Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Archive for the ‘parents as reasonable human beings’ Category

Amid downturn, a rally to save youth sports

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Self-promotion alert! A piece I wrote for MSNBC.com’s “The Elkhart Project” about youth sports and the recession is up (with the headline I nicked).

We’re at an interesting point in youth sports. On the one hand, any program, particularly one affiliated with a school, that draws from a truly downtrodden area, particularly an urban area, is dying on the vine. Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the story, cities across the country are blowing out their budgets to build new youth sports facilities not only for their own local pleasure, but as an economic engine because of all the tournaments it could hold, and the money they bring in from parents who are spending more and more to get their kids into bigger and bigger leagues.

This video on the Abilene News-Reporter site has Jon Smith, director of the Abilene Youth Sports Authority, this week explaining why taxpayers should love to kick in to build a $40 million facility in the central Texas city of 120,000. Last year, the people of Abilene told the youth sports authority to stay out of their wallets. Geez, people, the Authority itself was founded, in its own words, “on Christian principles” — how much more of a sign from God do you need?

Anyway, it’s not surprising that those who have the money to spend, spend it, and those who can’t, don’t. What’s interesting is cases like Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate went from 5 percent to 18 percent in about six months (Elkhart is more reliant on manufacturing jobs, as a percentage of employment, than any metro area in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — something like 40 percent). I understand why the parents want to keep their kids in activities, despite the economy. As they say in the MSBNC.com article, it’s fun, it’s relatively inexpensive (as entertainment and socializing for the adults, too), it gets kids up and moving around, and, hey, it’s not the kids’ fault the RV plants shut down.

However, one thing I began to suspect after I wrote the article, and especially in wondering how long people in Elkhart can keep up youth sports spending (in the most devastated parts of the city, they aren’t), is the importance of youth sports in staying middle class. After all, if you’re in between jobs, you can suck it up, sign up your kids and maintain your social standing. If you’re having to pull your kids out of stuff, that’s not only disappointing to your children, but it’s also a signal to your family and the world that something has fundamentally changed. You’re not a middle-class person who happened to run into a rut. You’re a poor person.

This is amateur sociology on my part. I didn’t ask the people of Elkhart if that’s how they felt. I’m not sure how many have given it that much thought, and I’m not a budding Marxist trying to show how capitalism crushes the workers’ spirits. But as a parent, I know that if  I had to start saying no to my kids about signing up for their favorite activities, it would be a profound change in mindset about who we are and where we stand as a family.

By the way, when you talk to the people in Elkhart, you can’t help but root for them. Not to say that people in other areas hard-hit by the recession aren’t worthy of support. But in Elkhart I found people who carried a real and genuinely positive attitude that somehow, things were going to get better, and they were going to make things better the best they could. I hope they succeed.

When to let your kid quit

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New York Times’ Motherlode blog brings up a thorny question in the households of sports families — when is a child allowed to quit?9588687_b9cc351918_m

Believe it or not, it’s a question that’s never come up in my house. At least, not in terms of wanting to stomp off in the middle of a season. There’s been dabbling, particularly with my oldest children. My 12-year-old son has retired from soccer, baseball and wrestling, while my 10-year-old (as of tomorrow) daughter no longer needs her soccer gear. Then again, we’ve never pressured our children (as far as we know) into a certain sport because it’s good for them.

With four kids, I’m at the opposite end — talking them out of sports and activities they don’t appear to love with every fiber of my being. Especially hockey.  When my oldest son, who has played pickup games and taken hockey classes, said he might be interested in joining a league, I told him it was $1,500 and that he would be playing most every day. So, I ask you, son, do you love hockey, or do you kinda like it? “I kinda like it,” he said. “OK, then, no hockey,” I said. Turns out he much more enjoys putting on his in-line skates, popping some punk and metal on the iPod and zipping around the neighborhood to getting yelled at on the ice.

Back to quitting, I would say I’m hardly out of the mainstream in thinking that I would prefer if my child starts a season with a team, he or she should end it, and then quit. But I can see quitting under certain scenarios:

1. The coach and/or the other players are abusive. Not a little bit of teasing, or a coach who doesn’t worship the ground you walk on. I’m at most every game, anyway, and I coach, too. I know what abusive means.

2. The child clearly does not enjoy the sport. By that I mean you’re halfway through the season and the child prefers picking dandelions to kicking a soccer ball, or playing right field. That it’s a fight to get your child to every practice or game. You’ve already tried the “commit-through-the-season” speech, and it’s just not working. Some kids just don’t like certain activities. If it’s that bad, there’s no lesson your child is going to learn by sticking it out other than you’re unreasonable. Certainly, there will be other activities, sports or not, your child will enjoy, and you can always make finding another one a prerequisite for quitting. No sense making your life hell because your child is so unhappy.

