Archive for July, 2011

Should Pop Warner Eliminate Tackling for Kids Under 14?

One of the trickle-down effects from all the discussion about preventing concussions is that the Ivy League is now limiting full-hitting practices to just two days a week starting this fall (the NCAA allows 5 full days of full contact). Clearly this is being done to prevent concussions.

But now comes word that the Brown University head football coach, Phil Estes, is suggesting that Pop Warner Football should not only get rid of hitting, but totally eliminate all tackling. The coach’s feeling is that kids can still learn the basics of fundamental football while playing flag football and then can learn to tackle opponents when they get to be in the 8th or 9th grade. Coach Estes says he didn’t start to learn how to tackle until he was that old himself, and he played four years of HS ball and then played at the Univ. of New Hampshire.

Lots of calls and debate on the radio show today, and most of them were on both sides of the issue. I personally feel that Pop Warner Football is generally a well-run organization, and that the coaches look out for the kids and their safety. In fact, according to Jon Butler, the exec director of Pop Warner, they have encountered very, very few concussions in recent years with their kids.

What’s the bottom line? Butler says that if Pop Warner went to only flag football, then the vast majority of their kids would either leave Pop Warner and go play for a rival league, or just play tackle football on their own.

I’m not sure those are good alternatives. My sense is that we still have to be diligent about preventing injuries with young kids. Pop Warner does seem to have a very good track record. All contact sports carry a risk of injury, but Pop Warner does a good job at teaching kids how to play football safely.

Term Limits For Youth League Coaches?

By Doug Abrams

When I was president of a youth hockey association about fifteen years ago, a small group of parents proposed amending the bylaws to impose term limits on board members and head coaches. Two one-year terms for board members and two years for volunteer head coaches. Up and out, unless a head coach chose to continue as an assistant coach.

The parents’ hidden agenda fooled nobody. The aim was to replace incumbent board members who had voted to require fair ice time for all players, and head coaches who supported and implemented the board’s resolutions. Most of the association’s teams had winning records, but these parents said that the teams should become “more competitive.”

At an open meeting late in the season, about sixty families spent a half hour debating the term-limits proposal until one parent stood up and made two commonsense points – first, that imposing term limits on volunteers was nonsensical; and second, that term-limiting head coaches would hurt the players each year by arbitrarily dispatching the most experienced leaders with no ifs, ands or buts.

The proposed term-limits bylaw failed.

Code Words

The idea of term-limiting decisionmakers assumed national attention in 1951, when the Twenty-Second Amendment to the federal Constitution limited the President to two elected terms in office. From coast to coast today, term-limit proposals periodically seek to reach Congress, governors’ offices, and state and local legislatures. Sometimes the proposals are adopted, and sometimes not.

In the political arena, term limits exact a price. In the effort to replace entrenched officeholders, these mandates arbitrarily retire experienced officeholders whose perspective comes from years in office.  Voters forfeit any opportunity to decide which experienced officeholders to retain and which ones to cast aside.  

Term limits can exact a similar price in youth sports associations. I doubt that many associations have bylaws that impose formal term limits on head coaches, but experienced coaches frequently face criticism with “code words.” “Coach Smith needs to give someone else a chance.” “We need new ideas.” “Coach Smith is getting older and can’t demonstrate drills to the players anymore.” And more.

As our hockey association learned about fifteen years ago, casting a volunteer coach’s experience as a negative can be a smokescreen for personal agendas. After the passage of years, even the best head coaches usually do not hold universal affection among the families they have served. These coaches typically leave a legacy of grateful families, but they also accumulate detractors because the coach must decide such everyday matters as who starts and who does not, who makes the all-star team and who does not, and who becomes the team manager and who does not. Volunteer head coaches may also face Monday morning quarterbacking from parents looking to assign blame when the team drops a game or has a losing season.

Code words, whispered or spoken out loud, may let some parents hide their true purposes. This column discusses the role that experience should play in appointing and retaining volunteer head coaches.

