Archive for January, 2015

ADVERSITY IN SPORTS: When’s the Right Age to Allow Competition for Kids?

I asked the controversial question on today’s show: At what age should we start to keep score in our kids’ games, and in effect, introduce them to competition, e.g winning and losing.

I was inspired to do this after reading the the founder of the Texas Youth Football League – the basis for the reality TV series, “Friday Night Tykes,” was of the opinion that introducing 6 and 7 year old tackle football players to winning and losing was suitable – that, in effect, the sooner we introduce our kids to the harsh realities of life, the better prepared they will become.

That TV show features little kids playing tackle football and being exposed to the relentless and often abusive taunts of their coaches (and sometimes their parents) as preparation to become mentally tough and better football players. Kids are seen crying, suffering concussions, and vomiting when they overextend themselves in the hot Texas sun.

It’s not an easy series to watch.

 

I used that show as a stepping off point for this discussion about what’s the right age to keep score, and I must confess I was not surprised that several callers agreed that there’s no reason to try and sugarcoat competition for kids, even at the earliest ages. As one caller said, “Look, the kids know who’s winning and losing. They’re not stupid. They can see the scoreboard.”

However, another caller, a hockey coach, said that in his town’s league, they don’t post the game’s score until the kids are 9 and 10, and better able to handle winning and losing.

The calls were fairly even split, but towards the end of the show, the point was raised that each youngster tends to learn about the highs of winning and the lows of losing on their own, and at their own pace. However, that being said, it’s important that parents step up early on and explain gently that sports routinely have a winner and a loser – and that the only things that an athlete can control is:

1) that they have prepared for the game as best as they can, and

2) that they do their best in the game.

If a youngster feels good about those two criteria, then they will begin to understand that winning and losing is something that can be confronted and handled. Yes, there may be tears, but tears usually dry up quickly as a youngster moves beyond a loss and goes onto the next event of the day (of course, losing is not always as easy for the parents to absorb!)

But kids DO learn on their own how to cope when the score goes against them. It’s incumbent on parents to be supportive, and to make sure their kids are prepared for the invariable ups-and-downs of sports competition. And yes, you should talk to your child about preparation and making a full effort in sports when they are 5, 6, or 7. Again, explain to them that no matter the competition in life, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. That’s the nature of sports.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Are Youth Sports Losing Their Appeal? Swedish Study Suggests Serious Concerns

 Declining Youth Sports Participation in Sweden: Lessons for Parents in the United States

By Doug Abrams

 

Earlier this month, Radio Sweden aired a provocative four-minute piece, entitled “Kids Leaving Youth Sports in Sweden.” The story reported that the familiar threesome — increased competition, overly involved parents, and costs — are “forcing more and more children out of youth sports teams.” The broadcast reported that youth sports participation declined nationwide by about a tenth between 2004 and 2013.

The Swedish Sports Confederation, the umbrella organization of the nation’s sports movement, says that few youth athletes drop out before the age of 12. The greatest exodus occurs among children between 13 and 16, the age when (as the radio broadcast discussed) non-athletic interests and activities begin to draw teens’ attention. A Confederation official speculated that the exodus may be fueled by the fact that almost 90% of Swedish children begin organized sports before they turn six.

The official said that some parents “want to win more than the kid does,” and thus may “force kids to do things they might not like.” Adult-imposed pressure, he concluded, was “not a way to get [kids] to love sports . . . and be active for the rest of their lives.” Radio Sweden interviewed one father who attested that parents often “become too involved and . . . make it difficult and less fun for the kids – especially if the parents are pushing their child too much.”

Sweden and the United States

Sound familiar? Change the name of the nation profiled, and the Radio Sweden broadcast could have been a National Public Radio broadcast about the United States. The Wall Street Journal recently reported a decline in U.S. youth sports participation, and an earlier study reported that three-quarters of U.S. youth athletes stop playing by the age of 13. Among the reasons given most often by children who stopped concerned pressures imposed by parents and coaches.

Some American teens doubtlessly stop playing when they realize that they lag behind their peers in skills or strength, or when (like their Swedish counterparts) they develop new interests and activities. But many of the American teens who cite these developments may have begun looking elsewhere only after adult pressures deprived them of meaningful opportunities to participate.