3. Your work schedule changes, and you can’t get your child to practices or games. As a coach, I try to tell parents in this situation that we can make arrangements to have other parents help out. However, usually a child quits because of No. 3 when the indications of No. 2 are already in play.

Of course, some of you parents already know when you should not allow your child to quit under any circumstance. That’s when your child is on a travel team, has been for years, and your child quitting would shut you out from the exclusive, snotty social circle you’ve built with the other travel parents. Sometimes you have to let your children know it’s not always about themselves.

Despite recession, the kids' games go on

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Definition of  a city in trouble: people come to your town to do pieces where they express amazement your kids are still playing youth sports and doing things besides foraging through trash bins for sustenance.

ESPN’s Outside the Lines is doing this in Janesville and Beliot, Wisc., hit hard by industrial cutbacks, including reports by Mark Fainaru-Wada, he of Barry Bonds-BALCO-”Game of Shadows” fame, on Beloit youth baseball and the effort to raise money for a Janesville youth baseball complex.

I can’t be too flip about this idea and effort. I did the same a month ago in Elkhart, Ind., for MSNBC.com’s “The Elkhart Project,” which is devoted to a city that, thanks to the RV industry hitting a brick wall in this economy, went from 5 percent to nearly 20 percent unemployment in about six months. My story, I am told, is due to come this week, and it will get into why youth sports seems to be unaffected by the recession — why, in fact, it seems to be strenghtening kids’ sports — but also why that might not be able to last in some particularly hard-hit areas, no matter how much the parents try.

Like I’m sure the ESPN folks discovered in southern Wisconsin, the resolve of the people in Elkhart against a stunning economic turnaround is inspiring. You come to realize that despite the nuttiness you hear so often about sports parenting, the vast, vast majority of parents look at sports at something that can be a positive influence on their kids for whatever they do in life — with the full understanding what they will do is not going to be sports. It explains why youth sports is one of the last things a family will give up when times are tight.

Should I let my daughter be a cheerleader?

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Jennifer Gish, writing in the Albany Times-Union Parent to Parent blog, asks a question many parents of young girls have brooded over: softball player or cheerleader?

This may sound terrible, and I feel a little bad saying it, but I hope my daughter wants to play sports and doesn’t want to be a cheerleader.

I don’t have anything against cheerleading, I just always picture Sarah playing soccer or softball or basketball or whatever sport she wants. I want to her to learn about teamwork, about winning and losing. Sports build self-confidence, especially in girls, and I’d like Sarah to learn all of the lessons sports have taught me.

Cheerleading teaches many of those lessons, too. Maybe it’s a stereotype I need to get over.

I guess I see my daughter — who has a long time before hitting the playing field, by the way — more as a tomboy. Of course what I want most is my daughter’s happiness, and if she wants to be a cheerleader, I’m sure I’ll relent. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Am I wrong to feel this way?

In a word, no.

I, too, once had the same angst. When your daughter want to dress up as a cheerleader for Halloween or gets cheer-wear from well-meaning relatives, it’s all you can do not to think about snotty girls in high school and Charlie Sheen.

Ms. Gish, and all you other conflicted parents of daughters, the question to ask is this: if my girl is strong and independent, and she chooses to be a cheerleader, is that OK

In a word, yes.

After all, cheerleading doesn’t have to be only about stereotypical depictions of the girls being stuck on the sidelines while the boys are allowed to play. For example, my high school dance squad niece uses her dance training to choreograph routines that are far more complicated than the ol’ sis-boom-bah. She isn’t trying to impress the boys.It just so happens my 9-year-old chose softball — she once told me, “Why would I stand on the sideline and cheer when I could play?” I have to admit, I was pretty proud when she said that. But I’ll be just as proud if my 3-year-old someday decides to be the best cheerleader she can be.

If there is a reason to deny your daughter cheerleading, it’s the horrific injury rate — about two out of every three “catastrophic” girls’ sports injuries in high school and college are from cheers gone awry. If you think being a cheerleader is dainty, here is a likely response you might get from one who knows better:

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Written by rkcookjr

June 22, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Ron Harper’s kid is going pro

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418282085_a1519c3a28_mNo, not that Ron Harper.

