Archive for February, 2012

Parents Have to Teach Student-Athletes about the Dangers of Social Media

It just seems like an endless comedy of errors….but sadly, there’s nothing funny about what’s going on. Consider these recent cases:

o A top HS football player puts out a variety of offensive sexual and racial comments on his Twitter account. Within days, he’s expelled from his HS, and top college recruiters like the Univ of Michigan say, “Thanks, but we’re going to rescind our college scholarship offer.”

o A HS football coach from Maine says that he “accidentally” posted a nude photo of himself online. He quickly resigned from his post before he could be fired by the school board.

o A youth baseball league official uses the “n” word on a web posting, and he’s immediately suspended. His defense? He says he wasn’t even aware of what he had written.

My colleague Doug Abrams is one of the nation’s leading experts of the dangers of cyberspace. He’ll be the first to tell you that we’re just not doing a good enough job of educating our kids (or ourselves, for that matter) about always thinking TWICE before you post something on Twitter, Facebook, etc. 

The simple truth is that once it’s online, everybody can see it – friends, relatives, colleagues, college recruiters, bosses, you name it. And once it’s out there for everyone to see, it sure is hard to stop your thoughts or photos from going viral.

And here’s the sad part…all of these incidents could have easily been prevented. All it took was a little thought to say to oneself, “If I post this, could it someday come back to haunt me?”


What do you if you think your kid is playing for a “bad” coach?

Let’s be honest. You have devoted some serious time…energy…money..and love to make sure your youngster is getting the most out of their God-given potential as an athlete. And the good news is that your kid is putting together a pretty good track record of accomplishments.

But then your youngster tries out for a team – let’s say it’s the HS basketball team — and much to your dismay, the coach really doesn’t seem to be impressed with what your kid can do on the court. In a stunning development, your kid doesn’t make the starting five, and when he does get into the game, it’s only for a few moments, and even worse, the coach has him playing a position he’s never played before.

So what do you do? Do you complain directly to the coach? Tell your son that the coach is an idiot? Commisserate with the other sports parents? Or just grimace through it, and hope for better things to evolve?

These kinds of situations have become increasingly commonplace in recent years, and it pits the coach against the parent – with the kid in the middle.

Problem is – there are SO many layers to this question. That is, how does one define what makes for a good coach? For many, all that matters is the coach’s overall won-loss record. If the coach wins, and wins a lot, then he must be good. Right?

But what about the coach who simply benefits from a town’s travel program that fosters terrific athletes from elementary and middle school, and then in HS, they end up playing for that coach? The varsity coach is simply the beneficiary of talented athletes who grew up playing for travel team coaches. As a result, the varsity team wins, but it has little to do with the HS coach and his abilities. 

You get the idea.

As discussed on the show this AM, I feel that – just as with teachers – – you’re going to have some great teachers, some lousy teachers, and everybody else falls in-between. As such, you need to tell your athlete the same thing about coaches. In addition, if your son or daughter is really irked by what’s happening with their role on the team, your athlete needs to stand up on their own two feet, figure out what they want to ask of the coach, and then plan a time to directly talk with the coach about the issue in question.

In other words, part of the maturation process in sports is dealing with adversity, and learning how to fight one’s own battles is a key part of that. As a parent, you have to understand that the sooner your youngster can face the coach on their own terms, the stronger and better your athlete is going to do in sports, and in life.


Why Teams Should Respect Custodians and Other Service Employees

By Doug Abrams

A few years ago, a fellow youth hockey coach told me about an emergency his team faced late in the prior season. The team was scheduled to play at 7:00 one Saturday night at the home rink, and he grew nervous when his starting goalie had not arrived by about 6:30. The coach phoned the goalie at home, and the parents told him that they had not left yet because they thought that game time was 9:00.   

The team was in trouble without the starting goalie, but he lived about an hour away and his parents could not drive him to the rink in time.  Then the unexpected happened.  The Zamboni driver began resurfacing the ice for pre-game warmup, but the vehicle sputtered and stopped near the center red line. The game was delayed for more than an hour as the driver and his maintenance staff huddled before the vehicle restarted, continued resurfacing, and finally left the ice.

