Archive for August, 2011

Who Owns Youth Sports? (Part II)

By Doug Abrams

Last week’s column discussed the sandlot play that thrived in the United States until the late 1960s, and contrasted it with the adult-organized youth leagues that dominate today. I concluded that because children used to play sports without adult involvement most of the time, today’s children “do not need the adults to conduct their games unless the adults have something positive to offer.”

This column concerns the “positives” that adults indeed can offer the millions of boys and girls who participate in organized sports programs each year. When parents and coaches actually place the children’s emotional needs first, organized programs offer important advantages that sandlot games usually did not.

Last week’s column described suburbanization and the other societal forces that moved the nation away from sandlot sports toward organized sports. These forces show no signs of reversal. For parents and coaches concerned about the welfare of young athletes today, the central challenge is not to pine for lost sandlots, but to administer sports programs that work better for all kids. Adults can meet this challenge by combining the best of sandlot play with the best of adult-organized play.

The Best of Sandlot Play

In 1938, Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga described the importance of spontaneous, unstructured play to the general health and vitality of societies and their citizenry throughout the ages. “The essence of play,” he wrote in Homo Ludens (“Man the Player”), is fun. “Nature . . . could just as easily have given her children . . . purely mechanical exercises and reactions. But no, she gave us play, with its tension, its mirth, its fun.”

Huizinga distinguished unstructured free play from the organized youth sports that had begun to surface in Europe and North America even before World War II. “Children’s games, football, and chess,” he wrote, “are played in profound seriousness; the players have not the slightest inclination to laugh.”       

Ever since organized sports eclipsed children’s sandlot games by the late 1960s, many psychologists and educators have echoed Huizinga’s embrace of free play and his skepticism about organized sports. So too have many professional athletes who recall the fun of free play when they were kids.

In the early 1970s, for example, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton told an interviewer that he still favored sandlot play for youngsters under thirteen.  “When I was ten years old I played on Saturdays with a Boys’ Club team,” he said, “and that wasn’t nearly as much fun as playing pickup games in the park.” “You just couldn’t be yourself. . . You had to do this, and do that. . . . I think [kids] would prefer to go out on the sandlots. . . . Out there they can play any position, they can devise their own strategy, the can be innovative, they can be creative. . . . But when they go into organized football, they’re no longer on their own, they’ve got to answer to a coach.”

Today’s psychologists and educators who stress the fun of sandlot play also make other solid points that warrant serious attention from adults who seek the best for today’s young athletes. These professionals argue that, as Tarkenton suggested, children learned self-confidence when they organized and conducted their own sandlot games, without adult coaches on the scene making all the important decisions. Without adult referees and umpires, sandlot play let the children officiate their own games, manage their own teams, and resolve their own disputes. What kids learned about social skills and individual autonomy lasted longer than the score, which would reset to 0-0 for the next game anyway, typically with different team rosters and never with league standings.

Amid today’s pediatric obesity epidemic, psychologists and educators also find that children tend to get more vigorous exercise from free play than from adult-designed practice sessions, which normally include much standing around and “down time” as coaches overstress team strategies.

These psychologists and educators also charge that today’s adult-organized play often leads to over-structuring of children’s weekly schedules until free time – opportunities for kids to be kids – virtually disappears. Fun is often the first casualty as the “youth sports arms race” ratchets up the pressure and produces longer and longer seasons. Family vacations and other special household events take a backseat, and the nightly family dinner becomes a relic of the past. Adult domination of kids’ sports can also encourage “helicopter parenting” by adults who may not be able to let go, even when their children reach early adulthood.  

The Best of Adult-Organized Play

When adults today conduct an organized youth-league sports program that actually serves the players’ emotional needs, the program provides at least four advantages that informal sandlot play did not. Leagues organized by adults are better for safety, supervision, instruction and role modeling.

