Archive for September, 2011

Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports (Part II) – The “Child Impact Statement”




This column is in three parts. Last week, Part I discussed the “power of the permit,” the recognized authority of government agencies to manage public property. Part II now discusses how two agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department — may exercise this power to allocate fields, gymnasiums and other public property to private youth sports programs in a way that serves all children who wish to play. Next week, Part III will discuss the stiff resistance that proposals for equitable allocation of public youth sports facilities may arouse.

The “Child Impact Statement”

Working together, the school district and the parks department should require a “child impact statement” annually from each private sports program that applies to use public facilities. The statement is akin to an “environmental impact statement,” the disclosure document required before federal agencies decide whether to grant permits for activity by private entities that would significantly affect the quality of the environment.

The child impact statement would significantly affect the quality of a child’s environment by disclosing the number of boys and girls the applicant program enrolled last season, and the percentages of time in public facilities the program allotted to travel teams, select teams and house leagues. Most important, the statement would also disclose the program’s commitment for allocating public facilities among these three levels of play this season. Fulfilling the commitment would be a condition for renewing the permit next season.

With child impact statements in hand, school and parks officials can draft a community-wide master plan, based on facility availability and the number of children likely to enroll in all private sports programs that have applied to use public property. Without micro-managing the daily operations of these programs, the officials can allocate available public facilities in a way that provides meaningful opportunities for all boys and girls who wish to play.

What Equal Opportunity Means in Youth Sports

As schools and parks officials develop the master plan that allocates use of public sports facilities, they must pay particular attention to house leagues, which can be the first to suffer in unregulated community youth sports systems. To encourage broad participation by children seeking to play, the community-wide master plan must ensure house leagues equitable use of public facilities during convenient hours. In many communities these days, priority may work the other way, with first choice going to travel or select teams, or to programs that favor travel or select teams and constrict their house leagues. Open-enrollment house leagues are left to settle for whatever facilities and inconvenient time slots remain, which may amount to very little.

Allocating travel or select teams a modestly greater amount of facility use than house leagues, however, may actually enable the community’s youth sports system to enhance access for families at all income levels. House leagues may offer attractive alternatives to the four- and five-figure costs, extensive travel, and heavy practice and game schedules characteristic of many travel or select teams. Even some families that can afford higher costs balk at these burdens that membership on travel or select teams may impose on family life. House leagues may enroll these families that might otherwise drop out, but lower costs and less burdensome schedules may also mean modestly less facility use throughout the season, particularly where the school district or parks department charges private programs user fees.

The key word here is “modestly” because house leagues provide little or no opportunity for children who get only minimal game schedules and practice time, for wait-listed children, or for children shut out altogether by the voracious appetites of select teams. Eyebrows were raised in a Minneapolis suburb a few years ago, for example, when about two hundred 9- and 10-year-olds signed up for the local youth basketball program conducted by a private association that held permits for all the available gymnasiums operated by the public schools and the parks and recreation department. About 30 of these youngsters made select teams, and the remaining 170 or so were placed in the house leagues. During the season, each select team received about 130 hours of court time (two or three practices each week, plus three or four games every weekend), but each house league team received only about 12 hours of court time.

Some parents felt that the suburb’s youth sports system was out of kilter when less than 20 percent of its 9- and 10-year-old basketball players would get more than 1,000 percent more court time than the remaining 80 percent of players. And when school and parks department officials asserted they were powerless to correct the imbalance because the youth basketball program was a private organization.

These parents founded “Keep’em All Playing,” a citizens’ alliance that seeks greater accountability from the schools and the parks department. The alliance advances the core principle that the “power of the permit” authorizes these agencies to correct imbalances in public use that amount to more than 1,000 percent. The power is well-grounded in law because, as last week’s column discussed, authority to regulate private use of public facilities rests with the appropriate public agency and not with the private users.


Next week’s column will conclude this trilogy by describing how community efforts to craft an equitable youth sports system can pit parent against parent. Even in a nation that values general notions of equality, proponents of equal opportunity in youth sports can face stiff resistance.


