doing so, it prevents a game that gets out of hand either way — either a team never able to inbound the ball, or a pressing team getting blown out. Anyway, why don’t I have them defend the whole court instead of the last 24 feet? Because no one is scoring from 50 feet out. I tell my kids to move out the big people, and except for kids we know can shoot from 16 feet out, give player on the outside a lot of space. Then get the rebound and leak out on the fast break — that’s where a commitment to playing the whole floor worked for the teams I’ve had.

Gladwell misses the point when he fawns on the press defense. You coach based on how the strengths of your players match the weaknesses of others — no argument there. But questioning why everyone doesn’t use the press more is way too simplistic a point. So is Gladwell presenting as fact that Pitino uses the press because he ALWAYS has substandard teams. The current starting lineup of Lawrence North High School would disagree.

Any coach who believes their success is completely tied to his or her own system is delusional — and so are the writers who swallow that line. If you don’t have talent on you team, your precious system goes down the crapper. Anyway, you could make an argument on the flipside — the reason so few NBA successes come out of Pitino’s system is because it doesn’t prepare players for what they’ll be doing in pro ball.

By the way, the Redwood City team Gladwell talks about with girls who hadn’t played, or weren’t terribly talented? I bet they weren’t a bunch of kids who had never touched a ball. I don’t care how many practices they had — if the girls didn’t have some speed or coordination already, the press would have failed in a hurry. And as far as development, this coach could be hurting his kids because as they advance and have to play more halfcourt ball, they’ll have no idea what to do.

Gladwell is a good writer, but I think he’s whiffed here. If Dean Oliver presented evidence to show the best ways to attack a defense, I’d listen more, because at least Oliver, the director of quantitative analysis for the Denver Nuggets, puts together statistical models to prove his points. Gladwell’s message is supposedly that teams should concentrate more on attacking their opponents’ weaknesses, but don’t a lot of coaches do that already?

By the way, even if successful, the press can cause you a lot of headache. Just ask Micah Grimes.

Schools abandoning sports, part II

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In Mark Hyman’s “Until It Hurts,” (already reviewed here), there’s an interesting bit of comment about parents and private interests taking over competitive sports when schools seemed less committed to them.

As I read it, I was thinking about all the discussions about statewide cuts in high school sports schedules and other pullbacks from varsity sports occurring during the current recession, in an environment where private interests like AAU and clubs are already siphoning away the elite athletes.

Except that Hyman was writing about the 1930s.

But it wasn’t the Depression and ensuring school sports cutbacks that gave private interests like American Legion Junior League baseball (born in 1926) and Pop Warner Football (born in 1929 as the Junior Football Conference) an opening to exploit. It was educators’ distaste for how competitive school sports was becoming. They decided it would be better to de-emphasize varsity sports in favor of intramurals — an idea I’ve proferred on a few occasions on this here blog.

Hyman approvingly quotes sports historian and coaching teacher Rainer Martens calling this decision a “gigantic blunder.”

“Ironically, educators suddenly found themselves no longer leading the movement they had begun. Instead of well-trained professionals guiding the sports programs of children, well-meaning but untrained volunteers assumed leadership roles. Sadly, educators were left on the sidelines shouting their unheeded warnings and criticisms,” writes Martens in his seminal (June 1978) book Joy and Sadness in Children’s Sports.

Of course, as schools got back on the sports train, overemphasis on winning was (and is) endemic there, too. But schools at least have to hold their players to academic and other eligibility standards, and limits on practices and games allow for more balanced lives and less potential for overuse injuries than hard-core club sports.

So do these cutbacks mean private organizations will get an even greater foothold on youth sports?

It’s tough to say right now — plenty of private organizations are noting declines in players or upturns in requests for financial assistance because of the current recession.

But the bigger, longer-term danger for schools that want to be taken seriously as a place for sports is that their cutbacks highlight how anyone wanting a scholarship or pro career should seek assistance elsewhere.

