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Baring the teeth of the spring sports season

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Blogging has been a little sporadic lately, I know. The danger of posting as a youth sports coach and parent is that sometimes you get crunched by the responsibilities of being a youth sports coach and parent. Particularly when there has been a zillion rainouts, and you have two kids with softball/baseball teams (including the one you manage) playing four games a week (it seems) to make up all the missed games.

Speaking of which, that resulted in a situation on Saturday where I barked like one of my yappy Maltese dogs because an 11- and 12-year-old team refused to get off the field (on orders from its league vp) even though my T-ball team had the field for a regularly scheduled game, and they were there for a rainout. This was on our league’s one major field (we use neighborhood park fields otherwise). What upset me was not that someone made a mistake in scheduling, but that we were brushed aside because we only had little kids. I can’t say I was proud of how snippy I got, but the overall league president stepped in and order the bigger-kids team off the field (rightly so), and we got to play. Plus, some of the parents who got their kids up early (it was a 9 a.m. game) were pretty cranky themselves at the thought they dragged everyone’s butt out of bed only to be told to turn around and go home and get out of the big kids’ way.

I’m over it now. Really!

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.

2, 4, 6, 8, what we gonna legislate?

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In Missouri, it’s carving out as its own special assault the crime of beating the shit out of referees or coaches, something heartily supported by this columnist at the Blue Springs Examiner. The proposed state legislation, not beating the shit out of referees or coaches:

Usually I’m not a fan of the state legislature sticking its nose into the sports world.

The state representatives and senators have considered trying to take over the Missouri State High School Activities Association in the past, and that was a very bad idea.

But the Missouri House is currently considering legislation that would make penalties stiffer for attacking a sports official in the state.

And that is a very good idea.

It’s OK to disagree with a call now and then. I have to say I even have from time to time when watching my daughter’s games.

But officials in any sport have a tough enough time without having to worry about someone attacking them after – or during – the event.

And this proposed legislation would make people who have an inclination to do such things think twice before they act. Such attacks, under this bill, would mean the person instigating it would face up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine. As of now, most of these attacks would fall under third-degree assault, which is punishable by only a $300 fine.

I would definitely brain a referee for $300. But for $1,000? Whoo, I’m sitting right back down. Just be glad, Missouri people, they haven’t yet taken away your right to even disagree with the ref.

Seriously, about 20 states have passed similar laws, though no one can track how many ref and coach assaults happened before the bills passed, and how many happened afterward. But even with no empirical evidence, we all feel better when these laws go on the books, right? (The sponsor of the law that passed in my home state of Illinois was my own state Senator, Ed Maloney.) And then we can mock states like Connecticut, where such a bill has failed multiple times, and call them referee-and-coach shit-beater-outer lovers.

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In the posher realms of Connecticut, these shirts are called “ref beaters.”

In Rhode Island, it’s forming a state committee to hash out youth sports disputes — including fines for parties deemed to be the evil side. From The Associated Press:

Soccer dads and hockey moms beware: Lose your cool at your kids’ games and you might have to pay.

A bill pending in Rhode Island would create a seven-member council to settle disputes in youth recreational leagues, with the power to fine parents or others it thinks are in the wrong. Backers say it would create a more systematic way for resolving sports fights that sometime result in children or parents arbitrarily being removed from organized leagues.

While some other state and town governments have tried to enforce good sportsmanship, national experts say no state has ever considered intervening so deeply in sideline squabbles. …

Jeff Southworth, 48, said more regulation is needed to hold league officials accountable. He called Pawtucket police more than three years ago after he said his daughter’s soccer coach showed up angry and unwelcome at his family’s home. The two clashed over league matters, he said, including whether Southworth could videotape soccer games.

Southworth’s daughter quit the team and needed counseling, he said. The family tried, but was unable to get, local or state soccer officials or the city government to intervene. …

Sen. John Tassoni Jr., a Democrat who works for a politically influential labor union and the bill’s sponsor, said he may still revise the bill to give the council the power to compel witnesses to testify. Identical legislation has been filed by Democratic Rep. Timothy Williamson, the senior deputy majority leader in the House.

Tassoni wrote the legislation after hearing from parents, including the mother of a young girl cut from a football cheerleading squad because her mother argued with a coach.

“The board of directors said, ‘You’re out. Take your kid and leave,’” Tassoni said. “Who loses? The child loses because they can’t play sports with their friends.” …

No surprise, league officials hate this bill. Perhaps because it’s being pushed by the same asshole parents that make their lives hell to begin with. This bill, by the way, establishes no parameters for the threshhold for complaints to be heard. Whether they’re right or wrong, there’s nothing youth sports volunteers will like more than being dragged before a state committee to explain why Timmy isn’t getting enough playing time.

