Archive for July, 2012

INNOVATIONS IN SPORT: Does it Make Good Sense to Hold Your Child Back a Year Before they Start School?

I wasn’t sure about what kind of response I would receive to this morning’s topic – that of holding one’s child back a year in school so that he/she can have an extra year to physically and emotionally mature.

For many ambitious sports parents, having one’s kid being one of the older, and hence most likely one of the bigger kids in class, gives them an automatic advantage.

Indeed, there are lots of studies that suggest that in school and on school teams, coaches and teachers instinctively turn to the older and bigger kids for leadership and also assume academic and athletic superiority. While that’s great for those kids, the oher kids in class who are younger or smaller sometimes develop a shyness or passiveness that may take years to overcome.

The phone calls on WFAN this AM started almost from the moment I mentioned the topic, and they kept pouring in for the entire hour. Clearly this is an issue for many parents that is a controversial one, with lots of observations and anecdotes from the callers on both sides of the topic. There was lots of mention of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book OUTLIERS, which details a study that reveals that many current NHL players from Canada and Europe have birthdays in Jan, Feb, or March. That’s because the cut-off date for youth travel hockey teams is Dec. 31st, meaning that the kids who are born in the months right after that date are more likely to be bigger and stronger than their later-born peers. Those extra months of development allow these kids to become more dominant in their age bracket.

Put it this way. When you’re 44 or 45, that one year in age doesn’t make much of a difference in terms of athletics. But for a kid who’s just turned 6 but who has to play against kids who are almost 7, well, that can be a huge difference in terms of athletic ability.

At the end of the show, it was hard to get a real sense of how people felt about this. But I will say this: I asked whether anyone could think of a reason why, as a parent, you wouldn’t hold your kid back in school, and nobody had a good reason why not. It’s something to think about.

 

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OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: Guess Which Country Has the Worst?


New Survey Challenges Adults’ Management of Youth Sports

By Doug Abrams

 

A new nationwide survey of 300 youth leaguers between the ages of 8 and 14 sends a disturbing message to parents and coaches who care about the place of organized sports in their children’s lives.  Among other things, 31% of the youth leaguers said that they wish adults did not watch their games.  Eighty-four percent said that they have quit or considered quitting a team, and 47% said that they wanted to quit because they were not having fun.

 

The World’s “Worst Behaved” Parents

 

The new independent survey was commissioned by i9 Sports, which offers youth sports leagues, camps, clinics and after-school programs with a focus on fun, safety and convenience.  Many of the survey’s findings are old news because they replicate equally disturbing findings that have been around for the past 20 years or so.  This is not the first survey to suggest that as youth leaguers get older, many grow dissatisfied with the way adults manage their games and many even quit playing altogether.  Dissatisfied adults frequently join in the criticism.

 

In 2010, Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos jointly conducted a survey that explored youth sports in twenty-two nations.  The survey ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials; runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%) and Australia (50%).

 

“It’s ironic that the United States, which prides itself in being the most civilized country in the world, has the largest group of adults having witnessed abusive behavior at children’s sporting events,” said an Ipsos senior vice president.

The Reuters/Ipsos survey confirmed earlier estimates of adult excesses in youth sports.  In a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey, 45.3% of youth leaguers said that adults had called them names, yelled at them, or insulted them while they were playing in a game; 21% said that they had been pressured to play with an injury; 17.5% said that an adult had hit, kicked or slapped them during a game; and 8.2% said that they had been pressured to harm others intentionally.  In a Survey USA poll in Indianapolis, Indiana, 55% of parents said that they had seen other parents engaging in verbal abuse at youth sporting events, and 21% said that they had seen a physical altercation between other parents. 

The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that about 15% of youth league games see a confrontation between parents or coaches and officials, and a national summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports concluded that youth sports is a “hotbed of chaos, violence and mean-spiritedness.”  In a survey conducted by Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine, 74% of youth athletes reported that they had watched out-of-control adults at their games; 37% of the athletes had watched parents yelling at children, 27% had watched parents yelling at coaches or officials, 25% had watched coaches yelling at officials or children, and 4% had watched violence by adults.  In a survey of adults and players conducted by SportingKid magazine, more than 84% of respondents reported that they had watched parents acting violently (shouting, berating, or using abusive language) toward children, coaches or officials during youth sporting events.