As a school cuts back music, would its top musicians not seek opportunities elsewhere? As a school cuts back theater, would not anyone dreaming of an actor career not seek opportunities elsewhere? If a school cuts back on academic programs, doesn’t it risk losing students to private schools or home-schooling?

I don’t have empirical numbers to prove that any of these trends hold. It just seems logical to me that if you’re already diffident about whether the high school soccer team is worth your time, especially when college coaches (as they do in Hyman’s book) make it clear all they scout is club soccer, it’s one more reason to leave varsity sports in favor of private programs.

Is this another gigantic blunder?

I don’t think so. As Hyman wrote, this cat already was let out of the bag in the 1930s. And anyone seeking elite play is already trained from an early age to look outside of school — to programs that, depending on their funding, might have better-trained coaches than the school can offer.

It might be time for schools to look at athletics as something more akin to intramurals — to find ways to get more students involved, both to help with the national obesity rate but also to give an outlet for kids who are never going to play travel ball. Again, we heed the words of Colorado football coach Dan Hawkins: “Go play intramurals, brother.”

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…..to 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]……..to 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.

Best shot that resembles the old Michael Jordan-Larry Bird McDonald’s commercial

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Off the top of the backboard, slide off the rope support, in the basket.

Sadly, it doesn’t count, but this shot from a Pewaukee, Wisc., 7th- and 8th-grade game sure is cool. And here I was impressed one of my junior high kids hit a 30-footer before halftime last Sunday.

Written by rkcookjr

April 8, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Micah Grimes’ first interview? I don’t think so, Phil Taylor

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Tonight I opened up my Sports Illustrated (yeah, I still get print), and on the back page is a column by Phil Taylor headlined: “Public Enemy Number 100.”

It’s a story about Micah Grimes, the Dallas Covenant High girls basketball coach fired in the wake of worldwide scorn over his team’s 100-0 squeaker over Dallas Academy. No surprise, given the way backlash against backlash tends to grow over time, once everyone has calmed down a little bit, it’s a sympathetic piece in which Grimes is said to have weekly meetings with former players and refuses to sue his school for wrongful termination (though he definitely could).

“If I had it to do over, after halftime I would have asked the other coach if he wanted to end the game,” Taylor quotes Grimes as saying. “If he wanted to keep going, I probably would have suggested we shut off the scoreboard.” (As it was, Grimes tells Taylor he had the Covenant timekeeper keep the clock running after building up a 59-0 halftime lead.)

Whether Grimes is the monster many made him out to be, or whether he was a victim of circumstance, I don’t know. Like 99.9 percent of people (including Barry Horn, the Dallas Morning News reporter who first wrote about the 100-0 game), I wasn’t there.

However, I will take issue with one part of Taylor’s column: “Grimes tells you this is the first interview he has given since the Jan. 13 rout.”

WRONG!

Me, myself and I had the first interview with Micah Grimes, Phil Taylor! Perhaps Mr. Grimes fails to remember this scintillating, hard-hitting email interview conducted Jan. 26:

“Mr. Grimes, my name is Bob Cook, and I write a blog called Your Kid’s Not Going Pro. I know this is a difficult time, but I wonder if you don’t mind chatting with me about the Dallas Academy game and its aftermath. Thanks.”

Hi Bob, I’m going to decline an interview for now. I really appreciate your willingness to show my side of the story, but this whole thing is a little bit overwhelming right now, and I would like to let things die down. Thanks again.

Sincerely,
Micah

Um, OK, it wasn’t quite as detailed an interview as Phil Taylor got. But I asked a question, and got a response, so that counts!

Thirteen

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You hear some version of this stat so often, you figure eventually it’s going to be a Paul Hardcastle song. Somewhere around three-quarters of kids participating in organized sport quit by the time they’re thirteen. Thirteen. Thirteen. Th-th-th-th-th-th-thirteen.

