Archive for July, 2013

ABUSIVE COACHES: Would You Pass the Coach’s “Dog Test?”

The Coach’s “Dog Test”

Tino Martinez, the popular former Yankee, resigned Sunday afternoon as the Florida Marlins’ first-year hitting coach following allegations that he verbally and physically abused players since spring training.  Martinez acknowledged that he grabbed a rookie second baseman by the front of the jersey in May, but he denied reports that he had grabbed the player by the neck.  One player told the Miami Herald that Martinez “uses intimidation. It’s been a problem since Day One.”

Martinez is the latest high-profile coach to hit the headlines for failing what I call the “Dog Test.” The test says that if a coach would not do or say something to the family dog, he or she should not do or say it to a player either. More on that below, but first some other recent stories of abuses by coaches.

In early April, Rutgers University terminated men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice after ESPN aired a video that, quite frankly, was difficult to watch. As described by the network, the video showed “numerous clips of Rice at practice firing basketballs at players, hitting them in the back, legs, feet and shoulders. Rice was also seen pushing players in the chest and grabbing them by their jerseys and yanking them around the court. Rice could be heard yelling obscenities at players and using gay slurs.” A former Rutgers basketball student manager told a Philadelphia radio station that assaults like these were standard fare at “every practice.” (4:57).

Rice’s termination led to the resignation of the Rutgers athletic director, who was replaced on May 15 by Louisville senior athletics administrator Julie Hermann. Within two weeks, charges emerged that Hermann had verbally abused the women’s volleyball players she coached at Tennessee in the 1990s. On May 26, the Newark Star-Ledger published a letter signed in 1996 by the players of that year’s team. “The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable,” wrote the players, who explained that they had “been lied to, publicly humiliated, and ripped apart as both players and people” by coach Hermann, who would call them “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.”

In June, suburban Detroit’s Oakland University terminated its successful women’s basketball coach Beckie Francis for “[i]ndications of conduct and behavior. . . that if true could be malfeasance.”  Several players charged that chronic mental abuse marked her coaching, and that she obsessed about their weight and pressured them to embrace her religion. ”It was just head games,” one former player told the Detroit Free Press, “just constant head games.” “I tried to avoid as much conversation with her as possible,” said another player, “I got stressed out just thinking about talking to her or going to practice or having something to do with basketball. . . . To have someone make you feel so insecure about yourself, or for someone to have that kind of power over you, is . . . just insane.”

 “Leaders Lead and Bosses Drive”

The charges against Tino Martinez, Mike Rice and the others go to the core of the coach-player relationship in any sport, and at any level of play, including the youth leagues.  The coach’s authority as a leader stems from respect willingly conferred by the players.  A player might obey when forced to choose between enduring or quitting, but respect must be earned.

“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss,” said President Theodore Roosevelt, “The leader leads, and the boss drives.” British writer G.K. Chesterton distinguished obedience from respect this way: “If a rhinoceros were to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.”

Coaches are teachers, psychologists, mentors and role models. Books have been written about how to motivate players from kindergarten to the pros, but I suggest here the “Dog Test” as the bare minimum, a start for coaches who aspire to lead.  The test means that coaches should not treat their players worse than they would treat the family dog.  If the coach would not do or say something to the dog, the coach should not do or say it to a player either.

After practice sessions and games, Mike Rice would return home. If a cocker spaniel awaited, I doubt that he would fire basketballs at the animal, yell obscenities or slurs, or yank the animal by the scruff of the neck around the living room. His players deserved at least as much consideration as a dog.

“A Sacred Trust”

In my experience, most youth league and high school coaches take their instructive and mentoring roles seriously. Torrents of verbal abuse are rare, and outright physical abuse is even rarer. But I also think that if we shook the youth sports tree, particularly at the more competitive select levels, some coaches lacking basic self-control and respect for their players would fall out. Candidly taking the Dog Test would prove uncomfortable for them.

These coaches could learn plenty from UCLA’s legendary men’s basketball coach John Wooden, whose ten NCAA national championships confer an aura of wisdom for his approach. “We who coach have a great influence on the lives of all the young men who come under our supervision,” Wooden began, “It is essential that we regard this as a sacred trust.”

“[A]pproval is a great motivator,” he explained. “I try to follow any criticism, whenever possible, with a pat on the back, realizing that I cannot antagonize and influence at the same time. . . . I seldom punish players at practice or in front of others. . . . I want the boys to come out to practice, and I want them to get a certain amount of pleasure out of basketball.  It’s a game.  It should be fun.”