Safety

Organized leagues today are much safer than sandlot games ever were. When my friends and I bicycled to the local schoolyard and chose up a baseball game in the 1960s, much of what passed for safety now seems laughable. We played hardball without batting helmets. Catchers wore no shin guards, chest protectors, or sometimes even masks. Some of us probably did not know what a cup was, and the rest of us did not care. My friends and I never thought beforehand about getting hurt, and nobody knew what to do when injury did happen.

We played schoolyard tackle football with the flimsiest helmets, or none at all; nobody wore mouth guards or shoulder pads. In our pickup 3-on-3 hockey games, players without adequate protective equipment skated on ponds that sometimes were not as frozen solid as safety would have advised.

National youth sports governing bodies, and parents and coaches who organize local games, tend to pay much closer attention to safety than we kids did when we were left to our own devices. In my own sport, USA Hockey’s steady march toward more protective safety standards since I first laced on skates nearly fifty years ago has undoubtedly spared many youngsters avoidable injury. Despite the idyllic images on Currier and Ives lithographs, pond hockey unsupervised by adults never met these standards.

Supervision

Aside from greater safety during games themselves, we might debate whether pedophiles and other perceived neighborhood risks to children pose any greater threats today than they did generation or two ago. But the numbers of single-parent and two-wage-earner households have increased dramatically in recent decades, leaving many parents unable to fully supervise their own children outside the home, particularly between the final afternoon school bell and dinner time. We can understand why parents today want responsible adults to supervise their children’s athletic and non-athletic extracurricular activities, and we can appreciate the contributions that these responsible adults can make.

Instruction

Years ago, our sandlot games helped develop endurance and various important skills of the game. But these choose-up games also encouraged us to practice our mistakes, and they provided little opportunity to work on skills that we had not learned in the first place. As a squirt hockey coach in recent years, I believed that I could make the game fun yet also teach skills better than the players’ 10-year-old friends could teach one another in choose-up games.

By my teen years, most of my skills learning came from my youth-league and high school coaches. Free play surely fosters important social skills and provides plenty of practice, but children approaching their teen years who seek to master their sport also need to learn from an adult coach who values fun but also knows more about the game than they and their friends do.

Role modeling

Children’s most influential role models are their own parents, and most of what children learn about values and outlook should come from the home. Children, however, can also learn these intangibles from other adults in their lives, including teachers and coaches. A thoughtful teacher or youth-league coach can leave a more positive impression on players than their 10-year-old friends can.

Conclusion: Back to the Future

“[I]t becomes increasingly easy, as you get older, to drown in nostalgia,” says broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, the former ABC Nightline host. Nostalgia is indeed one of the great faculties of the human mind, but we cannot easily turn back the clock to a bygone era when youth sports seemed simpler on the sandlots. For most young players, conventional organized sports programs will continue to define their athletic lives.

In today’s organized programs, however, thoughtful youth-league coaches can combine the fun, spontaneity and individual autonomy of sandlot play with the safety, supervision, instruction and role modeling of organized play. For an imaginative coach with the will to simulate sandlot play in an organized setting, returning youth sports to the rightful owners — the youth — is both challenging and rewarding. The return need not affect the scores, but it will affect the players’ upbringing.

In a recent column, “Teaching Leadership in Youth Sports” (April 25), for example, I suggested that youth-league coaches should let the players themselves make important team decisions that they are perfectly capable of making. Decisionmaking that the kids accomplished on sandlots without adults around in past generations, they can accomplish with the adults in charge today – if the adults would only let them.

Yogi Berra says that “the future ain’t what it used to be.” Maybe so sometimes, but it can be if parents and coaches conduct youth sports programs in the best interests of the children who play.

 

 

[Sources: Martin Ralbovsky, Lords of the Locker Room: The American Way of Coaching and its Effect on Youth, pp. 84-85 (1974) (interview with Fran Tarkenton); Bob Bigelow et al., Just Let the Kids Play, pp. 157-163 (2001); http://www.byardsports.com/index.html]

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2011 LITTLE LEAGUE UPDATE: PITCH COUNTS, CURVEBALLS AND ALUMINUM BATS – WHERE DO WE STAND?

