Archive for June, 2015

ABUSIVE COACHES: “Steph Curry….Stay Away from My Students!”

Sometimes, a teacher means well, but the words they choose unfortunately just don’t come out the right way.

And because of that, I’m going to give Matt Amaral, a teacher at Mount Eden HS in Hayward, CA, a break on this. Let me explain why.

Back in May, Amaral wrote a letter to NBA MVP Steph Curry asking him to stay away from Mt. Eden and the students there. What a bizarre request! Why would a teacher write such a note?

Simply because Amaral felt that so many kids in his HS truly believed that they, too, would follow in Curry’s footsteps and someday play in the NBA. Amaral explained that there just weren’t enough adults in these kid’s lives to tell them the truth – that they have a better chance of winning the lottery than ever getting to play pro ball.

Well……as noted, Amaral’s theme is a worthwhile one, but to try and highlight his point by telling one of the NBA’s real good guys to “stay away” from the school is a message gone awry.

What Amaral should have said is that if Curry would come to Mt. Eden to talk to the student-athletes enrolled there, perhaps Steph would talk more about his education at Davidson College, and ideally, how Steph learned along the way to develop some other passions in life including his education — just in case his basketball dreams didn’t come true, or if he suffered a career-ending injury.

Sure, all the kids at Mt. Eden idolize Curry as an NBA superstar, but if Amaral could somehow convince Curry to speak at Mt. Eden, that’s the point you would want Steph to get across: to explain how lucky he was to make it to the pro level, and along the way, he could talk about all the other highly super-talented kids he played with or against in HS or college who, for one reason or another, never were that fortunate.

That’s the message Amaral should have made. And who knows – maybe if Steph Curry came in and talked to the student-athletes about the harsh realities of life and sports, perhaps the kids would actually pay attention to what he had to say. That’s the lesson you want the kids to hear.

 

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TRAVEL TEAMS: Why Doesn’t US Soccer Academy Give HS Players and Coaches a Break?

I have explored this issue of US Soccer Academy siphoning off talented HS soccer players over the last few years, but despite the pleas from HS coaches from all over the country, they still don’t seem to get it.

On this AM’s show, I interviewed Dan Woog, who is the highly accomplished boys soccer coach at Staples HS, in Westport, CT.

Like Matt Allen, the boys soccer coach at Byram Hill HS in Armonk, NY, each year Woog loses a few more top players to the local US Soccer Academy. It’s frustrating, upsetting, and according to Woog, kids who are seduced by the lure of  US Soccer Academy don’t often realize the scope of the sacrifice they’re making.

Woog explains: “For a youngster to give up the life-time memories of playing for their HS team, along with their friends and HS teammates, playing for US Soccer is an awful lot to give up. We take a holistic approach here at Staples; that is, we offer the soccer player not only a chance to enjoy representing their school in competition as kids play to win a league championship or more, but also the school offers, of course, guidance counselors, athletic coaches, and administrators who can help prepare them for life after college. Plus just the fun of being with one’s lifelong buddies. Kids on the Academy team rarely develop those kinds of bonds.

“I always hear about kids who leave for US Soccer but then find out that there’s no much support from them in terms of college exposure and reaching out to college coaches. That’s a real concern,” says Woog.

Indeed. Several callers on the show echoed the same sentiments and worries about US Soccer – that when it came time to apply to college, there wasn’t much outreach from US Soccer. Plus the reality is that kids who play in the Academy are not allowed to play on their HS team, and not on any other HS sports teams.

There’s also a sense that the Academy kids don’t really understand how long the odds are of their becoming a college scholarship player, or for that matter, of ever playing for the US Olympic team or turning pro.

And here’s the really frustrating part. It has seemed to me – and to many others  – that US Soccer needs to re-think its policy of forcing HS kids to choose either the Academy or their HS. What’s the big deal if a kid plays for 10 weeks with their HS program in the fall? As Coach Woog points out, most HS coaching staffs have excellent coaches. It’s just hard to believe that those two months are going to give opposing countries that much of an advantage when it comes to soccer.

