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How to be an experienced youth sports parent

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Just so you know where the real writing talent lies in my household, you can check out this Chicago Parent article, written by one Jacqui Podzius Cook (wife of the proprietor of this here blog), titled “The challenges of being an older mom.”

I bring this up not as a way to note my wife’s birthday Nov. 1, which for 27 days will make me the baby adult of the household, but for the cogent points it makes about the realities of how parents freak out less, to everyone’s benefit most of the time, as they have more kids, and how you as the experienced parent can end up looking (and feeling) disengaged as a result.

I was thinking of this story at my 7-year-old son’s final soccer game of the fall. There were parents who, clearly on their first kid in sports, were cheering and coaching and waving and yelling. And then there were parents who, clearly not on their first kid in sports, were reading the newspaper, talking with each other or working toward being the mayor of Oak View Center on Foursquare. (I’m actively running for that post in the closest thing I have to a political career. I’m trying to figure out how I get Foursquare to run negative ads.)

From my wife:

The ritual of Kindergarten Parent Night: A room full of fresh-faced moms and dads, peppering the teacher with questions about snacks and flash cards as they carefully inspect every square inch of the room where their precious baby will begin his or her formal education.

But if you look a little closer at any given group of kindergarten parents, you are guaranteed to find at least one mom hovering near the back, half-listening to the presentation while she furiously composes a grocery list, texts her teenage daughter and tries to conceal the gray hair and laugh lines that tell the world she’s a decade or so removed from the majority of parents in the room.

Whether you call this last one your “caboose baby,” “bonus baby” or-as several of my friends refer to their third or fourth (or fifth) child-your “oops baby,” you’ve probably learned in the past few months that this school experience is just a little different. I certainly have as my final baby, Emily, gets settled into her kindergarten class, while my other kids are making their way through second, sixth and eighth grade.

Emily’s Friday folder? It usually gets emptied Sunday night instead of 3:30 Friday afternoon. School pictures? Let’s see what I can find the night before in that hand-me-down bag at the back of the closet. This began even before kindergarten when I had to program an Outlook calendar reminder for preschool show-and-tell.

This isn’t to say I value Emily’s school experience any less than the other kids’, but the cold, hard truth is being a parent of four kids at 41 is a whole lot different from having one in kindergarten and one in preschool at 33.

Jacqui’s article (I normally use last names on second reference, but I while I might call my wife many things, I don’t call her “Cook.” “Hey, Cook, how about a romantic dinner this weekend?”) talks about how more experienced parents can take steps to find ways in their busy lives to get more engaged with their younger child’s classroom experiences, with valuable techniques that do not include freeing up time by selling your older children into sharecropping.

As for sports, I would say that a more experienced parent did not feel compelled to be involved in every aspect of the athletics lives of his or her younger children. Your children might thank you for it. For me, the difference between my older son and daughter and my younger son and daughter is my own expectations.

With my younger kids, I’m not going into sports parenting with the expectation that this is the first step to a lucrative pro career and/or nervous because my baby is in someone else’s hands, the common reactions of the first-time sports parent. I’m sure enough of myself as a parent that whether my child is a jock or picking daisies, it is no reflection on my parenting skills.

I am concentrating on coaching my younger kids’ teams, because the others in any activity have passed my levels of knowledge and dedication, and also because I feel more at ease with the situation. I don’t have to think to myself to make sure I don’t do anything that seems like I am unfairly favoring my kids over others. I just coach everybody, and if parents think I am unfairly favoring my kids over others, then fuck ’em.

That epithet brings up a reason for the experienced parent NOT to coach his or her youngest children. That would be the too-knowing, been-there-done-that attitude you can bring, having been there, and done that. When I coached my 7-year-old son’s baseball team last spring, I might have handled conflicts with parents better if I wasn’t such a know-it-all douchebag about youth sports, and this baseball league in particular. For example, I might not have said, with such swagger, to a mom who threatened to file a complaint with the league on me that, well, good luck, considering I’ve coached in this league for five years, and I know how desperate it is to find managers.