Appointment and Retention

A volunteer head coach’s experience in the association can be a plus or a minus. Before each season, the board of directors should select the head coaches it believes will serve the players best at each age level. After the season, the board should review the lineup one by one, retaining head coaches who perform well, and replacing ones who do not. One way or the other, coaching selections require the board’s individual decisionmaking, one coach at a time.

Talented head coaching candidates do not grow on trees, and youth sports associations frequently have a hard time finding truly knowledgeable men and women who can volunteer countless hours. Regularly depleting the talent pool by weeding out experienced coaches does nothing to assure a staff that can relate to kids and teach fundamentals, skills and strategy.

Indeed, a spoken or unspoken attitude favoring term limits would normally shut the door on many of the most experienced head coaches. Regardless of their background or experience, most volunteer coaches remain active only while their own children play. Some coaches, however, choose to continue even after their children finish. Because most children play in a sports program for only a few years, the coaches who continue are likely to be the most experienced members of the staff.

When the selection process accents experience, however, might the board of directors select head coaches based not on merit, but on personal relationships that have developed over time? (Translation: favoritism for insiders). Certainly, but board members might play favorites under any process.

The board should assess each individual coach’s performance directly, free from code words that devalue experience and would arbitrarily deprive players of coaches with proven track records. Children lose when the board considers removing experienced coaches because of the passage of time.

Hair style and tattoos…personal freedom of expression? Or does a coach have the right to set down rules?

Pretty interesting discussion this AM on the show. It stemmed from a situation from Tennessee where a high school football player showed up at spring camp sporting a mohawk. His coach took one look, and said in effect, “You can either keep your mohawk, and not be on the team…or get your hair cut properly, and be on the team. Your choice.”

Traditionally, the courts have supported coaches and school districts on appearance rules. As law professor Doug Abrams has observed, being on a school team is a right, not a privilege, and the courts routinely back the coaches and schools.

However, in this day and age of unusual hair styles and tattoos, should coaches say anything to kids? In short, have these policies now become obsolete?

The calls came in on both sides of the debate, and they were good ones. My sense? My feeling is that if you’re coaching kids at the HS or college level, while you certainly have to abide by the school’s rules regarding personal appearance and you should tell the kids that, you can also add that you would like the team to have a certain look; after all, they’re representing the school in how they appear.

My reasoning is that if the young man or woman really wants to impress you (the coach), and that being on the team is important to them, then they will volunteer to conform to the appearance guidelines you put forth. No, you can’t make it mandatory, and you certainly can’t punish the kids who don’t conform. But at the end of the day, I think you’ll be pleased by how many kids decide to cut their hair accordingly, and in some cases, will cover up their tattoos as a matter of respect to you, the coach, and the rest of the team.

In short, it’s a matter of personal accountability, and it’s also better to allow the kids to make that choice, not having it mandated by you. What’s your opinion about this?

Case of Patch (18-Year-Old Killed by Ball Hit Off Aluminum Bat) vs. Louisville Slugger Affirmed by Montana Supreme Court

By Steve Kallas

On July 25, 2003, 18-year-old Brandon Patch was pitching in an American Legion game in Montana when a ball hit off a Louisville Slugger aluminum bat hit him in the head.  Brandon Patch would die a few hours later.

After attempting (unsuccessfully) to get a law passed banning the use of aluminum bats in Montana, the Patch family filed a lawsuit (in 2006, on virtually the last day before the statute of limitations ran out) against Hillerich & Bradsby Company (hereafter “Louisville Slugger” or “H&B”) to recover damages for both the estate of Brandon Patch and for the parents of Brandon Patch.

In October, 2009, after a trial in Helena, Montana, the jury reached a unanimous verdict in favor of the Patch family, finding that Louisville Slugger had sold a bat in defective condition in that Louisville Slugger had failed to warn Brandon Patch and others of the enhanced risks associated with the use of their bat.  The jury awarded the Patch family $850,000.