Former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, with 11 NBA championships under his belt, says that “[m]anaging anger is every coach’s most difficult task. It requires a great deal of patience and finesse because the line between the aggressive intensity needed to win games and destructive anger is often razor thin.”

Oklahoma’s three-time national champion football coach Bud Wilkinson similarly advised that “you can motivate players better with kind words than you can with a whip.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former Army football player who knew a thing or two about military and civilian command, offered this distinction between motivation and intimidation: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.”

Different Approaches

Coaches can be demanding, and many of the best ones are. Demanding the best from players, however, is different from humiliating them. The best coaches can tell the difference between positive reinforcement and intimidation, and so can their players. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was right that “[e]ven a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.”

[Source: Cindy Boren, Tino Martinez Resigns After Abuse Allegations, Washington Post, July 29, 2013; Rutgers Fires Coach Mike Rice, (Apr. 3, 2013); Players Say Ex-Oakland Women’s Basketball Coach Beckie Francis Fixated on Weights, Pushed Christianity, Used Intimidation, Detroit Free Press, July 21, 2013; John Wooden, The Call Me Coach, pp. 99, 109, 115 (1972)] Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, 268 (2013).

Athletes/Coaches Who Cheat: Has the Time come to go to Zero Tolerance?

There’s a slight ripple of change in the air when it comes to athletes and cheating.

Maybe it’s because of the recent Ryan Braun controversy, where he convinced everyone from the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers to all of baseball’s fans that he never took PEDs – -only to do a major 180 and now confess, when he got caught, that he lied and cheated

Maybe it’s because of the all the swirling controversy surrouding Alex Rodriguez and the Biogenesis cheaters.

Maybe it’s because of the Lance Armstrong lying and cheating.

Or maybe it’s because fans have finally gotten fed up with athletes who cheat. And sports parents – who have to counsel their kids on why they shouldn’t cheat – have a difficult time in explaining why lying and cheating is bad, especially when Braun will only sit out the rest of this season and then go back to a huge multi-million dollar contract.

I just get the sense in listening to some of the callers on my radio show that more and more sports parents want their athletes to be held accountable for their actions. Get them to learn how to think first before doing something dumb or stupid.

One caller from upstate NY said that his local HS football team has instituted such rigid, zero tolerance policies that if a kid is at a party where beer is being served, if a photo of him appears being at the party online – regardless of his drinking beer or not – he still gets kicked off the team.

What’s been the result? The kids on the football have started to bond together, and now look out for each other – just so that no one is booted from the squad. That’s a good thing, and maybe it’s worth considering in your community.

Meanwhile, more and more major league players are saying that the time has come to totally get rid of cheaters by making the punishments strong enough so that players have to pause and think twice about taking a chance of getting caught. To me, that makes a lot of sense. Clearly in the current system, it’s just not working.

But for sports parent who worry about the impact all this is having on one’s child, do yourself a favor. The next time you talk to your son or daughter about the Braun situation, ask them what they think about Braun and athletes who cheat. Ask them about zero tolerance for athletes who cheat.

Just be prepared for answers that might surprise – and disappoint – you.

SPORT SAFETY: Violence in Youth Sports Spreading All Over the World


New Zealand High School Rugby Match Ends in Vicious Brawls

By Doug Abrams

Last summer, I wrote columns that surveyed newspaper accounts of youth sports violence in other western nations, including New Zealand.  Within the span of only a few months, New Zealanders had read about a high school rugby player who was suspended for kicking an opponent in the head during a U-15 match; a father who blindsided a referee and grabbed him by the throat during a U-10 rugby match; a coach who threatened to kill the referee during a soccer game for 11th graders; and a U-15 rugby team that started a brawl in the handshake line after a sound defeat.

In each of the foreign nations I surveyed, news accounts resembled ones that sometimes reach the headlines here in the United States. “[R]eports of violence at youth sports games,” the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel said earlier this week, “have become all too common in recent years.”

The Sentinel reported that after losing a close, hard-fought championship U-16 soccer game in Orlando last weekend, “parents and players from a Miami team storm[ed] the field, punch[ed] an elderly man and repeatedly kick[ed] a downed player in the head.” In just the last month or so, Americans have also seen stories about two coaches whose bloody fight during a South Bend, Indiana T-ball game left the five-year-olds in tears; and a coach charged with attacking a 17-year-old official during a flag football game for 12-14-year-olds in Valencia, California.

