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Minnesota declares a week without sports…

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…and I’m sure it’ll be just as effective as TV Turnoff Week.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

…[t]he Minnesota State High School League [approved] a no-contact period for coaches and student-athletes effective July 1-7, 2010. The amendment, which the MSHSL representative assembly passed by a 43-2 vote, calls for an Independence Week of sorts, a small piece of summer reserved for athletes and their families.

“The kids need breaks,” MSHSL executive director Dave Stead said. “They are not collegians connected through a scholarship to play a sport. The good coaches know that, and they’ll make the adjustments.”

Metro-area coaches, while acknowledging a seven-day moratorium is not a big deal — Apple Valley wrestling coach Jim Jackson called it “trivial” — question two principal implications. Girls’ basketball coaches Faith Patterson of Minneapolis North and Ray Finley of Providence Academy wondered what message is being sent when only high school coaches — not AAU basketball coaches — are asked to provide time for kids to be kids.

And Blaine boys’ hockey coach Dave Aus and Spring Lake Park boys’ basketball coach Grant Guzy are concerned that the MSHSL might decide to expand the no-contact period. If that happened, Wayzata football coach Brad Anderson worries that athletes choosing to invest in private instruction might not get a worthwhile return.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association established a similar summer no-contact period in 2007. Associate director Tom Rashid said schools can choose their own seven-day break to be completed by Aug. 1, and about 95 percent do so over the Fourth of July. Adjusting to the new rule, Rashid said, took time.

“We probably had 100 phone calls that first summer, maybe more, from coaches asking, ‘I can’t do this? I can’t do that?’ Rashid said. “The amount of agony in the first year of the program to find 168 hours of no high school sports led me to believe that we absolutely needed something to pull the reins back.”

Bless their bleeding hearts and good intentions, but here are the problems for any high school athletic association mandating a week without sports.

The elite athletes, as noted above, are going to keep playing AAU and club sports, so all this rule does is give athletes and their parents one more reason to find school-affiliated sports lacking in comparison.

As for the comments that athletes investing in instruction might not get a worthwhile return — it sounds crazy that one week mandating no practices or games might make that much of a difference. But I’m sure every hockey and basketball coach (and every other coach in every sport but football) in Minnesota (and the nation) sweats whether the best players are going to keep playing high school sports, knowing college recruiters are paying a lot more attention to the more elite club level.

Meanwhile, the middling high school athletes, trying to keep up, will still end up in private sessions, worthwhile return or not. So it’s not like they’re actually taking a week off — nor are their parents.

I know we’re all trying to figure out ways to de-emphasize sports so kids aren’t getting mentally or physically burned out. But Minnesota’s rule rests on an assumption that kids at the high school level are burning out. That’s not necessarily so. Most surveys talk about 75 percent of youth athletes quitting by age 13. However, one Canadian study, looking at registration data, posits the idea that the decline in youth sports participation into the teenage years not a matter of kids quitting en masse in the tween years– it’s that fewer new players join a sport as the years go on. That makes sense, given the early age so many kids start in sports, and the self-selection either in discovering one’s talent or realizing one is a long way back from the kids who have played for a while.

There are players quoted in the Star-Tribune story saying they feel like the week without sports is ridiculous. After all, if you’re dedicated to some activity at the high school level, you’re probably good at it and passionate about it. Heck, my 6-year-old son, whose T-ball closing ceremony is tonight, is upset he can’t start next year’s league tomorrow.

Minnesota’s move for a week without sports comes from lofty ideals, and I’m sure there are parents who hope that really means they’re on break for a week. However, I doubt it’s going to change the athletic landscape in the state, except to tip a few more of the top athletes away from high school sports.

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.

How well-intentioned parents cause future head cases

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Nell Minow smartens up the vast wasteland of the Internet with a Beliefnet.com Q&A with Richard Weissbourd, author of the book, “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Parents Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development.”

I haven’t read the book — in fact, I just heard of it by looking at this interview — but the title conforms with my own hypothesis (hardly unique) that most of the problems with sports parenting are caused by parents who care way, way too much. (For a hilarious look at how that plays out, I highly recommend you get the first season of the Canadian television series “The Tournament,” which focuses on the foibles of the parents of a traveling hockey team of 10-year-olds. Not the second season, though. That is as awful as the first season is spectacular.)