 

This steady stream of survey data does not paint a pretty picture for adults who want sports to play a positive role in children’s lives, and for those of us who hope that conditions might be improving.  Children are perceptive, and they know what is happening around them as they play organized sports. 

 

“Stay Home”

 

The new i9 Sports survey suggests that in one important respect, matters may be growing worse rather than better.  Nearly a third (31%) of youth leaguers surveyed said that they did not want adults to attend their games. 

 

Most earlier surveys indicated that most teens did want their parents and siblings to attend the games, root for them and share their experiences.  In 1987, for example,Gary Alan Fine wrote about a survey in which 88% of Little League baseball players said they liked having their parents watch their games.  A year earlier, Jon C. Hellstedt wrote about a survey of 15- and 16-year-old ski racers; more than 60% wanted their parents to watch them race “very much”; only 12% indicated a preference that their parents not watch; and 75% wanted their parents to watch them “right on the race course” rather than from the base lodge.

 

Bob Bigelow anticipated growing youth dissatisfaction in 2001, when he confided to his readers that many children would like to play with adults nowhere to be seen.  “I chuckle,” he wrote, “when parents proudly tell me that they haven’t missed even one practice or game in the seven years their children have been playing sports.  Here’s a little secret:  Whether he or she says it or not, your child doesn’t always want you there.  He or she doesn’t always have the gumption to say so.”

 

The apparently growing disconnect suggests that many parents do not fully appreciate the positive role that youth sports can play in strengthening family bonds.  When teenagers begin seeking independence from their parents and resisting their influence, organized sports still enables parents to share wholesome activities with their children.   But instead of seizing this golden opportunity to bring the family together and remain intimately involved in their children’s lives throughout adolescence, many parents behave in ways that drive their teenagers to wish the parents would not attend.  

 

We Can Do Better

 

When Americans do not like a particular survey’s results, they sometimes criticize the survey rather than squarely face the bad news.  Playing “kill the messenger” in this way normally does nobody any good.  Parents and coaches may discount this survey or that one, but a steady stream of surveys reporting youth leaguers’ dissatisfaction for nearly a quarter century should serve as an overdue wakeup call.  In a nation that firmly believes athletic competition enhances children’s physical fitness while teaching valuable character lessons, the accumulating survey data demonstrates that adults need to do better.

 

 

 

 

[Sources: Gary Alan Fine, With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture, pp. 203-04 (1987); Jon C. Hellstedt, Children and Sports: Anticipating Your Questions, in Jon C. Hellstedt, Daniel A. Rooks and David G.A. Watson, On the Sidelines: Decisions, Skills and Training in Youth Sports (1988), p. 89; Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall, Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports (2001), p. 25; Brian McCallum, Parents, Pressure Push Kids Out of Sports, Florida Today, July 15, 2012; 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 (2002), p. 253 (citing the earlier survey data)]

BOOK REVIEW: Becoming A True Champion: Achieving Athletic Excellence from the Inside Out – Kirk Mango

I took my time going through Mango’s well-researched and well-presented book which deals with the mental approach to sports, and I’m glad I did. This book is rich with insights, practical advice, and real takeaway for athletes who want to sharpen their mental skills to their individual sport.

Mango, who was an All-American gymnast (his specialty was working on the still rings), draws deeply from his own athletic experiences to explain how only a select few competitive athletes ever find the right approach to become a champion. Understand that at the highest level of collegiate or profesional levels, it’s a given that the top competitors are all pretty much the same in terms of overall physical skills. What distinguishes the champions from everyone else is the high level of consistency that these few top athletes seem to master. In BECOMING A TRUE CHAMPION, Mango goes through chapter after chapter of how serious athletes can find the psychological “solution” that will help get them over that hurdle.

Is it easy? No. Can everyone do this? Probably not. But what every athlete needs to know and understand is that the mental preparation is just as important as one’s physical training. Unfortunately, too many youngsters get to a certain plateau of athletic achievement and stop developing due to unforeseen psychological hurdles, not physical ones.

Bottom line? As a sports parent or youth coach, if you want to give a promising athlete a real primer on the psychology of sports, how to overcome adversity, how to reach for a higher level, I can heartily recommend Mango’s excellent work.