Finally, in Maryland, it’s making sure youth (and adult) sports officials aren’t covered by the state’s unemployment insurance law. The impetus was when a recently laid-off worker/active umpire listed Howard County Officials Inc. on his unemployment form, which led the state’s department of labor to demand $15,700 in payment from the group for past unpaid unemployment insurance. From The View Newspapers:

[Bill sponsor Allan] Kittleman [a Republican from West Friendship] said the state’s new interpretation of referees could have far-reaching implications, forcing officiating organizations across Maryland to pay thousands of dollars in taxes previously not required or risk closing.

The state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation opposes Kittleman’s bill, saying his legislation would create a “loophole” that could have unintended consequences. “… Such carve-outs can unintentionally leave categories or workers without the ability to collect unemployment benefits, a critical social safety net,” the agency argued in testimony submitted to the Finance Committee.

Agency spokeswoman Dori Berman said the state routinely opposes exemptions to the unemployment insurance law, though committee members said “paperboys” have already been exempted.

Even if Kittleman’s bill were to pass, it would likely not save the group, which has about 40 umpires working more than 3,000 games a year, because of the $15,700 bill it’s facing, the umpires said.

At [a] hearing, Thomas Perez, secretary of the state Labor Department, said he hoped to meet with Kittleman and find a “common-sense” solution to the officials’ troubles, although he would have to study it more before saying what that solution might be.

“If we had some time to craft something that made legal sense and common sense, we’re more than willing to do that,” Perez said, adding that he once spent summers umpiring baseball games. “There are a number of layers of review that could very well result in a different determination.”

So far, there are no reports of any meeting between Howard County Officials and the labor department. And the bill hasn’t moved anywhere since the Feb. 17 hearing. That means there’s only one thing the aggrieved organization and its officials can do — complain about the jagoff who blew their cover.

Well, sir, there’s nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-team Little League!

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Last year a group of all-stars from Rapid City, S.D., made it to South Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. Suddenly parents all over South Dakota are asking, why can’t we exploit our kids like they do in Rapid City?

From the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader:

So when Rapid City’s Canyon Lake Little League became the first team from South Dakota to reach the nationally televised World Series, [Matt] Richardson and Brian Eastman – assistant coaches in the Sioux Empire Baseball Association – decided it was time that Sioux Falls had its own Little League.

The city is on its way to having a league by next year, and other area towns are getting caught up in the excitement.

Brandon will make the switch this summer, while Dell Rapids, Harrisburg and Brookings could have leagues in place by 2010, joining Huron and several West River communities that already have associations.

“We are the largest city in South Dakota,” Richardson said at the start of the process. “We only think it’s fair that we have Little League baseball, because we have just as good, if not better, talent in Sioux Falls than Rapid City has.”

Damn right! You’re not going to let those inbred peckerwoods from Rapid City show you up! If you don’t prove your 11-year-olds can beat their 11-year-olds, then you ain’t shit, Sioux Falls!

thesimpsons-margevsthemonorail_1157690485Little League representative Lyle Lanley leads Sioux Falls supporters out of the most recent parents meeting.

This is getting to be such a divisive issue in Sioux Falls (where Little League can’t start until 2010) that the Argus-Leader ran a can’t-we-all-just-get-along editorial so there wouldn’t be the War Between the Leagues.

In this interview with the Argus-Leader, the Little League backers say they were struck that the local league had no all-star game or championship. And that the players can’t wear major-league team logos on their uniforms. And that was pretty much it, beyond the faint hope of playing on ABC.

Little League certainly appreciates the interest, what with its membership being on a long-term decline. But inviting in Little League just for World Series glory? Note to the Sioux Falls Little League backers — the kids don’t care! And if you’re worried about scouts not being able to discover the talent on your diamonds, don’t worry. Scouts will find talent no matter how remote. They don’t just wait to see whose games are announced by Brent Musberger.

Are you a crazy sports parent?

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Maybe you’ve never attacked a hockey ref or inspired a coach to come into the stands after you. But you might be a crazy sports parent and not even know it.

imageGood job today, son! Just for that, we’ll let you sleep inside tonight!

I am defining “crazy sports parent” as someone who is a little bit too into what his or her child is doing athletically, and is at risk for popping off at a moment’s notice, thus earning worldwide Internet ridicule. I recommend to you sports parents that you take this quiz to see if you might have a problem. This is not a complete run of all the possible disturbing behavior that lies beneath, but this should give you a good start at identifying whether you have a problem. Or whether it’s one of those OTHER parents. Can’t be you. Not at all.