Youth Sports In the Age of Globalization

American parents, coaches and youth league administrators should pay attention to news reports from other nations. In this age of globalization, nations can learn plenty from one another about overcoming a wide range of common economic, political and cultural challenges. Technology and instantaneous communication have made the world a smaller place, so the globalization of youth sports — its successes and its shortcomings – offers perspectives that can help influence the way our own communities treat young athletes.

In past columns, I have written about youth sports distresses in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Gary Lineker, for example, is Britain’s second highest scorer in international soccer competition. Lineker recently called for a “parental cultural revolution” in British youth soccer to control “the abuse . . ., the damage” that he has seen some parents inflict on their children while he watched his own four sons’ games. “Who cares who wins an under-eights game?,” he wrote in the New Statesman magazine. “Who cares if a youngster makes a mistake? It’s how we learn.”  He says that if parents would just “let their children enjoy themselves, you would be staggered at the difference it would make.”

My earlier international columns highlighted acts of violence committed by overzealous youth sports parents, a problem not mentioned in the Swedish radio broadcast. Violence or no, add Sweden to the list of countries where many parents, by imposing unreasonable pressure and unrealistic expectations locally, compromise values advanced by national sports governing bodies here in the United States and overseas.

“Youth Sports and Sport For All”

One such national governing body is the Swedish Sports Confederation.  The Confederation proudly calls Sweden “one of the world’s most sporting nations,” with three million citizens enrolled in 22,000 clubs that reach almost every town and village. Affiliated with the Confederation are 67 specialized federations that span the full range of sports, from A (the Swedish American Football Federation) to W (the Swedish Wrestling Federation). “Almost half of Sweden’s seven million inhabitants between the ages of 7 and 70 are members of a sports club – as active competitors, keep-fitters, leaders, trainers or supporters. Some two million of these are active sportsmen and women. Less than one percent of this figure can be said to belong to the élite; that is, they compete at national championship level.”

In 2012, the Confederation specified the dominance of youth sports. “More than two out of every three boys and every other girl between the ages of 7 and 15 belong to a sports club.” The dominant position reflects the Swedish government’s goal to “encourage and facilitate the participation of children, young people and adults in sport and exercise with the aim of promoting good public health.”

The Confederation’s blueprint remains age-specific. “In children’s sport [up to age 12] we play and let children learn different sports. The child’s all-round sporting development is the norm for children’s sport. Competition is an aspect of the game and must always be conducted on the children’s own terms. In youth [up to age 20] and adult sports we distinguish between competitive, performance sports and sports for all or fitness sports.”

In other words, the Confederation does not advocate national recreation leagues that spurn competition and submerge the desire to win as youths grow older. Instead, the Confederation seeks to sustain broad participation by recognizing the value of competition, but also by striving to assure fulfilling, healthy opportunities at all age, ability and interest levels.

All Youth Sports Policy is Local

In Sweden as in the United States, national sports governing bodies typically seek to encourage broad youth participation in supportive environments. But children play organized sports locally, where resistant parents and coaches can undo national standards in their own homes, and on the teams and leagues they administer.

As American parents exercise their prerogatives to guide their children’s upbringing, trends toward diminished participation here and in other nations should raise red flags. With so many child athletes quitting in frustration by their early teen years because adults have taken the fun from the game, parental pressure may abort more collegiate and professional careers than it creates.  Some children who quit playing early, before ever developing skills and demonstrating genuine talent, might have reached higher levels of competition with better parental management of the youth sports pressure cooker.

“Youth Sports and Sport for All”

Sport is physical activity that we undertake with a view to getting fitter, having fun or feeling good,” says the Swedish Sports Confederation. “Sport consists of training and fun, competition and display.”

A Confederation official told Radio Sweden that he recognizes the challenges that parental attitudes pose for that nation’s youth sports ideals. American adults at the local level would better serve child athletes’ emotional and physical needs by reaching the same recognition, by stanching the steep national dropout rate among young teens, and by continuing to pursue the Swedish Confederation’s ideal – “youth sports and sport for all.”