Unlike the 2002 case of Brett v. Louisville Slugger in Oklahoma, where a $150,000 jury verdict against Louisville Slugger for injury caused to Jeremy Brett was paid by Louisville Slugger without an appeal, Louisville Slugger decided to appeal the Patch jury verdict.

Under the appellate rules of Montana, the appeal of the Patch verdict went right to the Montana Supreme Court.  Orally argued on January 26, 2011 by Curt Drake (of Drake Law Firm) for the Patch family and by Kyle Anne Gray (of Holland & Hart) for Louisville Slugger, the Montana Supreme Court came down with its decision this past Thursday, July 21, 2011 (that’s almost exactly eight long years from the day of the death of an 18-year-old pitcher).


In a unanimous decision by the seven justices of the Montana Supreme Court, the Court affirmed the jury verdict which gave the Patch family a verdict of $850,000.  The 15-page decision, written by Justice Michael E. Wheat with a brief (three-page) concurring opinion by Justice Jim Rice, went through each of five issues raised by Louisville Slugger, denying all of them.

Included in those five issues were Louisville Slugger’s attempts to claim an assumption-of-the-risk defense.  The Montana Supreme Court stated that “[a]ssumption of the risk was not applicable here because there is no evidence that Brandon actually knew he would be seriously injured or killed when pitching to a batter using one of H&B’s model CB-13 aluminum bats.” (the type of Louisville Slugger bat that was used to hit the ball that killed Brandon Patch).  The opinion goes on: “In other words, H&B failed to show that Brandon was aware of the enhanced risks associated with the model CB-13 aluminum bat, and, knowing that, he voluntarily proceeded to pitch to a batter using that bat.”

The Court later went on to deny the defendant’s request to set aside the verdict and grant Louisville Slugger a new trial, essentially giving great deference to the jury verdict (as most appellate courts do) and finding that the trial itself was a fair one.  Indeed, the Montana Supreme Court held that “H&B is subject to liability to all players, including Brandon, for the physical harm caused by its bat’s increased exit speed …  .”


Well, with the advent of the ”truer” (as Ron Darling said on the July 17 edition of “The Sports Edge” on WFAN)  BBCOR bats in college in 2011 and in high school in 2012, the “weaponry,” at a minimum, has been toned down.  It’s not wood, which, in this writer’s opinion, would be the best (and safest) type of bat to use across the board, but it’s better than what has been used in the past. 

But the jury verdict in the Patch case, now affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court, continues to send a message to the bat companies and baseball federations across the country (including the NCAA – for college —  and the NFHS – for high school) that these BESR bats (the “weapons’) have no place in 21st Century baseball (hopefully, Little League International will get the same message and ban the BESR bats in its Majors (9-13) Division).

While no amount of money can replace your child, the Patch family’s goal was always to not have this kind of tragedy happen to another family.  With the advent of BBCOR bats and the jury verdict and appellate victories in the Patch case, much good has come out of a terrible situation – the death of an 18-year-old who just wanted to pitch in an American Legion game in the summer of 2003.

Whether you know it or not, the life that was just saved might be that of your own child.

How Pressure to Win Can Tempt Youth Coaches to Create Benchwarmers – and How Coaches Can Resist the Temptation

By Doug Abrams

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo says that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. His point is that inspiring words may come easy on the stump because words alone carry no immediate consequences. But realism controls once newly elected officeholders must make decisions that actually affect people’s lives.

When youth-league coaches discuss how much playing time each team member will receive, they may talk poetry in the pre-season parents meeting but turn to prose once the games start. Advocating a child-centered philosophy at the meeting is easy because the scoreboard is still weeks away; temptation to stray from that philosophy can build with pressure to win once games start. I have been there, and the temptation and pressure are both real. Very real.