This sounds like the story of a typical mechanical malfunction, but actually there was nothing typical about it.  The team had always treated the Zamboni driver and other rink staff as friends – bantering with them in the lobby and locker room, asking about their families, inviting them to the team’s holiday party, and regularly extending similar courtesies. With the starting goalie and his parents racing to the rink and certain to arrive late, the Zamboni driver saw an opportunity to repay months of kindness.

The Zamboni had not suffered a mechanical malfunction. The driver simply turned off the engine at center ice to delay the opening faceoff while pretending to make repairs.  He and other maintenance staff delivered a performance that would have made a Hollywood director proud.  Buying time was the driver’s idea, and not the coach’s.


A “Teachable Moment” For Coaches, Players and Parents

If my team had faced this predicament, I hope I would have done things differently. I believe in full disclosure and I trust the sportsmanlike impulses of opposing youth league coaches, so I would have preferred to ask the other coach for a one-hour delay.  From what my friend told me, that accommodation would have been possible because the ice time was available that night and the game attracted no fans beyond the players’ friends and immediate families. I have sometimes granted youth hockey opponents accommodations in the interests of spirited competition, and I have sometimes received accommodations.

Speculating about how I would have sought the one-hour delay is not the point here.  This Zamboni story offers a “teachable moment” for coaches and their players and parents. Youth league and high school sports programs usually depend on custodians, maintenance staffs, grounds crews, security guards, grass cutters,  and other employees who (like the Zamboni driver) go to work every day but often toil in anonymity, routinely ignored by team members who do not even bother to learn their names.  Sometimes these employees even face outright insults and discourtesy from patrons who feel a sense of entitlement, but teams have two reasons to extend the respect and common courtesy that everyone deserves.

Ensuring a Smooth Operation

First of all, custodians and other facility personnel can be the team’s best friend in a pinch, as the Zamboni driver demonstrated. These employees have plenty of discretion about how they do their jobs, and personal relationships count.  Life is a two-way street, so the team’s respect and common courtesy can pay rich dividends.

When facility personnel appreciate the coach and players, it is amazing how fast storerooms get opened, fields get dragged, or public address systems get fixed in emergencies. If one of our hockey players would break a skate lace or discover his mouth guard missing moments before a practice or game at our home rink, the rink staff would routinely find the pass key to unlock the equipment shop and provide the needed supplies, knowing that we would pay for them later.  Never did we hear that the pass key “can’t be found.”  The general public did not normally receive such informal courtesies when the shop was closed.   

I wonder how many youth league and high school coaches agonize over Xs and Os at their desks at home, only to be tripped up occasionally because they overlook interpersonal skills that require no special knowledge of the game.  Employees appreciate team members who stop to say hello and chat, rather than treat them like pieces of furniture.  Someone once said that “sometimes it’s the little things that count most.”  That person hit the nail on the head.

Doing the Right Thing

In 1989, Spike Lee earned an Academy Award nomination for his drama, “Do the Right Thing.”  Even more important than any expectation of repayment such as the Zamboni driver’s on that game night, coaches should teach their players and parents to show respect because respecting other people is simply the right thing to do.  

It does not take much effort for coaches, players and parents to treat service employees with respect, but respect does not come naturally to some people.  (Just consider how rudely some people treat waiters and store clerks.)  Coaching resembles a game of “follow the leader,” and the coach sets the right example for players and parents alike by treating people with dignity and common courtesy.  Call it a lesson in Citizenship 101. 

On my teams, the lesson began with the first practice session.  We punctuated our requests with “please” and “thank you,” words that can work magic, even to employees who know that they must do what the team asks.  At home and on the road, our squirt and high school players alike were also responsible for picking up every piece of tape and other refuse that they dropped on the locker room floor.  I said that we would leave the locker rooms clean because “the rink personnel are not your servants, and they are not here to pick up after you.”  Even though employees earn a wage for their time, it is disrespectful to require them to clean up after other people’s children who can clean up after themselves.