Usually this statistic is accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing. But I’ve never seen anyone worry about the percentage of kids who take up a musical instrument who never make it to high school band. Or the number of kids who start singing and never join a high school chorus. Or the number of kids who try out for a school play who don’t continue into high school theater.

I think the competitive aspect of sports is only reaching what it has been for a number of extracurricular activities for kids. No one ever talks about how someone should be allowed to join the school orchestra and play violin just for fun. You’re expected to get the goddamn notes right. There is nothing special about sports that gives children an inalienable right to be equal no matter what, especially as they get older.

However, what is different about sports is that as an activity, it is something that is possible to do for your own enjoyment and benefit without worrying about if your A’s are too sharp. The disturbing story about youth sports is not that the elite sports are getting more elite, but that fewer opportunities exist for kids to participate in a casual setting. Whether that’s because there’s no supply or no demand is up for debate.

so_you_want_to_quit_smA story published over the weekend by the St. Paul Pioneer Press has some interesting information on both sides of this — about the decline of organized school sports participation, and the decline of casual participation as well. The piece by reporter Bob Shaw says that according to Minnesota Department of Education information, high school sports participation is about half off the peak of 54 percent of students in 1981-82. The story doesn’t say it, but I would find it shocking if other states didn’t see similar declines.

Looking at the story and the always-entertaining comments by readers beneath it, the following reasons are thrown out for the decline. In no particular order:

– Fewer three-sport athletes (one student in three sports counts as three)

– Bigger, consolidated high schools (fewer slots available)

– Student burnout from playing every day since age 5

– Student burnout from trying to balance school, home, work and athletic responsibilites

– Video games

– Overprotective parents who either don’t let their kids run around and play on their own, or are stage moms and dads on travel teams

– The emergence of club teams as a bigger factor in college recruiting

– Working mothers (kids can’t participate in sports early in life if a chauffeur isn’t home)

– Illegal immigrants (Lou Dobbs is apparently a commenter)

– Greater diversity in schools (or, why don’t Muslims play hockey, dammit?)

– Title IX (i.e., girls killing boys sports, though the story notes in soccer and hockey, girls’ participation in Minnesota is up sharply)

– Sports being  just too damn serious

– Men controlling sports (thus turning it into a proxy for war, because if women controlled it, it would be all hearts and flowers and game-ending hugs)

– Kids not playing sports on their own, just for fun

15978253_7ce12a81ba_mThey’re coming to ruin our sports!

You might find the above reasons ridiculous, or spot-on, or both. No question, the elite levels of sports are getting more elite at earlier ages. I know it was difficult for my son to start at wrestling at age 9, when most of the kids he competed against had four years’ experience on him. He was done after a year. But it can be done. The wrestling coaches told me my son would probably get his butt kicked for two years, but he would catch up. It just so happened my son liked the wrestling practices, but not waiting around all day at some distant location to wrestle two matches. (I can’t say I blamed him.)

The more distressing information from the Pioneer Press story is that intramural participation rates have sagged so low — an indication that sports in an either-or in which you’re either an elite athlete, or not in the picture.

In the 1980s, about 74,000 children picked from a smorgasbord of 70 intramural sports. The range was impressive — everything from co-ed wrestling to roller-skating.

By 2007-08, intramural programs had evaporated — with only eight sports and 5 percent participation.

My oldest son, the aforementioned ex-wrestler, is playing as a sixth-grader in a seventh- and eighth-grade basketball rec league. It’s great he has an opportunity to play in a casual league just to have a little fun playing hoops. It’s competitive, but it’s hardly AAU ball. The league is a great opportunity, especially for kids who either didn’t make their school junior-high team, or didn’t want to bother with it.

On the other hand, the reason he is playing with older kids is because the league couldn’t get enough of them to sign up to make four full teams. Certainly the economy is cutting down on the number of families who are going to pay even relatively low rec-league fees. But you wonder if kids and their families are even interested in the few opportunities available to play casually. Or maybe they’ve been conditioned to think no such opportunities exist, or should.