Like so many other issues that predictably arise on youth sports teams these days, the coaches’ policy about playing time is a matter best addressed early — and directly — by the association’s board of directors or by individual coaches themselves. The sooner, the better.

If the team is billed as a travel or elite squad that will play the most talented kids noticeably more than the others, families deserve to know that up front, before they invest their time, energy, emotion and money. Personally I have always felt most comfortable coaching hockey teams that were grounded in equal playing time. The rest of this column will discuss how I tell the parents that as long as a player attends practices regularly, follows directions and gives an honest effort, the player will see game action that is as equal as I can make it.

Benchwarming often begins with lack of early, forthright communication between coaches and parents. Playing time should be an early agenda item at the pre-season parents meeting because putting parents on notice can strengthen the coach’s resolve to provide equal playing time throughout the season.  Without this notice, the coach’s default position in overheated games – the perceived path of least resistance – may be to overplay the “stars.” Coaches may feel tempted to cut corners because without early frank discussion, they may sense that most parents will criticize them more for losing than for winning.

The Pre-Season Parents Meeting

I open the pre-season parents meeting by acknowledging what every parent already knows – that winning is preferable to losing. I tell the parents that I like to win and do not like to lose, and that I am as “competitive” as anyone in the room. I explain that at any age and at any level of amateur or professional play, sports depends on competitors who do care about the scoreboard, and care passionately. Parents, coaches and athletes who are unconcerned about the score should not participate at all because they deny opponents the spice that comes from spirited games.

But I also look the parents in the eye and tell them that the integrity of sports depends too on maintaining personal values. The ultimate issue for parents and coaches is not whether we want the team to win (because we do and we should), but rather what prices we adults are willing to pay to try to win, and what prices we are unwilling to pay. I believe that below the high school varsity level, maintaining chronic benchwarmers is an unacceptable price because benchwarming is a badge of inferiority that humiliates children and deprives many of a fair chance to explore their love for the game and to develop their skills.

In survey after survey, nearly all children say that they would rather play and lose than warm the bench and win.  This unremarkable finding means that boys and girls join the team for the same reason that their coaches join – because they want to participate actively in each game, and not simply watch as a spectator.  Former NBA player Bob Bigelow hits the target: “Few things violate a child’s basic wants and needs – and his or her basic rights – more than sitting on a bench.”

I tell the parents that “basic rights” means that every child should receive regular playing time each game, consistent with the sport’s substitution rules. Coaches must strike a child-centered balance between the understandable desire to win and the equally understandable desire to participate. In the last four minutes or so of a tight hockey game, for example, I may play only the top two lines but I compensate for that while I am changing lines in the next game. From week to week, disparities in playing time are minimal.

Coaches know the difference between modest disparities in playing time and chronic benchwarming, and no coach assigns chronic benchwarmers by accident. My sport, hockey, permits free substitution, enabling coaches to rotate players in and out all game. In youth sports without free substitution, rules assuring only minimum participation (such as ones guaranteeing each player only two innings and one at-bat in a seven-inning baseball game) are shams when coaches can get away with giving the same players the short end of the stick every game. These sham rules often do not overcome inequity, but permit and indeed encourage it.

I conclude the meeting’s playing-time discussion by candidly telling the parents that I equate adult-enforced chronic benchwarming with emotional child abuse. Supervising, influencing and evaluating other people’s children is serious business, and youth league coaches need to take the responsibility seriously.

What If the Parents Disagree?

In my experience, most parent-coach disputes on any team concern the youngsters’ playing time. By candidly explaining their equal-playing-time policy, coaches try to reassure each parent that they do not belittle the desire to win, but also that they adhere to the credo articulated years ago by the British Association of Coaches:  “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honors won without fair play can have no real value.”

I believe that unless the team is advertised as a travel or elite team, most parents do embrace equal playing time in community youth leagues once coaches and league officials embrace it forthrightly. Unanimity among a team’s parents is elusive, of course, but I have found that few if any parents typically argue openly for obvious inequality when the board of directors, the coaches, and most other parents stand up for fairness.