 

DANGERS OF LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL: 13-YEAR-OLD GETS BANNED FROM PLAYOFFS DUE TO CLERICAL ERROR BY LOCAL LITTLE LEAGUE

I’ve taken LL to task in the past regarding Williamsport’s blessing of aluminum bats and allowing kids to throw curve balls at too young an age. And a lot of people all over the country have agreed with me that LL really needs to start living up to its mission statement about “safety first” for its millions of participants.

But now comes this bizarre case of a 13-year-old who has been abruptly banned from playing on his LL team in East New Haven, CT as his team progresses through the playoffs. The reason? Because even though Ian Fagan has been playing with the same team since he was six, apparently two years ago the local board decided that his home address no longer allows him to play for his Annex team.

Problem is…no one ever informed Ian or his parents about this zoning change. Every year before the season begins, Ian presents proof of his home address, utility bill, and so on, and each year, he is allowed to play on the Annex LL team.

Except that two weeks ago, as his team progressed into the playoffs, somebody in the local LL office discovered the clerical mistake. “Sorry Ian,” the word came back, “you’re no longer eligible to play.”

It was stunning news. In talking with Ian’s mom, Pauline, this week, I asked her whether appeals had been made to LL International in Williamsport, PA. “Yes, they know of the situation,” said Ms. Fagan, “but they refuse to change their position.”

For years, LL baseball has had to deal with ambitious parents and coaches who have tried to cirvumnavigate the rules regarding the zoning of addresses, so that their kids can play for a better team. That’s why LL checks the kids’ addresses. But in this case, this was NOT an amibitious act perpetrated by Ian’s parents, but rather a simple mistake made by the local LL. There’s a big, big difference.

In my opinion, LL in Williamsport should step in, explain what happened here, and do the right thing: give the kid a one-time exception and let him play. It wasn’t his fault that the mistake was made…it was the fault of Little League. 

Or, as Doug Abrams has suggested to me, LL could have simply grandfathered the kid in, saying that once the new zoning went into effect, it would affect ONLY those kids who weren’t already playing on a local LL team. That would have worked as well.

But as it stands now, Ian Fagan’s LL career is now officially over. He sits in the dugout, watching his teammates play, and knowing that he did nothing wrong. What a shame.

C’mon, Little League, this is your chance to do the right thing. Your organization is supposed to be about letting kids chase their dreams…why are you telling this kid that his dream is now over?

 

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Be Careful of Giving Your Kid Too Much

 

 

Keep Them Hungry

By Doug Abrams

 

When I was a senior at Clarke High School in Westbury, New York several years ago, I was president of the Hockey Club, which hosted a Montreal high school team for three days.  We had a great time playing three games, attending classes, and touring New York City together.

When I reviewed the near-final agenda with assistant principal Arnold Wallace a week before the Canadian team’s arrival, we noticed an open hour here and there.  I suggested filling every hour with a scheduled activity, but he thought that some free time would help sustain both teams’ enthusiasm before the Clarke contingent’s visit to Montreal the following year. 

“These three days are like a Thanksgiving dinner,” Dr. Wallace said.  “If you overstuff your guests with food, they leave the table never wanting to look at food again.  But if they leave the table a bit hungry, they will look forward to the next meal.”  We provided free time, and he was right.

The Youth Sports “Dinner Table”

Particularly at the pre-teen levels, parents and coaches need to think of each youth sports season as a Thanksgiving dinner.  To help players look forward to returning next year, give them a bit less play now than they want.  Let them finish this season hungry for another “meal.”

 

Too many parents and coaches do just the reverse by overloading pre-teens with practices and games.  Seasons sometimes last six months or more, plus playoffs and tournaments, longer than the seasons played by the pros for multimillion-dollar salaries.  Seasons grow even more bloated when parents choose early specialization in one sport, which Bob Bigelow rightfully calls “one of the most prevalent and disturbing trends in organized youth sports” because “[t]he big machine doesn’t stop eating until it has chewed up all twelve months of the calendar year.” 

 

Some pre-teens play on two teams in one season or play seasons that overlap with one another.  Either way, organized sports chews up even more time that would be better spent on schoolwork or non-athletic leisure activities that mark a healthy childhood.  Add other worthwhile extracurricular activities such as music or scouts, and children can quickly lose the healthy free time that they, like adults, need for spontaneous activities that help maintain enthusiasm.

