Archive for April, 2011

Where Have All The (Good) Baseball Coaches Gone?

By Steve Kallas

Once upon a time (from the beginning of the 1900s through about the end of the 1960s), virtually all of the best athletes played baseball.  Starting in the 1930s (thanks to legendary baseball builder Branch Rickey) through the 1940s and 50s, there were hundreds of minor league baseball teams with players who, if they didn’t make it to the majors, went back to their everyday lives all over the country with an incredible understanding of how to play the game and how to teach the game.

So for decades (the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and into the 70s), you had the best athletes being taught by knowledgeable coaches who often had professional baseball experience.  The most difficult game to teach (and to excel at), these great coaches, either in high schools or even in local leagues, taught a few generations of kids how to play the game correctly and intelligently.

But that was then, this is now.


Well, that’s easy.  Certainly in the New York City area, things began to change dramatically with the rise of the New York Knicks’ NBA championship teams of 1969-70 and 1972-73.  These late ‘60s through mid-70s teams ignited a passion for basketball that, for decades, was already there but had not yet become the dominant sport that it would become in future decades.  In addition, the number of minor league baseball teams dropped drastically in the last 40 years or so.

Where did that leave baseball coaches?  Well, over the last 25 years or so, many of the top athletes in the area moved to other sports; first basketball, and later football (to some degree) and then, in the last 20 years or so, to sports like soccer and lacrosse (to name two).  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, as an unintended consequence of that migration away from baseball, you simply didn’t have the quality of athlete and quality of coaching that existed for the first 80 years or so of the 20th Century.

Can you find great baseball coaches nowadays?  Absolutely.  But, back in the 1970s and before, in New York City, for example, every neighborhood had one or two or three former professional baseball players who had toiled in the minor leagues for a number of years and came home to local neighborhoods to live normal lives.  These former pro players were sought out by parents who simply wanted to have their kids taught by the most knowledgeable guys around.  They often were Little League and Babe Ruth league managers and many would happily help a kid who was eager to learn how to play the game.

But those numbers have gone down drastically in the last twenty years.  The lack of excellent “baseball guys” has hurt the development of young players.  And while, with the advent of elite travel teams (more on that later), there is still excellent instruction available, it’s simply rare to find it at the grass-roots level of the game that, once upon a time, everybody played as a matter of course.


Well, high school baseball is a mixed bag these days.  Again, once upon a time, you lived to play for your high school.  Not necessarily true nowadays.  Some high school programs are still legendary programs with legendary coaches (Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens and Dom Cecere of Eastchester High School in Westchester County, New York immediately come to mind).  But some others are virtually glorified rec programs.  The season has always been difficult in the Northeast due to poor weather.  The better school programs often run fall baseball as well as the regular season in the spring.  But many coaches today aren’t even “baseball guys.”  Sometimes they are “soccer guys” or coaches in other sports who really don’t have a feel for the game, how to play it or how to teach it.  In addition, many times baseball coaches get the job because they teach at the school or because they are friendly with an athletic director.  By definition, often-times these coaches can’t run a baseball team or build a baseball program.

With the advent of “pushy parents,” some coaches make “deals” with kids and their parents for playing time.  The right-minded parents, who grew up in a different world where the best players played and the coach was king, often unknowingly hurt their own kids by expecting that the system would be as it was for virtually the entire 20th Century.  Those parents (and their children) often learn hard lessons (squeaky wheel gets the oil, back-room deals rule, best players don’t necessarily play, etc.).

It’s important to note that great coaches like Coach Curran and Coach Cecere were both minor league ballplayers themselves.  While their longevity is unusual (Coach Curran still coaching at Molloy (now over 50 years there) in his 80s, Coach Cecere approaching 50 years as a high school baseball coach), their background is exactly the same as thousands of excellent coaches who grew up in the 1930s or 40s or 50s or 60s.