1. How many T-shirts do you own that match your child’s travel team uniform?

A. None.

B. One to three.

C. I have a walk-in closet devoted to them.

2. How many picture buttons of your children are on your jacket?

A. None

B. One for each child.

C. Just my jacket? Not counting the ones in my cubicle, on the bulletin board in the kitchen and pasted to my dashboard? And you don’t mean just for my oldest, right?

3. When your child seems to be losing interest in a sport, you:

A. Support the child’s decision to leave it, and see what else there might be of interest.

B. Have a talk to get the child to give the sport another chance, just to be sure it’s not a temporary feeling

C. Force your child to stay in, what with the cold sweats you’re getting over the possibility of your social life falling apart.

4. You get pumped when:

A. Your child shows enjoyment and improvement.

B. Your child appears to be playing better than others.

C. It’s the Fort Wayne Lees Inn & Suites this weekend!

5. You’re not sure you like your child’s coach. You:

A. Stay quiet. Unless the coach is doing actual harm, no sense getting involved.

B. Make arrangements to talk to the coach, calmly, about your concerns.

C. Start a gossip campaign to get him fired.

6. You don’t like the referee’s calls. You:

A. Stay quiet. It’s just a kid’s game, after all.

B. Grumble to yourself, and remind yourself it’s a kid’s game, after all.

C. Start a gossip campaign to get him fired.

7. Your interaction with other sports parents is:

A. Limited. A hello or occassional remark suffices.

B. Friendly. You chat a little during games.

C. You size up who is “in” and who is “out,” and make sure you set the parameters of all interaction. You start a gossip campaign to get any threats knocked to the “out” column.

8. You have a child who excels at a sport. Your other children are:

A. Special in their unique way, and equally lovable.

B. Not as likely to take care of you financially in your old age.

C. Joining the same sport as that sibling in a desperate bid for your attention.

9. A doctor says your child has an injury that carries a risk of permanent damage should he or she continue playing. You react by:

A. Telling your child, with great understanding for the disappointment that might be involved, that it’s time to stop playing.

B. Getting a second opinion, just to be sure.

C. Dismissing the doctor as a sports-hating quack who probably got wedgies in junior high. Then you give him a wedgie.

10. In taking this quiz, you feel:

A. Like you have a healthy relationship with your child and sports.

B. Smug satisfaction.

C. “Are you trying to imply something? Because I’ll make sure the other parents NEVER talk to you AGAIN!”

My coach, the asshole

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An item from Joyce Bassett’s excellent youth sports blog at the Albany Times-Union. I’ll leave out the stuff about Micah Grimes to focus on this:

Erin writes in to my blog with this special report from a CYO tournament:

My 12 year old son played a local Wynantskill/Troy CYO (Christian Youth Organization) in basketball. He was called several foul names, and was told a nasty remark about me. (Mom) This was reported and the boy laughed it off and received a special trophy. What are we teaching our children?

Maybe the question is not “What are we teaching our children?” but “Who is teaching our children?”

In high schools, we often have no choice. But in youth sports, we can help oversee the coaching, assist in managing the team or just pay close attention at practice. Coaches need to be evaluated, even if they are volunteering their time.

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Agreed. However, there is a way to go about this that does not fire up the coach-parent tension that seems to exist from the first whistle.

If you’re a coach, you should send a note to all the parents that explains who you are and your philosophy of coaching. For example, in my note I tell parents every team I have coached, at every age level. I de-emphasize won-loss record in favor of talking about what sort of practices I run, and how I try to even out playing time. If I mention won-loss record, I emphasize that any success has been a result of the players and I working hard together. Hey, there are parents who want to know your bottom-line result, if only so they have assurance you some idea of what you’re doing.

I also mention that playing time is not always equal — if I feel a player is becoming a discipline problem (not paying attention in practice, not being a good teammate, complaining about the referees), I will bench that player for a time until he or she gets his or her head straight. Basically, I try to anticipate as many questions as I can and answer them.

If you’re a parent, and you don’t get one of these notes, feel free to make an appointment with the coach to talk about his or her background. It’s better to do this during a time when you both are relaxed and able to talk — getting in a coach’s face before or after practice or a game is pretty much the worst time because of all the activity. If you want the coach to talk freely, make sure to ask the questions in as friendly as manner as possible, and don’t focus only on your own child. “How much playing time can be expected” — good. “Are you the kind of douchebag who will make my kid rot on the bench” — bad. If the coach doesn’t want to have this conversation, that’s a bad sign.

Hopefully, you, as a parent, and your child’s coach will have regular communication through the season, whether it’s a chat after practice or emails updating all the parents on the team’s progress. They can help defuse some tense situations. For example, I talked to a parent of one of my fifth- and sixth-grade hoopsters to tell him I benched his son for a time because he was out on the floor complaining about the refs instead of playing his game. It turned out not only did the dad understand, but he also informed me his son had had problems during baseball with complaining about the umps. Working together, we got his son to stop worrying about the calls and play ball.