[Sources: Kids Leaving Youth Sports in Sweden, http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=6063849 (Jan. 9, 2015); Swedish Sports Confederation, Sports in Sweden, pp. 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 20, http://www.rf.se/ImageVaultFiles/id_32905/cf_394/Sports_in_Sweden.PDF; Gary Lineker, Pushy Parents Screaming Abuse From the Sidelines are Killing Their Kids’ Love of Football, New Statesman, http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/pushy-parents-screaming-abuse-sidelines-are-killing-their-kids-love-football (Oct. 24, 2013)]

WHEN THE CHEERING STOPS: How Do You Prepare for the End of Your Child’s Playing Days?

It’s a topic that isn’t discussed, but whether we like it or not, we will all have to come to grips with it at some point.

In short, what does a sports parent do when a youngster’s sports career comes to an end?

For most athletes, that day will be the very last game that they play for their HS or travel team. After all the years of endless practice, games, tryouts, clinics, camps, and so on, a time will come when the athlete plays in his or her last game.

For them, it’s a bittersweet moment, but it’s usually cushioned by the fact that most of them are going onto college, not necessarily to play more sports, but perhaps to chase new dreams in life, and if they have time, to maybe play on a college intramural team. Those teams, of course, are set up just for fun with little coaching or, for that matter, much of an obligation for a student to show up for a practice or a game.

Most kids are fine with this. They know how much time, energy, and passion they put into their pursuit of their athletic dreams. But somewhere along the way – usually around the age of 15 or 16 – kids naturally begin to figure out on their own that they are not going to be destined to get an athletic scholarship or become a pro. It’s a gradual process, but it’s also one of self-evaluation that most young athletes begin to sort through.

No one needs to tell them — they figure it out on their own. As such, when they get to the end of their senior year in sports, they already know whether or not they’re good enough to play at the next level. And for most of them, they have made peace with themselves that they were good enough to play HS varsity, but they are not going to play in college.

But for the Moms and Dads….well, that’s often a different story. Too many sports parents assume that their kid IS going to play in college,and they continue to press their kid to make contact with the college coach in order to walk on and try out for the team. Yet very few colleges (especially D-I) even offer walk-on tryouts, and eventually, the parent has to realize that it’s over — that the parent —  after spending the last 12-13 years devoting endless hours to coaching, teaching, and encouraging their athlete, the time has come to finally let the dream go.

For some parents, this is a very, very difficult process. Suddenly they have all sorts of free time on the weekends which used to be devoted to games. My advice? Find or rediscover a sport you used to enjoy and go back to it. Maybe that’s golf, or tennis, or even pick-up basketball. But whatever it is, find that competitive outlet and pursue it for yourself.

Or, find a way to work with a local youth sports team and volunteer your time as a coach. Lots of  grown-up sports parents find that to be quite enjoyable.

The point is  — take some time NOW to prepare for your life AFTER your own child’s athletic career comes to an end. If you don’t, you might find the transition to life after amateur sports a bit difficult.

COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS: When to Have the “Santa Clause” Talk with Your Athlete

Just a little background before I discuss V.J. Stanley’s appearance on the radio show this AM.

Although sports parenting concerns have become a continuously rising issue for more than 25 years now. and there have been countless articles, columns, and other forms of media outreach on this topic, the truth is that there are only a few individuals around the country who have decided that they wanted to step up and do something about this issue and try to educate all parents, coaches, and kids about the realities of kids in sports.

You probably know some of the better known names in sports parenting, either because they have appeared on my show over the years, or perhaps you heard them talk at a sports parenting seminar. That would include Doug Abrams, Steve Kallas, Bob Bigelow, Jim Thompson, Fred Engh, and George Selleck.

V. J. Stanley, who was a top head college ice hockey coach at the Univ of Rochester for 21 years, and was also a top athlete himself, has recently joined these ranks as he too attempts to educate sports parents about “chasing the dream” of college scholarships and a pro contract. As V.J. pointed out, too many parents simply get caught up in the chase and, even worse, their children become, in effect, innocent victims. As a youngster moves away from the fun and enjoyment of playing a sport to feeling pressured to keep succeeding at a higher and higher level, eventually the games shift from fun to work. Even worse, for the vast majority of these kids, the dream usually ends up on the rocks, dashed by false hopes and the hard realities of winning at all costs for coaches.