The foreign newspaper accounts I surveyed last summer did not suggest that most parents, coaches or players were troublemakers, and neither did I. Experience in the United States suggests too that youth league violence here, if “all too common,” nonetheless remains the exception rather than the rule. But experience in the United States also suggests that the media typically reports only the most serious violence because other incidents no longer seem newsworthy.  I suspect that many readers of my weekly columns can recall witnessing nasty unreported confrontations that leagues or associations overlooked or resolved informally.    

Yet another violent incident put New Zealand youth sports back in the news again on June 29. In the second half of a high school rugby match between archrivals Bishop Viard and Newlands in Wellington, the referee stopped play after the second of two brawls pitted most of the teams’ starters and reserve players against one another.  The second brawl, which local media described as “particularly vicious,” descended into fist fighting and verbal abuse of spectators before a semblance of order was restored.             

Youth Sports In the Age of Globalization

American parents, coaches and league administrators concerned about conditions in youth sports should pay attention to news reports from fields and gymnasiums in New Zealand and elsewhere around the globe.  Foreign perspectives can help explain some problems that arise here. In this age of globalization, Americans’ responses to a wide range of economic, political and cultural challenges benefit from watching how other nations meet similar challenges. In turn, other nations can learn from the United States. Technology and instantaneous communication have made the world a smaller place, so the globalization of youth sports — its successes and its shortcomings — can help inform our own communities.  

The title of one of my international columns last year said what needed to be said to an American audience: “We Are Not Alone.” In many other nations, youth sports systems face stresses similar to ones we face here in the United States.  Sports offers a positive experience for most child athletes during and after their playing days, but leagues in various nations also suffer from parents, coaches and players who cross the line into violence that is clearly outside the rules of the game and standards of common decorum. 

“Significant Consequences”

Here and overseas, over-the-edge incidents such as the one in Wellington late last month carry a common thread. Each one besmirches youth sports, but each one also produces quick reaction from disgusted authorities and onlookers who find that the violence sullies the mission of youth sports.  Swift imposition of discipline on the offender usually followed.

The Wellington Secondary School Rugby Union, for example, registered “total condemnation of what occurred” on June 29. Within a few days, the Union held a hearing and declared the Bishop Viard-Newlands match a default by both teams. The Union also decreed that each team would forfeit its next game.  Six players were individually disciplined for their roles in the two brawls. A local league official explained that “the nature of the events leading to the match being called off, which brought the game into disrepute, required that a clear and strong message about such behavior by players must be made to both the teams involved and to the wider rugby community.” 

Authorities also moved to prevent similar future violence.  The Union called the sanctions “a timely reminder to both schools and the wider rugby community that such behavior is inexcusable and there are significant consequences.”  Newlands’ principal said that “we’ve looked at ways in which we can be proactive so that this doesn’t happen again.” Bishop Viard’s principal said that she would work with Newlands because “we certainly don’t want a repeat.”

Prevention and Reaction

In New Zealand as in the United States, prevention of sporadic violence in youth sports remains the best strategy, though we cannot expect even the most effective prevention efforts to eliminate all incidents.

Prevention begins with such measures as firm sportsmanship guidelines reinforced in pre-season meetings with adults and players. Because intensity does not suddenly emerge by spontaneous combustion only in the heat of a game, coaches and parents should carefully monitor teams’ temperament in the days preceding matches between known archrivals. League administrators should support referees who penalize players for violence outside the rules, and who remove these players from the game when penalties alone do not promote a game played by the rules. Swift discipline imposed by leagues or teams, or even criminal prosecution in extreme cases, remains for offenders unresponsive to reasonable proactive measures.  


[Sources: Rugby Brawl Behaviour “Inexcusable,” New Zealand Herald, July 10, 2013; Tim Donoghue, First XVs Suspended After Brawls,; David Breen, Felony Charge Might Come Later, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, July 22, 2013, p. B1; Doug Abrams, “We Are Not Alone”: The Globalization of Youth Sports, ; T-ball Argument Leads to Huge Fight Between Coaches, Assault Charges, ; Perry Smith, Castaic Man Charged With Assaulting Ref In Valencia Flag Football Game, Santa Clarita (Calif.) News, May 28, 2013]




ABUSIVE COACHES: Another Horror Story from the College Coaching Ranks

There’s a lengthy, well-researched account in the Detroit Free Press this week that details another searing case of psychological abuse by a college coach – in this case, it happens to be Beckie Francis, the long-time women’s basketball coach at Oakland University in Michigan.