These coaches, when they are finished coaching (and, thankfully, there is no sign of that yet), won’t be easily replaced.  But, when they are, it’s hard to believe that the new coaches will have anywhere near the great baseball training that these guys got as a matter of course 50 or 60 years ago.

And this is not to say that there aren’t a lot of great baseball coaches, including younger coaches, who are coaching today.  But it is to say that, without question, there are not nearly as many as there once were and they aren’t getting the elite athletes exclusively (as they once did), who long ago left baseball at a young age (11, 12, 13, 14?) to “specialize” in basketball or football or soccer or lacrosse.

Another big problem in high school sports is the advent of parents coaching at the high school level.  Often Little League coaches (and now the Little League “mentality” moves to high schools) with little or no college, semi-pro or professional experience, these guys often invariably play favorites or their friends’ kids, irrespective of talent levels.  This is a relatively new problem in high schools and it will get worse before it gets better. 


Now a multi-million (billion?) dollar industry, the explosion of elite travel teams in the last 20 years has changed the face of baseball forever.  But, frankly, if you’re a player and have any hope to play in college or get drafted, this is where the game has shifted to in the last 20 years.  Often times your high school season is merely a warm-up for summer ball, where serious kids routinely play 45-50 games in 60 days (again, in the Northeast; they play even more down south and in California).

Travel baseball also has its own problems.  It can be expensive, it is virtually a job for young kids and the starting age for these teams gets younger and younger (there are now travel teams for 10-year-olds and even younger in some places).  While you can get a top coach (Dan Gray of Pro Swing in Mount Kisco, New York is one of the best, if not the best, travel baseball managers in the tri-state area), there is also room for guys who really don’t know how to coach but are excellent salesmen, pitching false hopes of college scholarships to parents who don’t know any better (at a cost of thousands of dollars, of course).

And it’s interesting to note that, even a modern-day, younger coach like Dan Gray has that quintessential training for coaching baseball that coaches like Coach Curran and Coach Cecere got decades ago.  Gray was a star college player at SUNY Binghamton who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and played five years of minor league baseball in the Dodgers organization learning the “Dodgers way.”  He is also a Division I baseball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.  Like Coach Curran and Coach Cecere before him, he learned how to play the game the right way, played it himself at a very high level, and is the right guy to coach young kids today.  He’s a “baseball guy” and there just aren’t as many of them today as there once was in the country.


Well, there have always been problems at the Little League level.  But, again, they are much worse today than they were decades ago.  Once upon a time, parents were intelligent enough to seek out the former pros to manage teams and coach their kids.  Today, finding the “right” coach often has nothing to do with one’s knowledge or coaching ability.  Rather, it has to do with getting your buddy who will start your kid, bat him high in the order and get him on that all-star team, whether he deserves it or not.

These stories exist throughout the country and, frankly, there is very little right-minded parents can do about it.  The best advice for these parents, if they want their children to attempt to become serious ballplayers, is to get them into an excellent travel program relatively early and try and rise above the politics of Little League and (nowadays, sometimes) high school baseball.  There is virtually nothing you can do at the Little League level (unless you are going to join the “in” group and hurt other kids so your kid can advance).  And, frankly, even at the high school level, while you hear stories about parents getting coaches removed, absent a strong athletic director, there is little that can be done when a coach is biased or incompetent (or both). 


Well, to paraphrase a famous song, they’ve gone far away.  Many have retired and are retiring.  Few top quality replacements are available.  Many top athletes play, and top coaches coach, other sports.

What all this means for the right-minded baseball parent is this:  there are still excellent baseball coaches around; you just have to look much harder to find them.

Selecting the Team’s Captains

By Doug Abrams

Last week’s column urged coaches to trust their players to make many of the team’s decisions throughout the season. Like the rest of us, young players learn leadership skills best by leading, and not simply by listening to leaders.

I wrote that my 9-10-year-old squirt hockey teams had rotating tri-captains so that each player could experience two or three chances at team leadership by the end of the playoffs. But there is more to the story. The high school team’s tri-captains selected at the beginning of the season served without change all year. Why the difference?