You might have heard lately about a wunderkind named Bryce Harper, a Las Vegas high school baseball player who already has scouts writing reports so breathless and glowing, Fabio should be on the cover. Speaking of covers, you might have seen Bryce “Baseball’s LeBron” Harper on the cover of Sports Illustrated, unless you live in the Midwest (we got the Detroit Red Wings), or you are so Internet-centered you have no idea what a “cover” or a “Sports Illustrated” is.

Jeremy Tyler, a 6-foot-11 basketball wonder from San Diego, raised some hackles when he announced he would leave high school after his junior year to play pro ball in Europe, and get his GED along the way. The Harper family is raising even more hackles, enough hackles to get farm subsidies for them, by announcing 16-year-old Bryce is leaving high school after his sophomore year to play in a community college and get his GED so he can enter the major-league baseball draft earlier. (Thus turning community college into the real-life punchline for the old joke about it being high school with ashtrays. Except that with smoking laws as they are, the ashtrays are gone. So what is the new punchline?)

The part of the news conference that interested me the most was a line from Ron Harper that was pulled by Youth Sports Parents:

“People question your parenting and what you’re doing. Honestly, we don’t think it’s that big a deal. He’s not leaving school to go work in a fast food restaurant. Bryce is a good kid. He’s smart and he’s going to get his education.”

Ron Harper is in a difficult position here. Sure, he pretty much since day one trained Bryce to be a pro baseball player, though he seems much more well-adjusted than your average Marv Marinovich. And clearly Bryce is a sureshot future No. 1 pick. The Sports Illustrated cover article’s comment about competition his own age makes it clear that Bryce is way, way ahead, to the point that it’s probably hurting his own development as a player.

Managing a prodigy is no easy task. Move ahead too quickly, and you risk turning your child into a nut job like Michael Jackson. More ahead too slowly, and you might squelch and squander your child’s talent. I know this to a very, very small extent.

When I had just turned five, my parents moved me out of my kindergarten class into a first-grade class at another school because I had what, in the mid-1970s in a small Michigan town, was considered a major problem: I knew how to read. Well, it was a particular problem for the teacher, who was ticked when I would read the kids the angry notes she wrote about them. From what I told, I was crying most every day coming home from school, so my parents were faced with a tough decision: keep me in kindergarten, where I was miserable, or move me up to a grade where I would be more academically challenged.

Their decision to move me up was not met with understanding. My dad tells story of having to, literally, throw people off of his front porch because of the angry arguments about. And believe you me, when I was 14 while everyone else in my class was getting their drivers’ license, or 19 when my friends were allowed to drink legally, I wasn’t sure about the wisdom about the decision. Being two years’ younger than my classmates often was tough socially, and it definitely was a disadvantage in sports, as well.

However, I have come to understand over time that as a parent, you have to make the best decision with the information you have at the time. And I’ve led a mostly happy, successful life. No $20 million or so signing bonsues are awaiting me, but by any measurement I’ve had things go pretty well.

Maybe someday Bryce Harper will look back and think that leaving high school early was a mistake. I’m sure Ron Harper’s stomach is churning. Maybe Bryce Harper will get a big signing bonus and crap out because his maturity is lacking. Or maybe moving ahead early will help his game and his maturity level. We just don’t know. And that’s the fun and pain of parenting: you make a decision, and you never know how you child will turn out as a result of it.

Ron Harper's kid is going pro

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418282085_a1519c3a28_mNo, not that Ron Harper.

You might have heard lately about a wunderkind named Bryce Harper, a Las Vegas high school baseball player who already has scouts writing reports so breathless and glowing, Fabio should be on the cover. Speaking of covers, you might have seen Bryce “Baseball’s LeBron” Harper on the cover of Sports Illustrated, unless you live in the Midwest (we got the Detroit Red Wings), or you are so Internet-centered you have no idea what a “cover” or a “Sports Illustrated” is.

Jeremy Tyler, a 6-foot-11 basketball wonder from San Diego, raised some hackles when he announced he would leave high school after his junior year to play pro ball in Europe, and get his GED along the way. The Harper family is raising even more hackles, enough hackles to get farm subsidies for them, by announcing 16-year-old Bryce is leaving high school after his sophomore year to play in a community college and get his GED so he can enter the major-league baseball draft earlier. (Thus turning community college into the real-life punchline for the old joke about it being high school with ashtrays. Except that with smoking laws as they are, the ashtrays are gone. So what is the new punchline?)

The part of the news conference that interested me the most was a line from Ron Harper that was pulled by Youth Sports Parents:

“People question your parenting and what you’re doing. Honestly, we don’t think it’s that big a deal. He’s not leaving school to go work in a fast food restaurant. Bryce is a good kid. He’s smart and he’s going to get his education.”