[Source: Douglas E. Abrams, Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports: Roles for the “Power of the Permit” and the “Child Impact Statement,” in Learning Culture Through Sports: Perspectives on Society and Organized Sports (Sandra Spickard Prettyman & Brian Lampman eds., 2d ed. 2011). Published by Rowman & Littlefield. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. (This book consists of 21 informative essays on important issues in American sports and culture.)]



Is this HS pass receiving record meaningful? Or meaningless?

In this day and age where everybody is eager to get the rest of the world to stand out and pay attention to one’s accomplishments, what do we do with this case from Indiana where a HS wide receiver set a national schoolboy record with a whopping 437 yards in one game.

I mean, at first glance, that’s some record. Think about it. 437 receiving yards in just one HS football game!

But then, more details begin to bubble forth. That the kid, Gehrig Dieter, was only able to achieve this record when his team was up 63-10 in a total blow-out, and when his coach heard he had a chance to break the record, the coach instructed the QB to keep throwing long passes to Dieter. Indeed, during the closing moments of the game, the QB tossed 8 passes in a row, and he connected on two of them with Dieter to eclipse the record.

So, the question is…is that kind of record meaingful…or meaninless?

A number of the callers on WFAN this AM said it was okay, citing similar situations from the NFL. But then the tide of opinion turned, and a majority of callers pointed out that the mission statement of HS sports is to teach and enforce sportsmanship, and that trying to reach a record when the game is fully lopsided is NOT good sportsmanship.

I personally couldn’t agree more. It’s one thing if a national record is set in the due course of a closely-competed game. That kind of record is worth admiring.

But when your team is up by more than 50 points? C’mon, coach, is that record really pointing to with great personal satisfaction? Seems kind of silly to me.

Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports (Part I) – The “Power of the Permit”

By Doug Abrams

About 35 million boys and girls — nearly half the nation’s children — play each year in at least one organized sports program conducted by a private association, or by a public agency such as the parks and recreation department. Some of these youngsters play on travel or select teams, and others play in house leagues. With these hefty numbers year after year, youth sports holds greater potential for influencing the next generation than any other activity outside the home and the schools.

Many communities, however, squander much of this potential by perpetuating youth sports systems that deny children equal opportunity to play. The term “youth sports system” refers to the totality of organized private and public sports programs available to boys and girls in a community and its environs.

Inequitable youth sports systems begin weeding out children as young as seven, and they lead most children to quit playing altogether by their early teen years. Too many communities over-emphasize travel and select teams that cut elementary schoolers before they can develop their talents; the system then lavishes practice and game time on travel and select teams while pleading a shortage of available facilities to justify constricted house leagues or avoidable waiting lists that close the door to many children who seek to play.

Americans regularly tell pollsters that playing sports enhances children’s physical fitness while teaching life skills, but many communities also tolerate inequitable youth sports systems that produce bumper crops of young athletic dropouts year after year. These systems fail young people because sports can do nothing for a child who has quit playing.

This three-part column presents a blueprint for achieving equal opportunity in community youth sports systems. This Part I discusses the “power of the permit,” the recognized authority of government agencies to manage public property. Next week, Part II (“The Child Impact Statement”) will discuss how two agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department — may use this power to allocate fields, gymnasiums and other public property to private youth sports programs in a way that serves all children who wish to play.  In two weeks, Part III will discuss the stiff resistance that proposals for equitable allocation of public youth sports facilities may arouse.

Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports

Equity begins with acknowledgment that travel teams, select teams and house leagues each enrich children’s lives. I played ice hockey at all three levels when I was growing up on Long Island in the late 1960s, and each of my teams made me a better person and athlete. As a coach of travel, select and house-league hockey teams for more than 40 years, I saw play at each level promote positive youth development.

I would not want any of the three levels to eclipse the others because equal opportunity in youth sports means enabling each player, to the extent possible, to compete against players of similar ability. Players with five years’ experience, for example, would be better off not competing against beginners, and beginners would be better off not competing against seasoned veterans. Experienced players may become bored, beginners may become intimidated or embarrassed before quitting, and wide disparities of talent invite injury, particularly in contact or collision sports.