Plus it’s just not very appealing to force HS kids as frosh or sophomores to make this kind of decision which will have a big impact on their lives. C’mon US Soccer Academy – it’s time to do the right thing and re-think this policy.

 

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Wonderful Advancements in Sled Hockey

 Sled Hockey:  “For Love of the Game”

By Doug Abrams

 

Late last week, I received an e-mail from my longtime friend Dick Gagliardi, the former Yale University hockey coach and Sacred Heart Academy athletic director. “This is something you would want to know about,” he said, and he was right.

Dick forwarded an announcement from Quinnipiac University’s “Camp No Limits: College Days.” Camp No Limits is a national foundation that serves “young people with limb loss and their families, creating a network of support for all the campers.” Throughout the year, the camp operates at locations in ten states, including Connecticut at Quinnipiac from July 8-12.

On Friday night, July 10, the Camp will host its first annual charity exhibition sled hockey game between the Connecticut Wolfpack and the New York Sled Rangers. The teams will play at the TD Bank Sports Center on Quinnipiac’s York Hill Campus in Hamden. Doors open at 6:00 pm, with faceoff at 7:00. Admission is free, and all proceeds from raffles at the game will support scholarships for youngsters and help insure the Camp’s continued presence at the University.

Sled Hockey

USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, describes sled hockey this way: “Sled (sledge as it’s referred to outside the United States) hockey . . . follows most of the typical ice hockey rules with the exception some of the equipment. Players sit in specially designed sleds that sit on top of two hockey skate blades. There are two sticks for each player instead of one and the sticks have metal pics on the butt end for players to propel themselves. Goalies wear basically the same equipment but do make modifications to the glove.  Metal picks are sewn into the backside to allow the goalie to maneuver.”

Sled hockey has won a firm place in the hockey world. Local youth and adult teams play, and the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team shut out Canada, 3-0, to win the gold early last month at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships in Buffalo, New York.

Change For the Better

The upcoming Quinnipiac exhibition game provides exposure that may encourage campers to take up sled hockey. Initiatives such as Camp No Limits, and sled hockey for boys and girls who would otherwise be shut out of the game, are steps in the right direction.

In 1985, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that children with disabilities had been “subject to a lengthy and tragic history of segregation and discrimination that can only be called grotesque.” Participation in youth sports was barely on the radar screen.

In the past generation or so, public attitudes have begun to change for the better. Especially after passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, tolerance and equal opportunity have begun displacing the segregation and discrimination that Justice Marshall spoke about. More than ever before, public opinion recognizes today that the nation benefits when all Americans enjoy the opportunity to participate in national life as fully as their desires and abilities permit.

For children with disabilities who wish to participate in sports, this recognition begins in the public elementary and secondary schools, which enroll more than half of the nation’s school-age children. But recognition should also extend to community youth sports programs, which enroll about 35 million children each year. Each of these two sports providers deserves brief discussion here.

The Public Schools and Community Youth Sports Programs

On January 25, 2013, the U.S. Education Department instructed public school districts that federal disability law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the public schools “may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified. . . . [S]tudents with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.”

The Education Department’s authority extends only to the nation’s public schools, but equal opportunity should also motivate community youth sports programs that federal education disability law does not directly reach.  To the maximum extent possible, schools and community programs alike should encourage children with disabilities to play on the team if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and play does not change the character of the game or compromise safety.  The media regularly reports how children overcome Down syndrome, missing limbs, and other disabilities to win their teammates’ acceptance, support and respect.

Worthwhile initiatives, such as USA Hockey’s sled hockey program and Little League’s Challenger Division, open doors for children whose conditions make such mainstreaming inadvisable or impossible.

Good for Young Athletes and Good for America

In both public school districts and community programs, the impulse to include, rather than exclude, athletes marks youth sports at its finest in the United States, whose national educational policy vows to “leave no child behind.” Sports teaches children with disabilities, but these children also teach everyone else through their perseverance and determination to overcome barriers that many families previously never thought much about.

As an educator and coach, Dick Gagliardi has been a voice of reason in youth sports for more than half a century. “Programs such as sled hockey are based on respect for individual challenges. Every youngster deserves respect,” he told me the other day. He knows what he is talking about.