From top to bottom, rink personnel were always invited to our holiday and year-end parties, where they had the opportunity to socialize with the players and their parents in a relaxed atmosphere. The interchange was a plus for everyone, and it was the right thing to do. 

Because local newspapers generously provided youth hockey coverage all season, each sports editor received a year-end thank-you card signed by every player. Editors and staff writers take plenty of criticism from readers, but our local newspapers deserved thank-you’s because they gave the players lasting memories by publishing our press releases.  These newspapers would have thrived even without youth hockey news.

Albert Einstein said, “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”  That is solid advice about right and wrong from a wise source.


It’s Official! US Soccer Academy Development is Now Forcing HS Soccer players to choose betwen their varsity team and club team

In a press release that went out nationally last week, the US Soccer Development Academy fired a major salvo at traditional HS varsity programs. The essence of the message? If you entertain any dreams of playing college soccer or even pro soccer, you need to walk away from your local HS team and play exclusively with US Soccer Academy (USSA).

In their release, USSA says that in order for American teams to be competitive against international squads, we need to step up our training program and have HS kids play 10 months of the year, starting in September. That translates into having HS players walk away from their HS team.

My radio guest, Matt Allen, head coach of the boys’ team at Byram Hills HS in Armonk, NY, made it clear that it just isn’t fair to place these kids into this situation. “If you talk to the players themselves, by far the vast majority of them want to play for their HS team – not the club team — during the fall season.” But USSA is no longer giving the kids that choice.

To me, this is really an unnecessary dilemma to force teenage soccer players to choose one or the other. But it’s also a sign of the times as more and more HS athletes are beginning to walk away from their HS teams. The difference, though, is that if the kids make their own decision to walk away from their HS squad, well, that’s their choice. With USSA, they are being told they HAVE to walk away. That’s a big — and significant – difference.

It’s absolutely time for travel programs and HS coaches to finally sit down and work together and figure out a compromise. For example, let the USSA kids play on their HS teams. But during that fall season, allow those kids to spend an extra 1-2 days during the week practicing with the USSA team. At least that’s a start.




How Parents’ Visions of Colleges and The Pros Can Hurt Youth Leaguers

By Doug Abrams

Almost like clockwork by the end of every season, the parents of at least one of my squirt hockey players would ask me how they could help their 9-year-old win an athletic scholarship someday, and perhaps even make the pros.  The parents’ names were different each year, but the questions remained the same.  Hope springs eternal, I guess, even in elementary school.

Our players’ parents were good people who meant well and supported their children’s sports as best they could. They wanted their sons and daughters to achieve, but they were open to reason and did not go batty about games.

Some kids are not so fortunate. Visions of collegiate or professional sports careers can lead some parents to impose unhealthy pressure on themselves and their child, threatening the fun and fulfillment that youth sports should provide players and their families. The irony is that sometimes the unhealthy pressure backfires by leading the child to quit as a young teen, ending any possibility of future advancement in sports, even if the child showed some potential.

Winning and Early Specialization

Sometimes parents with visions of future stardom pressure coaches of even the youngest teams to win at almost any cost, even by benching other children. Trophies and championships at such a tender age, however, are not markers of individual skill, particularly in team sports where victory or defeat on a given day depends so much on the performance of as many of two dozen teammates and opponents.  Even when parents urge coaches cut corners, it can be difficult to control the final score.

Parents nowadays may also push their particularly young children to specialize in one sport and abandon others.  The anticipation is that year-round concentration for a decade or more will enhance skills and open doors later on.  Early specialization, however, can exact high emotional and physical costs that can cut an athletic career short.  The player may lose out on youthful experimentation and free play that generates sustained enthusiasm for sports; the player may suffer chronic overuse injuries as growing bones and tissues suffer continuous wear-and-tear from similar repetitive stresses and strains month after month without adequate time for rest; and the child may never develop the all-around coordination and dexterity that can come from experience in a few sports before settling on one later on. 