But what if many parents on the team do reject equal playing time as the core principle? The association’s board of directors holds ultimate policymaking authority, and the parents may be entitled to what they want because their registration fees and fundraising efforts pay the bills.

Even if only a sizeable minority of parents reject equal playing time, a persistent minority can create dissension that distracts and divides the team. Because resisting season-long pressure to compromise one’s values seems a high price to pay for devoting time to coach other people’s children, the coaches may respond to determined parental resistance by deciding to volunteer their time elsewhere

Kallas: Alas, even BBCOR bats are being tampered with…

Steve Kallas was kind enough to sub for me on my show this weekend, and his guests included former major league pitcher Ron Darling and former minor league catcher Dan Gray who now runs a couple of very successful baseball and softball instructional clinics (Pro Swing in Mt Kisco, NY and also in Port Chester, NY).

Both Darling and Gray would much prefer that baseball continue to be played at all levels with traditional wood bats, but they both told Steve that at least BBCOR bats have deadened the trampoline effect substantially, and that baseball averages, which had been stratospheric in recent years, had now fallen back to earth. That is, college hitters, for example, who had hit .400 or .450 two years ago hit around .300 this year. The difference is not in the pitching – it’s because of the use of BBCOR bats thqt their averages have dropped.

Steve also explained that while this year in NCAA ball, all bats have to be BBCOR, only in certain states were BBCOR mandated this year. But next year, in 2012, all HS games will have to use BBCOR or wood.

Meanwhile, Little League baseball still hasn’t mandated the move yet to either BBCOR or wood. We’ll see what happens this August when the LL starts its playoffs.

Then in the second half of the hour, Kallas unloaded a bombshell that there are articles online that explain how BBCOR bats can be taken apart and manipulated to eliminate their dead zone. That is, Steve explained that some players (and presumably coaches) have learned to remove the endcap on the BBCORs, and then remove an inner ring inside the bat. These inner rings are the items that provide the deadening effect, so when they are taken out, the bats spring back to life.

Problem is, no one (especially the umpire) can tell that the bat has been doctored. And that causes real issues.

So what’s the cure? Easy. Just go back to wood bats. All of these issues about trampoline effects, ball exit speed, and so on are all non-issues with wood. It’s still worth thinking about.

What Youth League Coaches Don’t Know – And What Coaches and Parents Can Do About It

By Doug Abrams

When I was president of mid-Missouri’s youth hockey program about ten years ago, a visibly upset parent called me aside one night to say that her son was being bullied by a couple of teammates, both at the home rink and on road trips. Nothing physical, but teasing had continued for a few weeks, and it was beginning to affect the boy’s play and his love for the game.

The mother also told me that she had not talked with the coach because he “was not doing anything about it.”

In the schools and on athletic teams alike, bullying is serious business that calls for a firm response by authorities. Because teamwork requires unity on and off the field, youth leaguers should learn early that verbal abuse of teammates has no place in any sport. On the other hand, the upset mother’s perception of the coach’s indifference did not ring true because I knew that the coach was a decent person who, like most coaches, would not tolerate verbal abuse if he knew about it.

If he knew about it. . . . 

The Limits of the Coaches’ Knowledge

Parents are sometimes surprised at how much even alert youth-league coaches do not know about what is happening on the team. Lack of knowledge stems from the fact that the coach’s perspective is fundamentally different from each individual parent’s perspective.

Each parent pays special attention to his or her player, but a devoted coach must pay attention to a dozen or more players at a time.  Parents live with their children around the clock and can monitor their moods and outlook, but the coach sees the team for only a few hours a week. Players looking for trouble usually do not talk or act in front of the coach, and teammates who see a problem may not want to tattle. Not only that, but misconduct among teammates may fester in the school or neighborhood, beyond the coach’s attention altogether.

