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The impossible parental task of taking your life back from youth sports

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For a lot of us in the parenting way, one of our New Year’s resolutions — inspired by a few weeks off from getting kids up in the morning for school — is to “take back” our lives, much like the Tea Party wants to “take back” America. We Tea Party Parents want to hearken back to a simpler time, before schedules, before burning the candle at both ends. Basically, before we had children. Like the Tea Party itself, we Tea Party Parents probably aren’t going to be successful at turning back the clock (or cutting spending, either), but, hey, no sense not trying to talk a good game!

On the site Lifetimemoms.com, run by the Lifetime cable network (during the Christmas season, is the site called Fa-La-La-La-Lifetimemoms.com?), Dawn Sandomeno of Partybluprintsblog takes time off from posts like “Rae’s Ultimate Eggplant Sandwich!” (if yours is better, you’d better put two fucking exclamation points on it) to describe herself as a Lifetime woman in peril, although the culprit is her kids’ sports schedule, rather than a fiendish man who seemed OK at the start but turned out to be danger.

This post stars Joanna Kerns. Or maybe Judith Light.

From Ms. Sandomeno:

What’s crazy is that the problem is also what’s good for my kids: Youth Sports. For me, it’s three boys who play ice hockey, but it could be baseball, soccer, dance, lacrosse, or any other activity these days. Youth sports have gone off the deep end and to what end, I’m not sure. Mind you, I’m not against them, quite the opposite – I love that my boys are physically fit because of sports, have learned team play, and are developing great leadership and time management skills.  However, there are no boundaries anymore.  I was actually at an ice rink for a game on Easter Sunday and missed Thanksgiving with my family so we could play in a tournament in another city.  Each youth sport is now a 9 – 12 month commitment and it’s not just time, it‘s money, lots of money! Practices, lessons, games, clinics, camps, it turns out to be 7 days a week – God rested on Sunday, why can’t I?

So, I will need to be strong and committed to this challenge, the pressure can be strong from organizations and clubs, not to mention my own kids.   I want and need this change to happen. I’m determined to succeed and I truly hope to take some time back by being brave and saying no to the extras. I want to show my children that family time is important.

That’s all well and good, but a Tea Party Parent is going to fail cutting a few extras like, say, education. But you’re not going to reduce your family deficit by cutting a few extras here and there. The only solution is a radical one — eliminate activities altogether.

After all, it’s not like the sports organizations are going to say, “Oh, you want more family time? Please, take all the time you need!” It’s more like, “Oh, you want your kid home? I’ll tell you what: he can leave the team and BE HOME ALL THE FUCKING TIME!” So you have to decide as a parent, what do you want to do?

The rule in my family is that if you, as a child, love the activity — as in, we don’t have to drag your ass there, or tell you to practice — you can do it to your heart’s content. If you only kind of like it, then it’s on the bubble. I’ve got four kids. My wife and I don’t have the time or energy to schlep them around to stuff they only kind of like, whether or not our rationale is wanting to spend more time with them.

So Dawn Sandomeno should ask her kids whether they love playing hockey. If they do, then she IS getting her family time. If not, then she can cut off the sport like a Tea Party candidate wants to cut off spending on everything but the military.

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The droning of soccer moms

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I’m not sure what captures the monotony of ultracompetitive youth sports parents better: the script written by Jen Singer at MommaSaid.net, or the droning voices supplied by the text-to-animation service she used to make this video.

Written by rkcookjr

January 5, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Why youth sports isn’t reducing child obesity

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I’m part of Generation X, which is followed by Generation Y, which is, naturally, followed by Generation Z, of which my 8-year-old son is spokesman. Apparently, though, a better term for young people — heck, most Americans of any age — these days is Generation Fatass. And youth sports apparently isn’t doing much of anything to make our children less corpulent, less adipose, less… .(Hold on, let me find my thesaurus.) Not that it should be expected to, when there are much bigger, pardon the pun, reasons for obesity than youth sports could ever handle.


Baby, you put the “roll” in “b-roll.”

You might have caught news earlier in the week about a study in the journal Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine that explained why youth sports wasn’t doing anything to help matters. A sample of coverage, from McClatchy Newspapers:

Parents who sign their kids up for youth sports leagues need to know: That’s not enough to ensure youngsters get the physical activity necessary for good health.

A study released [Dec. 6] indicates youth sports practices often don’t provide the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. And since most youth sports involve only one or two practices each week, kids need to be active on those other days, too.

“Some parents sign their child up for a youth sports program and then check off that box,” said Russ Pate of the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health. “The typical youth sports program is not going to meet the physical activity requirements.” …

In some cases, the teams’ practices were limited to an hour or less on the field. But even longer practices often didn’t meet the activity requirements. The study found players were moderately or vigorously active 46.1 percent of the practice time.