                                                                       By Steve Kallas

Back in August of 2007, Rick Wolff and I wrote an article entitled “Little League – Is Winning More Important Than Safety?” (see Kallas Remarks, 8/30/07).  In that article, we discussed the Little League approach to pitch counts, curveballs and aluminum bats.  Here, a comparison of Little League’s 2007 rules and its 2011 rules are set forth below.  Much still needs to be done by Little League to protect its young players.

PITCH COUNTS

In 2007, Little League’s newly-instituted pitch count rules were so watered down (the recommendations of Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glen Fleisig for 11 and 12-year-olds were 75 pitches per day, 100 pitches per week and four days of rest if you threw 61 or more pitches) as to be unrecognizable.  When Little League made the pitch count mandatory in 2007, they decided (without doctor approval) that only three days of rest were needed during the regular season and, much worse, only two days of rest during the Williamsport tournament.

As a result, a pitcher during the Little League World Series in 2007 (and 2008 and 2009) could throw 255 pitches in seven days, a number that not even major league pitchers would throw in that time frame.  It resulted in a lot of criticism for Little League baseball.  Dr. Tim Kremchek, the orthopedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds, who does a lot of work with young pitchers, called this pitch-count limitation “abuse.”

In 2011, Little League has (finally, as of 2010) altered the pitch-count days of rest back to the recommendations of Dr. Andrews; that is, four days of rest whether in the regular season or the Williamsport tournament.  Thus, no Little League pitchers could throw the absurd numbers that they could throw back in 2007-09.

Conclusion as to pitch counts:  Little League is to be commended for instituting pitch counts and, finally, for adding the correct number of days of rest to make the pitch counts meaningful.  But, a review of the original recommendations of the world-renowned doctors of 75 (not the present 85) pitches per game and 100 (not the present 170 in six days) per week is necessary to determine if arm injuries can be further limited.  For example, in this year’s Southeast Regional, Kyle Chandler of Alabama, while pitching against Florida, hurt his arm on his 84th pitch and had to be removed from the game.  He had thrown 50 pitches on August 5, 13 pitches on August 8 and then 84 pitches on August 10 before hurting his arm. 

On his 84th pitch, it was obvious that he had hurt his arm.  Later, he was shown in the dugout with an ice pack on his shoulder (and thanks to Joe Heinzmann of Ridgefield, CT for the heads-up on this incident).

The point, of course, is that Kyle Chandler wound up throwing 147 pitches in six days and 84 on the day of his injury, both still over the Dr. Andrews-recommended limits of 100 pitches every seven days and 75 per game.  While Little League deserves much credit for improving its pitch-count recommendations, they should take a further look at the daily and weekly numbers (indeed, when pitch counts were first introduced in Little League, Dr. Andrews stated that they had to “fudge up” the numbers (from 75 per game to 85 per game) to get Little League approval). 

It’s time for Little League to take another look at those numbers.

 CURVE BALLS

In 2007, hardly anybody (doctor or not) believed that throwing curveballs at the age of 11 or 12 was a good idea.  Indeed, Drs. Andrews and Fleisig had written two papers, one based on a survey and one based on a study of hundreds of young pitchers.  The first study concluded that “In general, a child can start throwing a fastball at age 8, a change-up at age 10, and a curveball at age 14.”  The second study, by the same doctors, appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2002 and concluded that “pitchers between the ages of 9 and 12 should limit themselves to only fastballs and change-ups, and not throw sliders and curveballs.”

Little League International President Steven Keener even went on Rick Wolff’s WFAN radio show “The Sports Edge,” in 2007, and said “If I could, I would ban curveballs from Little League Baseball.  But it’s really a question of enforcement.  We don’t know how to enforce the rule.”

But that was then, this is now.

In 2011, in what can only be called a bizarre study, the University of North Carolina has come out with a five-year study that concludes, among other things, that “the relationship between age, type of pitch, and injury risk is complex, but there was no clear evidence that throwing breaking pitches at an early age was an injury risk factor.”

Uh-oh.