 

Then we have teams that simply play too many games.  When a pre-teen hockey team or baseball team plays a 70-game schedule, for example, I doubt that the team necessarily produces players who emerge twice as talented as they would be if the team played only 35 games.  The Law of Diminishing Returns tells us that the 53rd game does not do much for skills.  The second half of a distended schedule intrudes on schoolwork and, I suspect, also increases the risk of avoidable injury when fatigued players compete in as many as four or five games each weekend.

 

Overscheduling the youngsters now (overstuffing them at the youth sports “dinner table”) risks burnout before they leave elementary school.  Burnout is real.  In his excellent book, Just Let the Kids Play, Bob Bigelow quotes former San Francisco Giants baseball player, Erik Johnson:  “I see a lot of burnout. It used to be high school, but now it is ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-old kids.  The kids get fried.”       

 

“Stoke the Fires”

 

Studies indicate that about 70% of children who play a youth sport quit playing that sport by the time they are 13.  Some youngsters doubtlessly stop playing when they realize that they lag behind their peers in skills or strength, and other youngsters quit when they develop new interests or find part-time employment. But many teens who cite “new interests” or “part-time employment” probably began looking elsewhere when they grew sick and tired of playing.  Seven years or so is a long time for anyone — adult or child — to remain passionate about a pressure-driven voluntary activity.  When adults start the youth sports pressure cooker by the time their children turn six, the seven-year timer sounds at about thirteen, just when kids begin turning away in significant numbers.

 

Many parents and coaches overschedule youth leaguers with an eye toward collegiate athletic scholarships, which only a minuscule percentage of youth leaguers ever receive.  The cruel irony is that with 70% of child athletes quitting by their early teen years from burnout and other adult-induced pressures, premature overscheduling undoubtedly aborts many more collegiate playing careers than it creates.  Some children who quit playing before middle school would have had a better chance of playing college sports if their parents and coaches had managed their schedules more carefully.

 

Maintaining a pre-teen player’s enthusiasm for the game means listening carefully to the player during the season, and then continuing to listen carefully after the last game.  The train is on the right track if the player looks forward to practices and games, and then afterwards says something like, “I wish we still had more games, and I can’t wait till the next season.”  A train wreck may be in the picture if the player pleads stomach aches or other excuses to miss practices or games late in a long season, and then looks back with something like, “Gee, I’m tired and it sure was a long year.” 

 

For thoughtful parents and coaches alike, the aim is to “stoke the fires” within players during their earliest years.  The adults’ ultimate success — never seen on the scoreboard — is measured by how many players re-enroll the following season.  Parents and coaches succeed when their pre-teens still love the game as teenagers and have not joined the 70% or so of youth leaguers who drop out by that age.  The key to this success is to “keep them hungry” from season to season.

 

 

 

[Source: Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall, Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports (2001), pp. 97, 113]

SPORT SAFETY: Be Forewarned – Immature Coaches Produce Immature Players

 

 

When Youth Coaches Taunt Opposing Players

By Doug Abrams

 

On April 2, a bench clearing brawl broke out in a California junior varsity baseball game between Yuba City High School and Fair Oaks Del Campo High School.  With the score tied 3-3 in the sixth inning, Yuba City’s pitcher turned, hurled the ball at Del Campo’s first base coach, and left the mound to charge at the coach.  The throw missed, but players began throwing punches and wrestling one another near first base before order was restored.  As so often happens nowadays, a fan filmed the melee and posted it on YouTube, where it has received more than 175,000 views on several sites, including http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jssi_W0dNTU. (Caution: some brief, off-color language by a parent in the background).

The California baseball brawl recalls an even uglier incident that occurred last October 14 at the end of an overheated Georgia varsity football game between two local archrivals, Warren County High School and the Hancock Central High School. When the victorious Warren County squad left the field and headed for the visiting team’s locker room, they found the door locked.  As the players waited outside for someone to arrive with the key, the two teams began fighting and players took off their helmets to swing them as weapons against their opponents.  Sheriff’s deputies used pepper spray to separate the teams, and two players reportedly suffered concussions. 