But equal opportunity also means viewing the community youth sports system as a pyramid. The strongest part of a pyramid is at the middle and base, not the top. Select teams enable the relatively few players at the top, particularly older pre-teens and teenagers, to compete at their own general ability level once they have shown commitment to the game. For most of these players, select teams and high school varsity teams provide the last chances to pursue excellence in organized sports.

Most young athletes, however, are not select-level players. In communities with an abundance of players, the select ranks cannot realistically include more than about 20% of the boys and girls who compete in a particular sport. A community fails its children unless its youth sports system offers meaningful participation to the remaining 80% of interested youngsters lower on the pyramid, including the least experienced youngsters at or near the base.

The “Power of the Permit”

Equitable youth sports systems depend on two public agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department, which together manage nearly all local youth sports venues. Most private youth sports programs do not own their own fields, gymnasiums, or other facilities; the district or the department grants these programs permits to use public facilities. Permits often come at favorable rates or even free, on the rationale that the private program performs a public service by conducting a wholesome youth activity.

Many school districts and parks departments act as little more than real estate agents, assigning scarce field and gymnasium time to private programs that under-serve children at the middle and base of the community’s youth sports pyramid. The real-estate-agent approach may seem like the path of least resistance because school districts do not conduct sports programs unrelated to interscholastic athletics, and understaffed parks departments may not feel equipped to conduct their own sports programs.

When these two agencies ignore what happens after they grant permits for public facilities, however, the meaningful access of most children to organized sports depends on the goodwill of private programs that remain essentially unaccountable to public scrutiny. Most private sports programs are conducted by adults who know that they will participate for only a few years while their own children play, and these short-termers might not care whether the community youth sports system serves all children, from the base of the pyramid to the top.

To help ensure equitable community youth sports systems, school districts and parks departments need to craft equity when they exercise the “power of the permit.” This is the power, firmly established in the law, to determine whether and under what regulations a private individual or entity may use a public facility. Government agencies have long held discretionary authority to grant or deny permits regulating private use of public property that charters, statutes, or ordinances commit to agency management.

Next week’s column will describe how, exercising the power of the permit before each sports season begins, the school district and the parks department can collaborate to assign public fields, gymnasiums and other sports facilities in a way that helps assure access to all children who wish to play.


[Source: Douglas E. Abrams, Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports: Roles for the “Power of the Permit” and the “Child Impact Statement,” in Learning Culture Through Sports: Perspectives on Society and Organized Sports (Sandra Spickard Prettyman & Brian Lampman eds., 2d ed. 2011). Published by Rowman & Littlefield. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. (This book consists of 21 informative essays on important issues in American sports and culture.)]

Forcing HS athletes to choose between travel teams and varsity teams….why?

So, you’re a talented HS soccer player – so good, in fact, that you’ve been playing for the elite US Soccer Academy Development team in your region. It’s a premier team that allows a soccer player to compete against other elite players, all of whom are in the hunt for a college scholarship, or even perhaps a chance to make the US Olympic team down the road.

But traditionally, over the years, these talented players have been with their HS varsity teams in the fall, and then, when the HS season ends in November, the kids go and play exclusively with the US Soccer team exclusively through the winter and spring.

But now, in an effort to try and step up the coaching of these players, US Soccer has now announced that it no longer wants to wait 2-3 months for these HS kids to play on their school  team. Starting in 2012, these kids will have to choose one or the other – either play for your HS varsity, or play with us.

How silly is that? Why force these kids to walk away from the fun and excitement of playing with their school buddies, in front of the local hometown fans, and wearing their school colors?

Do you really think an extra 10 weeks of playing for US Soccer is really going to make a key difference in these kids either getting a scholarship or playing for the Olympic team? Come on – this is just stupid — and, quite frankly, selfish.

It puts these kids in a very awkward – and unnecessary dilemma. If I were US Soccer, I would go back and rethink this mandate. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when some of these top soccer players decide to play with their high school team. Above all, these kids will point to the fact that playing with their chums on their school is  just more fun  than playing on an elite travel team.