This new study stands about 50 years of medical research on its head.  Dr. Andrews, to his credit, when a similar study was released two years ago, stated that he feared that the study “might do more harm than good.”  Indeed, Dr. Andrews still suggests that young pitchers not throw breaking balls until they can shave, i.e., at 13 or 14.

Dr. Kremchek was shocked by the new study, stating recently on “The Sports Edge” that both the methodology and the conclusions are simply wrong.  Dr. Kremchek, who operates “all the time” on young pitchers, essentially said that the study wasn’t big enough or long enough and that he still strongly encourages parents and young pitchers to not throw curveballs or breaking pitches until they are at least in their early teens.

Conclusion as to curveballs:  Little League has to seriously take a close look at this new study.  It almost has a the-world-is-flat quality to it.  Clearly, there is a major split among knowledgeable doctors about the study’s conclusions.  Clearly, most” baseball” guys understand that it is almost ridiculous to have young kids throw breaking balls.  Of course, many managers (i.e., usually parents), who have that “win at all costs” mentality, now have some ammunition to show to concerned parents (“Hey, look, concerned parent, it’s OK for Johnnie to throw a ton of breaking pitches.  Here’s the study to prove it.”)  

The notion that kids can be “correctly” taught to “safely” throw breaking pitches is equally ridiculous.  Unless you have an expert pitching coach in your backyard or in your league, it’s virtually impossible to teach young kids how to properly throw a curveball.  And, when fatigue sets in, according to Dr. Kremchek, that’s when the real injuries can occur, if not immediately, than certainly over time.

Little League should seriously consider banning breaking balls, with the umpire enforcing the rule (first one a warning, second one an ejection).

Thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of young pitching arms will be saved if this rule is implemented by Little League.

ALUMINUM BATS

In 2007, Little League allowed any bat that met the BPF standard (Bat performance standard) of 1.15 or less (when compared to a wood bat).  Little was done to limit the power of the -10, -11 (bat length to bat weight) differential of these bats, often called weapons and even advertised as such.  The dangers of these bats could be seen by pitching (or watching) batting practice to the same group of 12-year-olds using aluminum and then wood (or vice-versa).  You didn’t have to be a scientist or a “baseball’ guy to see the differences and the potential dangers.

In 2011, with the advent of the BBCOR bats (a different measurement of the potential power of the bat that is, at least, closer to wood than BPF or any other measurement), a new world has developed in baseball – at least for older kids.  In college in 2011 and in high school in 2012, the mandatory use of BBCOR bats has changed the landscape of baseball for older kids, making it closer to wood and safer than the previous bats.

But in Little League, the bat rules have become a hodgepodge of new rules, with composites banned (maybe, unless they get a “waiver”) and BBCOR bats that must be used next year but only in the older Little League divisions.

As of this writing (August 2011), Little League has refused (inexplicably) to go to a BBCOR standard in its 9-13 division.  All older divisions of Little League will go to some form of BBCOR (but not the same across the board) in 2012.

Conclusion as to aluminum bats:  Little League should immediately announce that, starting in 2012, even the younger kids must use BBCOR bats.  If it wasn’t clear to Little League officials before, surely it is now that they have seen that screaming line drive that hit California’s pitcher, Braydon Salzman, in the head during a Little League World Series game this year against Rhode Island. 

ESPN gave it to you from different angles, in slow motion, just about any way you wanted to see it.  Fortunately, the ball actually hit the brim of Braydon’s baseball cap, deflecting some of its energy.  He clearly had no chance to catch the ball as it was obvious, in slow motion, that he was physically unable to protect himself. He went down like somebody shot him and, if this isn’t a warning of what could happen with these bats, you won’t get another one until someone is knocked into a coma or even killed in a Little League game.

Since we already have a close to $1 million jury verdict (affirmed by the Montana Supreme Court) against a bat company in the death of 18-year-old Brandon Patch (who was hit in the head with a line drive off an aluminum bat and dies a few hours later), partly because Patch had no chance to defend himself, all leagues are on notice of the potential danger of these bats.