How to structure the captaincy is one of the coaches’ most important pre-season decisions because the captains, like the coaching staff itself, help set the tone and maintain discipline. The coaches’ decision warrants more extended discussion than one paragraph in last week’s column because what works at one age level might not work at another. Even at a particular age level, what works for one team might not work for another. This column describes what worked for my squirt and high school teams over the years, based on the core proposition that captains in younger age groups play a role different than captains on older teams.

The difference relates to supervision and team morale. The coaches cannot hear and see everything, so they need help from other eyes and ears. Someone else, for example, must help supervise players in the locker room, and in hotels and restaurants on road trips. Someone else must help read the team’s pulse if players, outside the coaches’ earshot, seem cocky during a winning streak or despondent during a losing streak. Someone else must help maintain team spirit from day to day.

When can the captains be that “someone else”?

Captains at the Younger Age Levels

At the younger age levels, the parents are typically the “someone else” – the coaches’ extended eyes and ears — because it is unrealistic to expect younger players to supervise or report about one another. Our 9-10-year-old squirt players were good kids who got along with one another and did not look for trouble, but even good kids at that age need adult supervision before and after games.

Until the last five minutes or so before pregame warmup, the squirt team’s parents would typically be in the locker room to help their players dress and lace up their skates. As the coaches tended to obligations elsewhere in the rink, the parents would help keep an eye on things. On road trips, the parents were the best supervisors of their own children’s behavior. The team did not experience bullying or anything similar, but if a particular player feels left out, the coaches’ best reporters are parents and not teammates.

With supervision and reporting left to the adults, rotating the squirt team’s captaincy from game to game made sense. By the end of the season, rotation gave each player three chances to be a leader in the locker room before the game, and then as the team huddled moments before the referee dropped the puck for the opening faceoff. Some players were tentative and shy the first time, but they grew into the role by the playoffs, when the players sometimes asked the coaches to leave the locker room so they could do the pre-game pep talk themselves. The coaches were pleased to oblige because we enjoyed letting the 9-10-year-olds take the initiative.

Captains at the Older Age Levels

As players move toward the high school level, the calculus changes. Parents no longer frequent the locker room, players may seek a measure of independence in hotels and restaurants, and players do not necessarily report their peer discussions to their parents. Captains can now play supervisory and reporting roles, which game-to-game rotation would upset by assuring that no captain would serve for more than a day at a time.

Players and parents alike are often surprised at how much the coach does not know about what is happening on the team. Each parent pays special attention to one player, each player knows his or her own feelings, and parents and their child live under the same roof around the clock. The coach, however, must manage a dozen or more players at a time, cannot be everywhere at once, and cannot always sense what might be bothering an individual player.

The captains can listen to teammates, and may even help the coach prevent potential trouble. Much trouble is planned rather than spontaneous, and troublemakers generally do not talk or act while the coach is around. Every time I read about another hazing incident on a high school team, for example, I wonder whether responsible captains could have short circuited the violence by confronting the ringleaders or alerting the coaches before the ritual caused injury and embarrassed or destroyed the team. Benjamin Franklin said that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and high school captains can be effective agents of prevention.

As captains fulfill their supervisory and reporting roles, coaches should respect the captains’ delicate position as liaisons between the staff and the other players. Teammates respond best when they perceive the captains as extensions of the coaching staff, but not as snitches. The staff should reassure the captains that except in an emergency, they are expected only to alert the staff that “some players” are talking about hazing, alcohol use or something similar. Or that “the team” seems down about a tough loss or cavalier about a winning streak. Even without knowing identities, experienced coaches know how to overcome barriers to team success when they sense a general concern. 

Selecting Captains at the Older Age Levels

On older teams, the captains’ role depends on the coaches’ early assessment of the team’s character and needs. Our high school team had tri-captains, not only because the coaches felt that the job was too much for one player, but also because we wanted three players to earn a leadership credential that would soon strengthen their college and employment applications. A threesome also increased the likelihood that each team member would feel comfortable discussing issues with at least one captain, including issues that the player might initially not want to discuss with a coach directly.