An opponent’s helmet struck Warren County’s head coach in the face, and he was rushed to the hospital with a severely shattered right eye socket that doctors held together with bolts.  “It was like if you crushed up cornflakes, that’s what all this bone looked like,” the coach said later.  “We are very lucky the hit did not move over just a little bit,” said Warren County’s school superintendent, “or we could have had a dead coach.”

When Coaches Lose Self-Control

These two confrontations happened coasts apart, but they share a common sinew unmentioned above — trash talking throughout the games.  At least in the Georgia football game, trash talking began days earlier in the social media, but blaming Facebook deflects much of the attention from where it rightfully belongs.  Press reports indicated that before both the California and Georgia brawls, coaches had also taunted opposing players. 

The Maryville Appeal-Democrat reported that Del Campo’s first base coach allegedly yelled insults at the Yuba City dugout and the pitcher (including insults about the pitcher’s mother, according to at least one parent on the scene). The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported allegations that a Hancock volunteer assistant coach (who was Warren County’s former head coach) had sent an insulting text message directed at the Warren County players before the game.

“The Most Important Individuals for Maintaining Safety”

Perhaps influenced by widely broadcast trash talkers in the professional ranks, trash talking increasingly infects high school sports and youth leagues in many places today.  For some pro stars and some impressionable youth leaguers, it no longer seems enough just to defeat your opponents; you must also try to rub their noses in the dirt before you leave the field.  Rick Wolff and I have talked on the air about how the social media and interactive blogs can add fuel to the fire.  

Youth league coaches need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.  As team leaders, coaches are the last buffers between their players and game action.  Indeed, pediatric professionals call youth coaches (in the words of Toronto neurosurgeon Charles H. Tator) “the most important individuals for maintaining safety” during games.  Coaches compromise safety when they target opposing players with verbal cheap shots that most reasonable adults would find unacceptable coming from their own children.  The brief YouTube video linked above shows how quickly coaches can supply the spark that ignites an overheated game when they trade words with opposing players.

Follow the Leader

 

Aside from safety risks, however, trash talking by youth coaches simply sends the wrong citizenship messages to the youngsters they supervise and influence.  Coaching resembles a spirited game of “follow the leader” because the coach sets the team’s tone, for better or worse.  Mature coaches tend to turn out mature players, and unhinged coaches tend to turn out unhinged players.

 

Coaches represent themselves, their families, their schools, and their communities in every game. Coaches do nobody any favor when they succumb to trash talking that sullies the values they should be trying to teach.  Teams play just as well, and perhaps even better, when their coaches seek to win with the dignity and decorum that thoughtful adults expect from the players themselves. 

 

Restraint and Example

With cooperation from parents at home and in the stands, coaches should restrain their players from trash talking by providing instructions that begin during the preseason meeting and continue in the locker room throughout the year.   But before they can restrain players, coaches must restrain themselves.  Coaches teach values best by the personal example they set on and off the field, and the formula is simple:

 

Children cannot learn much about maturity from coaches who conduct themselves like immature children.

 

 

[Sources: Bryan DeMain, Yuba City High JV Baseball Involved in Brawl, Marysville (Cal.) Appeal-Democrat, Apr. 3, 2012; Bill Lindelof, At Least One Player Disciplined for Yuba City High Baseball Brawl, Sacramento Bee, Apr. 6, 2012; Online Trash Talk Blamed for Turning Football Rivalry Violent, CNN Wire, Nov. 4, 2011; George Mathis, School Attorney: Football Coach Sent Threatening Texts Before Fight, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oct. 28, 2011]

INNOVATIONS IN SPORTS: Allowing Kids to Coach Kids – Part II

Judging from the response on my WFAN show this AM, this thought – that of allowing HS kids to coach LLers or kids on other youth teams – seems to be amazingly popular. We had call after call supporting the idea, and best of all, we had calls from as far away as Delaware and Michigan, all saying that this innovation should be readily adopted.

Yes, there still needs to be some parental involvement — most notably for any medical emergencies, or transportation needs to away games, or to make sure there’s enough water on hand during practice and games. But as one caller said, “I’ve been doing this [letting HS kids coach] for years, and it works great. I just give the older kids – the coaches – some basic instuctions, and they embrace the responsibility. And the younger kids love playing for the HS kids.”