As Cook’s article (I guess if I’m going to treat my kids like any other athlete when I coach them, I guess should treat my wife like any other writer when I cite her — right, honey?) notes, it is a boon to the youngest child’s education for the experienced parent to get involved in whatever way possible, even if he or she is busy with older siblings.

For sports parents, that’s a game-time decision. It might be beneficial for youngest children to have their experienced parent coach their team. But the experienced parent’s experience might be better used letting the kids be in the hands of someone else while he or she reads the newspaper, talks to other parents, or does oppo research on the mayor of the field on Foursquare (your reign of terror will end soon, I swear, Staci C.!)

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Written by rkcookjr

October 31, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Concussions: Why you question letting your kids play football

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My second-grade son has a friend over today who came over after he played a youth league football game. Given all the attention lately about concussions, I felt like I should give him a baseline test before he and my son played in the back yard.

If you watched the NFL the first few weeks in its new, we-care-about-concussions mode, you got a sense of how football at all levels is changing in a hurry now that we know concussions aren’t just dings that make you punch-drunkenly shake the cobwebs.

Two incidents, to me, stand out. One is Stewart Bradley of the Philadelphia Eagles in week one, going back onto the field — stunningly — not long after being unable to walk following a hit. The incident had the NFL reviewing how that happened, though as of this writing the Eagles have not been cited by the league for violating its policies regarding concussion testing and treatment.

Bradley, unable to walk.

The Bradley situation was pretty shocking, and I think it explains a lot about the second concussion-related incident I noticed. During week two’s Chicago Bears-Dallas Cowboys game, Fox’s cameras caught Dallas tight end Jason Witten vociferously arguing with a member of the team’s medical staff, which was refusing to clear him to play after Witten suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter. Actually, the staff couldn’t have cleared him to play if it wanted to — once a concussion is diagnosed, a player is not supposed to come back in the game. And, believe me, after all the flak the NFL and the Eagles took over Bradley, no one is going to let anyone with a concussion back into a game.

As Witten was arguing, Chicago Bears radio announcer Tom Thayer, an offensive lineman on Chicago’s 1985 Super Bowl champs, responded, and I’m paraphrasing, that if players are going to be held out because they get dinged, you’re going to have to get used to players missing a lot of time. Thayer said this with a mix of ruefulness — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day — and a sense that maybe, grudgingly, it is about time things changed — god knows how many concussions Thayer probably played with in his day.

As of this writing, I’m enjoying my hometown Indianapolis Colts’ crushing of the New York Giants, but I have to say that Thayer is right — if I may read into his comments — that how we view the game of football is changing, in a hurry. Certainly, many studies have pointed out the concussion risk in numerous youth sports, including my beloved basketball.

But football by design is a collision sport, and many fans of the game are openly wondering why anyone would play it, or let their kids play it, sort of like the way people changed their minds about letting their kids box. (My 13-year-old has suddenly developed an interest in wanting to box. We’ll have to chat about that one.)

The post-concussive horror stories are growing more familiar, with the number of ex-pros who turned out to have brains scrambled like eggs after their years of football. But then you hear about Chris Henry, who turned out to have concussion-related brain damage as an active player. Then you hear about the suicide of Penn player Owen Thomas, who despite never having been diagnosed with a concussion may have had a level of impact-related brain damage enough to cause him to kill himself. Then you hear about a sixth-grade football player in Wisconsin who died of concussion-related injuries.

And then you hear about some youth coaches and parents, who presumably should know better or care more about their kids than the game, pressuring to get their addled children back in games, such as this story told by a physician in the Pittsburgh area to the local Post-Gazette:

Dr. Young cannot forget this episode last fall in his league’s championship game for the youngest local level. Adults with the opposing team asked him to approve their star tailback, whom he said blacked out and fell in the huddle before he threw up. Unconsciousness and nausea are prime indicators for a concussion.

“They wanted me to clear him at halftime,” said Dr. Young, still incredulous almost a year later. “Ultimately, the boy sat out the second half. It was a championship game, an important game in their 6- and 7-year-old season. But it was 6 and 7 year olds.”