V.J. expanded on these themes this AM, and one of the key points he made was that once you have what he calls the “Santa Claus” talk with your youngster – meaning that just as you have to sit down at a certain point and explain to your child that there is no Santa Claus – you need to have that kind of talk with your athletes about the reality of them getting a scholarship or signing a pro contract. V.J. says once he had that talk with his own HS-aged son, he discovered that his son had tremendous pressure lifted off him, and really started to enjoy his time on the varsity teams. Plus, he played better.

I thought it was a point worth reflecting on, and although most parents are either reluctant to have this conversation with their son or daughter, it’s clearly something considering before you and your youngster get caught up in a race – a race in sports that seemingly will go nowhere.

VJ Stanley can be reached at FrozenShorts.com

TRAVEL TEAMS: Parents, Do Your Homework Upfront Regarding Playing Time

Full Disclosure About Travel Team Playing-Time Policies

By Doug Abrams

 This past summer I received a call from a friend whose 11-year-old son was playing on an expensive travel baseball team. For a few weeks, the coach had played the boy only about two innings a game, even in road games and distant weekend tournaments attended by the entire family. Shortly before another weekend tournament two states away, my friend decided that the family would not make the trip unless the boy was likely to receive a more reasonable amount of playing time.

My friend and his wife concluded that two innings a game was simply not worth the steep price in time, money and emotions. To participate in the upcoming tournament, the parents would have to uproot the siblings for a few days, drive a few hundred miles in each direction, and pay for the whole family’s meals and hotel bills. Add to these costs the embarrassment that their ballplayer was likely to feel because he was old enough to sense the sacrifices his parents were making to watch him warm the bench. Bench warming is unsettling for most youngsters under normal circumstances, but the embarrassment can cut even deeper in distant tournaments.

I urged my friend to talk first with his son, who might have wanted to continue as-is.  Then I suggested talking candidly with the coach, even though the optimal time for candor had already passed. I warned that this sort of conversation during the season can carry risks, but I suggested that my friend consider asking the coach to acknowledge a family decision not to attend for two innings a game.

My friend chose to talk with the coach, but I don’t think the conversation ended fruitfully. The coach evidently dropped hints that the family would not be invited back on the team next year, and added that he “talked regularly” with other local travel baseball coaches. The player was caught smack in the middle of mutual hard feelings.

Youth sports strains many family budgets these days. This column concerns basic pre-enrollment steps for families who are weighing pros and cons of joining a travel team that may be marked by noticeable imbalances in playing time. For parents and coaches alike, the key is early communication based on full disclosure. Because my friend and the coach waited too long to talk with one another, animosity likely displaced candor.

A Badge of Inferiority

First, here is full disclosure of my own. During more than 40 years coaching youth hockey as a head coach or goaltending coach at nearly every age level, I always felt most comfortable giving every player regular, sustained ice time in every game. On this blog in late 2011, I explained why I liken chronic bench warming to emotional child abuse. http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2011/07/21/how-pressure-to-win-can-tempt-youth-coaches-to-create-benchwarmers-and-how-coaches-can-resist-the-temptation/

As long as a player attended practices, followed directions, and gave an honest effort on my house league and travel hockey teams, the player saw game time that was as fair as the coaches could make it. I believe that below the high school varsity level, chronic bench warming is a badge of inferiority that denies children a meaningful chance to explore their love for the game, develop their skills, and be with their friends in a wholesome competitive atmosphere.

Sooner Rather Than Later

USA Hockey, among other national youth sports governing bodies, is right to urge “fair and equal opportunity for all to participate in our sport.” In a variety of sports, however, travel teams marked by substantial playing-time disparities do exist. Travel teams seem here to stay, and indeed seem likely to continue proliferating in the foreseeable future. I find this development destructive for many kids, but that conclusion provides grist for a later column.