I recognize that some parents will look at this idea with a jaundiced eye. Especially those parents who don’t want to trust the athletic development of their young star to a HS-aged coach. These parents will no doubt try to influence the young coaches regarding their kid’s playing time, starting line-ups, and so on. But as I suggested: if you have concerns or worries about all of this, the answer is simple: don’t bother to have your kid sign up. Let him or her play for another team in another league.

Meanwhile, the other kids on the team coached by the HS student will have all the fun that the league is supposed to offer. And remember – it’s supposed to be about having fun, right?

I really do think this is a very smart and very easily adaptable idea. Let’s see which national youth sports league embraces it first.

COACHING TIPS: The Key Role of Being An Assistant Coach – Part II

BEING AN ASSISTANT COACH (Part II)

By Doug Abrams

Nearly every youth sports team has one or more assistant coaches, so the role of these important staff members deserves discussion.  Two weeks ago, I began a two-part column, which I interrupted last week when the New Jersey lawsuit against the Little League catcher hit the headlines.  Part II resumes here.

Two weeks ago, I drew on my own happy experiences, as an assistant coach in some years and a head coach in others.  After discussing the benefits of being an assistant coach, I turned to the seven most common challenges that face assistant coaches and the head coach.  The column ended with the first challenge (Developing mutual respect), and this column resumes with the final six.

* * *

2)                 Maintaining relations with the players. When I began as Wally Livingstone’s assistant in the Nassau County youth hockey program in 1978, I wondered whether the players would react differently to me when I was not a head coach.  I quickly learned that being an assistant coach makes little or no difference.  An assistant coach who earns the players’ respect and affection will enjoy the players’ respect and affection.  It’s as simple as that.  Regardless of a coach’s title, the formula for reaching the players remains the same.   

3)                 Showing loyalty to the head coach.  In the years when I was a head coach, nearly all assistant coaches contributed mightily to the team effort, and to the players’ positive experiences on and off the ice.  Collaborating with committed assistant coaches was an important reward of being the head coach.

In all candor, however, I also had a few assistants who were jealous, overly ambitious, or who otherwise did not understand the supporting role they had been assigned.  They would sometimes overstep their bounds by making and announcing decisions that were the head coach’s, by second-guessing strategy or other decisions privately to parents or players, or by tolerating or even encouraging criticism from team members.  These strains frequently surface when the board of directors, and not the head coach, selects the assistants.   

The coaching staff needs to speak with one voice — the head coach’s.  When assistant coaches have input for the head coach — even a disagreement — the staff needs to talk privately and candidly, without fanning flames among the parents or players.  Anything less demonstrates disloyalty to the head coach and can bring down the team because disagreements and personality conflicts among the staff must be kept from the players. 

4)                 Showing loyalty to the assistants.  Loyalty is a two-way street, and the head coach also owes loyalty to the assistants.  Every cooperative assistant — even one with little hands-on experience in the game — has strengths to offer the team, often strengths that the head coach lacks.  In return for loyal service to the players, assistants earn a genuine stake in the team’s fortunes.  That stake comes, however, only when the head coach feels secure enough to share the limelight with other staff members.

Whenever a local newspaper ran the photo of a team that I served as head coach, for example, I always tried to make sure that the caption identified me as “Coach Doug Abrams,” not as “Head Coach.”  Each assistant was also identified as “Coach.”  Titles did not mean much to me, and I was comfortable with equal identification for all staff members who pitched in with their talents.  The head coach makes the final decisions and sets the team’s direction, but I considered myself as “first among equals” in my personal relationships with the assistants, who also contributed to the luster that accompanies a job well done.     

Loyalty also means that the head coach needs to view the assistant coaches as the “brain trust.”  Candid behind-the-scenes sharing of ideas (including disagreements) can pay rich dividends because head coaches have relatively few people they can turn to for advice about lineups, discipline, strategies and other day-to-day decisions.  Consulting a few parents may be off-limits because consultation might smack of favoritism.  In the years when I was a head coach, I remained thankful for assistant coaches who rescued me from making avoidable mistakes by raising pros and cons as respected colleagues outside the earshot of the players and parents. 