In short, Francis who coached Oakland for 13 seasons and compiled an overall won-loss record of 227-162, was dismissed from her position recently after a number of her former players came forth with some startling accusations, specifically:

That Coach Francis focused endlessly on her players’ weight to the point where several of the players developed eating disorders… pushed her own religious beliefs endlessly on her players… kept asking about their virginity… and that they curtail their outside social lives and just focus on basketball and their studies. All this, plus an ongoing program of mental intimidation in practice everyday.

One player, a bench player, was accused by Coach Francis of not cheering hard enough when a teammate made a free throw during a game. That player was suspended for her lack of enthusiasm.

Hard to believe in this day and age, but 15 former players spoke up about what they endured under Coach Francis’ very strict rule. Over the course of her tenure, 36  out of her 170 players left the Oakland program.

So how was Coach Francis able to last so long in her job which paid her more than $125,000 this past season when the team went 9-20?

For starters, it helped significantly that Francis was married to the president of the university, Gary Russi. As was suggested in the article, it was most difficult for the athletic director at the school to give Coach Francis a bad performance review or discipline when the AD’s boss is Coach Francis’ husband and he runs the university.

Bottom line? She’s gone – and on the same day that she resigned, a few hours President Russi resigned as well.

Personally, I feel for those basketball players who suffered needlessly this kind of emotional abuse.  I once had a college coach who played “mind games” with me and my teammates, and trust me, it was awful. There is just no need for this kind of appraoch in coaching kids, and hopefully, as more of these cases come to light, maybe the word will finally spread that coaches need to act like real grown-ups, instead of just being on unbridled power trips.

LEGAL CONCERNS: The Recruiting of Athletes to Private and Parochial High Schools – Time to Fess Up?

One of the great not-so-well-kept secrets in the New York-New Jersey area is that private and parochial schools recruit top athletes to attend their schools.

Now, no one will ever admit to this, because the recruiting of young student-athletes is against all the rules. And yet, judging from the calls on my radio show this AM, this “underground railroad” of athletes finding their way to top programs is alive and well, and has been for years. The recruiting isn’t done, apparently, by the coaches, but by the alums and booster clubs of these non-public schools.

This conversation was prompted by a recent investigation into John F. Kennedy HS, a relatively small parochial HS in northern Westchester County (NY). Claims from angry football and basketball coaches at neighboring public high schools say that JFK has been trying to woo some star players from their schools to JFK. It’s presumed that the tuition costs of attending JFK would have been covered by the school, e.g. a “scholarship.” Remember, tuition at parochial schools can run around $8000 a year and private day schools to as much as $25,000. If your kid is “recruited,” somebody needs to pay his or her way.

In any event, before the allegations at JFK were tried, JFK decided to simply opt out of NYS Section One public high school athletics (yes, in NYS, there are cases where parochial and private schools are allowed to compete in the same league and state playoffs as public schools).

JFK has now joined the Catholic HS Athletic Assn (CHSAA) in New York, which means that they will be playing against much larger Catholic schools like Iona Prep and Fordham Prep. Plus those schools are at least 40-50 minutes away by bus. And the CHSAA doesn’t offer girls’ sports like field hockey or lax.

By making this move, JFK doesn’t have to worry anymore about any recruiting allegations in Section One. And they can still play public schools in NYS if those public HS still want to play them. It’s just that those games won’t count for league standings or playoffs anymore.

But the bigger issue here is this: has the time come to simply forget about trying to hide that non-public HS do, in effect, recruit? Just fess up, and be honest about it, so that everybody knows what the score is.

And along those lines, why does NYS still allow private or parochials schools to compete in the same leagues and playoffs as the public schools? That doesn’t seem fair at all.


COACHING TIPS: Part II of What All Coaches Need To Read


Ten Rules for Healthy Youth Sports (Part II)

By Doug Abrams


In late June, I spoke about “Ten Rules for Healthy Youth Sports” to the parents and coaches in the Twisters Roller Hockey League in Hallsville, Missouri. Last week’s column presented the first five rules, and here I present the final five.

* * * 

5.       Don’t say or do anything to the referees that you would be embarrassed to say or do in front of your child on Main Street.

When a call goes against the team, referees can hear insults from parents and coaches only when the adults yell so loud that their own children on the field or the bench can also hear. When parents or coaches physically confront (and sometimes assault) referees on the sidelines or in the parking lot after a game, everyone sees the bullying. The adult’s verbal or physical abuse would not win the children’s respect on Main Street; the conduct wins no respect at the game either, even if no child ever says anything about it. 