I’m glad that my children have no interest in playing football, and I’m thankful now that my parents kept my scrawny ass out of the game. (Then again, I played no-pads tackle frequently in my neighborhoods growing up, so I can’t be smug.)

I’m hardly going to stop watching the game, or declare anyone who puts their kids in the game a bad parent. Hopefully, at the least, youth coaches and parents will keep their eyes out for concussion-related symptoms, and get their kids out of the games before any further damage is done. I’d like to think that when my kids’ friends come over, they’re of sound mind.

Why I coach(?)

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My youth sports coaching career, in its present form, began with my oldest son’s second-grade basketball team; today he just finished seventh grade. In between I have coached three of my kids’ teams, in basketball, softball and baseball. I’m planning to coach my youngest daughter’s T-ball team when plays next summer.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’m going to make it.

You’ll notice that I titled this entry Why I Coach (?) instead of Why I Coach.  That’s because, today, I am writing from the perspective of a youth sports coach whose “career” has hit a bit of a trough.

I am managing my 7-year-old son’s coach-and-kid-pitch-no-score baseball team this year, following a year in which I managed his T-ball team. There are seasons when you as a person and a coach click with all the personalities, kids and parents. Last year was one of those years. This year is not. At least a couple of times I’ve had parents complain to me about, me.

Their complaints, which generally revolve around my loudness (my voice naturally projects, aided by past theater training), and my chattiness (I’m naturally talkative, aided by present copious Starbucks americano consumption).

[youtubevid id=”uejh-bHa4To”]

Here’s a song dedicated by the baseball parents to the loud, chatty jerk-off who coaches their kids.

Not that unusual, really. It happens to every youth coach, even if you’re a combination of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and John Wooden. This past basketball season, I had a mom (whose father was my assistant coach) berate me with every curse word ever invented in front of a crowd departing from a game because I sat her son on the bench (to rest!). (She had previously rushed the bench only to be restrained by her father.) I know I’m loud and chatty, and while I compliment and encourage kids, I also — and this is a radical idea for a coach — also try to teach and correct. However, I understand how I can come off sounding a little unhinged, even if, unlike one my oldest son’s past baseball assistants, I’m not swearing up a storm and screeching away in my car with a hand on the wheel and another flipping the bird. (A shame he flipped out. My son liked that coach.)

Even when the mother attracted a stunned audience ripping me by the parking lot of the gym, eventually we found a common ground and settled things. I feel like, right now, I’m not able to connect like that. Maybe it’s the parents. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s both sides.

I’m not sure why, but I feel far less patient in dealing with people coming up to me and telling me I’m a horse’s ass who is ruining their children’s love of [insert sport here].

Maybe it’s years of dealing with petty complaints, whether about me, another parent, another kid, or why we’re playing on a certain field at a certain time. Maybe it’s the years of racing from work to a field or court, squeezing planning in on the train. Maybe it’s all the meetings I’ve sat through. Maybe it’s all the time being responsible not only for coaching, but making sure someone is bringing the treats and passing out the picture information. Maybe it’s because my own job has gotten more pressurized in the last year (not that I’m complaining, considering the alternative), leaving me less energy to deal with other people’s kids and their parents. What worries me is the nagging feeling I AM doing something wrong. I know I can be pretty dumb, but for some reason this season I’m feeling especially not smart.

At some point every season, I go through a period of wondering whether I should ever coach again. Guiding a bunch of kids you don’t know, who may or may not be interested in a sport, and trying to make them learn while have fun at the same time while you have a zillion other responsibilities can be an emotional drag, even if the parents are supportive (and mostly in my coaching career, they have been).

It’s a feeling that’s become more acute, and it makes me wonder whether I should leave my youngest daughter to someone more enthused and less asshole-ish than myself. Certainly, me not coaching might be easier on my family, which won’t have to worry about the time consumed by me coaching, and which can sit and watch a game and not see people whispering because they don’t want the other Cooks to know what they’re saying about ol’ Loud Dad over there.