I wonder, US Soccer – does “fun” ever count anymore when it comes to amateur sports? Or is just about winning at all costs?

What If Your Son or Daughter Doesn’t Want to Play Organized Sports Any More?

By Doug Abrams

About ten years ago, the parents of one of my 10-year-old hockey players asked to talk with me after practice one night. Their son was a beginner and not one of the most talented players on the team, but he was everything a youth leaguer should be — a polite kid who tried his best, took instruction well, and got along with his coaches and teammates. No coach could have asked anything more from him or his sportsmanlike, supportive family. With this sterling track record, I assumed that the conversation with the parents would concern something about my coaching.

My coaching hunches are usually pretty good, but not this time.

The parents told me that their son had decided that he did not want to play hockey any more, and indeed did not want to play sports any more. The boy would honor his commitment to the team by finishing the last few weeks of the season, but he said that he wanted to turn to other interests afterwards.

The parents were not thoroughly surprised because the boy had not enjoyed youth baseball the prior summer, but they hoped for a change of heart. Both parents had been high school athletes in a town that emphasized sports, and they assumed that their son would follow the same path. They recognized, though, that the decision rested with the boy.

When the parents sought my reaction, I began by saying that with time and breathing space, their son might well change his mind before long because 10-year-olds often move from hobby to hobby until they settle on one or more. Many kids play sports to be with their friends, for example, so I thought he might return to sports later if his friends continued playing. One way or the other, 10 years old seems mighty young to assume that the door is shut permanently.

I also suggested that the parents talk with their son to try to find out his reasons for wanting to turn away from sports. Perhaps he did not think he was talented enough, though I thought that his talent level showed promise. Perhaps he had bad experiences in youth baseball (or on the hockey team). If a youngster wants to talk at home about problems in sports, sometimes they can be corrected.

Pressure to Play

Then I made two additional points that the rest of this column discusses. First, I said that organized sports is not for all boys and girls, even though the nation’s emphasis on professional and amateur sports can impose considerable pressure on youngsters to play. Second, I told the parents that even if their son did not return to organized sports by his teen years, pressuring him to play now might later lead him to reject recreational “carry over” sports — play for its own sake — that can help sustain a healthy lifestyle throughout adulthood.

The Nation’s Emphasis on Sports

In 1976, writer James A. Michener observed that “[s]ports have become a major force in American life.” If anything, the force has grown even stronger in recent years with the unprecedented saturation of professional and amateur sports in the broadcast and print media, and more recently on the Internet. Newspapers, conventional radio, and network television now coexist with (and frequently face eclipse by) all-sports radio stations, cable and satellite television channels, interactive blogs, and other outlets that provide instantaneous around-the-clock games.

Beginning at the youngest ages, our national emphasis on sports can lead children and their parents to perceive exploits on the field as the preeminent markers of success, sometimes at the expense of excellence in non-athletic pursuits. Sports was important to me when I played in high school and college, and I coached youth hockey for more than 40 years. But parents should remain tolerant of sons and daughters who choose to express themselves outside the athletic arena. Success in sports should be a source of pride, but so should success in worthwhile non-athletic pursuits.

The United States has about 73 million children under the age of 18, and the best estimates are that about 35 million children — slightly less than half — participate each year on at least one organized sports team. Even when we exclude children under five or so from the ranks of the non-participants, the numbers suggest that for one reason or another, many youngsters do not play organized sports, or else do not play for very long before they turn to other activities.

Sports can teach valuable life lessons, but so can worthwhile non-athletic activities that youngsters choose for themselves. No child should be made to feel like an outcast for making these choices. I predicted to my hockey player’s parents that their personable, respectful son would thrive along whatever paths he followed, even ones distant from competitive sports.

Carryover Sports

The current obesity epidemic will not improve in later years unless more adults assume a healthy lifestyle by embracing carry over sports such as bicycling, tennis, jogging, golf and recreational volleyball. I told my hockey player’s parents that cajoling the boy into playing unwanted competitive sports now might diminish his long term appreciation for athletics as pure play. Supporting his non-athletic choices now might have precisely the opposite effect.  