Over the years, a few players have called me aside privately to apologize for their parents’ unruly behavior in the stands. Parent-child relationships suffer when embarrassed 12-year-olds must make excuses for their parents. Youth sports serves families best when the role models are the adults, and not the 12-year-olds.

4.      Welcome the players’ mistakes.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden accepted his players’ mistakes as part of the game. “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” he would say. “A doer makes mistakes.”

I used to strike a bargain with my hockey teams before the first practice.  The bargain was the same for U-8 mite teams and the high school teams, and it defined the coach-player relationship all season.

The players’ part of the bargain was to try their best in practice sessions and games, and to work on skills they found difficult as well as ones they had already begun to master. Players cannot learn or have much fun when they anticipate backlash from their coaches or teammates whenever something goes wrong. Words hurt, and backlash had no place on our team.

The coaches’ part of the bargain was to teach, support and encourage each player as they made mistakes and tried again. Coaches promised not to chastise, single out, or ridicule a player for giving 100% effort and coming up short. This reassurance operated in practice sessions and games alike, not only because “a doer makes mistakes,” but also because mistakes create opportunities to learn.

Young athletes can take correction delivered by supportive coaches. Indeed, constructive criticism is one reason why teams have coaches in the first place. But harsh criticism brimming with intimidation does not toughen youth leaguers, sharpen their skills, or enhance their competitive spirit.  Calling out a player for a mistake might work sometimes in professional sports, but it can shatter the self-confidence of youth leaguers who know that they have given their best effort and expect support from their elders in return. 

By tolerating mistakes, the coach helps players avoid “fear of failure,” a mental barrier that can easily bring a team down. Players who fear the coach’s wrath for doing something wrong are more likely to play tentative and unsure, producing a cascade of yet more mistakes that can turn close victories into close defeats. For coaches who want to win every game within the team’s reach, the key is not the mistake itself, but how the team reacts.  

3.         Smile most of the time at your children’s games.

Bob Bigelow, a leading national advocate for healthy youth sports, advises parents and coaches that they should be smiling most of the time at the field, rink or gymnasium.  Bob is a former first-round draft pick and NBA player, and he knows what he is talking about. Once adults stop smiling, harmful conduct such as benching players and abusing referees often follows close behind.

Sports should provide fun and fulfillment for the whole family – for the players who try to win, but also for their parents and coaches who sacrifice and root for them.  Parents and coaches defeat a major purpose of youth sports when they deny themselves the enjoyment that they seek for their children.   

2.       Protect the players’ emotional safety, and not only their physical safety.

Parents and coaches tend to understand “physical safety” – the need for proper protective equipment and careful enforcement of safety rules, for example.  But safety in youth sports also means “emotional safety.” Adults have succeeded when players finish their youth sports careers both physically intact and emotionally intact. 

Among other things, emotional safety means providing each player fair and equal opportunity to participate in every practice session and game. Chronic benchwarming is a badge of shame, and it is a major reason why so many kids quit playing sports by their early teen years. Players sign up because they expect a fair opportunity to participate.  They do not sign up to warm the bench for a 30-something or 40-something coach who thinks that playing only some players might help win a game whose score everyone will forget in two weeks anyway.   

Emotional safety means exactly what Hans, the skate sharpener, told Coach Gordon Bombay in The Mighty Ducks: “Show them how to play.  Show them how to have fun. Teach them to fly. That’s what they’ll remember.”  Hans nailed it.    

1.      Help your son or daughter try to win within the rules.

Now that you have heard nine rules for making youth sports a more fulfilling experience for the players, what about wanting to win?  I purposely cast this rule as “Number 1” for a reason. Too many people mistakenly believe that sportsmanship means downplaying the desire to win, but sportsmanship actually depends on the desire to win within the rules of the game.

Except in the youngest age groups, winning and losing matter. If the score consumes parents and coaches in a T-ball game for five-year-olds, the adults should have their heads examined. But when players get a little older, they understand the difference between winning and losing.  They want to win, and their parents and coaches should want them to win, provided that sportsmanship does not take a backseat.  Here is what I mean: 

At its best, a game or match involves teams or competitors who each wants to win with clean play before shaking hands at the end. True sportsmen care about the score, and they do not let up on the opponent during the game.  But true sportsmen also care about three basic values – fair play, adherence to the rules, and respect for the opponent and the game. In youth sports, sportsmanship and the desire to win are perfectly compatible, provided that the adults and players remain committed to this trio, and that the adults also remain committed to assuring fair and equal opportunity.