It’s like telling little boys not to make a gun out of a stick

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3229190967_cc249b85b9I think I’ve said somewhere before on this site that the reason for no-score leagues is not to protect the egos of the kids — it’s to make the parents shut up. The kids know the score.

For example, my 3-year-old daughter and my 6-year-old son. The other night we were playing a game sent home by my 6-year-old’s kindergarten teacher, a game in which you advance spaces based on your ability to read a word on a card. My 3-year-old, who does not know how to read, insisted on joining us.

My 6-year-old’s nose was out of joint because I was helping her read the words and advance. My 3-year-old’s nose was out of joint because I wouldn’t let her jump ahead spaces in front of her brother. Both of them were out of joint when it appeared there was a winner. “I won,” my 6-year-old said. “No, I’M THE WINNER!!!!!” my 3-year-old screamed.

As you parents of young children know, there truly are no winners here.

Now, I know this doesn’t always carry over to organized sports. But the kids who care about winning really care about it, no matter what you do to try to make them care. Also, those who don’t care about winning really don’t care about it.

That’s something we parents should remember and understand, and thus adjust accordingly our expectations and what we need to do to meet our children’s post-game needs. In either case, ice cream works exceedingly well.

Written by rkcookjr

March 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm

When I was a virgin

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On March 28, 2003, when I was doing a weekly sports column for Flak Magazine, I posted a piece titled “The Harsh World of Kindergarten Soccer.” It was based on my oldest son’s first foray into competitive sports. It’s interesting to me to look at my knee-jerk reaction to his first game, and how much my perspective has changed in the intervening six years in youth sports parenting and coaching.

2605634263_144c2cdf5d

Oh my… that kindergarten panda is playing soccer with another panda’s decapitated head!

Here is the piece, interspersed with some thoughts on what I would say to my six-years-ago self:

Just when it seems there’s no place in sports as pure and innocent as it appears to be, you get the chance to watch a bunch of kindergartners play league soccer for the first time.

Being that they’re kindergartners and have spent the school year learning about respect toward others and playing fair, both sides — home team Sacred Heart on Chicago’s Southeast Side and visitor St. Catherine of Alexandria from suburban Oak Lawn — seem shocked at having adults tell them to go after the team in the different-colored shirts for no apparent reason. Five-year-olds understand getting mad because somebody took your toy or called you a name, not because somebody is wearing the wrong clothes. That doesn’t come until junior high.

The kids are so polite that in the first minutes of the game no one challenges another player when he or she (it’s a coed league) tries to kick the ball. You can’t steal the ball from anyone — that’s wrong!

Soon, though, exhorted by their coaches, the just-out-of-diaper dandies catch on to the idea that they should try to kick the ball into the other team’s net. At that point, almost all the players chase the ball and gather around it, kicking with such vigor it looks like it’s being attacked by a hyperactive millipede. I say “almost” because each team has, of course, a goalie, and two defenders, who spend the game thinking about candy or the new Harry Potter DVD until the ball comes their way and they’re suddenly called on to participate, and with one swift kick the other way they can get back to their thoughts.

During all this, the parents cheer approvingly and supportively.

In looking back, I can’t underestimate how weird it is for everyone — players, coaches and parents — when everyone is making their first stab at youth sports. I know that most of my son’s team was made up of oldest children, so it wasn’t like there were been-there, done-that parents who were killing time, or parents who already had it in their minds that this was the first stop toward professional glory.

But as the second half begins, the first chinks in the kindergartners’ purity and innocence begin to appear, though they won’t realize this on this cool, sunny Saturday afternoon in late April, nor until years later, possibly.

By this time, every parent and coach has figured out who the really good players are. St. Catherine has a girl who looks like the second coming of Mia Hamm. It’s not just that she was fast and could kick and run at the same time. Where she really stood out was her awareness and control in keeping the ball inbounds, this in a game where the field width was expanded 10 yards because the ball was kicked out of bounds so frequently. Parents begin talking to each other about this girl and her ability; one even jokes about how other St. Catherine players were “getting in her way.”