However, when I get down like that, something happens that makes me realize the psychic rewards of coaching, the kind of rewards you can’t get doing anything else.

I go to the local library, and the mother of one of my old softball players tells me she wishes her daughter still had me for a coach. I get a phone call from a fellow basketball coach (one who, by the way, has far more basketball chops than I’ll ever have), asking me to give him a seal of approval to the star player’s mother, who is upset I’m didn’t draw her son that year. I go to my kids’ schools, and boys and girls who have played basketball under me run up and say, “Hi, coach!” I look up in my office at a drawing of me, wearing a “Coach” shirt and my weekend stubble, my now 10-year-old daughter did when I led her softball team. It’s titled “My Dad Is My Hero.”

Me, posing in 2008 for my daughter’s pencil drawing.

For that matter, there is the moment when my 7-year-old, perhaps blissfully unaware of any animus toward me, tells me how much he loves having me as a coach. And then there was last night, when I asked my 4-year-old daughter, while I was bathing her, if she wanted me to coach her in T-ball. She said, enthusiastically, and loudly, “YES!”

I remember how I was near tears when my son’s fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team fought back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win a league title. I remember how I was near tears when my daughter’s fifth- and sixth-grade basketball hit a last-minute shot to win their only game of the season. I remember how I was near tears when, on my son’s basketball team, the team’s best player led the charge to congratulate a kid who, midseason, hit his first-ever shot in a competitive game.

OK, maybe I DO get a little intense. But the point is, coaching these teams makes you FEEL something. And you get to feel it not just with a bunch of kids you didn’t know, but grew to enjoy, but also with your own child. And when you’re still hearing the echoes of the mom who thinks you’re too hard on her boy, you start remembering that stuff, and remembering how much you love to share those intense moments with you children.

So, despite a present feeling that maybe my coaching career SHOULD be over, when next year’s T-ball season starts, you’ll probably find me on a field somewhere in Oak Lawn, Ill., with a bunch of 5-year-old girls, their parents staring me down, wondering if that loud, chatty guy is the right coach to mold their little careers. And you’ll find my 5-year-old daughter. I hope at that moment, on the field, she’ll be as proud of having her dad as coach as she was in the bathtub last night.

Written by rkcookjr

June 4, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Blessed are the meek, for they shall lead their teams to championships

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Today at my church, the pastor, as usual, brought the kids to the altar for a little conversation. She began by asking them if they played on any sports teams, and if so, if they would rather be the star, or the person in charge of carrying the equipment or some role other than star. Of course, the kids wanted to be stars, although I think some of the wiser ones, who didn’t raise their hands, knew the trick that when asked something by a pastor, the answer is always B) Not the One You’d Pick.

The reason she brought this up was that today’s lesson was about one of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ eight Big Statements from the Sermon on the Mount.

[youtubevid id=”XiDmMBIyfsU”]

“Blessed are the cheesemakers?”

The Beatitude in question is: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” Now I’ve been sufficiently smart-assed about people using the Bible for their own youth sports purposes, but you don’t have to play Jesusball to see how this line, and my pastor’s lesson to the kids from it, fits in snugly with sports.

From the professional level on down, just about every coach preaches (speaking of pastors) that playing for your own glory doesn’t cut it. True success comes when, in whatever role you fill, serving your teammates. While meek might mean gentle, it doesn’t necessarily mean sitting back and saying nothing. In this context, meekness is about servitude.

If you want a rule of thumb of how to identify a championship team at any level before it actually wins a title, look for two things. Is the team’s best player a good teammate, trying to make everyone better and more confident, and complementing what the coach is trying to teach? And is the coach slow to credit himself or herself, instead working to improve his or her team and giving all credit to that team for any improvements? If the answer to both questions is yes, you have a team that already is in championship contention. Certainly, talent and knowledge help, but if your top player or the coach is only out for personal glory, as San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary famously ranted: “Cannot play with ’em. Cannot win with ’em. Cannot coach with ’em. Can’t do it.”