For the parents and coaches, the ultimate question is not whether they want the team to win, but what prices they are willing to pay to try to win, and what prices they are unwilling to pay. Benching or ridiculing players is too great a price, for example, and so is resorting to verbal or physical abuse that is meant to intimidate referees.  But teaching skills and rooting for the players to carry the team as far as their abilities permit are perfectly sportsmanlike.

Words and Deeds

I concluded my talk in Hallsville by candidly acknowledging how easy it is to approach a microphone or keyboard and deliver a sermon about values in sports, as I was doing that afternoon.  Words come easy. Deeds are the tough part. 

Every parent and coach knows that it takes extraordinary maturity and self-discipline to do the right thing when they are actually on the bench or in the stands during a game. Pressure can build mighty quickly. Good parents are emotionally invested in their children, and good coaches are emotionally invested in their teams.

As participants try their best to win, they may feel tempted to stray from the trio of values that define true sportsmanship — fair play, adherence to the rules, and mutual respect.  The British Association of National Coaches marks the right path: “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”

INNOVATIONS IN SPORTS: Pro Soccer Team Pays Fans Not to Chant Obscenities

This one is bizarre.

As reported in this past week, apparently there are a few fan groups who regularly attend Red Bulls’ soccer matches in New Jersey (the Red Bulls play in Major League Soccer). And during the course of these home games, members of these fan groups will launch into a chant aimed at the opposing team, along the lines of “You suck a–hole!”

These chants usually occur during a lull in the action, and as a result, they are heard by everyone in the stadium – other fans, kids, players, etc.

What to do? The Red Bulls exec’s decided to try a different kind of tack to stop this. They are offering the fan groups $500 each if they get their members to refrain from yelling profanities. If the fan groups don’t do this for a total of four games, the Red Bulls will pay them $2000.

In short, the fan groups are now holding the Red Bulls hostage. They’re demanding, in effect, if they don’t get paid real money to behave in a socially-minded way, then they will react with more displays of profanity.

Isn’t all this backwards? I mean, why not just evict verbally abusive fans who step over the line at soccer games? Just remind fans that obscenities are not allowed in any form, and if someone crosses that line, just have security throw them out.

Just because you pay for a ticket doesn’t give you total supreme right to shout out profanities. There is a certain expectation of civility at sporting events, and if you don’t go by the rules, you can be tossed out.

But now we’ve reached an impasse where teams are offering to pay fans to behave…wow, that seems very problematic, very sketchy.



COACHING TIPS: Here Are the Rules All Youth Coaches Need to Read (Part One)


Ten Rules for Healthy Youth Sports (Part I)

By Doug Abrams


Two weeks ago, I spoke about sportsmanship and values to the parents and coaches in the Twisters Roller Hockey League in Hallsville, Missouri.  Hallsville is a small town (population 1,500) about 18 miles north of my home in Columbia, and the league plays outdoors from April through June. The teams come from Hallsville and surrounding communities.

The Twisters’ Mission Statement says what needs to be said. The League “provide[s] value-based roller hockey instruction and game structure in a family atmosphere. We promote healthy life habits, including exercise, sportsmanship, teamwork, respect, patience and compassion. We strive to provide equal playing time to all players to promote positive self-esteem and enthusiasm beyond competition.”

Many youth sports programs make similar promises because writing a lofty mission statement nowadays is easy for any league administrator with a computer and a keyboard. The challenge is living up to the promises during the season, and that is where many programs fall short.

I have watched a number of Twisters games for a few years now, and the program actually delivers. I told the audience that I have never seen a Twisters parent or coach yell at a referee or anyone else.  Nor have I ever seen a coach yell at a player, a coach bench a player, or a player take a cheap shot.  When I attend a game, I see parents, coaches and players enjoying themselves as they compete. In today’s often overheated youth sports atmosphere, you can’t say all this about every program. 

What If the Players Were Here Alone?

I knew I had a friendly audience in Hallsville last month, so I began with a question: “What do you think would happen if all the parents and coaches dropped off their players here at the outdoor rink today and then went shopping, leaving the players with no adults nearby?”  