Various coverage has remarked on how parents expecting organized youth sports to make their children less oleaginous (found that thesaurus) should THINK AGAIN, BABY! But parents don’t sign their kids up for organized sports so their children can stay fit, not when a two-hour softball games of mostly standing around is following by a team snack of chips and juice-ish. They do it so they can get college scholarships!

Actually, the study and a companion piece note that organized sports are, say, better than THOSE GODDAMN VIDEO GAMES YOU PLAY ALL DAY (another reason parents sign their kids up for sports). But the study authors recommend, at a minimum, more vigorous practices.

That will work as well at combating obesity as reducing taxes on the rich will in turning around the American economy. Fat cats getting fat paychecks actually have a lot more to do with our fat selves having fat children than anything youth sports can or can’t do. Not to get all political, but I’m going to get all political.

Numerous studies have found direct links between income inequality and obesity rates, as in the higher the former, the larger the latter. This is true in any country in the world. Numerous studies also have found that higher poverty rates (which are often concomitant with income inequality) also mean higher obesity rates. That rank communist Ben Bernanke says that income inequality is worse in the United States now that it’s ever been, and that’s a very bad thing:

The gap between rich and poor in this country has never been greater than now. In fact, we have the biggest income disparity gap of any industrialized country in the world. The highest income 20 percent of Americans received almost half (49.6%) of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent received by those below the poverty line. At the top, the richest five percent of Americans — those who earn more than $180,000 — had their annual incomes increase last year, census data show. However, families at the $50,000 median level saw their incomes drop. Although the changes in each direction are small annually, cumulatively they add up to greater disparity over time and that is what has happened.

Don’t feel like you’re the only villain, America. Other countries are letting their poor children languish, too.

Youth sports cannot make up for a culture in which the top earners get a lot, and everybody else gets crumbs. Unfortunately, in America, exercise and free time (and decent, nutritious food) are luxuries. Even if you’re working a lot, and especially if you’re not making much for it, opportunities to move are few, for you and your children. With schools cutting back over the years on physical education and sports, opportunities for children to have free or inexpensive organized play and sports activity are dwindling, making a bad situation worse by making sports and organized play even more inaccessible to those without means.

Sure, there are people who’ve made lousy choices, and we can all be more conscious of what our children eat, and their opportunities for play, which doesn’t have to be organized all the time.  But there has to be a societal commitment to giving children opportunities in sports that don’t involve travel teams and thousands of dollars most families don’t have to spare, and the first opportunity is to have an economy that doesn’t have a few winners, and a lot of people on the margins.

You can make youth sports practices two hours of hardcore exercise, but until we as a nation aren’t willing to feed our children to the porcine (still have that thesaurus handy) appetites of the wealthiest Americans, that’s just wasted work, as far as solving the problem of childhood obesity is concerned.

A youth sports punch can get you six years in the clink

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I haven’t seen a punishment this severe for an assault on youth sports personnel, but maybe six years in prison should be a warning to any parent who goes nuts over kids’ athletics — at least to any parent with priors.

From the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.:

A Minneapolis man will serve six years in prison for punching the commissioner of a Burnsville youth sports association in the face after a sixth-grade basketball game [Feb. 13]

Robin Johnson, 49, also was ordered in Dakota County District Court to pay more than $14,200 in restitution and have no contact with the victims, who were not identified in court Wednesday. Johnson pleaded guilty in June to felony first-degree assault.

According to witnesses, Johnson was taunting at a player to make him miss — during a sixth-grade house league game. Commissioner Jeff Shaud asked him to stop, and when Johnson didn’t, Shaud got out his cellphone to call police. Johnson slapped it out of his hand, and then punched Shaud in the face to register his disagreement with the commissioner.

Police said Johnson landed multiple punches before being subdued by others in the crowd, most notably by a crowd member who kicked him in what my 7-year-old likes to call the “sheen.” (Not named after Charlie, but it could be.)

One of the amazing things about men is that no matter how many times they watch this, they will find it funny. And they will grab their man parts.

As youth sports parents and coaches, we’ve all dealt with nuts, and I don’t mean the kind that Robin Johnson was holding after he was kicked. Often, when writing about these folks, the assumption is they are otherwise normal people who get caught up in the youth sports moment. Alas, if that were always true. Often, many of these nuts bring their nuttiness with them. Johnson, for example, had issues that ranged far beyond his feeling on sixth-grade free throws.