When I talked with the coach about the mother’s report of teasing, I knew immediately that he indeed knew nothing about it. His understandable lack of knowledge bore no reflection on his proven record of concern for all his players. For coaches and parents alike, lack of omniscience comes with the territory.     

Open Lines of Communication


What can coaches and parents do to help assure that the coach will know as much as possible about what is happening on the team? Maintaining open lines of communication between coaches and parents is the place to start, but an association’s coaches should not be left to develop their own individual protocols about that communication. The board of directors should set uniform ground rules for parents who wish to talk with the coach about the child’s perceived problems.

The association may encourage parents to approach the coach directly; otherwise the association may have a written resolution requiring parents to talk first with the parent who is the team manager, who then reports to the coach before any direct discussion takes place. If the manager does serve as the liaison, the resolution should state explicitly that the manager reporting to the coach will not reveal the parent’s name without permission. Coaches can address some team-wide problems without learning the particular parent’s identity, and the association discourages free and open communication when parents sense that they or their children may pay a price for coming forward.

Directly or after first talking with the team manager, parents should not feel reluctant to talk responsibly with the coach about an issue relating to their player. And despite the unhappiness and perhaps anger of the moment, parents should not assume that the coach “was not doing anything about” the matter that troubles them. A matter disturbing a parent may also disturb the coach – once the coach learns about it.

The Coach’s Extra Eyes and Ears

Youth-league coaches cannot be every place at once, so they can help themselves by enlisting extra pairs of eyes and ears to help monitor happenings in and around the team. Players should be supervised at all times in sports programs that adults organize and administer, and extra monitors can be helpful.


At the younger age levels, parents typically come into the locker room or onto the field before and after games to help their players prepare for the game or get ready to go home. At the pre-season meeting with parents, the coach should ask all parents to remain alert and help supervise the team throughout the season, particularly when the coach is preoccupied elsewhere. When a parent reports activity that does not seem right, the coach should take the report seriously, but should also recognize that the parent might have reason for a slanted report. The parent’s report may provide important information, but the report is perception and not proof, and does not relieve the coach of obligation to exercise sound judgment.


At the older age levels, the captains can be the coach’s extra eyes and ears. Here is what I said in an April column about the role of captains on older teams:

As players move toward the high school level, . . . 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. . . .

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.

These observations still seem sound today.

* * * *

And what happened about ten years ago when our hockey coach finally learned about the teasing of the player? The coach had a pretty good idea of who the perpetrators were but, rather than invite a “he said-she said” with dueling accusations that would set players and parents against one another, he talked to the entire team about how players weaken the squad by belittling their mates. He named no names. Every player learned a lesson, the perpetrators got the message, the teasing stopped, and the player’s mother seemed pleased from then on.

The Dilemma of Coaching One’s Own Kid

Annette Reiter was a top-flight HS and college basketball player, and after graduating from school, she maintained her passion for the game by coaching HS and AAU girls’ teams. She’s now an assistant coach at Rowan University.

But like many coaches, she grappled with the dilemma of whether she should coach her own daughters in sports. With her older girl, Alyssa, she opted not to coach Alyssa’s AAU team. But with her younger daughter Kristina, she did (by the way, Annette and her husband, Dave, have a son as well).

In any event, the question of dealing with the positives as well as the potential negatives of coaching one’s own kid forms the basis of Annette’s new book, PARENTING AN ATHLETE. She’s refreshingly candid about dealing with the perceptions of the other parents in the stands (e.g. will Annette play favorites with her own kid, in terms of playing time, etc.). She also talks about how parents need to understand how adversity can be used as a real motivating tool for young athletes. And she’s quite candid that, as an assistant coach with the AAU team, she and her head coach made a mistake by not having a team meeting with the parents before the start of the season to discuss their strategy, concepts, expectations, and so on.