[youtubevid id=C2ueGMiRD4k]

The portion from 2:52-3:17 is about the most brilliant distillation of youth sports ever in a work of fiction.

Here is the exchange in Minow’s interview with Weissbourd regarding sports parents. Inside his answers are two irrefutable truths about sports parenting. One, that when someone first becomes a sports parent, you go a little crazy inside watching your child having to fight on his or her own right in front of you — and you can’t step in. Two, that it’s very easy to wrap up your self-worth, and the worth of other parents, in how well your child or their child performs, especially if a social circle builds with the parents of the “good” kids — and you’re not in it.

You write about the “morally mature” sports parent. Why do you think many parents are immature, and what can be done about it?

While a great deal of media attention has been trained on reckless parents and coaches at children’s sporting events, many of us as parents and coaches, if we are honest with ourselves, get far too wrapped up in these events and fail to model for children a basic respect and responsibility for others. I remember realizing that whether my child’s hit slipped by the shortstop or was caught might affect my mood for days, and being furious at a perfectly innocent eight-year-old child who kept striking out my son and his teammates. Sports consultant Greg Dale coaches parents to be alert to other classic signs of their overinvestment, such as saying “we” won or lost the game, regularly occupying dinner conversations with talk about children’s sports or planning family vacations around sports events. Some of us get bent out of shape at these games, of course, because we are looking to our kids to fulfill our fantasies, or because of our competitive feelings toward other parents. But there are many other reasons.

Children’s sports can stir up old childhood wounds and yank us back to old childhood battles–peer and sibling rivalries, difficulties with authority, painful experiences of unfairness and mistreatment, struggles with shyness and self-assertion. For some adults who experience their lives as monotonous, children’s sports can provide an eventful, compelling plot, with their own child as a central character.

Your Kid’s Doing Nothing

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When after a winter 2006 of wrestling and basketball my wife and I decided to restrict our kids to one individual sport at a time, we figured we were merely returning a little sanity to our schedule and reducing the number of nights he would be up until 10:30 p.m. doing homework after practice. I didn’ t know we were on the vanguard of a movement called Slow Parenting. Then again, my wife and I aren’t the kind of self-absorbed twits who ascribe a special name to things we do in daily life.

Slow Parenting apparently is not done by sloths. It is the equal and opposite, and pretentious, reaction to another movement, helicopter parenting, which was an epithet, not a proscribed way of life. Basically, Slow Parenting is about limiting your child’s activities with the idea of giving the family time together and taking pressure off your child to be the next Albert Pujols, Albert Einstein or Albert Brooks (who also is Albert Einstein). So more playing outside, less organized sports. More lazing around on PJs on your birthday, less birthday parties with pony rides and cakes the size of the John Hancock Center. SFGate.com’s Mommy Files does a good job of rounding up all the various articles done in recent weeks on Slow Parenting.

I don’t have an argument with the idea behind Slow Parenting. I’ve got four kids, and my wife and I both work. Our kids are hardly short of activities (my 11-year-old son is in basketball camp, merging into a roller-coaster building class; my 9-year-old daughter is in her last week of softball and merging into hip-hop dance class; my 6-year-old son goes from T-ball to father-and-son bowling), but out of practical consideration for not being to be at more than one place at a time, we try not to overschedule them. It’s easy to do, because the mere fact of two parents who work, four children in the house, and my wife’s Irish side of her family all within a short distance means we’ve got plenty to do.

However, and I say this with my wife and I holders of college degrees, it never ceases to amaze me how overeducated parents have to assign a name to the way many of them probably spent their childhood.

Here’s more from the Mommy Files:

There’s even a Slow Family Living blog, started last year by two Austin moms, Carrie Contey and Bernadette Noll. Here, you can download your Slow Family Living Handbook [editor's note: for 10 bucks] with tips, tools, ideas and practical ways for how to slow down your family life. This summer the two moms are touring the country offering Slow Family workshops.

Carl Honoré is recognized as the father of the slow parenting movement. He’s the author of the best-selling book In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, published in 2004, but it’s his more recent Under Pressure: Rescuing our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting that has become the bible for slow parenting.