Again, from the Pioneer Press:

In a separate case, Judge Michael Mayer also sentenced Johnson to a year of jail for violating a protection order, a gross misdemeanor, said Monica Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Dakota County attorney’s office. Johnson will serve the sentences concurrently. …

Previously, Johnson was convicted in June for violating an order for protection, in 2007 for giving police false information and violating an order for protection, and in 1997 for fifth-degree assault and fifth-degree domestic assault.

So if you’re the type who punches people at random… well, stop. But, please, don’t come to the kids’ games. If you do, there might already be a prison bunk being made up for you.

Written by rkcookjr

November 4, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Mother uses stun gun to zap son’s football coach

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From the Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla:

A Pop Warner football coach was zapped with a stun gun Tuesday night during an argument with a parent at Sandalwood High School, Jacksonville police said.

Now 43-year-old Roxine Cornela Cobb of the 700 block of Oaks Plantation Drive in Arlington has been arrested on charges of battery and discharging a weapon on school grounds, according to the police report.

Robert Medley II told police he had argued with the woman and her son who plays on his football team Monday night. The confrontation resumed about 6:15 p.m. the next day when the woman walked up to Medley and zapped him in the chest with the stun gun, the arrest report said.

Medley, 41, said he slapped the stun gun out of her hand and the argument ended as police arrived. Cobb told police she didn’t think she actually zapped him.

Two witnesses confirmed the coach’s account, police said.

Pressed for further comment about how he felt about this turn of events, the coach said: “Shocked.”

Written by rkcookjr

October 15, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Youth leagues, you need crisis management public relations

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So I’m reading about this case in Tucson, Ariz., in which a fight between a parent and his 9-year-old son’s football coach (over whether the child could leave the game early, and whether he was allowed to leave wearing his uniform) ended up with cellphone video of the 9-year-old stripping to his skivvies, which ended up on a local news station, which ended up on CNN, which ended up being bounced all over the ol’ World Wide Web, to spots such as this blog.

I could go over all the particulars, but the only thing that seems to change in these stories are the individual involved, and the subject of the fight. You could make Youth Sports Mad Libs out of these fights. The (adult figure in child’s life) and the (type of sports coach) have a (adjective) (noun) about (noun), which causes (adult figure in child’s life or type of sports coach) to act (adverb), and the whole things gets caught on (video recording device), and sent to (a form of media). The (same form of media) takes the side of (adult figure in child’s life of type of sports coach) who first comments about the incident, and the whole thing ends up a referendum on (issue in youth sports).

In what should be no shock to readers of this blog, I (and my cousin) got busted as kids for filling in Mad Libs with nothing but dirty words, such as our favorite adverb, “nipply.”

There are a lot of things youth leagues need, but believe it or not, access to quality crisis public relations management is one of them. With most of these leagues full mostly of volunteers who have had no reason in their lives to worry about PR, what happens in a case like the football league in Tucson is that everyone is caught flat-footed when suddenly a radio station in, say, Maine, is calling, wondering whether you want to be on their show to talk about why your league (verb) such (negative adjective) (curse word, plural) like (name of coach).

Actually, they’re caught flat-footed in the first place because the leagues make an assumption that nobody cares outside of the coaches, parents and children involved. And most of the time, they’re right.

However, any league, at any time, could suddenly find itself in the middle of a worldwide media frenzy. Say, for example, if it has a coach who writes what he says is a tongue-in-cheek letter to his soccer parents that is interpreted as advocating 8-year-old girls become soul-crushing, steroidal, “Green Death”-delivering animals.

I would expect that most leagues do not have the budget to handle a big-time crisis management firm when big-time crises crop up. I would expect that most leagues would not even know whom to hire to help with public relations efforts. So what I will do now is offer some free advice to leagues that they can use in their first coach’s meetings, just to get the message across:

1. If you don’t not want to stop being an asshole on the sidelines for the sake of the kids, do it so you will not go viral online. Every parents has a cellphone that can record you, and there is no way you can explain away why you were such an asshole. So don’t be one.

2. Leave your ego at the door when a parent berates you. You might be right. The parents might be completely, hopelessly wrong. But when the story is told of your conflict, the parent’s side is the one that’s going to be told first. If a parent complains, you can argue, but be reasonable and professional. Again, every parent has a recording device — but it doesn’t come on until after the conflict starts. So make sure you’re calm, so you’re not on the local news screaming your fool head off.

3. Have the league rules on your person at all times. Consult them when a conflict arises. If you’re not sure, here is the cellphone number of the league president and vice president. Call immediately if there is a problem. Don’t feel you have to solve everything yourself, right at that moment. The cellphone video of you calling the league president is much less likely to go viral than video of you calling the parent a fucking shitbag.