All in all, the discussion this AM brought forth some real issues that all parents need to understand fully before volunteering to coach (or help coach) their kid’s team in sports. The first step is to simply ask your son or daughter whether they would like to have you coach their team. Listen to what they say. And then if they say yes, remind them that your job is to teach and coach all the kids on the team fairly. No favorites. Also be sure NOT to lean on your kid just because they’re your kid.

Coaching one’s youngster can bring all sorts of joy. But as every coach will tell, you, it’s essential to think first before offering comments, suggestions, and instructions. And most of all, always bear in mind that there are a dozen parents up in the stands who are watching your every move like a hawk.

What’s your sense? Should parents coach their own kids? What kinds of experences have you had?

Why Youth Leagues Should Encourage Older Players to Help Coach Younger Teams – and How to Do It

By Doug Abrams

When I tell friends that I began coaching in 1967, they usually guess that I am a bit older than I really am. That year, I coached a Little League baseball team in the Central Nassau Athletic Association in East Meadow, Long Island. The following year, I also coached a youth hockey team in the Nassau County Recreation and Parks Department program at Cantiague Park in Hicksville. But I did not graduate from W. Tresper Clarke High School until 1969.

When I began coaching, I was still playing in the baseball and hockey programs. Each team I coached was what we would today call a house league or rec team because travel baseball and hockey were only in their infancy then, at least on Long Island. I coached Little League for only two years until I graduated, but I have coached youth hockey ever since.

When I created mid-Missouri’s first youth hockey teams shortly after moving to Columbia in 1989, I remembered what coaching meant to me (and to the players I coached) while I was still in high school. I felt that encouraging teen players to help coach in the younger age divisions was a win-win, and I still do.

Youth leagues and associations should permit teen players to help coach, and I understand that many organizations do. Here is how our mid-Missouri hockey association maintained a successful Leadership Program that fully involved older players as assistant coaches with the younger teams. The model can work well in any youth sport.

A Model for Teen Assistant Coaches

At our hockey association’s pre-season registration, teenage players could volunteer to be assistant coaches in the younger age groups. We usually required volunteers to be at least 16, and either still active in the association or playing in high school competition. Occasionally we also included younger teens who seemed particular mature for their age, and they too performed well. 

We were a relatively small association, and about a half dozen teen players would sign up to coach each year. To maintain a comfortable age differential, we would assign teen assistants to teams in the youngest age divisions, the mites (U 9) and the squirts (U 11). Some of the teams played house-level competition against other associations, and some of the teams played statewide B-level competition.

In both age groups, a capable extra coach was always welcome because players that young need so much personal attention. The adult head coaches did not seem to mind that the teens were usually inexperienced at coaching, perhaps because many adult assistant coaches were in the same boat. At the pre-season meeting with the parents, the head coach would introduce the teen assistants and explain that they too are learning while they generously donate their time.

State and national youth hockey governing bodies now have guidelines for teen coaches. In addition to following these guidelines, our association’s coaching director and board members would hold a mandatory pre-season meeting with the teen coaches to discuss what the association expected from them. This mandatory session was in addition to the mandatory pre-season meeting for adult coaches, which the teens would also be expected to attend. 

We told the teen volunteers that coaching brings responsibilities, including these:

1)            Role modeling. Keep your language and behavior clean because the younger players are listening and watching. Mites and squirts do not distinguish between adult volunteer coaches and teen volunteer coaches. You are their coach, period. In other words, you are a teen who has volunteered to act like an adult.

2)            Attendance. Regular attendance is a must because at any age, players expect their coaches to attend most practices and games. Before volunteering, be honest with yourselves and your parents about how much time you can devote, given your academic and playing commitments. (Teen coaches often missed mite or squirt weekend games because they were playing on their own teams, but that was understood and accepted.)

3)            Selflessness. Playing and coaching are two different roles. You have volunteered to coach; you have not volunteered to get yourself extra ice time for personal conditioning or for showing off. In mite or squirt practice sessions, do not join in drills except to instruct and demonstrate. When the team scrimmages during practices, your role is to instruct and blow the whistle, and not to play.   