The coaches might decide, of course, to have only one captain, or else two co-captains. Where the team will have only one captain, I would usually opt for letting the players vote unless the selection appears obvious, but the coaches may conclude that the team would be better served by a captain appointed by the staff. 

The coaches on our high school team usually appointed one or two tri-captains, and the players usually voted on the other one or two by secret ballot. The coaches’ appointment can send a message about their expectations for the team, but players feel a greater stake in the team when they participate in selecting their leaders.

Before the balloting, the coaches would assemble the team and discuss the criteria that should determine their votes for the team’s leaders. The election is not a popularity contest to reward friends, a referendum to anoint the team’s stars, or an opportunity to recognize seniors. The captains should be teammates who project the image everyone wants and, equally important, teammates whose leadership everyone would heed because the coaches often speak through the captains.

On our high school team, the captains’ election itself was a learning tool because coaches would tell the players that if their ballots departed from these criteria, the team would have to live with the adverse consequences all season. In my years of coaching, the players acted responsibly and never made a choice that they or the coaches had reason to regret. The elected captains were players whom the coaches themselves would have been pleased to appoint, and each captain made a meaningful contribution to the team.

Teaching Leadership In Youth Sports

By Doug Abrams

Aristotle said that people “learn by doing,” and not simply by listening to instruction about what to do. Parents and coaches want sports to teach children leadership skills, yet we adults sometimes forget that youth leaguers (like the rest of us) learn how to be leaders best when they actually lead.

On too many teams, youth leaguers miss out on real leadership experience because their coaches make all the decisions. The players simply follow directions fed to them week after week.

Learning how to follow directions can be central to a youth leaguer’s education about the value of teamwork. By the age of nine or ten, however, players are also perfectly capable of making many constructive decisions for the team if their coaches would only let them.

On my high school teams and 9-10-year-old “squirt” teams, the coaches designed the practice agendas, made out the game lineups, and changed the lines on the bench. But the coaches also let the players on each team make many decisions that mattered throughout the season. Shared decisionmaking boosted morale because the players came to feel a greater stake in the team’s fortunes. The coaches stood ready to step in if the players seemed headed down the wrong path, but the players usually reached the right answers on their own.

When the high school team pulled comfortably ahead, for example, the players themselves decided whether to run up the score still further. Perhaps they sensed the choice the coaches wanted after hearing our approach to sportsmanship so often, and perhaps they did not. Either way, the players taught themselves lessons about respecting opponents when they chose to ease up and avoid a humiliating outcome. (Some opponents were not always so generous when we found ourselves on the short end of a lopsided score, but our players also learned lessons from being on the receiving end!)

The squirt team had different tri-captains each game, and rotating the captaincy throughout the season gave each player opportunities to be a leader. The game’s captains would help prepare their teammates in the locker room before the team hit the ice. After pregame warmup, the opposing team would  huddle around its adult coaches at the bench moments before the opening faceoff, but our team would gather at the net for a last-minute pep talk from the 9-10-year-old tri-captains, outside the coaches’ earshot.

Trusting the players to make some team decisions can also work in sports other than hockey. When I jog in local parks on summer evenings, for example, I sometimes stop to watch an inning or two of youth baseball. It never ceases to amaze me why, in games involving 9-year-olds, the first base and third base coaches are invariably over 30.

Why not let the players coach on the base paths? Coaches stressing leadership could teach the players how to do it, and then let the players learn by doing. A 9-year-old base coach might make a split-second mistake by sending a runner to second or home at the wrong time, only to be thrown out. But so might a 35-year-old.

* * * *

Irish writer James Joyce said that “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” Joyce’s message — that mistakes are inevitable in decisionmaking but also essential to learning — is as valuable to children playing sports as it is to adults managing their own lives. As youth-league coaches teach leadership, their greatest challenges and rewards come from guiding players through the learning process, and not from avoiding it.