A Happy Ending

Spurning youth sports may be a difficult pill for some parents to swallow at first, but my former hockey player did find other activities that he found rewarding. His choices were art and orchestra, and he stayed with both and did well at them.

He will finish college next year with a solid academic record and promising career prospects. He tells me that he often uses his university’s gym and recreation center, and he tells me that his golf game is respectable too.

A youth sports career could have instilled important values and produced lasting memories, but my former player thrived in the activities he chose for himself. Organized sports simply was not for him, and he is fortunate that his parents respected and supported the choices he continued to make throughout his adolescence.

A Moment to Reflect on 9/11…the Mike Weinberg story

I never actually met Mike Weinberg.

But back in the late 1980s, Mike was a slugging outfielder for St. John’s University. I recall him vividly, because in 1987, I was serving as the color commentator on the Madison Square Garden Network’s coverage of Big East Baseball, and Weinberg was one of those players who stood out.

A big, strapping kid with a powerful stroke at the plate, Mike had a solid career at SJU, including being the star at the Big East playoffs in 1988 – he was named the top performer there, and eventually Mike was good enough to play for two seasons in the Detroit Tigers’ organization. Upon finishing his baseball career, Mike became a New York City fire fighter. And that’s how we get to 9/11.

On that fateful morning, Mike had a day off, and was waiting for a tee time at a golf course in Queens when he heard the news about the planes  hitting the towers. Not only as a dedicated fire fighter did Mike jump into his car and race downtown, but he had another personal reason: his sister Patricia worked for Morgan Stanley on the 72nd floor of one of the towers.

Tragically, Mike was one of the very first to arrive on the horrible scene, and as cruel irony would have it, he was one of the first to perish. As the first tower collapsed, Mike instinctively tried to protect himself by crawling under a bus. As debris from the tower rained down on him and his colleagues, he died instantly.

However – and of course, unknown to Mike —  his sister Patricia had made her way down the endless stairway and found her way to safety. I think it’s safe to say that none of us will ever forget that stunning morning. Clearly Patricia will never, ever forget it.

As noted earlier, I never personally knew Mike Weinberg. I was a TV talking head yakking simply about his baseball talents. But even then, back in the 1980s, I was impressed with this young man. 

People always wonder if they have the inner stuff to become a hero. I don’t know if there’s any way to know that until a real crisis hits. But I do know this: Mike Weinberg – a terrific ballplayer from St. John’s — stepped up to the plate when it counted the most, and became a hero for the ages.

God bless Mike and his family. 


How “Blind Drafts” Produce Balanced House Leagues, and Why Balance is Important

By Doug Abrams

Youth sports associations that enroll all interested players resemble a pyramid. At any age group, the strongest parts of the pyramid — the base and the middle — typically feature house leagues whose teams play intramural schedules, and perhaps “B” or “C” travel teams that compete against similarly ranked teams from other associations. At the pyramid’s narrower top, “A” travel teams or select teams compete at the highest levels available.

Particularly in the younger age groups, house leagues are a large association’s backbone because, by attracting beginners with roster positions for everyone, these leagues develop players who will later make higher level teams. Attrition may gradually reduce enrollment as players move into older age brackets without replenishment by older beginners, so an association creates strength at the top by maintaining a strong feeder system at the base and middle.  

Maintaining strength in numbers means maintaining players’ enthusiasm.  House leagues “keep the fires burning” when balanced teams produce, to the extent possible, competitive games all season. One house team will finish in first place, another team will finish last, and players on both teams will learn important lessons about winning and losing. But leading youth sports reform advocate Bob Bigelow is right that “close games are the most fun.”

Nothing stifles players’ enthusiasm more quickly than a house league where one or two teams dominate, or one or two find themselves outclassed, nearly every game. Repeatedly racking up big scores inhibits learning and encourages boredom; repeatedly losing by big scores creates frustration and embarrassment that lead some players to look elsewhere for more satisfying athletic experiences the following year.  