While that is not to say that something terrible could not happen with a wood bat (it could), it is to say that, with the bigger sweet spot and the “trampoline” effect that the Little League bats presently have, it’s much more likely that something terrible will happen to one or more virtually defenseless kids who are 12-years-old.

A switch to BBCOR bats, effective for the 2012 season, for all divisions of Little League, including the 9-13 Majors Division, would go a long way to saving pitchers (and, arguably, some infielders as well) from potentially life-threatening injuries.

FINALLY

Feel free to contact your local Little League or Little League International with your own suggestions for the safety of children.

The arm (and/or even the life) you save, may be that of your own child.

Who Owns Youth Sports?

By Doug Abrams

Responding to last week’s column about “Mistakes,” Frank McMahon commented that “the time is long past for youth sports to be returned to their rightful owners, the children we purport to serve.”

Mr. McMahon hit the nail right on the head. Our enterprise is called “youth sports” for a reason — youth sports belongs to the youth. And it is indeed time that more sports programs recognized the children’s ownership with decisionmaking that places the children’s emotional needs ahead of the emotional needs of the adults in charge.

In the next week or two, for example, I will discuss preseason house-league “drafts.” Head coaches often sit around the table trying to stack their teams with the best eight-year-olds, much like coaches and general managers in major league drafts try to stack their teams with the best multi-millionaire professionals. Stacking a house-league team may serve the emotional needs of a coach who relishes acting like George Steinbrenner on draft day with hopes of dominating the league. But balanced rosters best serve the eight-year-olds’ emotional needs because, as leading youth sports reformer Bob Bigelow says, “close games are the most fun.”

Parents, coaches and league administrators are guests at their children’s games.  We are guests because if no adult attended, the hosts — the children — could still play. If adults created no leagues, their sons and daughters might go without league standings, playoffs, all star teams, championship trophies, and similar touches. But the children could still choose sides and have games. As the owners of youth sports, the young hosts do not need the adults to conduct their games unless the adults have something positive to offer.

The decades-old pedigree of youth sports in America tells the story.

The “Adultification” of Youth Sports

Adults are the children’s guests at games because the children were there first.  Widespread adult control of youth sports, taken for granted today, is actually a relatively recent development.

Until a few decades ago, children in communities all across America generally conducted their own games without adult involvement.  When youngsters wanted to play, they rounded up their friends and headed for the local playground or sandlot. They chose sides and perhaps rearranged the teams midway through the game to correct imbalance. They adjusted the rules to suit the circumstances, officiated the game, worked out their disputes, and then went home when everyone got tired or the sun went down. The youngsters accomplished all this (and more) by themselves, without adults on hand to choreograph the games.

The “adultification” of youth sports did not begin in earnest until after World War II. Adults assumed only a minor role before the War, mostly in public and private schools and some recreation programs. Little League baseball, for example, began in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1939, but was still confined to that state in 1945.

With the post-War suburbanization of major metropolitan areas, playground and sandlot sports thrived into the late 1960s. Many children today, however, graduate from high school without ever playing in a pickup game, or ever hearing the term “do-over.” Spontaneous neighborhood games have approached extinction as family and community life has changed. More families than ever before are headed by single working parents, and more dual-parent households have both parents working full-time outside the home. These harried parents do not want their children hanging around local playgrounds and would rather have the youngsters supervised by adults.  Many neighborhoods also have fewer local fields and sandlots because so many open spaces have become housing developments, and because so many school and municipal facilities remain closed to unsupervised play for fear of liability.

Most youth sports today is “organized,” that is, organized by adults who create, incorporate, administer, outfit, coach and officiate the leagues. Now that adults have assumed hands-on control of children’s games, the adults have the responsibility to serve the emotional needs of the children who play. 