[youtubevid id=”EB5-yJM3vJc”]

Samurai Mike’s infamous 2008 Vernon Davis rant, from which the above quote is taken. Given Singletary’s Christian bent, it’s safe to say he’s familiar with “Blessed are the meek,” though that might be argued by running backs he nearly decapitated.

It is very easy for me to figure out if a team I’m coaching is going to have a good season. Not necessarily a championship season, but one that at least the kids enjoy themselves and each other’s company. The simple formula rests on the team’s best player, and if you don’t think even first-graders figure out in a hurry who that is, you’re deluding yourself. They know. If the team’s best player has a good attitude, listens to his or her coach, and dedicates himself or herself to making teammates better, then it will be a good season.

A few years ago, when coaching my oldest son’s fifth- and sixth-grade coed basketball team, I had a kid who was a great, talented, hard-nosed player. One practice I noticed him talking to another kid while I was talking, and I busted his chops for it. Turns out what he was doing was relaying, in kid language, what I wanted so the kid could play better. Later on, midway through the season when one boy scored his first-ever basket, this great, talented, hard-nosed player was the first to run over to congratulate him. I just about broke out in happy tears right on the spot. That year we won our league championship, no doubt because every kid on that team knew their best player had their back.

By the way, referencing my chops-busting earlier, the key to whether a team reaches or exceeds its perceived potential isn’t just the best player being a good person. That’s a big load to put on a young kid, and I’ve coached kids who wanted to do this, but just weren’t ready to handle that kind of responsibility. But the other key is the coach also not being a glory hound. Early on in coaching, I made a mistake common to many coaches, a mistake that many coaches can’t get over — worrying about outside perception of my own genius.

When I started coaching, I worried about that not so much because I wanted everything telling me what a great coach I was, but because I didn’t want everything telling each other what a dope I was. That manifested itself into being way too concerned about discipline, too concerned that everyone marched in lockstep to what I was telling them. (I started at the late elementary levels — even I, in my deluded state, wouldn’t have been so worried about this had I coached first-graders.)

What I had to get over, and I’m not sure I totally have, is that I’m coaching kids who may or may not care, and that I can’t make them care, or make them great teammates, just because I demand they do. I’ve had to learn when to push, and when to back off. Like with the kid I mentioned earlier helping translate me to his teammate. Instead of worrying about OH NO SOMEONE IS TALKING ON MY TIME, I should have let it go. That’s because at that moment I was doing it because I was exerting my authority instead of serving my team.

At the ages and skill levels I coach, my job is not to worry about whether I look good because we’re winning, but to teach a sport to the best of my ability so the kids can make an educated decision as to whether they enjoy it and would like to keep playing it, or whether it’s not their bag. Would I like to be a star coach? Who wouldn’t? But a little meekness in that position can take a team a long way.

On your radio (again)

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If you’re up early in Nashville Saturday — say, 6 a.m. — you can hear me being interviewed by Mickey Hiter on the Athletes Parents Show on 104.5 the Zone, your home of Tennessee Titans football, and where Frank Wycheck annually re-enacts the Music City Miracle for the new crop of interns with a package of Ding Dongs in the break room.

Not to crap on one of the greatest plays in sports history, but on No. 5, how could zero Miami DBs be in the end zone when it was the last, desperation play? Sheesh.

We talked about a lot of issues, so it’ll be a good listen for anyone who wants to hear some deep thoughts on the state of youth sports. Mickey does a lot of elite-level baseball training and coaching, and unlike your kid, his kid did go pro (four years in the independent minor leagues). Plus, Mickey was president of the Nashville Old Timers Baseball Association. How cool is that?

Also, you can listen to hear me call the host “George.” Man, Mickey, I’m so sorry I did that. You caught me after I was emailing back and forth with one of the editors on a youth sports-related piece I’m doing for MSNBC.com, an editor who happens to be named George. I’m like the Looney Tunes abominable snowman: “I will name him George, and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him…”

By the way, you don’t have to get up early to listen to my golden throat. The show will be archived 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.

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!