Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Should basketball practice trump a family vacation? Oh yes, it should

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My esteemed True/Slant colleague Karen Dukess the other day posed the question: should basketball practice trump a family vacation? With my headline, I’ve saved you the drama of how I’ll answer it.

But first, the context of Karen’s question. She’s asking about the mixed message sent in that we’re told as parents that family time is more important than breathing, and we’re often told that by our children’s schools. And yet, coaches from those same schools demand that if a family vacation conflicts with practice, kids should be at practice rather than spending their time in a way that heretofore was more important than breathing. Some more from Karen:

A woman I know whose son plays on his high school basketball team is determined not to be badgered. Her family is a third of the way through their project to travel to every state in America. Next up are Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, which they plan to visit during Christmas break. The coach doesn’t want the boy to go. The family is sticking with their plan, but not without a lot of tension and guilt.The mother of another boy on the team wants to take him skiing, but the boy is too scared to miss a practice.

Is it fair to ask parents and kids to make these kinds of choices? I know some parents who refuse to let their children miss a practice or a game, saying that it’s an important life lesson to know that when you sign up for a team it means that you keep your commitments to the team. But shouldn’t we honor our commitments to our families, too?

As usual in conflicts between parents and those who run their children’s sports, the debate is either-or, and each side comes from a position so hardened it makes the Congressional debate over health care reform look congenial. On one side you have parents who say that what they decide for their children trumps all, while on the other you have a coach demanding that a child, no matter what the family’s wishes, honor his or her commitment to team over all.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a coach and a parent that I’m so much wiser than you I can see both sides a little more clearly. As a parent, I understand the frustration of having a child’s sports schedule run your life. Or in my case, multiple children’s sports and activities schedules. As a coach, I understand the frustration of trying to mold a team when players, and their parents, appear to view practice as an optional activity.

I’ve never coached at a level higher than seventh- and eighth-grade coed rec league ball, so I don’t get out of sorts if someone has a conflict. When one of my T-ball players had a family vacation to Aruba, I didn’t pitch a fit and make clear this 6-year-old’s future baseball career would be RUINED if he didn’t show up to every practice and game. (Actually, what I did was ask if his family had an extra ticket for me.)

However, what I do ask of parents and children is that they tell me in advance when their child is not going to make, whether because of a vacation, conflict with another activity, or illness or injury. All parents have my mobile number and email address, so they can catch me on my BlackBerry at any time. At least if they let me know, I can plan practice or the game accordingly.

I would love to have every child at every practice, because that is the time when they learn about a sport, and learn whether they enjoy it. You can’t build a team and camaraderie when practice attendance is sporadic. But, again, at an elementary or junior high level I can understand that kids have other activities or conflicts.

However, what I demand of my own children, none of whom are at the high school level, is that they pick sports and activities to which they can make an honest commitment. If they already have a day and time committed to something, they can’t decide to do something else at that time until their current commitment is over. It’s not fair to the people running those activities, it’s not fair to the other kids in those activities, it’s not fair to us as parents trying to get them to those activities, and it’s not fair to my own kids, whose learning and pleasure will suffer when they try to take on too much.

In the case of the mom who wants to take family vacations during basketball season, I will ask a few questions, with the issue each raises:

1. Was she unaware of the dates and the level of committment of basketball season? (Scheduling)

2. Does she realize that, depending on the size of the school, there could be 50 kids just as good who would gladly have taken that spot and made a full commitment? (Fairness to other kids on — and who wanted to be on — the team)

3. Would she have the same feelings and resentment over the schedule if it were something she liked, or was something like theater, dance, music or something not athletic? (I’ve found that the parents most resentful of athletic demands are those who were never in organized sports — yet some of those same parents would not dream of taking their kid out of play practice for a week because they recognize that’s important.)

Now, one assumption I did not make with the above questions: that the family had booked a trip long before basketball practice was ever on the schedule, and before they realized their child might be good enough to make the team. However, in that case, there are two things a family could do in good faith. One would be to explain to the coach what happened, and whether it would be possible to excuse the child during that time. (If the coach is a real jerk about it, you can always go to the principal if you want to make a stink.) The other would be to reschedule the trip. Even with global warming as a threat, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana should still be there for spring break.

Really, once that woman’s child made the team, everything in the family schedule changed, including that trip. Short of having to go to see a dying relative, if a child is going to make a commitment to be on a high school basketball team — or in a school play, or in a concert band, or in the improv club, or whatever — the child and the family have to be prepared to make that time commitment, no matter what.

If not, there’s one other option — an option famously proffered by Colorado football coach Dan Hawkins when a parent complained to him that the football team didn’t get enough time off. If you can’t make the committment, he said, channeling his inner Hulk Hogan, “Go play intramurals, brother!”

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Written by rkcookjr

December 15, 2009 at 3:22 pm