As Joyce Bassett wrote, you as a parent have a choice. If you don’t like the coach or the philosophy of the program, you have the right to take your kid out. My first experience with Little League baseball was short because my dad yanked my brother and I off our team after a few practices because it was clear the coach was a jerk. We rejoined the next year with a different team and a nicer, better coach. (Ahem, we won our league championship, and that other coach finished last. Not that winning and losing matter, of course.)

In fall softball, I had a parent take his daughters off my team (8- to 10-year-olds) because he didn’t think it was the right fit. The league was supposed to be a fairly casual workout just to keep skills sharp for the main season, the spring, with no practices and weekend games. This parent believed I should have had the girls out practicing every day. I told him that wasn’t what the league was designed for, and that I thought his girls would still benefit with two games a weekend rather than zero. But he was adamant his girls would be better off signing up for private coaching sessions. So I said, hey, they’re your kids, and you need to do what you think is best. I have no hard feelings.

As for the mom in Wyantskill/Troy, I have no idea what her past interactions with the coach were. I’m going to guess they were contentious, or that the coach must be a tool of the highest order, or both, because I’ve never met a coach, even a first-rank asshole, who made a point of ripping somebody’s mom in front of everybody. Unfortunately, everyone is going to run into a bad coach, just like your child is going to run into a bad teacher. At least with a coach, if you have a conversation in the preseason, you’ll have the chance to do something about it.

Performance anxiety

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Holly Hunter-Morley demonstrates in the San Jose Mercury News why so many youth league officials have carpal-tunnel syndrome from repeatedly throwing their hands.

Ms. Hunter-Morley is peeved her sons had to go through an evaluation before being assigned to a team in the Los Gatos (Calif.) Little League:

I understand that at a certain age, say 11 or 12, it makes sense to “balance teams” so they can compete at a more even level. At that age, children have developed an appreciation for certain sports and have decided to hone their skills to compete more seriously.

But, at 7, 8 or 9 years old? Putting any pressure on children to perform at this age is just nuts. Do kids really need that stress, especially when it comes to a recreational sport?

I e-mailed the Little League board president to express my concern about the younger players being required to go through this process, and asked how the evaluations would benefit the children.

His response included several potential benefits to the league and only one point that might directly benefit the children — the younger players would have exposure to evaluations so they can “understand the process for later years.”

I’m no old school sports parent — for one thing, I think 6 years old is a little young to accuse your son of being a pussy. But jeepers, is an evaluation really worth an e-conniption?

Believe it or not, there is supposed to be no “pressure to perform” during an evaluation. It’s helpful to the coaches and the league to know the players’ abilities before you coach them, so you can have some idea at the first practice where to start. And for every Ms. Hunter-Morley who is miffed about their little darlings having to run a few drills so one team isn’t stacked like the Gas House Gorillas, there is another parent who would be ticked if the teams weren’t evenly matched, as well as another who would suspect some coach gamed the system to get all the best players on his team.

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Computer-generated image of Los Gatos Little League matchup if evaluations not performed.

Parents are usually blamed for putting athletic stress on their children when they pressure them to perform, but I wonder if Ms. Hunter-Morley and some parents put it out their kids when they freak out over a hint of competition:

At the conclusion of my son’s evaluation, my husband asked our future hall-of-famer how he felt about the experience. “I hated it,” he said with a quiet voice. “I was embarrassed because everyone was watching me and I stunk at hitting.” This comes from a boy who has loved every second of baseball up until this year.

And what about the 7- or 8-year-old child who has never played the sport before and just wants to try it? The whole idea of an evaluation would likely be intimidating enough for some kids to not show up at all. And for the newcomers attending evaluations, their first impression is that youth baseball isn’t about having fun — it’s about being “good” and winning. Is that what we want our Little League to be?

Well, of course not. But I would advise any parent whose child has to go through a preseason evaluation not to get all goofy over it. Generally, it’s done with the best of intentions. And the lesson for you and your children is to look at the evaluation as a starting point for learning and improving. The evaluation is a benefit for the 7- or 8-year-old child who has never played the sports before and just wants to try it. Let’s put it this way — if your child didn’t have fun at the evaluation, your child might not have fun playing baseball at all. What you learn about your child’s lack of enthusiasm during the evaluation might save you time sitting under a blanket on a lawn chair while your child putters about joylessly.

As for league officials, the lesson, as always, is to be fair, and to expect never to go a full season without parental grief of some kind.

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