 

Source: No Limits Foundation, http://www.nolimitsfoundation.org/; USA Hockey, Sled Hockey, http://www.usahockey.com/sledhockey; USA Hockey, Team USA Wins 2015 Sled Hockey World Title, http://www.teamusa.org/News/2015/May/03/Team-USA-Wins-2015-Sled-Hockey-World-Title (May 3, 2015); U.S. Department of Education, We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities, http://www.ed.gov/blog/2013/01/we-must-provide-equal-opportunity-in-sports-to-students-with-disabilities/.  Further information about Quinnipiac’s Camp No Limits: College Days (July 8-12), and the upcoming sled hockey exhibition game, is available at http://bit.ly/campnolimitsqusledhockey

HEROIC COACHES: WHAT ONE MAN IS DOING TO REVIVE INNER-CITY BASEBALL

It was back in October of 2013….close to two years ago….that I introduced you my WFAN audience to Steve Bandura of the Anderson Monarchs baseball team. And I approached Steve a few weeks ago to have him back on.

To me, Steve is one of those unsung American heroes who, for 20- years in South Philly, has quietly introduced young inner-city African-American kids to the National Pastime. And he has succeeded, with many of his kids going onto play baseball in HS and college. Even better, many of his early kids have now come back to teach and instruct the newest generation of Anderson Monarchs.

This spring, Steve’s team is embarking on a three-week barnstorming tour of the South, Midwest, and East to celebrate the Civil Rights movement, including stops — and playing games – in such historic cities as Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Alabama.

In any event, Bandura serves as a local rec director in South Philly, and to him, teaching kids to play baseball comes just as naturally as teaching them to play basketball, football, or soccer. As Steve said on my show this AM, “You gotta get the kids when they’re young to teach them the game. Baseball’s the kind of sport that by, 12 or 13, it’s too difficult to teach the basic skills.”

Remember, Major League Baseball has bemoaned the declining number of African-American plays in the big leagues these days, and despite their efforts at the highest levels to put together some meaningful programs for inner-city kids, most of them have only been modestly successful.

But good news – thanks to Steve’s perseverance – MLB, under new Commissioner Rob Manfred, has stepped up to help sponsor the bus tour, along with Chevrolet, Easton Sports, and a few others. Plus more awareness of his program is happening: witness a major story in this AM’s New York Times about Steve and his program.

You may have heard of one of his better players, Mo’ne Davis of last year Little League fame. In fact, seven players from Taney LL, which made it to Williamsport last August, are kids who play for the Anderson Monarchs. So clearly Steve is doing a great job of instructing his kids.

For years now baseball fans and MLB have bemoaned the decline of African-American baseball players. Sure, there are top players like Andrew McCutcheon. CC Sabathia, and Curtis Granderson, but the numbers don’t lie  — there are just fewer and fewer black players entering the game these days. Some pundits say it’s because black athletes are being funneled off to basketball and football, where scholarships are easier to obtain coming out of HS. Others say it’s a cultural problem – that despite the impact of Jackie Robinson, that playing baseball is simply no longer a cool pursuit for young black athletes.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the numbers of black baseball players are dropping. Except that Steve Bandura is proving all of these theories and myths to be wrong. In short, Steve is proving the point that inner-city black kids DO play baseball, DO love the sport, and DO keep playing it.

I urge you to go to WFAN.com, click on the link for podcasts, and find the podcast from today’s show to hear what Steve has to say. Trust me, you’ll find it to be inspiring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HEROIC ATHLETES: The Rise of Mariano Rivera III, the Classic Late Bloomer

One of the realities that too many sports parents either don’t recognize or refuse to acknowledge is the impact that adolescence and physical maturity have on young athletes. It’s almost as though parents seemingly forget that all sorts of changes can occur to kids once they enter into their teenage years – and in more and more cases, it seems that the physical growth spurt of young athletes can last into their late teens and even early twenties.

Adolescent growth spurts are significant for a number of reasons: during the magical teenage years, short kids suddenly can grow 6 inches or more, chubby kids can slim down, kids who were seen as slow of foot can become quick, and on and on.