If the adults all dropped off the players at the field and then went home, the players would organize their own game and work through both their correct decisions and their occasional mistakes. Prior generations of kids did just that on sandlots all across America, before “organized” sports supervised by adults displaced choose-up games. Decisions that players can make without the adults, they can also make with the adults. 

Our common enterprise is called “youth sports” for a reason. Letting the players – the youths — share in decisionmaking rarely affects the outcome of a game, but often affects their futures. Shared decisionmaking teaches players not only how to be better athletes, but also how to be better leaders. After their final game years later, the second lesson will prove much more valuable than the first. 

Commitment to the Team: Just How Important?

One of the more distressing calls I received this AM came from a sports parenting Dad who was concerned about his son, who’s a senior in HS and plays on the school lax team.

For a variety of reasons, the boy rarely gets any playing time, and he’s now questioning his dad as to whether he should remain on the team even though there’s only about 4-5 weeks left in the season.

The dad wanted to stress commitment to the team with his son, which is quite understandable. After all, regardless of whether the athlete is the star of the team, or one of the kids who rarely sees the field, everybody is supposed to be committed to the team. But let’s be honest: when a youngster is low on the depth chart it’s a lot tougher to be commited to the team than, say, the captain of the team or one of the top players.

So what does a dad advise his son to do with only a few weeks to go?

My advice — and it seemed as though the dad felt the same way – was that commitment is just that: that is, once you commit to a team, regardless of whether you’re the star or get hurt or sit on the bench, you’ve made a conscious decision to be part of the team, for better or worse. Quitting because you’re a senior in HS and you’re not playing much doesn’t seem to be a convincing reason.

I told this dad that, although it’s clearly his son’s decision, I sure hope the boy finishes out the season. And, he (the son) should go and talk with the coach directly about his feelings. Maybe he’ll be lucky enough to have a coach who has some sympathy for the kid’s plight.

But in the long run, in the years to come, the boy is always going to have something of  a bittersweet taste in his memory bank if he decides to walk away. Commitment – especially for HS age athletes – is one of those acts that’s difficult to walk away from.

Be Careful of Travel Team Hopes and Dreams

One of the more remarkable calls I received on the air last Sunday on WFAN came from a sports mom named Camille who really hit the target regarding kids AND their parents who fall prey to the lure of travel team programs.

In short, before your kid becomes totally seduced by the travel team promises (e.g. you need to specialize in this sport and give up the others, or you stay with this program and there’s a good shot of getting a college scholarship, etc.), just be aware that there are NO studies that suggest that playing on a travel team exclusively will enhance your kid’s chances of getting a scholarship. Furthermore, understand that travel team programs are “for-profit” — meaning that the people who run these organizations are doing it to make money. That means that it’s in their best interest to keep kids signing up and staying with them.

Now, let me add as a disclaimer that I’m not trying to indict all travel programs. That’s not the point. What Camille was suggesting is that too many kids and their parents are swayed into these programs at an early age, that they cost a lot of dough, and that there’s absolutely no guarantee that this will take the kid where they dream of going.

Specialization in team sports usually takes place around the age of 14 or 15, when the athlete can see for himself or herself what their best sport is. They make up their own mind. Then again, if your athlete is extremely talented, there’s no need to specialize in one sport in HS at all. Lebron James, for example, was an All-State wide receiver in football in Ohio while still playing hoops. There are literally hundreds of other examples like that.

Bottom line? Specialization is not usually the answer. And as Camille suggests, be wary of immediately buying into the travel team dream.

Recognizing What’s Really Important in Youth Sports

By Doug Abrams

A few years ago, my Central Missouri Eagles high school hockey team visited the University of Missouri Children’s Hospital to distribute about 400 toys and stuffed animals that the players had collected from friends and neighbors, and from fans who attended our benefit game a week earlier. The team spent the afternoon with the sick and injured patients, including ones who faced imposing hurdles before they could ever hope to play the sports that so many families take for granted. 