The Youth Sports Lottery

Do visions of the “big payoff” make sense? News accounts of college signing days and multimillion dollar pro contracts can blind many parents to the harsh sifting process that regulates entry into the collegiate and professional ranks.  No matter what parents do, few youth leaguers will ever be talented enough to play big-time collegiate sports, and fewer still will ever reach the pros. 

Professional athletes are so talented that they sometimes make their games look deceptively easy, but it has been estimated that the odds against a child’s reaching the pros in any sport are about 12,000 to one, or higher.  Two million children participate in competitive gymnastics each year, for example, but only seven or eight participate in the Olympics every four years.  Less than 4% of varsity high school football players move on to college football, and less than 1% of college players are offered professional contracts.  For every 2300 high school senior basketball players, only 40 will play college basketball and only one will play in the National Basketball Association. Because many pros enjoy only brief stints in the big leagues, the odds against enjoying a successful pro career are even more overwhelming.

With numbers like these, parents eyeing the collegiate ranks or the pros might as well play the state lottery.  Like adults who see a lottery winner’s smiling face in the newspaper and rush out to buy tickets, sports parents are sometimes tantalized by media accounts of players like Tiger Woods and Mickey Mantle, whose fathers pushed them and won the “lottery” when their child made it big.  The newspaper photos show only the one winner, however, and not the thousands or millions of losers. These media accounts are noteworthy precisely because they are so extraordinary, and rare winners do nothing to improve the overwhelming odds facing everyone else. 

Taking Chances on the Future

Life is full of uncertainties and even risks.  We take a chance whenever we choose to do something today, solely or primarily because we hope that it will lead to something desirable in the future. If we achieve our aspiration, we win; if not, we may lose.  Sometimes taking a chance today makes sense, such as when students choose to study indoors on a sunny day because they want to earn higher grades and achieve a higher class standing on the way to graduation and future employment. But taking a chance may make much less sense when adults impose artificial pressure on their children’s games, hoping that today’s sacrifices will lead to collegiate or professional sports careers that are highly unlikely ever to happen.

Before we finished talking each year, I would urge our players’ parents to support their children, root hard for them in every game, provide the best equipment they can, and help the children work through victories and defeats alike.  But I would also remind the parents that in youth sports, adult-imposed pressure can be counterproductive. About 70% of child athletes quit by their early teen years, often because they are tired of being cut, benched or continually hectored by parents and coaches.  This stunning number suggests that the adults’ artificial pressure likely aborts many more collegiate and professional careers than it creates.  Some children who quit playing early, before ever developing skills and demonstrating genuine talent, would have had a better chance of reaching the collegiate or pro ranks with supportive parents who pursued reasonable opportunities but allowed them to engage in natural play in their earliest years. 


[Source: Douglas E. Abrams, The Challenge Facing Parents and Coaches in Youth Sports: Assuring Children Fun and Equal Opportunity, Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 8, pp. 253-92 (2002)]

The Lesson of Jeremy Lin: A Personal Reflection

First, let me start with this: if you haven’t seen Jeremy Lin, the sensational new point guard for the NY Knicks, play yet, do yourself a favor and make sure you do.

Your impressions will be just like mine: Wow, is this kid quick! It’s amazing how fast he is when he drives to the hoop. He’s got terrific peripheral eyesight – he sees the court with remarkable vision. And he shoots like an All-Star veteran.

So…if you can spot all this about Lin, and I can see this, how come ALL the pro and college coaches and scouts couldn’t see this? Here’s a 6-3 guard who led his HS team in California to a state championship, but the only two D-I programs that sniffed at him were Harvard and Brown, not exactly known as basketball powerhouses. Then, after a terrific career at Harvard, Lin isn’t drafted by anyone in the NBA. He gets signed as an undrafted free agent, bounces around for a year, and then lands as a benchplayer for the Knicks.

Nobody, but nobody, thought this kid was going anywhere as a pro player. And it was good that Lin majored in economics at Harvard, because the time was getting close for him to start thinking about applying to business school.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The REAL story of Jeremy Lin is that for every kid who sits on the bench in sports, this is their hero. Lin personifies in every way the lament of every benchwarmer who pleads: “Coach, just give me a shot…I know I can play. Just put me in the game.”