On the flip side, athletic kids who were large for their age early on and were dominant in youth leagues sometimes reach their peak height by the time they’re 11 or 12, and then they stop growing. Meanwhile, their peers catch up to them and often surpass them.

There are all sorts of examples of how adolescence growth spurts can change the athletic landscapde, but here’s the latest one that caught my eye.

Mariano Rivera III is the son of the Yankees’ great baseball pitcher by the same name. This past week, the younger Rivera was selected as a very high choice in Major League Baseball’s free agent draft: he was drafted in the 4th round by the Washington Nationals. Being such a high draft choice signifies that the Nationals really feel that Mariano has a real chance of advancing to the major leagues.

Scouts pointed to Rivera’s stunning velocity on his fastball, which was routinely clocked this past spring at 95 mph. A senior at Iona College, he set a school record for the most strikeouts in a season with 113, his ERA was 2.65 and he was named the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference pitcher of the year.

All wonderful accomplishments, and all to be expected from a college senior who was a high draft pick.

But consider this: Just a few short years ago, Mariano III was a smallish kid who pitched a total of only six innings in high school at Iona Prep. In fact, he played very sparingly, being used primarily as a pinch-runner. In fact, in his senior year of high school, he didn’t even try out for the team. He skipped the spring baseball season and just played for fun on a summer team.

In other words, he not only wasn’t a pro prospect – he was pretty much over in terms of high school career.

He graduated from Iona Prep and went to Quinnipiac College for a semester, but got home sick and transferred to Iona College. He made the team, but in truth, he didn’t play much there either.

But then an adolescent growth spurt kicked in. By his junior year, when he was 20, he got a little bigger physically….and his fastball velocity improved.  By the end of his junior year, he put up decent numbers, good enough to be a low draft choice by the Yankees which, most people assumed, was just a courtesy draft.

But over the last 12 months, Mariano continued to grow some more and he got stronger…and his velocity also continued to dramatically improve – into the mid-90s.

Pitchers who throw over 90 mph are hard to find…and that’s why the Nationals made their selection.

Let’s put this all into perspective…this was a high school senior who didn’t even try out for the school team as a senior because he feared he wouldn’t play much, and four years later he blossomed into a 4th round choice of the Washington Nationals.

What’s the underlying lesson here? To me, I often wonder about all those kids who are cut by travel teams when they’re only 8 or 10 or 12, long before the adolescent years kick in. And most kids who get cut at a young age rarely come back to that sport down the road in junior high or high school.
To that end, I wonder how many other future Mariano Rivera III’s have had their dreams shattered at such a young age simply because they hadn’t gone through their growth spurt yet. I think that something for all sports parents and coaches to ponder.

INNOVATIONS IN SPORTS: Are We Handing Out Too Many Awards at the End-of-Season Banquets?

This may seem like an odd topic….but I’ve been wondering about it for a long time, and judging from the response to today’s show,it seems as though a lot of other sports fans/parents have been wondering about this growing trend as well.

With the end of school year upon us, and with spring teams ending their seasons, it’s the time for student-athletes to be lauded with awards, honors, plaques, and banquets in their honor.

Now…we have debated endlessly the issue of whether kids who are just starting out in sports – those kids who are 6 or 7 or 8 – who all receive a trophy at the end of the season, regardless of whether they were stars, or even if they rarely showed for the games. If your kid registered, then they get a trophy.

Now, the general consensus is that the kids really don’t pay much attention to the inexpensive plastic trophies…they end up on a shelf and after a number of years, find themselves in a cardboard box headed to the attic or basement or trash. Kids really don’t seem to take much pride in them….they serve more as a reminder that for one year, they played soccer or baseball or basketball.

But what about the awards, honors, and trophies that are handed out a few years later when the athletes are in HS?

Have they become just as meaningless to the kids as the cheap plastic trophies?

No, of course not. In this case, each HS award signifies some sort of athletic achievement. It usually means that the youngster accomplished something noteworthy through dedication and hard work.