This girl will go unnamed because, in an age where scouting services tell you who is the best fifth-grade basketball player in the country, there’s a danger some scout is going to show up at her games, and autograph seekers will come calling, figuring that by now she should know how to write her name.

Maybe I shouldn’t have said the kindergartners’ innocence and purity were being lost. I’m implying it here, but the loss of innocence is on their parents. Youth sports can be the first chance to measure up your kid against another, if you so choose. That’s one of the many reasons why parents freak out at games — the whole my-kid-is-a-reflection-on-me thing. By the way, that does not extend to the mother of future Mia Hamm, who looked genuinely shocked at how adept her daughter was. No shock, this girl has continued to have great athletic success, and fortunately her family has been supportive without becoming stage parents from hell. I play basketball with this girls’ stepdad, and he’s as nice a guy as they come.

As for other players, you can sense parents mentally keeping track of how long their children have been sitting on the bench. Or maybe that’s just me. My 5-year-old son plays for St. Catherine and, like the other kids, gets a lot of playing time. The coaches seem very aware of making sure everyone gets to play an equal amount. But the parent in me can’t help but get antsy if it seems like my boy was benched a nanosecond longer than he has to be. As a parent, you get overprotective, in part because if your child feels like he hasn’t played long enough, you’ll have to deal with the crying and complaining all the way home.

I didn’t technically say the child would be crying. It could be a spouse, or yourself.

Fortunately, this is a passing feeling for me, though it made me understand how parents get so nutty at children’s sporting events that some leagues have banned any cheering or noise whatsoever. First, you worry about playing time. Then, you start complaining about the refs. Next, you’re hitting the coach over the head with his clipboard.

Perhaps the greatest loss of innocence — or greatest life lesson, depending on your point of view — is that a score is kept. When the aforementioned Mia Hamm-in-the-making scores, the St. Catherine players erupt with a joy comparable to that on Christmas morning. When the clock runs out with the score still 1-0, a similar joy results … once the players are told the game is over and they’ve won. On the Sacred Heart side, the young players just mill about until they’re told what to do. The teams may not understand exactly why winning or losing is important, but the ultimate loss of innocence is knowing that it matters.

That last sentence now makes me want to barf. Kids know winning and losing matters from the earliest of ages. Why else does “MINE!” enter the vocabulary so early? The only difference here is that the kids are learning their winning and losing matters to OTHER people so much. And that part of what separates those who will stay with sports with those who don’t is the ability to get het up about winning on demand, rather than just whenever you feel like it.

Micah Grimes gets fired

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My guess is, the next step in the Dallas Academy saga is Grimes suing Covenant of Dallas, where he coached until today. From the Dallas Morning News:

The Covenant School fired its girls’ basketball coach Sunday, the same day he distributed an e-mail and posted on a Web site that he disagreed with the school’s headmaster as well as the school’s chairman of the board, who have publicly apologized for Covenant’s 100-0 victory over Dallas Academy.

Kyle Queal, Covenant’s head of school, said former coach Micah Grimes “now only represents himself.” Queal said he could not answer if the firing was a direct result of his e-mail and posting.

Grimes’ e-mail and posting said, “In response to the statement posted on The Covenant School Web site, I do not agree with the apology or the notion that the Covenant School girls’ basketball team should feel embarrassed or ashamed,” Micah Grimes wrote in an email sent to The Dallas Morning News. “We played the game as it was meant to be played. My values and my beliefs would not allow me to run up the score on any opponent, and it will not allow me to apologize for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”

(I’m looking for the personal web site. I will link to it once I find it. Here it is.)

So let’s review what turned an otherwise nondescript small, private high school girls’ basketball game into the latest referendum to where you stand on sportsmanship, youth athletics and what it means to be an American.

Jan. 13: Covenant School of Dallas beats Dallas Academy 100-0.