4. You might feel as if you have sole authority over these kids as the coach. The reality is, the parents are paying the bills. You might feel as if you are doing parents a favor by coaching their kid. The reality is, there are parents who won’t feel that way. So can the dictator act, communicate early and often with parents, and make clear that while you have your way of running a team, you are willing to listen if any issues arise. This considerably reduces the chances there is a on-field or on-court incident that puts you on cable news and YouTube.

5. Regarding incidents between coaches: If you have a disagreement, take it to the league president instead of fighting it out, literally, on the field. If you feel an opposing coach is being unfair, is cheating or is encouraging his players to hurt others, try to have a reasonable discussion, and failing that, document what happened (or ask a parent or assistant to document it for you) and bring it to the league president. What we want to avoid is an emotional incident that leads to a fight in front of children — and in front of cellphone cameras.

6. If an incident occurs that ends up catching the attention of the local media, feel free to answer any questions. Answering questions is better than saying nothing. However, don’t be defensive, and don’t focus on the conduct of the other person. Instead, calmly give your side of the story. Then call a league officer to relay what just happened, and what you said, so the league can formulate a response.

Of course, all of this assumes you have a league president and office that is dedicated to the good of the league, and not to favoring its own friends.

I won’t guarantee that this crisis management on the cheap will keep your league off of this blog. However, an acknowledgement that anything can end up in the public eye at any time might be the first step to making sure that never happens. If this advice doesn’t work, well… hey, I’m just the PR guy.

You can’t raise a sports superstar, no matter what any Gladwell wannabe tells you

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Sian Beilock is a University of Chicago psychology professor who is releasing a book called, “Choke,” a research-based tome in which Beilock focuses on writing about sports performance in a way that will score her the same speaking fees as Malcolm Gladwell.

But let’s forget her conclusion, obvious to anyone who has played so much as a round of miniature golf — that high-powered athletes and others choke when they’re “thinking too much” ($25, please!) — and move onto to criticizing her and other sports-blind academics for their well-intentioned, but ultimately toxic to sports parents, research, study and surmising about how you — yes, you! — can raise a superstar. Which, as you can tell by the title of this blog, is at cross purposes with what I do.

Spoiler alert — you can’t raise one.

You can read all the research you want, all the inspirational books you want, follow the path that other famous athletes followed. But having a superstar child isn’t a thing you create, despite what the Chinese government allegedly tried to do by breeding two tall athletes to create Yao Ming. It’s a combination of good genes, your child’s desire, money (or ability to afford all the travel teams and development camps necessary) and old-fashioned luck. The Marv Marinovich school of parenting, the Dr. Frankenstein-like attempts to create a superstar, even if it does create someone who makes it to the pro level, seems to inevitably create more tragedy than success.

Just as soon as there is one path laid out for sure success — early specialization, just like Tiger Woods! — soon there becomes an equal and opposite path. Beilock’s is that a lack of early specialization is key to raising your young superstar.

It’s enough to make you feel not so bad when you hear of cuts to college funding.

Let me tell you the source of my — well, it’s not quite rage. Maybe second-degree annoyance.

I happened to find on Wired.com a post by Jonah Lehrer called “How to Raise a Superstar.” It went through various theories about superstar-raising, including the famous anybody-can-become-a-pro-in-10,000-hours gospel spread by Gladwell, which was taken to mean that even if you’re 5-foot-3, if you practice for 10,000 hours you can become a pro basketball player, the kind of thinking that has parents dropping large dough for travel teams starting at age 3.

Then Lehrer went into other theories of sporting success, including greater academic interest in whether where your child is born. As Lehrer spells out, various surveys show that your child has a better chance of superstardom, in any sport, if he or she is born a slack-jawed yokel. At least, I think that’s the implication.

However, a series of recent studies by psychologists at Queen’s University adds an important wrinkle to the Tiger Woods parable. The scientists began by analyzing the birthplace of more than 2,000 athletes in a variety of professional sports, such as the NHL, NBA, and the PGA.  This is when they discovered something peculiar:  the percent of professional athletes who came from cities of fewer than a half million people was far higher than expected. While approximately 52 percent of the United States population resides in metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 people, such cities only produce 13% of the players in the NHL, 29% of the players in the NBA, 15% of the players in MLB, and 13% of players in the PGA.

I can think of several different explanations for this effect, none of which are mutually exclusive. Perhaps kids in small towns are less likely to get distracted by gangs, drugs, etc. Perhaps athletes outside of big cities go to better schools, and thus receive more attention from their high school coaches. Perhaps they have more access to playing fields. Perhaps they have a better peer group. The scientists summarize this line of reasoning in a recent paper: “These small communities may offer more psychosocially supportive environments that are more intimate. In particular, sport programs in smaller communities may offer more opportunities for relationship development with coaches, parents, and peers, a greater sense of belonging, and a better integration of the program within the community.”