Honoré got the idea for Under Pressure at an evening event at his 7-year-old son’s school. A teacher told him his son was a gifted artist. That night he trawled Google, hunting down art courses and tutors to nurture his son’s gift. Visions of raising the next Picasso swam through Honoré’s head–until he approached his son the next morning.

“‘Daddy, I don’t want a tutor, I just want to draw,’ my son announced on the way to school,” says Honoré, who lives in London with his wife and two children. “‘Why do grown-ups always have to take over everything?’ his son asked. The question stung like a belt on the backside. You know, I thought, he’s right. I am trying to take over. I’m turning into one of those pushy parents you read about in the newspapers. So I started thinking about how easy it is to get carried away as a parent, and to end up hijacking your children’s lives.”

Now the dad is a spokesperson for the movement, traveling the world to speak on panels at universities and appear on TV shows. “Slow parenting is about bringing balance into the home,” he often tells people. “Children need to strive and struggle and stretch themselves but that does not mean childhood should be a race. Slow parents give their children plenty of time and space to explore the world on their own terms. They keep the family schedule under control so that everyone has enough downtime to rest, reflect and just hang out together. They accept that bending over backwards to give children the best of everything may not always be the best policy.”

So let me get this straight: the likes of Carl Honore and the Slow Family Living blog are traveling the globe telling parents how to slow down, spend more time with their families and let their kids grow up with parents who aren’t busy busy busy? Am I missing something here? After my wife and I decided no more two sports in one season, should I have called for a booking on Oprah?

1636790894_80ff1c90d3_mBefore he branched into Slow Parenting, Carl Honore traveled with his Wendy’s headset to spread the word about the Slow Movement. Meanwhile, my wife wishes I didn’t take so long in the bathroom.

The whole idea of Slow Parenting will fail for the same reason as helicopter parenting: each puts way too much emphasis on proscribed paths for Doing What’s Best for Your Kids.

Sometimes being busy in an organized activity they love is best, sometimes down time is best. Sometimes you need to push your kids to do certain things to teach them what they might love or hate, and sometimes you need to back off when it’s clear they’ve found out. When your kids are young, they are going to flit about to different activities because they don’t know what they want yet. When they get older, there will be less flitting. There’s no science or catch phrase for this. You try to read your kid as best you can.

I can understand why Carl Honore’s kid asked him to dial it back. But what if someone’s kid IS interested in art or baseball? What do you say? “Shut up, kid, I’m Slow Parenting here!”

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.

When the motherly instinct goes wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

How can parents hold coaches accountable…

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…without being an asshole about it?

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

3125518865_b1e16afd10_mPossible case of ‘roid rage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryant Gumbel wants you!

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Really, he does. I’ve been asked by a producer at Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel to spread the word that if you’ve got a young child you’re training for a pro career (your progeny — gymnastics coaches don’t count), you might get the chance to be on HBO without making drunk confessions in a taxicab. Wait, “Taxicab Confessions” isn’t on anymore? Damn, I loved that show.

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HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is developing a story on the current climate in youth sports in which parents are increasingly invested in the athletic pursuits of their children. We’re looking for parents of children (ideally ages 3 through 10) who have invested large amounts of time, money, and energy into their children’s sporting activities. Ideally, you’re a parent whose investment in youth sports is connected to a hope that focusing on your children’s sports activities will one day lead to a college scholarship or pro career.  The point of the piece is to illuminate the evolution in the seriousness of youth sports; this is not meant to be a judgmental story on parents’ decision-making on how to raise their children. Please contact: Nisreen Habbal, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Direct line: (212) 512-1645. Collect calls will be accepted. Thank you very much.  

The producer asked me for suggestions. I mentioned Glenn Lines. I think they’re looking for someone who gives off a less creepy vibe.

By the way, why that line about “not being judgemental” might sound a little uh-oh, I believe the producer is sincere. Sure, there are overbearing parents shoving tennis rackets or baseball gloves into their kids’ hands at age 4 and looking at it as the first step to the pros. But there also are parents of prodigies legitimately trying to find ways to manage their child’s life and expectations in the face of a lot of outside pressure. This should be an interesting program. Maybe not as interesting as drunks talking about their threesomes or coke addicts begging for a fix, but on a show featuring kids’ sports, that would just be sad.

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