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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.

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

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

From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

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

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

Jeff Gilpin, represented by attorneys, denied the allegations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad Jekyll, Coach Hyde

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The latest question posed to the Positive Coaching Alliance: “Why is my husband such an asshole when he coaches?”

My husband is coaching our son’s 9 year old Little League Team. There are 2 other assistant coaches, each with a child (1 boy, 1 girl) on the team. The coaches are trying to teach sound fundamentals to all the kids, and, as is often the case they are all type-A sports-loving men.

All 3 coach’s [sic] kids have a lot of talent. All 3 are struggling with performance anxiety, especially in a game situation. All 3 are practically paralyzed each time they are up to bat. All 3 can hit at practice, but not in the game. All 3 want desperately to do well for their team and for their Dad. All 3 are scrutinized by their Dads when they bat because Dad wants desperately for them to overcome their anxiety and perform.

Only 1 child on the team (not one of the coaches’ children) consistently hits the ball. I hear some encouragement from the coaches but they are frustrated and I’m hearing a lot of comments from the coaches like: come on be a hitter, you’ve got to swing at that, swing the bat, be aggressive, etc.

I have tried talking to my husband, the head coach. He doesn’t seem to be able to change his approach.

Do you have any suggestions? These kids aren’t having fun and I fear they will lose their love for the game. Help!!
— Janet

Janet, dammit, I suggest you read an excellent, well-informed post from this here blog about coaching your own child. It tells you how your husband (and the assistants) should interact with his child (and their children) as a coach (coaches). It also tells you how easy it is to fuck that up. Save up for some therapy bills, Janet.

Specifically for coaching your kid in baseball, I would recommend this:

— Your husband, and your child, should realize that baseball is a game of failure. As the old saying goes, you’re considered a star if you get a hit 30 percent of the time (except by sabermetricians who criticize you for not walking enough). So he, and your child, should relax and not worry about failure because of the nature of the game. If that doesn’t work, there’s always Inderal.

— When you go to games (and Janet, I know you do), you should get all sarcastic when the coaches say stupid shit like “come on be a hitter,” especially if they’re saying it in the form of a run-on sentence. When they say, “come on be a hitter,” you say, “That’s right son! Bash that ball like a baby seal!” Or “So NOW you get around to telling him what that aluminum stick is for?” Or “Brilliant fuckin’ advice, Lasorda.”

— Because talking reasonably to your husband failed, withhold sex and block his online porn until he gets the message.

You’re welcome.

As the Stinson turns (barely)

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

Nothing happened.

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.

I think the Scots are laughing at us

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From the Herald, a Scottish newspaper:

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

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

Kinahan had to resign.

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

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

1420683079_9291f872dbA little too ironic?

As the Stinson turns (civil edition)

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I’m certainly no lawyer, and most of the access I have to issues involved in the David Jason Stinson case comes from articles in the Louisville Courier-Journal. But the more I study the case, the more I think Stinson isn’t going to jail, and the more I think Max Gilpin’s parents won’t collect a dime in their lawsuit against their late son’s high school football coach.

Quick review: Stinson was the football coach at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Ky., when one of his players, the 15-year-old Gilpin, collapsed during practice during a hot day in late August 2008. A few days later, Gilpin died of septic shock, a result of a body temperature that reached 107 degrees. Based on testimony that said Stinson denied water to players and was verbally abusive (saying he would run players until they quit), the Jefferson County prosecutor charged Stinson with reckless homicide, a Class D felony that carries up to a five-year prison sentence, while Gilpin’s divorced parents united to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Stinson (no longer PRP’s coach), as well as assistant coaches, the Louisville school district and other school personnel.

Stinson’s case has become a flashpoint among youth sports parents and coaches because he is either an example to be made of for coaches going too far, or his prosecution is an example of extreme overreaching and threatens to make every coaching decision an actionable offense. (Perhaps why coaching associations are contributors to a legal fund established for Stinson.)

Back to the latest update in the case.

The Courier-Journal today has a story discussing the deposition of Max’s father, Jeff Gilpin, who was at the last practice. Key to both the criminal and civil cases was that Stinson denied players water — which makes the senior Gilpin’s own statement questionable of help to his own case. From the C-J (the bolding for emphasis is mine):

Gilpin noted that when he arrived at the practice, the running drills had begun and another player was already sitting on the ground with a bag of ice on his neck.

But Gilpin acknowledged that he did not hear Max or any other PRP football player complain that they were being denied water during the practice, where the heat index reached 94. And he said the players were allowed to remove their helmets and shoulder pads as they continued running.