Remember, for every star player, there are countless other kids who bide their time, riding the pines. For me, I can personally attest to that feeling. Back in the early 1970s, after being All-County in baseball and football in high school, I found myself transformed into a benchwarmer on the Harvard varsity baseball team. Understand that Harvard actually had big-time baseball in those days (my sophomore year, the Crimson went all the way to the College World Series in Omaha). But as a reserve infielder, I could never understand why the coach couldn’t look at me and see how much potential I had.

That feeling was fueled by the fact that I played each summer in the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League (ACBL) in New York City, where dozens of college players are showcased for pro scouts each year. And in the ACBL, I not only held my own, but I was an All-Star player.

But then I would head back to Harvard, and would find myself the bench. The coach just wasn’t impressed with what I could offer the Crimson.

But then, after my junior year, my story had a happy ending. Based upon my showings in the ACBL, the Detroit Tigers took a chance on me and made me a low-level draftee. I was absolutely ecstatic! And that following spring, I found myself in Lakeland, FL, in spring training in the Tigers’ organization, getting to know young aspiring players like Jim Leyland, Ron LeFlore, Joe McIlvaine, and others.  

Was I as successful as Jeremy Lin? No, not even close. But I was good enough to be drafted and play pro ball for a couple of years. But for me, the dream of finally getting off the bench and getting into the game had been fulfilled. So, benchwarmers everywhere, look at Jeremy Lin’s amazing success and keep the faith! Your turn is coming.

Why Youth League Coaching Staffs Should Include Adults Inexperienced in The Game (Part II)

By Doug Abrams

Last week’s column urged youth sports programs to assemble coaching staffs that may include interested adults who lack experience playing or coaching the game.  Experience in the game is not essential for setting a positive example and teaching citizenship lessons.  Men and women inexperienced in the game may also soon develop proficiency teaching the X’s and O’s because coaches, like classroom teachers, learn by instructing. 

This Part II discusses five roles that less experienced assistant coaches can play on a youth league team when staff members respect one another despite differences in their playing or coaching backgrounds. 

What coaches without significant experience can accomplish

The inexperienced coach’s cardinal rule is, “Be yourself.”  This rule should motivate experienced and inexperienced coaches alike, and indeed almost anyone in a position of authority because leadership begins with candor. Particularly in older age groups, youth leaguers and their parents soon figure out the experience levels of their various coaches.  No coach fools players or parents for very long, and no serious coach should want to.

I have seen players develop an abiding respect for coaches who, despite lack of experience in the game, remain honest with the team and set a wholesome example. But I have also seen players snicker at coaches who try to be something they are not by joining in practice drills that they cannot perform skillfully, or by inflating their credentials.

Here are five valuable contributions that coaches without years of experience in the game can make to the team effort:

Help conduct practice sessions.  In many youth leagues today, practice time is scarce or expensive, or both.  To make the most efficient use of every minute, skillful head coaches sometimes split the squad into smaller groups that each works on a different fundamental or skill for a few minutes.  After an assigned time (say, five or ten minutes), the coach blows the whistle and the groups rotate from one station to another.  The groups continue rotating until each group has worked at each station.  A less experienced assistant coach can conduct an individual station that the head coach believes is within the assistant’s capacities.   

Offer leadership during games.  The head coach normally makes out the lineup and, depending on the sport’s substitution rules, manages the lineup throughout the game.  Because the head coach may find it difficult to pay close individual attention to a dozen or more players while also directing the team, assistant coaches can help fill the void by paying particular attention to individual players who seem to need it.  Even less experienced assistants can make a difference with words of encouragement or correction at the right time. 

Help supervise the team.  At any age level, players need adult supervision before, during and after practice sessions and games.  Even well-behaved kids sometimes horse around, and unregulated locker room horseplay can take players’ minds off the game and even cause needless injury.  Parents can help supervise at younger age levels, but supervision depends on coaches and captains at older age levels because parents no longer frequent the locker room or its immediate area.  A mature assistant coach who lacks significant experience in the sport can help supervise.