Sian Beilock looked at this research and jumped to the conclusion (as the Queen’s researchers jumped to their conclusion without actual follow-up research) that in small towns, you’re more likely to be involved in different sports “perhaps because there is less competition to make one team,” so young athletes can sample different sports, not burn out on any one of them and build confidence, and, voila, a superstar is made — basically, disproving that concentrating early in one sport is the key to success. As evidence, she looks at a budding golfing superstar in the hardscrabble small town of Smithtown, N.Y. As you might suspect, I find her analysis hilariously wrong.

[In July] 14-year-old golfer Jim Liu became the youngest player to ever win the U.S. Junior Amateur. Liu took the record for the youngest win away from another golfer you may have heard of once or twice in the past – Tiger Woods.

Liu and Woods actually have some things in common. For instance, they have shared a golf teacher, John Anselmo. Anselmo coached Tiger from the time he was 10 until he went off to college and now Anselmo works with Liu. Given this similarity, you might guess that Liu and Woods probably took comparable paths to reach golf success. But, this isn’t actually the case. Jim Liu and Tiger Woods became winners by way of pretty different practice and training histories and, recent sport science research suggests, that it is Jim Liu’s environment – not Tiger’s – that is most likely to cultivate a champion.

Tiger Woods was raised to play golf by his father, Earl Jones. Woods started hitting balls as soon as he could hold a club and didn’t do much throughout his childhood that wasn’t tied to the game. Jim Liu, on the other hand, swam and played tennis early on. In fact, Liu didn’t pick up a golf club until he was close to seven-years-old when his family moved to a house on a golf course in Smithtown, NY. It was then that his father decided it would look odd if no one in the household actually played the game. Smithtown is not large, a population of 115,715 people according to the 2000 U.S. Census. This is in contrast to the sprawling 3 million plus metropolis of Orange County that Woods grew up in.

I think Sian Beilock used her Jump to Conclusions Mat.

So, wait a minute. A kid turns to golf at the ripe old doddering age of 7, has a family that afford to hire Tiger Woods’ coach, and comes from a ritzy New York City suburb, and THAT proves small-town kids playing multiple sports are the future superstars?

To me, that says that the difference between kids in big cities and those in not-so-big cities — which would include moneyed suburbs of podunk shitholes like New York — is something that starts with the letter $.

Before school sports started everyone, they hit urban school districts disproportionately. Older, urban schools do not have the grand facilities of their newer, suburban counterparts. But beyond school, travel team experience is practically a requirement, and urban areas don’t have the money and programs their suburban peers do.

There is a case to be made for children trying out multiple sports, but making Smithtown, N.Y., sound like Munising, Mich. —  a real small town with kids of lesser means who really have to play multiple sports just so multiple sports can be offered — isn’t that case. I live in a crap burg of 50,000 that happens to border Chicago, and happens to be a lot less rich than Smithtown, and I can vouch that while, like in most areas, little kids try out multiple sports early, by about age 9 money matters in terms of who advances and who doesn’t, and that the few kids from around here who advance to superstardom (such as one Dwyane Wade) take various paths that all involve having someone help pay the substantial bills.

I don’t know how many, say, violinists, accountants or garbage-truck drivers come from places or more than, or less than, 500,000 people. But without research beyond the “Monte Carlo simulation” done in the studies — which sounds like something as accurate as random rolls of the dice in a casino (it kind of is, given the originator of the technique named it with Monte Carlo’s casinos in mind) — Sian Beilock or myself can’t say definitively that one path is the certain one to superstardom. All that does is sucker parents out of their money a different way when it comes to youth sports. Did the Queen’s researchers, or Sian Beilock, ever play sports? Ever spend one second looking at how youth sports operates? All they have to do is go to one Little League game, anywhere, and they’ll have to rethink their conclusions.

The bottom line is, there is no sure way to raise a superstar. There’s no age effect, no birthplace effect, no nothing. Athletes who you think will go on to greatness don’t, and some you think won’t go on, do. Too few people get to superstar status to say, for sure, there is a certain path. If there was a certain path, many would take it, and then it wouldn’t be a certain path anymore.

If your organization would like me to talk about this, I’m more than willing to come. And I won’t even charge you Sian Beilock rates, much less Malcolm Gladwell money. That is, unless I can figure out a pithy way to put my thoughts in book form. Because once I get booked by Charlie Rose, I’m a fucking superstar, man.