 At the end of a hockey game early the next morning, I watched a father screaming at a coach who, he said, had deprived his 10-year-old son of one shift on the ice — about a minute of playing time. This healthy boy’s father could have stood a swift dose of reality. Too bad that he had not visited the hospital with us to see the anxious faces of parents and bedridden boys and girls who were suffering real deprivation.

 Pay close attention at local fields or gymnasiums these days, and you will see over-the-edge parents. Some make public spectacles of themselves, and others take the fun out of the game for their children in less apparent ways. The Eagles’ hospital visit led me to sense that more of these parents might reevaluate their priorities if they realized just how fortunate they are that their own children can romp on playing fields while so many other children cannot.

 I thought about the Eagles’ annual hospital visits again early last month when I read a Boston Herald story about Charlie O’Halloran, whose 17-year-old son Kevin was killed in 1992 when he hit an overhanging tree limb while water tubing with friends. To honor Kevin’s memory as a hockey player at the Boston area’s Norwood High School, his father created the Kevin O’Halloran Award, which is presented annually to a local hockey player for outstanding character, even if the player is not a star. This year’s winner was a 12-year-old pee wee.

 The Herald story resonated because Mr. O’Halloran’s outlook resonated. “I hear lots of fathers hollering in the rinks,” he told writer Joe Fitzgerald, “It’s so easy to pick out your own kid’s mistakes. Too many people want their kids to be perfect, and a lot of kids can’t be perfect. The next time I hear some father giving his son a hard time, I think I’ll be tempted to say, ‘Hey, Dad, how do you think you’d feel if you got a call asking you to come identify your boy’s body? Think about it. If you’ve got a good kid, a healthy kid, be thankful every day.’”

Then Mr. Halloran quickly added, “That’s what I’d like to say, but I know I’d never do it.” Maybe not. But maybe we all should all say it to sports parents who need a wake-up call.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Dan O’Neill said it in 2007, and he did not mince words. Shortly after a local high school sophomore tennis player died from a series of illnesses, O’Neill wrote forcefully and directly about the warped priorities of many sports parents. He agreed that winning and losing matter in youth sports, but he also said that “the true value of sports” means something much more than numbers on the scoreboard:

We are so lucky, those of us with healthy kids. We are so blessed to have them, to watch them grow, to experience the joy they bring to our lives, to watch them play sports. So quickly we forget that, so often we gloss over it.

Rather, we consider it vitally important how our kids play, how they skated in this or swam in that meet, which team they might make, what position they play, how many goals they score, how many medals they win. . . .

[W]e show disappointment when they fall short of our hopes or expectations. We point out all the things they did wrong, push them to do everything right, fret about their inadequacies.

My God, how did we get there? 

* * * *

 Charlie O’Halloran and Dan O’Neill urge parents to take stock of what is really important about the games boys and girls play during childhood and adolescence, stages of their lives that pass so quickly. The key to both men’s message for parents is to maintain perspective, even when passions meet their sternest test in the heat of competition.

 In T-ball and other games for the youngest age groups, the score should not matter. But as the players get older, maintaining perspective means cheering for victory because the clash of competitors each trying to win within the rules of the game is what makes sports so invigorating. The players should want to win within the rules, and so should their parents.

 Maintaining perspective, however, also means savoring children’s participation for its own sake because the score that seems so important today inevitably fades from memory before long. Parents with perspective remain tolerant of children on the field who, like adults in their own career pursuits, make plenty of mistakes as they learn. Parents with perspective know that losing is honorable and inevitable in sports because no hard-fought game or match can have a winner without a loser. Parents with perspective know that to teach children generosity in victory and grace in defeat, the adults themselves must set the example by remaining civil in their own outlook, expectation and conduct.

 If more youth-league parents would straighten out their priorities, the children would be better off, and so would the parents.  