But consider this: When I was in HS….and I could be wrong…but it seemed that there were a lot fewer athletic awards handed out.  That is, for a varsity team, the big award – and perhaps the only one – was the MVP award. There were no awards for “Most Improved” or “Best Sportsmanship” or “Best Team Player” or anything else.

Yes, if a kid were lucky enough to make the All-League team or All-County team, that was indeed quite an accomplishment. But there were no second or third teams for All-League or All-County….just one team.

I also don’t recall kids being named Honorable Mention either. Either you made the top All-Star team, or you didn’t.  As a result, being named All-League or All-County was a most unique and special honor.

But these days…not only do HS programs give out lots of awards to their players…but with All-County and All-League teams, there are usually 3 levels, and dozens of more kids who are named Honorable Mention.

So my question is this….is this a good trend? Or like the plastic trophies, is this diluting the impact of making an All-Star team?

Are we giving out TOO many awards then as well?

Coaches these days know that they have to be extremely careful….why? Because if a kid and his parents fully expect to be named All-League or All-County – and somehow they aren’t selected – it’s the head coach who is going to be held responsible.

How many times have I heard a parent say, “Well, his HS coach is a good guy…but he’s just not very aggressive in making sure his players receive all the recognition they deserve”  TRANSLATION: My kid didn’t make the All-Star team because his coach didn’t push for him hard enough.

If you, as a coach, have ever been in a selection meeting for All-League or All-County meetings, you know how difficult it can be sometimes to convince the other league coaches to vote for your guy or gal, especially if they have a strong player of their own at the same position.

And coaches of course point to stats….well, who knows if the stats are accurate? Especially in baseball, where they are all sorts of judgment calls on hits and errors….and besides, who’s keeping the books?

In other words, it’s all a very dicey proposition….and yet the players and their parents are most eager to be pleased.

This is, of course, why more and more All-League and All-County teams have second and third teams…and if your kid doesn’t make one of those squads, they are honorable mention, which for the kid who expected first or second honors, HM seems like a slight of sorts, as in, “I only made honorable mention…”

Yes. Such awards make your kid feel good. And as a parent, you are proud.

And yes, such citations always look good on a college application and in one’s scrap book.

But at the end of the day, with the proliferation of all sorts of trophies and plaques being handed out, do they still carry the same kind of impact that such awards carried years ago? I’m just not so sure. It’s almost as though every HS now assumes they were be given some sort of award…and I’m not sure that’s the real message we want to send.

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: Focusing on The Often Overlooked Concerns During Practice

New Medical Study Spotlights Football Concussion Rates

During Practice Sessions

 By Doug Abrams

In early May, National Public Radio aired a story about a new study on the prevalence of concussions in football. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that at the high school and collegiate levels, players are more susceptible to concussions in practice sessions than in games.

The JAMA Pediatrics study found that in high schools and colleges, 58% of football concussions occurred in practices and 42% occurred during games. Fifty-eight percent is quite a bulk. A political candidate who wins election by 58%-42% celebrates a landslide, and the study’s 58% finding demonstrates a “concussions landslide.”

The study also found that in youth leagues, 54% of football concussions occurred during games. That number means that a hefty 46% occurred during practices. When a political candidate receives 46% of the vote, the campaign’s message resonated with voters, even without gaining a majority. The study’s hefty 46% “concussions minority” should resonate with parents and coaches who are concerned about youth leaguers’ safety.

Two Strategies for Safer Practices

The JAMA Pediatrics study concerned only one sport and only one type of injury, but the findings should stimulate closer attention to what happens generally in practice sessions – and not just in football. Football holds no monopoly on injury or risk, and the way that coaches plan and conduct practices vitally affects the health and well-being of the athletes and their families. Well-attended games sometimes attract the lion’s share of attention while practice sessions, without onlookers in the stands, escape under the radar.  But an injury is an injury, and the resulting short-term or long-term disability does not depend on whether the damage occurred with the scoreboard running.