I answered my own question. “The kids would choose up a game and play, officiate the game, keep score, and stop playing at the end.”  Before youth sports became adultified by the early 1970s, that’s exactly what local sports on sandlots and playgrounds meant most of the time. Kids conducted their own games then, and they could conduct their own games now.

The point is that youth leaguers do not need their parents or coaches around unless the adults have something positive to offer. If coaches bench or yell at players, or if parents confront one another or verbally abuse referees and opponents, the kids would be better off running their own games with the adults miles away. But if parents and coaches promote vigorous, healthy competition within the rules of the game and the bounds of civility, the adults enhance the experience and the kids do need them.  The value of the adults’ presence depends on the adults themselves.    

Ten Rules

With this introduction, I spent about a half hour presenting the Hallsville parents and coaches with “Ten Rules for Healthy Youth Sports.”  David Letterman-style, I counted down from 10:

10.      Forget everything you think you have ever learned about sports from following the pros. 

When parents or coaches enroll their families in a youth league for the first time, much of their knowledge of sports comes from the professional games they’ve watched on television, attended in person, or read about in the newspapers for years. They have seen or heard stories about coaches who put only a fraction of their team into the lineup; coaches who try to motivate players with insults and foul language; fans who verbally challenge players and referees from the stands; and players who trash talk one another throughout the game.

Much of what Americans have come to expect from professional sports has no place in youth leagues. Professional playing rules may resemble youth league rules, but pro athletes and youth leaguers bear no resemblance to one another.   

The pros are elite multimillionaire adults employed by multimillion-dollar (and sometimes billion-dollar) corporations to provide public entertainment that earns profits for owners and shareholders. Lucrative media deals, corporate sponsorships, personal endorsements, and entire cities’ economic fortunes ride on winning and losing. When coaches bench or yell at a pro, or when fans boo a pro, the multimillionaire still gets paid handsomely.

Youth leaguers, however, are not miniature adults or pint-sized professionals. In local communities from coast to coast, youth leaguers are children who are growing, learning and playing, not working. Without fat contracts, national media coverage and audiences of millions, children play for fun and fulfillment to an audience consisting usually of only family and friends.  The children’s physical and emotional welfare, and not financial reward, is the bottom line. 

A few years ago, I happened to watch an ice hockey practice run by a coach who spent the entire session barking at his 11-year-old players, who seemed ready to obey even if he spoke in a respectful tone of voice.  Afterwards I asked the coach why he conducted himself that way. “That’s what pro coaches do,” he responded, and he sincerely meant it.  “Vince Lombardi was gruff with his players, and he’s in the Hall of Fame,” the coach explained, “I’m just trying to be a good coach.”

I am not sure whether the youth hockey coach was right about Lombardi, but he was certainly wrong about techniques for coaching children. It never occurred to him that Lombardi played to a different audience. Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins were well-compensated adult professionals, and 11-year-old hockey players are . . . well, 11 years old.

9.        Help your player set “effort goals” rather than only “outcome goals.”

For youth leaguers and their families, the desired “outcome goal” is both obvious and natural — they would like to win the game. But teams rarely go undefeated, so players fail to meet their outcome goal much of the time.  Particularly in a team sport like hockey, each individual player has relatively little control over the final score if the teams are matched fairly evenly.

What if the opposing goaltender has a hot game? What if your goalie has a bad day? What if a teammate gets a breakway with the score tied late in the game, but hits the post rather than place the shot an inch inside the post? No individual player can control for all this, or for so much else that determines the final score.

But Jim Thompson is right that youth leaguers have considerable control over their own performance – their “effort goals.”  Guided by their parents and coaches before the game, players might resolve to throw five good passes, to backcheck and forecheck effectively, to hit the net on every shot and follow up on rebounds, or to perform other selected skills that might help the team win.  Some youth hockey coaches even communicate effort goals to an entire forward line or defense line, and not just to individual players.

When parents and coaches help their players strive to meet effort goals, the players can win even when the team comes out on the short end on the scoreboard.  

8.       Listen to what your son or daughter does not say.

When parents ask their players about everything that happened in the game, the players typically chatter away.  But sometimes players also convey important messages to their elders through behavior or actions, without words. The player may feel unable or unwilling to say something, but the unspoken message can make a big difference if the parents are perceptive enough to “listen.”

What if for three consecutive weeks, for example, a player suddenly complains of a headache or upset stomach a half hour before it is time to leave for practice?  Chronically avoiding practice is simply not normal, so players raise red flags when they try to beg off practice repeatedly.