4)            Professional distance. Like the adult coaches, teen coaches are not the players’ friends. They are coaches who show friendship. There’s a difference.

5)            Attentiveness. Even adult beginner coaches sometimes tend to pay more attention to the most outgoing, personable players. The other players need just as much of the coaches’ attention, and sometimes even a bit more.

6)            Liability. Coaches must minimize risks of injury to players. Be careful about what you ask the players to do, and be sure to help provide mature supervision on and off the ice.

7)            Discipline. Mites and squirts rarely step out of line, but player discipline should be left to the adult head coach, who is best able to talk with parents. Even adult assistant coaches usually have reduced disciplinary authority.

8)            Controversies.  Disputes with parents and other contentious issues are often a part of youth-league coaching these days. If you sense that such an issue is brewing, or if you have actually become involved in one, talk to the head coach or a board member immediately so that they can handle it. Teen assistants should not be drawn into controversies with parents because the playing field is not level.

We urged the adult head coaches to use their teen assistants in a meaningful way, to treat them like any other assistant coach, and to mentor them so that their experience would soon begin to measure up to their youthful enthusiasm. At my own squirt team’s practices, I would frequently ask the teen assistants to conduct a drill or give instruction at the other end of the rink, outside my earshot. The teen assistants never let me down.  

Why Use Teen Assistant Coaches?

Enlisting teen assistant coaches was plus each year. Before long, the Leadership Program became major part of the association’s format.

The teen assistant coaches got a taste of leadership and a chance to see hockey from a different perspective. Because teaching a great way to learn, they also learned from coaching; a player can learn plenty about how to shoot the puck, for example, when he has to stop and think about how to teach shooting to someone else step-by-step. Teen assistants also earned a credential that would strengthen their later college and employment applications. Invariably the coach or a parent on the team could later write a nice letter of recommendation for the teen coach. Some of the teens wrote their college application essays about coaching.

The mite and squirt players looked up to the teen assistants, who were somewhat close in age and playing on teams that the mites and squirts hoped to join someday. Players and coaches felt a bond because they had something in common.

The association benefitted from enabling older players to “give back,” and from creating a sense of unity and spirit that joined the younger and older age divisions. Teen coaches would often bring teammates and friends to the mite and squirt home games, and the mites and squirts would turn out to watch the teen coaches play their home games.

How successful was the Leadership Program? Many of the teen coaches still coach in their local youth sports programs years later. The flame is still there. That says what needs to be said.

The Lingering Worries about Entitlement in Youth Sports

A caller this AM on my WFAN radio show said that, as far as he’s concerned, the parents who go through all the effort of setting up a travel team SHOULD be allowed a certain amount of entitlement when it comes to deciding who makes the team, who is named an All-Star, and so on.

After listening to a litany of other callers complain about the ongoing issues that accompany coaches and parents who play favorites with their kids, I was absolutely stunned by this Dad’s argument. And then he said: “It’s just like private school. The people who run private schools have the right to decide who gets in and who doesn’t.”

I replied: “Well, suppose your child had superior grades and test scores, and desperately wanted to gain entrance into that elite private school, but was turned down because the school decided to offer admission to another kid who wasn’t as talented as your child but his parents had some connections with the board. How would that make you feel?”

I think I made my point with this caller.

Look, one of the beautiful things about sports is that it is totally democratic. When it comes to make a travel team, the BEST players should make the cut. There should be no consideration at all about who’s the coach, who is friends with the coach, who made the team last year, and so on. Take all of those arguments and toss them in the garbage.

If you’re going to run a travel program, make it fair to anyone who tries out – not just for the ones who are friends of yours or friends with your youngster. That’s a big responsibility, but you can’t have it any other way. It’s just fair to all the kids who come to try out, and truly hope it’s a level playing field.

Problem is, this kind of entitlement continues to happen in towns and communities all over America. It’s just not right.