 [Sources: Joe Fitzgerald, Grieving Dad Finds Solace in Ice Honor, Boston Herald, Apr. 2, 2011, p. 9; Dan O’Neill, Courageous Teen Shows Us the True Value of Sports, St.  Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 9, 2007, p. D2]

A New Look at The Age-Old Issue of Playing Time

Of all the issues in the world of sports parenting, perhaps the single one that conflicts parents and coaches the most is the one regarding a kid’s playing time.

Coaches, I urge you. If you’re working with a team of kids anywhere from ages 5 to 12, please have the COURAGE and the CONFIDENCE to make sure every one of the kids on your roster get a good dose of quality playing time in every game.

I’m not talking about getting the weaker kids into the game when the score is lopsided. Just the opposite. The best coaches know how to weave their players –regardless of their ability – throughout the game or match. After all, these coaches have worked hard to pump up the confidence level in the less-talented kids, and trust me – these youngsters will actually step up their game to a higher level if the coach shows real confidence and allows them to play when the game’s outcome is still in question.

Besides, what’s the downside? You’re a volunteer youth coach. You’re not competing for the Super Bowl or World Cup. It’s just kids trying to go out to chase their dreams and to have some fun. Remember – nobody comes to a game hoping to sit on the bench. The kids dream about coming to the game, making a positive contribution, and who knows – maybe they’ll get a big hit or make a key play. That’s what kids fantasize about, and as the coach, it’s your job to try and facilitate those dreams – NOT to get in the way of them.

Besides, coach, always remember this: every one of the kids on your team has a Mom or Dad who has come to watch them play. If you want to maintain civil peace in your community, always make it a point to play every kid a lot in each game, and when Mom or Dad comes by afterwards, go out of your way to make a positive statement about their child’s play.

No, you may not win the league championship, but in the long run, all of your players will enjoy the experience of playing. And in the end, isn’t that the top priority?

When the Coach Throws a Game

By Doug Abrams

A hockey scandal hit the headlines in Winnipeg, Manitoba early last month. Not a National Hockey League scandal, but a scandal in an early round of the Winnipeg High School Hockey League’s A-Division playoffs.

 Ahead 3-2 against College Jeanne Sauve late in the third period, the Westwood Warriors coaches deliberately schemed to lose the game by pulling their goalie to let the opponents score. The coaches knew that by losing, the Warriors would draw an easier opponent in the upcoming semifinal round and avoid a faceoff against the league’s regular-season champion. With their net empty, the Warriors gave up the tying and winning goals and lost, 4-3.

 The Winnipeg Sun reported that many Warriors players left the ice “visibly distraught” because they knew that their coaches had deliberately thrown the game. “It was brutal,” said a Warriors forward.  “We were embarrassed, and we’re sad we had to put up with it.”

 Westwood High’s administration immediately suspended the Warriors’ coaches for the remainder of the season. The players themselves agreed to face the regular-season champion in the semis, the match-up that a victory against College Jeanne Sauve would have produced. “Kudos to the kids for saying that they didn’t like how it happened,” said Westwood’s principal, who is also the league president.

 Similar coaching shenanigans marred the U.S. Youth Soccer Association Region IV playoffs in Honolulu in June of 2003. With his team ahead 1-0 and about five minutes left to play, the coach of the U-17 De Anza Sharks of Cupertino, California instructed his girls to lose by scoring twice on themselves. As in Winnipeg eight years later, the strategy was to avoid a strong opponent in the next round. The Sharks lost the game, 2-1, and three months later the league imposed a one-year suspension on the coach for what the Alameda Journal called “making a mockery of soccer.”

 “Our coach looked at the brackets,” said a Sharks player afterwards, “and he felt it would be best if we played a weaker opponent in the second round. He brought up [the idea of deliberately losing] to us before the game. Most of us did not like the idea, but he was our coach and he felt it was the best thing to do.”   