The door to candid discussion remains open only when the head coach keeps it open, beginning during the first preseason staff meeting.  Unless the head coach specifies that candor is welcome and not resented, the assistants may conclude that  approving nods are the safest path, or they may vent their frustrations covertly with one or more parents.  Open discussion among the staff can be a safety valve that enables the coach to avoid squandering valuable opportunities to correct mistakes before they happen.

The best head coaches show loyalty to the staff with humility and openness that views head coaching as an ongoing learning experience rather than an ego boost.  As President Harry S Truman once said, “the only things worth learning are the things you learn after you know it all.”

5)                 Fully involving each assistant coach in practice sessions.  In many communities today, practice time is scarce, expensive or both.  Smart head coaches make full use of every minute by fully involving each assistant coach, but I have also seen head coaches who want to be the “whole show” while their assistants stand by idly, hands folded, and doing little or nothing.  Besides being insulting to the assistants, putting on a one-person show is a likely sign that the head coach feels too insecure or inexperienced to share center stage.   

To use every minute of practice time most efficiently, talented head coaches sometimes split the squad into smaller groups during a portion of the session.  Each group works on a different skill for a few minutes.  When the coach blows the whistle, the groups rotate from one skill to another.  The groups continue rotating until each one has worked on each skill.  Four groups, for example, can quadruple productivity. 

Sometimes an assistant coach joins the staff with a special background as a player.  For example, the assistant coach may have been pitcher in baseball or (as I was) a goalie in hockey.  Pitching coaches or goalie coaches are hard to come by.  I spent rewarding years serving as the goalie coach with head coaches like Wally Livingstone, who were secure enough in their own strengths that they encouraged the assistant to display his.

6)                    Fully involving each assistant coach in games.  The head coach normally makes out the lineup and, depending on the sport’s substitution rules, manages the team throughout the game.  In the heat of the action, however, the head coach may find it difficult to pay close individual attention to a dozen or more players at the same time.  Assistant coaches on the bench can help by keying on individual players, who will appreciate a mentor who shows personal interest with words of encouragement or correction throughout the game.

7)                 Preparing assistants for team leadership.  Emergencies happen. Like the players, the head coach may have to miss a game for sickness, family commitments or other unforeseen circumstances.  When assistant coaches must step suddenly into the lead role, the team will stand the best chance if the head coach has prepared for that contingency by already assuring the assistants a meaningful role in each practice session and game. Grooming the assistants to run the team by themselves can help them adjust more comfortably when circumstances suddenly thrust them in the head role, and can also help the players adjust more comfortably to their leadership. 

* * *

What does all this add up to?  The staff’s greatest challenge is that each player depends on coaches – head and assistants alike – who understand their distinctive roles, support one another, and cooperate from a foundation of mutual respect.  The best interests of the players come first.

INNOVATIONS IN SPORTS: Why not Let the Kids Coach the Kids?

An amazing story just came out of San Clemente CA. Apparently there was a team of 11-and 12-year-olds in that town’s Little League that, for some reason, had a difficult team in finding a Dad or Mom to help out as the team’s coach.

As a result, when the kids couldn’t find one, they asked the league officials if a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old could be named as co-coaches to lead the team. The league said yes.

The LL team lost their first two games of the season, but as the season wore on, they found their groove and began to turn things around. Sure enough, they ended up winning their league championship, all under the coaching supervision of a couple of kids who weren’t much older than they were.

It’s a cute story. But to me, this shift toward allowing kids to coach kids might be worth considering as a major innovation in youth sports. Look, we all know and have seen the out-of-control grown-ups who coach LL games and get in shouting contests with umpires, use profanity, show favoritism to their own kids, and basically adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality.

According to media reports, the LLers on this team enjoyed playing for the HS freshmen, because 1) they communicated better 2) they allowed the kids to play the positions they wanted to play, and  3) the kids weren’t intimidated by them. Too often, LLers are fearful of talking with a grown-up coach.

Bottom line? Not only did the LLers seemingly have more fun, but they also ended up as league champions. And their youthful co-coaches are to be commended.

If I’m Little  League or the people who run other youth sports teams, I think this is an idea that is definitely worth considering. In short, just tell the parents to go and sit up in the stands. Let the kids play, and let them be coached… by other kids!