Jan. 22: The Dallas Morning News posts a story about the game, which gets almost instantaneous reaction from keyboard tappers around the world such as myself. Later that day, Covenant posts a note offering to forfeit the game. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban invites the Academy team to American Airlines Arena for an NBA game.

(NOTE: I emailed Morning News reporter Barry Horn tonight about how he was tipped off to this story. He said he read his paper’s own box score the morning after the game and made calls when he got back to work that Monday, Jan. 19. Horn doesn’t cover high school sports, but he “had seen Dallas Academy play this season and I had seen Covenant in the past.” He added, “I have always contended that the best stories in the newspaper come out of the agate or the briefs.” Oh yeah.)

Jan. 24: Covenant coach Micah Grimes sends an email and posts to a web site (not Covenant’s) that he disagrees with his school’s decision. Later that day, Covenant fires him.

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I’ll bet you were expecting a picture of Donald Trump.

Grimes seemed to know the guillotine was about to drop. From the Morning News:

Grimes did not immediately respond to repeated email requests for an interview. But his email and Web site post concluded, “I believe in the lessons that sports teach us. Competition builds character, and teaches us to value selflessness, hard work, and perseverance. As a coach, I have instilled in my girls these values. So if I loose my job over these statements, I will walk away with my integrity.”

Not if you spell “lose” with two o’s, you won’t.

Grimes, until Jan. 22 an unknown coach at an unknown school, is now an international lighting rod. (Horn noted in the story on Grimes’ firing that the original story got 665,000 page views, “an enormous number for a story on a local private school girls’ basketball game.” The previous quote was an example of extreme fucking understatement.) Either you support Grimes because, hey, what can you do when your team is that much better, or you want to tar and feather him for apparently keeping a press defense on for most of the game, thus allowing many, many backcourt steals and easy layups.

However, as President Obama would say, ahhhhh, let’s be clear here. No matter what Covenant says, Micah Grimes was not fired for running up the score. If so, he would have been fired after running over Waxahachie Prep 77-27, or crushing Irving North Hills 71-19. I’m guessing Terrell’s coach wasn’t fired after beating Covenant 79-33.

That the score had the potential to be 100-0 was not shocking, given that Waxahachie Prep had beaten Dallas Academy 66-4. Dallas Academy’s other losses, at least the ones I know of, were 66-4 and 49-7. (The team had two games scheduled between Covenant and Grimes’ firing, and I’m looking for those scores.) Should those coaches have been fired, too?

Girls basketball at the high school level, nearly four decades into Title IX, is still an area chock-full of blowouts, because some schools seem to have the funding or wherewithal to take it seriously, while others for some reason do not. Of course, nobody had nice, round numbers like 100 and 0 in their scores, so those other stompings aren’t newsworthy.

Also, that Dallas Academy is a school for special-needs students figures into that mix, too. Although lost in translation was that the school is not a special-education school in the way you usually think of it; it’s for kids with learning disabilities such as ADD and dyslexia, and it has had legitimate athletic success in other sports. Comparing the beatdown to Matt Dillon running down retarded kids in “There’s Something About Mary,” as a Chicago radio talk show host I once taught at Columbia College did on the air Friday, was not accurate, and made the school and coach look worse than they would have otherwise, which is an accomplishment. (By the way, in Grimes’ rebuttal on his own site, flightbasketball.com, he quotes an unidentified players on his team: “I have ADD and ADHD. There is nothing that separates me from anyone on the Dallas Academy girls team, so there is nothing that should separate the value of our sides.”)

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Carmen, is this revenge on me because I made you cover dance?

I’m not faulting Horn for his stories. I’m faulting Covenant for folding so quickly and obviously. If the administration thought Grimes was a good man when his team won 77-27, why was he a bad man at 100-0? Oh yeah, because the school’s good name was being slagged all around the world. I don’t know Grimes, and I don’t know whether he was trying to run it up. However, I don’t blame him for going down fighting. If Grimes hasn’t found a lawyer already, I’m sure one (or many) is finding him.

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