Ron Harper is in a difficult position here. Sure, he pretty much since day one trained Bryce to be a pro baseball player, though he seems much more well-adjusted than your average Marv Marinovich. And clearly Bryce is a sureshot future No. 1 pick. The Sports Illustrated cover article’s comment about competition his own age makes it clear that Bryce is way, way ahead, to the point that it’s probably hurting his own development as a player.

Managing a prodigy is no easy task. Move ahead too quickly, and you risk turning your child into a nut job like Michael Jackson. More ahead too slowly, and you might squelch and squander your child’s talent. I know this to a very, very small extent.

When I had just turned five, my parents moved me out of my kindergarten class into a first-grade class at another school because I had what, in the mid-1970s in a small Michigan town, was considered a major problem: I knew how to read. Well, it was a particular problem for the teacher, who was ticked when I would read the kids the angry notes she wrote about them. From what I told, I was crying most every day coming home from school, so my parents were faced with a tough decision: keep me in kindergarten, where I was miserable, or move me up to a grade where I would be more academically challenged.

Their decision to move me up was not met with understanding. My dad tells story of having to, literally, throw people off of his front porch because of the angry arguments about. And believe you me, when I was 14 while everyone else in my class was getting their drivers’ license, or 19 when my friends were allowed to drink legally, I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of the decision. Being two years’ younger than my classmates often was tough socially, and it definitely was a disadvantage in sports, as well.

However, I have come to understand over time that as a parent, you have to make the best decision with the information you have at the time. And I’ve led a mostly happy, successful life. No $20 million or so signing bonuses are awaiting me, but by any measurement I’ve had things go pretty well.

Maybe someday Bryce Harper will look back and think that leaving high school early was a mistake. I’m sure Ron Harper’s stomach is churning. Maybe Bryce Harper will get a big signing bonus and crap out because his maturity is lacking. Or maybe moving ahead early will help his game and his maturity level. We just don’t know. And that’s the fun and pain of parenting: you make a decision, and you never know how you child will turn out as a result of it.

My father, R.I.P.

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Pictured above is Ken Cook, my father. As I type this, I am getting ready to make another trip back to Carmel, Ind., because I am told the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with last October is going to claim him very, very soon at the age of 66.

A long time ago, a friend and I talked about whether we eventually are doomed (our word) to become our fathers, a conversation that was a bit of debate about genetic vs. environment because I’m adopted. All I can say is, every time I take coffee to the bathroom, I am Ken Cook.

But this being a youth sports site, and your probably not wanting to know about my bathroom habits (or my father’s), I can certainly share how he influenced my own sporting life as a child, and how he still influences it as an adult.

Of course, he always was good about playing catch with my brother and I, or playing quarterback while he and I ran routes against each other. One big advantage in having my father as a dad was that as a child he was forced to stop being left-handed, that being the rage when he was a child. So when he played catch with me, he could put on my brother’s right-handed glove. When he played catch with my brother, he could wear my left-handed glove.

I can tell you that my dad certainly would agree with the idea about Your Kid Not Going Pro, because he never had such aspirations for us, even when as a 6-year-old I was leaving older kids in the dust in long-distance races up and down my block. School always was first, and steering us toward a steady career was what he had in mind.

If he was thinking sports first, he wouldn’t have pulled me out of kindergarten in my Owosso, Mich., school and put me in first grade in the local Catholic school as a result of my kindergarten teacher being royally pissed I knew how to read, mainly because I was reading the other kids the notes she was writing to their parents about what brats they were. Thus, I was always two calendar years younger than my peers — the opposite of what you do if you want your kid to go pro.

If he was thinking sports first, he (and my mom — she was no bystander) wouldn’t have yanked me off of my sixth-grade basketball team when I was in my brief, intense budding delinquent phase. So often you hear the argument kids should stay on a team when they’re troubled because it provides structure. My father, colorful with language as he was, would respond: Fuck that shit, dumbass.

If he was thinking sports first, he wouldn’t have yanked my brother and I off our Little League team in North Muskegon, Mich., (we moved around a lot — dad was transferred frequently in his job with the phone company) when I was 10 and my brother was 9. He thought the coach was a jackass, in no small part because — six years after Carolyn King on the other side of the state in Ypsilanti successfully sued to force Little League to drop their no-girls rule — that coach wouldn’t allow girls on his team. My dad was conservative politically, and was not exactly out there campaigning for ratification of the ERA. But he had a strong sense of fairness. His judgment was vindicated when the next year we played on a Little League team, which had a girl on the roster, won our town championship — while the other coach’s team finished last.