Safety in practice sessions is the subject of this column. I am neither a medical researcher nor a physician, but the new JAMA Pediatrics findings do not surprise me. As a high school and collegiate hockey player in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, and as a youth hockey coach since then, I understand why practice sessions can carry higher injury rates than games.  But I also understand that coaches can lower these rates significantly with prudent, commonsense measures that enhance safety without changing the essential character of the game.

The potential for higher injury rates in practice sessions almost stands to reason. A winning hockey goalie who makes 30 saves, for example, is usually the game’s star; but in a practice, the goalie may face 30 shots in one repetitive drill that lasts only a few minutes, and may face a hundred or more shots in an hour-long session. And many teams schedule more practice sessions than games throughout the season. It would not surprise me to learn that goalies get hit in the face with shots more often in practices than in games. More repetitive shots on net in more sessions = more chances of hits to the head.

Two commonsense measures can help coaches reduce the likelihood of practice session injuries: (1) reasonably reducing repetitive risks, and (2) eliminating unreasonably dangerous drills in favor of effective drills that teach skills more safely. Both measures deserve discussion here.

Reducing Repetitive Risks

First, reasonably reducing repetitive risks in practice sessions. . . . Last month, the executive committee of the Georgia High School Association, the state’s governing body for interscholastic sports, voted unanimously to limit full-contact drills in football practices. The new limits, which take effect August 1, apply during both the preseason and the regular season. Georgia becomes the latest state to adopt limits designed to prevent concussions and other traumatic brain injuries in interscholastic football without changing the essential character of the game.

The GHSA says that its new rules resemble existing National Collegiate Athletic Association and National Football League rules, which many Georgia high schools were already following. The Macon Telegraph reports that during the preseason, full-contact drills will now be limited to 135 minutes each week, but not on more than two consecutive days. When a team holds two-a-day practices, contact may take place during only one session.

The newspaper reports that in practice sessions during the season, full contact is now limited to “90 minutes per week, or 30 minutes per practice spread across three practices. Full contact on back-to-back days will be permitted, but three straight full-contact practices will be prohibited.”

Eliminating Unreasonably Dangerous Drills

Now, eliminating unreasonably dangerous drills . . . .  Some years ago, I was watching a hockey practice for young teens in another community. The two coaches had the players do a “Suicide Drill” (their name for it), which featured manufactured mayhem with two pucks. “Team one” of five players skated out of one end of the rink with its puck, while “Team two” of five players skated simultaneously out of the other end, also with a puck. Each team skating full speed passed its puck several times as it avoided the other team through center ice on its way to the opposing net to take a shot.

The Suicide Drill’s purpose was to train players to keep their heads up as they skated through center ice. Heads-up hockey is an important skill at all age levels, but that particular drill should never have found its way into the practice agenda. Within two minutes, a full-speed collision at center ice landed a player in the hospital with a broken jaw.

In any sport, the best drills combine realism with safety. The hockey team’s Suicide Drill failed on both counts because, without simulating real game conditions, the drill carried an unacceptably high risk of injury that should have been apparent as the coaches planned the practice agenda. The team would have been much better off if the coaches had asked themselves a simple question before practice: “If the players do this drill, what might happen?”

When coaches foresee that a drill carries an unacceptable risk of injury, they can usually choose a safer drill that teaches and develops the same skill. Few, if any, skills have only one drill known to the coaching world. Safety is the coach’s primary responsibility to the players, and anticipating unacceptable risk is key to fulfilling the responsibility. Hindsight may indeed be 20/20, but coaches protect their players best when they also rely on 20/20 foresight to anticipate avoidable danger in practice sessions.

 

Sources: Thomas P. Dompier et al., Incidence of Concussion During Practice and Games in Youth, High School, and Collegiate American Football Players, JAMA Pediatrics, http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2281575 (May 4, 2015); NPR, Concussions Can Be More Likely In Practices Than In Games, May 11, 2015; Ron Seibel, GHSA Votes To Limit Contact In Football Practice, The Telegraph of Macon, Apr. 13, 2015; Assoc. Press, GA Sports Officials Vote To Limit Football Drills, Apr. 14, 2015; Doug Abrams, 20/20 Foresight, USA Hockey Magazine, Sept. 2014.