 * * * *

Many youth sports coaches doubtlessly weigh tactical maneuvers during playoffs and other tournaments, which frequently feature multiple games in a few days, sometimes on only a few hours’ rest. To conserve energy and avoid injury, the coach may choose to pace first-stringers and reward subs with extra playing time.

 The ethical compass points in a different direction, however, when the coach deliberately tries to lose a game. The line between reasonable pacing and deliberately losing may be hazy sometimes, but coaches cross the line when the players themselves figure out that their leaders are trying to pull a fast one.

 In Winnipeg and California alike, the players’ distaste and the later suspension of the scheming coaches were fitting because the integrity of sports depends on competitors who each try their best to win. Athletes and teams unconcerned about the scoreboard should not play because they deny their opponents the spice that comes from physically and emotionally invigorating competition. Deliberately trying to lose disrespects the game, the opponents, and the team’s fans and supporters.

Kudos indeed to the Westwood Warriors players for understanding the essence of sports, even when their coaches did not.

[Sources: Ken Wiebe, Swift Hockey Justice, Winnipeg Sun, Mar. 5, 2011, p. S3; Mike McGreehan, Board Takes Action Against Youth Coach, Alameda Journal, Sept. 23, 2003, p. B1]

Brett Gardner: From Being Cut to Lead-Off Batter for the Yankees

By Rick Wolff

To me, one of the great attractions of sports are those stories of how an athlete comes back from adversity and succeeds. Brett Gardner, the fleet-footed outfielder for the Yankees, fully personifies that.

According to a fine article by Harvey Araton in The New York Times, Brett came from a baseball family, as his Dad, Jerry, had played for a few years as an infielder in the Phillies organization. And Jerry took great pride in his son’s abilities as a ballplayer.

Both when Brett was finishing HS in rural South Carolina, not one D-I program came calling to offer him a scholarship. There was some interest from D-II schools, but Brett, undeterred, decided to attend the College of Charleston as a walk-on.

Being a walk-on  — even as a talented one — is always difficult. And sure enough, when the cuts were made in the fall of his freshman year, Brett didn’t make the team. Discouraged, he was ready to pack his bags and head home.

But his Dad Jerry did something remarkable. Instead of calling the coach up and complaining bitterly about his kid getting cut, Jerry sat down and wrote a heart-felt letter to the Charleston coach, seeing if perhaps his kid could get a second chance.

Amazingly, the coach got the letter, and sure enough, gave Brett that second chance to make the team. Four years later, Brett Gardner finished his career as a first-time All-American. And he’s also the only College of Charleston grad to be playing in the big leagues.

What’s the takeaway here? Simply that coaches do occasionally make mistakes in evaluating players, and that kids who work hard to overcome adversity often (but not always) come away all the better for their efforts.

Concussions and Heading in Soccer: Should You Be Concerned?

Interesting conversation this AM on WFAN with Dr. Stephen Kanter, one of the nation’s leading certified trainers, about heading soccer balls.

I had read that last year, concussions among HS soccer players (both male and female) accounted for more concussions than with HS athletes who play baseball, softball, wrestling, and basketball COMBINED. And the general consensus was that a lot of them came from heading soccer balls or getting an errant elbow in one’s head when jostling for position.

Dr. Kanter made it clear that, thanks to the growing awareness of concussions in football, ice hockey, and baseball, more and more medical researchers are now looking at soccer. Of specific concerns:

…..Most soccer players learn how to head a ball when they are young. And the key is that they learn to right way to do that. Lots of kids need to strengthen their neck muscles before they can learn to head a ball properly.

…..Coaches and refs need to make sure that the soccer ball itself is properly inflated and that the outer material is appropriate for physical contact with a player’s head.

…..There’s also a growing sense that soccer players should undergo pre-screening for concussions, in much the same way that they use ImPact screening for football. That’s a real good idea.

……Finally, parents need to urge kids to speak up if they feel a bit woozy from a hit or from heading a ball in a game. Too many soccer players are reluctant to speak up if they are hurt from a hit to one’s head.

All and all, some important advice to bear in mind, especially that last one.