The point here is that, given the present and likely future of travel teams, full disclosure becomes the order of the day. Parents typically pay the team’s bills, and parents are the ultimate guardians of their children’s sensibilities and upbringing. The coach must be candid about playing time policies, and so must the board of directors if the travel team is part of an association. For their part, parents need to ask the right questions and weigh the answers carefully before making a reasoned decision whether to enroll their player. The Q & A must come sooner rather than later – before mutual commitments are made. My friend and his son’s baseball coach waited too long.

Early Candor

Ideally coaches and associations should put playing-time policies in writing and make the policies available to parents before players enroll. If the team anticipates playing the most talented kids noticeably more than the others, families deserve to know that up front, before they commit their family’s time, energy, emotions and money. As my friend may have learned the hard way, lack of early communication among parents, coaches, and boards of directors can breed hard feelings later on.

Playing-time disputes during the season do not usually arise by spontaneous combustion; if playing time on a travel team will be noticeably unequal, these disputes are entirely predictable. Pre-enrollment disclosure is best because it comes before the player may face peer stigma from the family’s withdrawal from a commitment seemingly already made to the team. Even without withdrawal, absence of that early disclosure can saddle the coach unnecessarily with disgruntled parents whose attitudes might be different if their families had joined the team with their eyes open.

If the coaches do feel that they need more time to size up a particular player before making a commitment about playing time, they should tell the family up front (full disclosure again), and then should resolve the playing time issue as soon as possible in further conversation with the parents. The family should retain the opportunity to continue, or else to withdraw and receive a pro rata refund of their enrollment fees.

Early candor from the coach can go a long way. I have known parents who remained dissatisfied with playing-time disclosures, or have explored membership on other teams or in other programs. But I have also known parents who accepted less playing time now because their child was one of the younger players. One way or the other, coaches need to talk early with families because parents and players deserve fair notice, and they are not mind readers.

 

 

ACCOUNTABILITY WITH ATHLETES: “Be A Man” Puts the Responsibility on the Athlete

You may not know the name Joe Moglia.  But trust me, he’s one of the most remarkable people in sports (and in business) today.

The 65-year-old Moglia currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of TD Ameritrade…and at the same time, he also is the very successful head football coach at Coastal Carolina University. In his three year stint at CCU, Moglia’s team have been highly ranked in the FCS each year, and his record is a stunning 32-10.

Joe was on my WFAN show this AM, and we talked about his unique and amazing career from college football coach at Dartmouth to Wall Street CEO and then his return to college coaching again in his 60s. It’s a remarkable and stunning inspirational story that is well told in a biography about Moglia entitled FOURTH AND GOAL: One Man’s Quest To Recapture His Dream. Written by Monte Burke of Forbes Magazine, it’s a most entertaining story.

But during my interview this AM, Joe talked about his “Be A Man” philosophy which puts the pressure of accountability on his players. “They have to, of course, abide by the law,” said Moglia, “But beyond that, we don’t have any rules for our players. They have to do what’s expected of them every day, and if they do something wrong, then they understand that they will be held fully accountable for their actions — in short, they have to be a man.”

Joe went on to explain that he knows that every kid on team – 118 of them – all dream of someday playing in the NFL. But he also reminds them that the average career of a pro football player is 3-4 years, tops. “After that,” he reminds his players, “You need to be prepared for the next chapter of your life.”

Moglia and his coaching staff spend at least one hour each week talking with the entire team about preparation for life after college football. He also discusses matters that go far beyond football. Topics like world issues, terrorism, domestic violence — all of these issues that have nothing to do with X’s and O’s but everything to do with the real world.

In short, he takes his role as a college coach AND educator very seriously.

As you might imagine, I’m a big fan of Joe Moglia — not only for what he stands for, but for the lessons he imparts to his players about life after sports. As Joe explains, “Football is a great game – a wonderful game. But it’s still a game. What I’m trying to do is prepare my players for the hard parts of life that come into play after one’s football career is over.”

His advice, and his Be A Man approach to accountability, is based upon his 40 years of work in business and in sports. “And to me,” says Moglia, “it works.”

No one knows whether another college — or pro — program will come along and try to hire Joe away from CCU. But one thing is for sure. He’s just the kind of coach I’d want my kids to play for.