Perhaps the player is signaling that he does not want to play the sport any more (which is OK because youngsters’ interests do change from time to time). Perhaps the coach verbally abuses the player and other teammates at practice. Perhaps the player needs the coach’s special attention because one or more teammates bully the player in the locker room, or because the player feels embarrassed at being one of the team’s smaller or less talented players. Before the parents can seek special attention, they must sense the need by “listening” for what the player “says.”      

7.       Maximize the “power to praise” by using the “sandwich technique.”

Most young athletes crave praise from their parents and coaches, and they also crave their coaches’ constructive criticism because they want to improve their game.  Praise is powerful, and so is constructive criticism properly given.

Good coaches look for reasons to energize the players with praise throughout the game, and parents join in afterwards. Delivering deserved praise can be easy because every player does something right every game, win or lose. Most players do plenty of things right. Mistakes are sometimes more obvious than plays done right, but parents and coaches need to remain alert for what is praiseworthy, and not only for what needs correction.

Imagine what it’s like to go to the grocery store and buy a dozen doughnuts. The parent or coach might open the box and see a dozen donuts, or the player or coach might open the box and see a dozen holes.  What people see depends a lot whether they are looking for the positive or the negative.  

When constructive criticism is in order, the “sandwich technique” lets coaches treat children like children: “Sam, you’re playing great for us.  But you want to keep your stick on the ice next time you’re out there.  Keep setting up those plays.” Praise, correction, praise.

6.         Don’t compete through the kids. 

Competition in youth sports is healthy, provided that the people competing are the youths and not the adults. Games, however, do not always work out that way.

Parents or coaches may seek, for example, to live vicariously through their son or daughter to relive their own playing days. Or parents may get the idea that they are better providers when their children win than when they lose. Or coaches may try to run up the score because they personally dislike the other team’s coaches.

When adults make themselves the focus of competition in children’s games, the players usually end up the losers. Parents may impose unhealthy pressure, and coaches may bench less talented players to achieve their own goals on the scoreboard.  The game may become overheated as the adults skirt the rules of the game and, equally important, the rules of civility.

We call our enterprise “youth sports” for a reason. Today’s adults had their day when they played youth league, high school, and perhaps college sports years ago. Just let the kids play. Now is their time.   


Next week: Rules 1-5.

DANGERS OF LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL: The Corporate Machine in Williamsport Keeps Rolling It In

Just in case you ever had any doubts about Little League Baseball being big business…there was a major feature in Sports Business Journal this past week in which it detailed how this organization, which prides itself on safety first, has grown to a massive enterprise.

For starters, ESPN is in the process of negotiating a new extension to its current TV contract. That original deal, done in 2007, paid Little League Baseball $30.5 million. It’s safe to assume that this new contract — which will last until 2022 – will be worth millions more.

In addition, the list of corporate sponsors for Little League continues to grow. Dick’s Sporting Goods. Subway. Gatorade. Easton (makers of aluminum baseball bats). New York Life. New Era. And on and on.

In short, everybody seems to be lining up to toss serious money at Little League Baseball.

And that’s fine. That’s the American way. But lest anyone forget, there are some harsh realities about Little League Baseball that, in my opinion,  still haven’t been addressed:

They still allow aluminum bats to be used by kids 13-and-under. Now, everybody in baseball (incuding the NCAA and the HS Baseball Federation) has acknowledged that aluminum bats are dangerous  — with the exception of Little League. They still say there’s no difference. Hard to believe, but still true. Hey Little League, what about safety first?

Little League Baseball refuses to acknowledge that throwing curves and sliders by kids 13 and under is dangerous to their arms. Despite more than 50 years of medical research on this issue, Little League says this is not a concern. Rather, they say it’s more about simple overuse – which comes, they say,  from young pitchers playing and pitching in other leagues besides Little League.  Nor, says LL CEO Steve Keener, do we know how to stop kids from throwing curves.  Please – just tell the ump that if he sees a kid throwing a deuce, just give him a warning. If he does it again, he’s banished to the outfield. Not hard to enforce this.

And regarding pitch counts. It wasn’t until my colleague Steve Kallas pointed out to Little League that they weren’t doing pitch counts properly in the Williamsport tournament until Little League finally got its act together. You would think that with all the fanfare LL made about pitch counts, they would have figured out how to oversee it.

Meanwhile, here’s a good question. For a league that prides itself on having volunteers (e.g. no one gets paid, including coaches and umpires), where do all the millions of corporate dollars go? When will Little League tell us that?