Encouraging Balance

An enriching house league begins with a pre-season selection process that produces balanced teams. Players may go through a preliminary session that lets the various coaches evaluate their talent and likely performance. Or coaches may rely on recollections of a player’s performance the prior season, plus hunches about newcomers based on the experience (or lack of experience) recited on their application forms.

One way or the other, the house league’s head coaches typically sit around a table and fill their rosters by taking turns selecting players in a process that resembles the drafts conducted in many professional sports. Imbalance can creep in quickly when one or more house coaches seek to stack their teams, forgetful that the draftees are kids anticipating fun and not adults anticipating multi-million-dollar paychecks.  

The solution is what Rick Wolff and Bob Bigelow call a “blind draft.” For example, if the house league has four teams, the four head coaches sit at the table and take turns making selections.  When the four rosters are filled — and only then — the coaches draw lots to see which coach gets which team.  While the coaches are conducting the draft, they do not know which team will ultimately be theirs. The teams end up relatively equal in strength because no coach wants to finish in last place.

Of course, some coaches might seek ways to beat the system, but a carefully conceived blind draft makes shenanigans much more difficult.  Because a coach with a child in the league usually keeps the child on his team, for example, a crafty head coach may try to recruit an assistant with a talented child. But the association can neutralize that strategy by assigning assistants only after their children are placed on a roster. 

House coaches with visions of stacking their own rosters may resist calls for a blind draft that is designed to avoid dominant or outclassed teams. When this resistance surfaces, the association might question whether these coaches should work with kids in the first place because youth sports associations exist to meet the players’ emotional needs, not the coaches’ emotional needs.

[Source: Bob Bigelow et al., Just Let the Kids Play, pp. 136-39 (2001)]

New Anti-Bullying Law in New Jersey Puts Greater Pressure on Coaches, Athletic Directors

On September 1st, the nation’s toughest anti-bullying law went into effect in the state of New Jersey. In short, coaches, teachers, and administrators in all public schools in New Jersey are now legally bound to not only report any bullying incident they see in school, but they are also obligated to make sure that all of their student-athletes behave in the locker rooms and also when they go online away from the practice fields.

In short, the law – whose passage is attributed to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman whose privacy was violated online — is meant to try and break the cycle of bullying and hazing in schools. And by all accounts, it’s a significant and well-intended law.

But as law professor Doug Abrams and I discussed on Sunday AM, there are some open-ended questions about this law. For example, does this mean that coaches really have to make sure that their athletes aren’t posting offensive stuff online? Are the coaches responsible for kids and their behavior away from school?

Do coaches and teachers now carry legal laibility if a hazing incident takes place? And most of all, aren’t parents supposed to teach their children not to bully or pick on other kids? Why is this now the legal domain of coaches and teachers? Is that fair?

And there are other questions. If the head coach of, say, a girls’ basketball team is a male, how is going to be able to see what happens in a locker room when he’s not allowed to be in there?

Doug Abrams points out that ever since the Columbine HS tragedy from a decade ago, more and more schools are paying attention to the everyday bullying that goes on in school. And that’s certainly a good thing. The truth is, a lot of the so-called “jockocracy” – athletes who tend to strut about and pick on the other kids in school — are the ones who tend to perpetuate this problem. Ideally, this new law will break the cycle of bullying and hazing in schools. As noted, the law still needs to be polished and refined a bit, but overall it’s definitely a step in the right direction. It’s just too bad that one more burden is now placed upon our teachers and coaches.

Who Owns Youth Sports? (Part III) What Two Innovators Can Teach Parents and Coaches

By Doug Abrams

Last week’s column urged adults in conventional youth-sports associations to combine the best of pre-1970s sandlot play with the best of today’s organized play. The focus was on individual coaches. “In today’s organized programs,” I wrote, “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.”

This week’s column focuses not on individual coaches, but on systems. Can adults combine the best of sandlot play and the best of organized play by creating innovative programs that depart from the model created by today’s conventional youth sports associations? An innovative youth sports program might thrive within one or more age divisions of a conventional association, or the innovative program might be a separate entity. 