Recent news stories report bullying and hazing on some youth league teams. Experience in the public schools demonstrates that weak supervision can undermine even a strong written anti-bullying policy.  Most kids will not bully a classmate while a teacher is watching, but bullying frequently occurs in poorly supervised areas such as underneath stairwells and in hidden corners. 

On youth league teams where bullying or hazing may be a potential problem, players similarly need to be supervised in the locker room and in nearby out-of-the-way places.  The head coach might even name one or two parents as assistants to remain in the same general vicinity as players who might be prone to trouble.  These assistants can supervise even without deep knowledge of the game, and few people even need to know that supervision is their major role.

Offer advice.  Head coaches have relatively few people they can turn to for candid advice about lineups, discipline, team social activities, strategies and other day-to-day decisions.  Sounding out individual parents may be off limits because discussions may smack of favoritism. 

Even if an assistant coach is also a player’s parent, the assistant coach can be an accessible sounding board in the role as a staff member.  Assistants without much experience in the sport may have perspectives and common sense that the head coach needs (and may lack).  Assistant coaches can rescue the head coach from potentially bad decisions simply by raising contrary perspectives and encouraging the head coach to think things through more carefully.  

Maintaining relationships with parents.  Where an inexperienced assistant coach is a player’s parent, the assistant can help the head coach measure the pulse of the rest of the parents. Even if the head coach is also a player’s parent, a variety of viewpoints is often the best recipe for team success.

Why Youth League Coaching Staffs Should Include Adults Inexperienced in the Game (Part I)

By Doug Abrams

Several years ago, our mid-Missouri youth hockey program conducted an annual review of the teams’ coaching staffs.  Before too long, the board of directors split into two distinct groups.  One group favored coaching staffs comprised, to the extent possible, of adults who had significant hockey backgrounds as players or coaches.  The other group believed that the program should also encourage service by parents with little or no background in the game.  As coaching director and a board member, I supported the second group, and here is why. 

Community youth sports programs teach players not only the game’s fundamentals and strategy, but also citizenship lessons that will last beyond the season.  Ideally the head coach, and one or more assistants, should have experience playing or coaching the sport they now seek to teach. Some coaches develop proficiency by attending clinics and reading instructional manuals, but background in the sport is the preferred foundation.

Coaches experienced in the game, however, are not the only adults who can teach players citizenship lessons.  On nearly all the youth hockey teams I have seen in recent years, the staffs have included one or more assistant coaches who began thinking about hockey only when their children enrolled in the program.  Most of these parents served admirably by helping with coaching duties while serving as role models for the players in practices and games.  Wholesome role models are sometimes hard to find, and coaches should set an example for youngsters who will be citizens long after they stop being competitive athletes.

The coaching selection process

Welcoming service by parents inexperienced in the game does not mean filling coaching staffs with every parent who seeks to coach.  Ideally youth leagues should appoint all coaches – experienced or otherwise — only after a formal application process.  Each applicant should submit a resume detailing experience in the game, experience coaching other sports, employment, community service, and similar background.  Interviews with the board of directors or a coaching selection committee should explore what first-time applicants hope to achieve and what returning coaches believe they achieved last season. The board should select applicants who have something positive to offer, including applicants whose offerings extend beyond teaching X’s and O’s.  


This column has used such terms as “parents with little or no background in the game” and “applicants.”  These terms include both men and women.  Men frequently coach girls’ teams, and I see no reason for excluding women from consideration as head coaches or assistant coaches on boys’ teams.  Traditional barriers may be falling because the media periodically reports about women who coach boys in youth leagues or sometimes in high schools.

Nearly 40 years after Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the United States now has a generation of young and middle-aged women whose experience in sports rivals the experience of their male counterparts.  Even before Title IX, men were not the only adults who could teach youth leaguers citizenship lessons.  Indeed, including a qualified woman on the coaching staff of a boys’ team today may itself teach a citizenship lesson whose social importance transcends sports – that in various walks of life, artificial gender barriers disserve the nation in the 21st century.


Next week: Part II – What adults without significant experience in the game can accomplish as youth league coaches.