If he was thinking sports first, he would have pushed my brother and I to sign up and stay on teams, rather than letting us decide what we wanted to do. If we didn’t speak up, he didn’t sign us up. And when I quit running cross country and track after my sophomore year of high school, his words were something like, “OK.” But he was there for my meets, and those of my brother, who did stick it out all the way through. He wasn’t disinterested, but he wasn’t going to shell out money and time if we didn’t care ourselves.

And in all of that, I feel his influence. I probably push a little more, maybe a result of me coaching so many of my kids’ teams. But I don’t sign up my kids for anything they don’t want to do, and if they don’t want to do it anymore after the season is over, that’s fine by me. And I agree that school comes first, and sports comes way behind that. It’s fun, and it’s great, but… well, the blog title applies to my own kids as well.

My dad, though living three hours away, made it to some of my kids’ games, the last one being one of my 6-year-old son’s bowling league matches. That was after he was diagnosed. I know he was very proud, and he made sure to give my 6-year-old the 15-pound ball he used for years in his own playing days, understanding of course that my son is a bit far away from being able to lift it.

Soon my dad will be gone. But he’ll always be around, as you can see. Now, I’m going to get some coffee.

UPDATE: My father died early this morning in his home. He died peacefully, knowing he had a lot of love and support in his final days.

Live from one of America’s unemployment crisis epicenters

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Continuing this blog’s unplanned tour of America’s boomtowns-turned-bust (following Bradenton, Fla.), I come to you from Elkhart, Ind. Well, I think the Starbucks I’m sitting in is in Dunlap, technically, but it’s still part of Elkhart County. That’s where the job market has crashed like an RV hitting a brick wall, quite likely literally, given how the area’s dependence on recreational vehicle manufacturing has dragged it under.

The Elkhart-Goshen area’s (Dunlap is smack dab in between the two cities) unemployment rate in December 2007, the beginning of the recession, was 4.7 percent. Now it’s 18.8 percent. Thanks to so many plants closing down, Elkhart apparently is moving to the No. 1 spot for EPA Superfund sites, a story the Elkhart Truth plans to publish in Sunday’s paper. Elkhart-Goshen’s unemployment isn’t the worst — step right up, Mackinac County, Mich., with your 28 percent — but it’s the highest rise in the country. Hence, that RV-hitting-a-wall metaphor.

But you probably knew all that, thanks to President (and candidate) Obama’s frequent appearances in Elkhart, and the scads of news stories using the area as the living, breathing, nonworking metaphor for America’s economic struggles. Though I would like to alert ProPublica that a grocery store sign advertising 10 cans of Manwich for $10 is not a sign of economic apocalypse.

My job, as I mentioned earlier on this here blog, is to use Elkhart as the living, breaking, nonworking metaphor for how America’s economic struggles are affecting youth sports. As I also mentioned earlier, I won’t be divulging everything I learned, not with MSNBC.com paying me to divulge them as part of its Elkhart Project. I will say this — if you just looked at the scene around the area’s baseball and soccer fields, you would never know there was a recession. The fields are full, the kids are concentrating on the game (or on the dirt), chilly moms are wrapped in blankets, stressed-out dads are standing by themselves and grunting, parents are gossiping, others are telling their kids what a good job they did, others are asking why their kids what they didn’t hear them yelling to pass the ball.

I’ll spare other details, but suffice it to say that Elkhart is a living, breathing, working (not just nonworking — most of the people I talked to are employed, as are most people in Elkhart) metaphor for what parents are doing in these hard times — everything they can to get them on the field. These aren’t pushy parents who dream of pro stardom bringing the family out of its misery. They’re sincere parents who want to give their children the most and best they can, and if the children want to play, they’ll cut back on eating out or something else to get them to play. And if they can’t, there are grandparents, friends, leagues and others willing to help out.

It’s hard not to root for Elkhart after you’ve spent a little time here. Since World War II, it’s been an immigration station for people wanting a better life — first Southern whites, then African-Americans, and lately Mexicans and Central Americans. They know high gas prices and tight credit will probably never bring the RV industry back to what it was. But the story they want to tell is not that they’re victims. It’s that they’re hardworking, skilled people who are ready to punch the clock again once someone gives them a clock to punch.

In fact, some of them are coming back, now that local RV manufacturer Gulf Stream is entering a joint venture to build an electric hybird pickup. Hopefully, that’s not only a sign of a coming turnaround for Elkhart, but also a living, breathing, working metaphor for the rest of the country getting back on its economic feet.

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.

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.)

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