Innovative programs remain the exception rather than the rule, but this column discusses two programs that work, one created by Bob Bigelow and the other by Danny Bernstein. Both of these coaches are ahead of the curve because they have figured out ways to organize sandlot-type play. Programs like theirs can serve the needs of families that opt for them, even families whose children also participate in organized sports associations.

The School Recess Model

Bob Bigelow presents the School Recess Model in his thoughtful book, Just Let the Kids Play (2001). He concludes that elementary schoolers thrive best in sports when they set up their own games as they do during recess at school.

Teachers schedule recess at a particular time, provide the balls and other equipment, and supervise for safety. But the teachers remain at a distance as the kids choose up sides, improvise the rules, and conduct their own games. Under Bob’s Recess Play Model, adults in organized sports programs similarly schedule, provide and supervise – but they also similarly remain at a distance while the kids themselves take charge.

Bob describes a weekly soccer program he conducted in the Boston area a few years ago for about 24 youngsters on three adjacent fields. Each field had two four-member teams that played against one another for a set period. At regular intervals, individual teams rotated from field to field so that various teams had the opportunity to play one another.

The players, and not the adults, kept score. Without a formal game to monitor, the parents did not seem to care about which teams were winning and which ones were losing. Parents got along with one another, and they let their kids play without the hectoring that sometimes comes from soccer sidelines When an 8-year-old would ask him about the score, Bob would simply shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” He was particularly amused when the kids would disagree among themselves about the score but quickly resume playing, perhaps because fun was more important to them than the outcome.

For several weeks, Bob’s soccer program featured the best of free play, without drills or regimen, and without coaches whose systems and strategies kids that age can barely understand anyway. In his effort to remove “adult ego” from competitive sports for particularly young children, Bob was influenced by the pioneering research of Dr. Jay Coakley, who had described conventional organized sports programs as rules-based and children’s free play as play-based. Throughout the season, Bob’s Recess Play Model let the elementary schoolers gain a feel for soccer skills, make plenty of new friends, get plenty of exercise, and enjoy unrestrained fun that led them to re-enroll and remain devoted to the game the following year.  

Backyard Sports

In suburban Westchester County, New York six years ago, Danny Bernstein founded Backyard Sports, another innovative youth sports program that combines the best of sandlot play and the best of organized play. The program’s motto – “Where Old School Values Are New Again” – fits well. Backyard Sports enrolls boys and girls from kindergarten through 12th grade in basketball, baseball and soccer.

Danny recalled positive memories of his own playing days on the sandlots and in organized associations alike, but he noticed that “the landscape had completely changed” by the time his own two children began playing a few years ago. He conceived Backyard Sports as an “antidote” for players who were not having fun, and for overly engaged parents who protected and advocated for their children for fear that coaches or overly competitive teams would otherwise shortchange them. 

Backyard Sports’ teacher/coaches are motivated by emotional development and not by the scoreboard (by “the process and not the result,” as Danny puts it). They open the field or gymnasium, establish teams, provide expert instruction, and supervise play for safety and camaraderie, much as conventional organized sports programs strive to do. But as in sandlot play, the adults remain in the background while the players themselves set up, conduct and officiate their own games and keep their own scores. 

All players get equal playing time and equal attention from the coaches. Equality liberates the kids to have fun as they learn, and it liberates parents to relax and enjoy the games, free from worry that their child will somehow end up on the bench. Because the parents trust the program and the coaches to be fair with all the kids, the parents are happy to allow the youngsters to run their own games.

Danny senses that this trust empowers a “silent majority” of parents to allow their children to run their own games as sandlotters once did. Many players who enroll in Backyard Sports also participate in local organized youth leagues and high school programs that also enrich their lives. But for a few hours each week, Backyard Sports provides organized play that lets them enjoy the fun, spontaneity and individual autonomy that marked sandlot games in an era that need not be forgotten.


Programs like the School Recess Model and Backyard Sports can spur further innovation by adults, who serve the children’s best interests when they contemplate innovative ways to deliver sports. Vince Lombardi was right that “the joy is in creating, not maintaining.”



[Sources: Bob Bigelow et al., Just Let the Kids Play, pp. 157-163 (2001);]