Some players were told to sit down, while the rest of the team continued to run, though Gilpin said he was not sure who instructed them to do so.

There were pieces of Gilpin’s deposition that portray Stinson and the coaches as, at best, unaware of the severity of the situation and ill-equipped to deal with what was going on. Again, from the C-J:

Gilpin said PRP athletic director Craig Webb drove up in a cart, and they loaded Max onto it, taking him to a sideline water station. They disconnected the water hose and ran water on Max, putting ice on his neck.

Gilpin said it was several minutes after Max collapsed when assistant coach Steve Deacon asked him if he wanted him to call 911.

“I replied ‘Well, hell yes!’ ” Gilpin said, according to a transcript of his answers.

At that time, Gilpin said he noticed Stinson standing about 10 yards away with the team. Gilpin said Stinson did not talk to him or offer any assistance.

Bill Hoback, an attorney for Stinson, said the coach had gathered with other players at a team meeting and didn’t know Max had gone down until several minutes after he was removed from the field.

By that point, several people were working on Max, and Stinson observed what was happening, Hoback said.

“You can’t read that as him not trying to help,” he said.

Gilpin acknowledged in court records that Stinson did not notice Max fall down.

By all accounts, Stinson and the other coaches did not distinguish themselves with their understanding of what do once Max Gilpin collapsed. (Hence, why Kentucky passed a law requiring high school coaches to get training for sports-related injuries and illnesses, including what to do in case of overheating. The state’s high school athletic association and medical association are quickly putting together an online course so the 12,000 affected coaches can get trained by August.)

But is it reckless homicide?

The problem, for both the state and defense, is how you make airtight that someone did or didn’t do something beyond on a reasonable doubt for a law that defines reckless homicide as “recklessness when [a person] causes the death of another person.” Stinson ordered running drills, Gilpin collapsed, and he died. That much we know. But if there’s evidence Stinson didn’t deny water, or that Gilpin’s Adderall prescription contributed to his overheating, is Stinson off the hook? Would a jury find the mere act of running sprints on a 94-degree-heat-index day a reckless act. Apparently the Jefferson County prosecutor (and a grand jury) think so, and prosecutors by reputation only try cases they think they can win. But there are truck-sized holes both sides can drive evidence through to sway a jury.

Meanwhile, in the civil case, which has a lesser standard of guilt (as we all know thanks to O.J. Simpson being innocent of criminal charges of murder yet being held civilly responsible for those deaths), still is no easy road for Gilpin’s parents. Presumably, if the Louisville schools thought the odds were against it and Stinson, it would be moving to settle the case. (It’s possible that’s happening and we don’t know it, yet, but the school publicly has not signaled any intention to back down.) Of course, the district could be fighting the case so a precedent isn’t set, and its coaches can run gassers at will.

And like the criminal case, defining “reckless” is going to be difficult for the plaintiffs. Yeah, Stinson might have been a jerk. But is it reckless to do what he did when thousands of coaches have done the same without incident? (Of course, that’s a possible repercussion of the lawsuit and criminal case — to stop coaches from pulling crap so there are no more Gilpin-like incidents.)

I’m going to guess that for both the criminal and civil cases, any jury selection is going to be knock-down, drag-out because the definition of “reckless” can be as wide or narrow as anyone wants it to be. Surely every juror is going to be asked about his or her youth sports experience, whether as a player, a parents, a relative or the guy who parks the ice cream truck by the field and blares the stupid music-box incessantly until the parents submit to the begging of their children just to make it all go away. Presumably anyone with any intensity of feelings about their experiences is off the jury, but you never know.

The vagueness inherent in the definition of “reckless” is going to make the jury pool selection key to winning for either side. Trial lawyer Steve Frederick’s Kentucky Injury Law Blog has a list of a trial consultant’s top five truths about jurors that, to me, seems especially applicable in Stinson’s cases, even though technically these truths are about civil cases:

1. Don’t ask jurors to give your client the “benefit of the doubt” unless you want them to doubt your client.

2. Arguing that the law “only” requires proof “by a preponderance of the evidence” is like telling the jury that the plaintiff doesn’t have a lot of solid evidence.

3. People use their life experiences to fill-in-the-blanks in your case.

4. People don’t enter the courtroom looking for an opportunity to give away money.

5. It’s not what the law allows BUT WHAT JUSTICE REQUIRES that compels jurors to act on behalf of the plaintiff.