Youth Leaguers’ Emotional Needs

Youth leaguers have four basic emotional needs, which I expect to discuss from time to time in future columns. Children thrive best when the adults in charge, recognizing who owns youth sports, make a serious effort to meet each of these four needs:

(1) child athletes need to play without unhealthy pressure to win imposed by parents and coaches;

(2) child athletes need to be treated like children, and not like miniature professionals;

(3) child athletes need adult role models whose sportsmanlike behavior helps make participation fun; and

(4) child athletes need to play without adult-imposed pressure for financial gain inspired by professional or big-time collegiate sports.

A Constant Reminder

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Rick Meana, New Jersey Youth Soccer’s Director of Coaching. Below his message was an epigram that reminds readers about who owns youth sports. The epigram belongs on every sports family’s refrigerator; on the wall of every league’s meeting room; and on the bottom of every league’s letterhead and email message:

“They are not your players . . . . You are their coach.”

 

What are the Benchmarks of a “Great” Coach?

Most of us who played sports in school growing up can instantly recall one or two of our favorite coaches. Just like having a favorite teacher who made a real impact, or difference, in your life, those of us who competed athletically can pinpoint a coach or two who was unique.

But for every great coach we played for, there were also a number of just average or even mediocre coaches along the way. So the question is – how do you distinguish the great ones from the so-so ones? And more importantly, what about your own kids playing sports?

From the feedback and discussion I received, there are some key criteria in order to be a top-flight coach. Take a look at the list below, and feel free to send along some of your own thoughts and criteria:

Winning….great coaches don’t have to win every game, but for the most part, there does seem to be a strong correlation between great coaches and their having teams that sport consistent winning records. Regardless of the talent on the team, great coaches always make sure that their teams are well-prepared for all games. That’s a sign of a winning coach.

Communication….great coaches know how to connect with every kid on the team. Not just the starters, or the stars, but the real key is how the coach communicates with the kids on the bench who don’t play much. Great coaches know that in order to keep everyone motivated, it’s essential that they are constantly talking with those kids as well. Plus great coaches never try to shun or avoid the parents. They know that Moms and Dads want a piece of their time as well, and they do their best to accomodate them.

Encouragement….great coaches know that kids always respond to positive feedback and encouragement. Sarcasm or negative comments breeds insecurity, which breeds a lack of confidence. Great coaches know that, and not only are always encouraging their players, but also provide specific points of positive feedback.

Discipline…..great coaches know that athletes actually crave discipline. As such, great coaches make sure to provide and enforce discipline, but also always leave a little room for individualism among their athletes.

They care….in sum, great coaches simply care about their players. You can’t fake that. Either you go the extra yard for your players, or you don’t. That’s what great coaches are known for.

Breaking News: LL Pitcher Fortunately Survives Line Drive to His Face

THIS JUST IN……In a Little League World Series game that was played and televised on ESPN yesterday afternoon, spectators and viewers collectively held their breath when, in the 3rd inning, Ryan McCormick of Cumberland, RI, hit a line-drive rocket directly back at the pitcher, Braydon Salzman, of Huntington Beach, CA.

Amazingly, the line shot off the aluminum bat hit the brim of the pitcher’s cap, which fortunately absorbed most of the stunning blow. That being said, Salzman instantly fell over backwards, as though he had been shot. After he was able to recuperate for several minutes, Salzman was actually able — and cleared — to keep pitching.

I urge you to google “Little League baseball pitcher hit by line drive.” There are several shots in slo-mo of Salzman being hit by the ball. You can see for yourself that, if the ball had hit the youngster by just 1/4 inch in either direction, he would have been very seriously injured.

On the slo-mo video, you can even see as he tries in vain to get his glove up to protect his face, but the ball travels too fast for him to do that.

Then, look for the video from ESPN in real-time speed. You’ll see Salzman deliver the pitch and then the ball explode off the barrel and right into his face. He had no time to react.

The bottom line? Braydon Salzman is one very, very lucky kid. So is Little League Baseball.  I’ll be curious to find out what kind of bat Ryan McCormick was using– but it sure didn’t look like it was a wooden one.

 

Little League “No Proof Curve Balls are More Dangerous than Other Pitches” — OUTRAGEOUS!!

If you’re a parent or coach of a Little League baseball pitcher, I can’t urge you strongly enough to go to WFAN.com, find The Sports Edge, and listen to the podcast from today’s show.

I was most fortunate to have Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the medical director and orthopedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds as my special guest on the show,  and Dr. Kremchek was stunned by the position that LL Baseball has taken on kids throwing curves.

In short, Dr. Kremchek couldn’t have been more baffled — and upset —  by this proclamation. He operates directly on the kids who throw curves, and Dr. Kremchek sees the numbers for Tommy John surgery rising over the last decade, not decreasing. Furthermore, he points out that often times the kids don’t experience the real hazards of arm, shoulder, and elbow issues for at least-4-5 years after they start throwing “breaking balls” as they’re called on ESPN — which means that it’s usually when the kids are in HS when their arm problems necessitate surgery.

Dr. Kremchek points to the pressures of coaches and parents wanting to win at all costs with their kids, and the ongoing politics that swirl around LL Baseball as the main driving forces behind this “finding” that kids don’t run a risk throwing curves.

A surprise caller on the show was from former major league pitcher Pete Harnisch, who’s now a LL coach himself in New Jersey. Harnisch expressed his own horror at this finding by LL, and said he would never let his sons throw curves before they were beyond LL age.

The bottom line? I’m convinced that since LL coaches feel, deep down, that their teams won’t be competitive unless their kids throw curves that they wanted LL Baseball’s blessing to let the kids do that. Well, LL CEO Steve Keener has given them that blessing — we just worry about how many innocent young arms are going to be ruined by this bizarre proclamation.

There are real parallels to cigarette smoking and lung cancer. For years, the tobacco industry claimed that smoking doesn’t have any real link to the disease, and then, finally the cigarette manufacturers came clean. When is LL going to do the same thing about having kids throw curves?

Huh? Little League Claims that Kids Can Throw Curves Without Any Fear of Injury?

What?? Throwing curves and sliders won’t hurt your kid’s arm?

This proclamation — which was announced by Steve Keener, the CEO of Little League Baseball — was made last week, and it has sent shock waves through the world of youth sports.

Why in the world would LL make this announcement? I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s because I directly asked Keener on my radio show a few years ago why they allowed kids to throw curves when every physician over the last 60 years has said it’s very, very dangerous to allow this.

Keener said that he didn’t know how to stop kids from throwing curves – that you can’t tell when the ball just naturally curves out of a kid’s hand or when he’s actually throwing a curve.

Huh?? Every LL umpire behind the plate can immediately detect if a kid is trying to throw a curve ball. So how can Keener claim that it’s too hard to tell?

In any event, I plan on discussing this bizarre proclamation with Dr. Timothy Kremchek on this coming Sunday’s show on WFAN. Dr. Kremcheck is the team orthopedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds, and is totally against kids under the age of 14 from throwing curves.

In the meantime, just understand the immediate impact of this “finding” by LL Baseball. This now means that a kid can throw 100 curves in a row, if he wants to, or his coach wants him to. After all, LL Baseball says that there’s no risk of injury! Remember, LL Baseball says that it’s top priority is safety…that’s why they now say kids can throw endless curves, and that’s why they still allow dangerous BESR aluminum bats to be used. Something doesn’t add up here.

Mistakes

By Doug Abrams

Coaches are teachers in every sense of the word, and much of the educational psychology that works for teachers in the classroom can also work on the athletic field. You can tell a lot about a teacher, for example, by watching the teacher’s reactions to the mistakes students make as they seek to assimilate new lessons and master new skills. With seven-year-olds and 17-year-olds alike, the most effective teachers remain patient as they help students navigate the educational process.

Patience with players’ mistakes, the subject of this column, is central to youth-league coaching because the coach’s knowledge of the game means little unless the team environment encourages players to learn. All the players. One player will inevitably be less talented than the rest of the roster, but he or she holds no monopoly on mistakes because every player makes plenty.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” said legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “A doer makes mistakes.”

The Pre-Season Contract

Youth leaguers may have trouble mastering some individual skills, and they might not initially grasp the coach’s system. On house-league teams and travel squads alike, perceptive coaches draw constructive lessons from the mistakes the players inevitably make along the way.  

The perceptive coach begins by discussing mistakes with the players face-to-face in the first few minutes of the first practice session, before the coach begins teaching anything else. This team discussion cannot wait because tolerance for mistakes determines everything the coaches seek to accomplish throughout the season. Players are not mind readers, and they may not sense the coaches’ tolerance unless the coaches talk openly about it. Here is what I have said to my hockey teams, from mites (5-8-year-olds) to high school:

Before the players ever touch the puck or do the first wind-sprint in the opening practice, I gather the team together to introduce myself, and to strike a bargain. The bargain is a verbal contract about mistakes, and I state the terms.

The players’ part of the bargain, I tell the team, is to try their best in practice sessions and games, and to remain willing to work on skills and strategies they find difficult as well as ones they have already begun to master. I explain that players cannot learn, have fun or play their best when they fear the reactions of their coaches or teammates when something goes wrong. Fear has no place on a team. The team will welcome mistakes, which are invitations to learn because they help pinpoint skills that need improvement. “All men make mistakes,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “but only wise men learn from their mistakes.”

The coaches’ part of the bargain is to teach, support and encourage each player as they make mistakes and try again. Coaches and teammates will not chastise, single out or ridicule anyone for giving 100% effort and coming up short. This reassurance — the coaches’ willingness to uphold their end of the bargain — operates all season, both in practice sessions when only the team attends, and in games when the scoreboard magnifies mistakes for wider display.

Patience and Winning

The coaches’ patience with honest mistakes helps sustain morale by giving each player a sense of self-worth, but that is not all. Patience can also help win games.

Words hurt, and harsh criticism does not toughen youth leaguers, sharpen their skills, or enhance their competitive spirit.  Deriding a player for mistakes might work sometimes with adult professionals, but it does little to motivate youth leaguers who have already given full effort. 

Indeed, the coach’s pressure is more likely to induce “fear of failure,” which leaves players tentative and unsure of themselves, prone to hesitation or second-guessing in tough games. Players freed of these artificial burdens can respond with peak performance that may just turn some close defeats into close victories.

For teams that hope to win every game within their reach, the key is not the mistake, but how the coaches and players react to it and fortify themselves.  

 

Kids Dying in the Summer Heat

It seems that over the last couple of weeks as the country has had to endure scorching temperatures everywhere, more and more HS football players (and coaches) are falling prey and dying because of the relentless heat and humidity.

Just recently there have been reports of deaths from Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and other states. Even worse, we’re only in the begining of August.  According to recent statistics, the number of these preventable deaths has been rising in recent years.

So my question is: are we at a point where the time has come to do something drastic to stop these deaths? Specifically, do we stop holding football practices in August, and instead, wait until September where temperatures begin to cool down?

Remember, while more and more HS coaches have escaped from the old (and dangerous) mentality of working out in the blazing sun, there are still very few states that mandate that practices should take place in the early AM, or that after30 minutes of hard work that a water break should occur, and that sessions in full pads need to be minimized.

Dr. Stephen Kanter was kind enough to come on the show this AM, and talk about emergency procedures for any kid who gets woozy on the practice field. Immediate removal of helmet and shoulder pads, put him in a shaded area, give him some cool water if he can drink, and if necessary, prepare an ice bath to cool him down. Ice should be placed in a big coverded ice chest before each practice.

Dr. Kanter also strongly suggested that kids be eased into working out in the heat for at least the first two weeks of practice. Pushing them hard during the first few days can really be hazardous to their health. 

The bottom line is that smart coaches should know how to prep before a long, hot day on the practice field. And by the way, these tips apply to ALL sports that occur in the hot sun, including soccer and field hockey as well.

Bottom line? Let’s be smart about letting our young athletes working out in the heat. There’s no reason for any more of these tragedies to occur.