Archive for November, 2015

TRAVEL TEAMS: Why Cutting Kids at a Young Age is Counter-Productive

Travel teams, for better or for worse, are everywhere, and there’s no indication that they are going away soon.

And in truth, there are a number of travel programs that are run well and definitely benefit the kids on their team.

But there are just as many, if not more, which are run by people who are not especially well-qualified to work with or to coach young kids. Even worse, these travel coaches often set up teams in which kids as young as 8, 9, and 10 try out, and don’t make the team.

What’s backward and wrong about this is that: a) it’s impossible for any coach, especially an inexperienced travel coach, to determine which kids at age 10 have more potential than the other 10-year-olds, and b) nobody can predict how much a 10-year-old is going to grow and improve during their teenage years.

There is one reality, though, which is universal. When a kid is cut at age 10, it’s very, very rare for that youngster to stay with that sport. Invariably, while they may not understand why they were deemed not good enough, they do comprehend that some of their friends have “progressed” to the travel team, and they are being left behind. That’s devastating for a kid.


Bob Bigelow, who is based in the Boston area, and has been a youth sports advocate and a champion for reform for many years, was my guest on my WFAN show this AM, and Bob echoed all of these sentiments.

“How can any coach determine who are the better players at such a young age,” asked Bob. “But the even worse part of that is that by cutting kids at a tender age, you are doing real damage to your local high school program. That’s because once kids are let go, they just don’t come back to that sport. That ruins your high school varsity and junior varsity because there are fewer kids competing.”

This harsh reality led to a discussion of why cut kids at all — even from travel teams?

One caller from NJ said that they had found a way around this issue. In his town, they have travel teams for baseball players from age 6 to 16. They had teams at various age levels, and had A, B, and C teams.

But the key to the program’s success is that no one gets cut. Everybody makes a team. And each spring, they are allowed to try out for any level. That is, a kid who was on the B team last spring can try out for the A team next spring. And the caller confirmed that kids routinely go from the B to the A team.

The reason? “Because kids change as they get into their teenage years,” said the caller. “And as the kids get a bit older, they improve with their game.”

As Bigelow and I agreed: “Well, if the kids had been cut at age 10, they sure wouldn’t be playing at age 12 or 14.”

And that’s the point.


Look, travel teams are not going away. But there’s no reason why your local travel programs can’t include various levels of teams, so long as the kids can try out for a new level each year. That’s important. If they are assigned permanently to one level, that’s discouraging, and kids will quit.

One more important point, especially for first-time sports parents. You absolutely owe it to your kids to ask the tough questions of travel team coaches BEFORE the tryouts: Do the kids get equal playing time? Will my son or daughter be allowed to play their favorite position? What happens if we have family commitments and have to miss some games? How much does the program cost? Is the head coach calm with kids, or a yeller and screamer? Who makes the decision on which kids make the team?

Tough questions, to be sure. But better to ask these up front rather than be caught off-guard a few weeks into the season.



SOCIAL MEDIA CONCERNS: Ban Cellphones from Locker Rooms Now

Why Youth Teams Should Ban Smartphones and Similar Mobile Devices in Locker Rooms

By Doug Abrams

About 15 years ago, I was a local high school hockey team’s goaltending coach. On the bench during a game, I noticed that a player had unbuckled his helmet and was talking on his cell phone in between line shifts.

It turned out that the player was chatting with his girlfriend, who was sitting in the stands on the opposite side of the arena. The head coach and I asked him to put away the phone and turn his full attention to the game. We assured him that his girlfriend would not feel lonesome if the two remained apart for another hour or so.

21st Century Technology

Technology has surely changed since our player harmlessly called his girlfriend in the stands. On November 15’s “Sports Edge” show, Rick Wolff and I discussed surveys which indicate that between 30% and 50% of high school students engage in “sexting,” using their smartphones or other mobile devices to take nude or semi-nude films or photographs of themselves. They then send the images to a dating partner, a desired dating partner, or one or more other classmates. Further circulation by a recipient may deprive the sexter of any control over where the images land.

Rick and I stressed the short-term risks of widespread circulation, including taunting, public ridicule, and even vicious cyberbullying of the sexter. We also stressed risks that the images’ permanency might complicate future college applications, employment applications, and personal reputation years later.

Locker Room Abuse

Shortly after the sexting show, I received a thoughtful email from Steve Ketchabaw, co-director (with his wife, Sharon) of the Rye Rangers Hockey Club since 1992. I have known Steve since 1976, when I coached him at a Connecticut summer hockey camp when he was 14 years old. A few years later, we coached together at the camp. Steve knew right from wrong then, and he still does. He and Sharon are well-deserved co-recipients of the 2015 Emile Francis Award for longtime service to youth hockey in the tri-state area.

Steve’s email raised an important safety issue that Rick and I did not have opportunity to discuss in the time allotted. The issue can arise on youth league or high school teams in any sport that assembles players in the locker room before and after games and practice sessions. With a smartphone or similar mobile recording device, a player can surreptitiously film or photograph a partially or totally undressed teammate, and then can circulate the images electronically without the teammate’s prior knowledge. The invasion of personal privacy can cause lasting damage resembling the lasting damage that sexting can cause, even though the locker room victim (unlike the sexter) had no part in producing or transmitting the harmful images.

Locker Room Policies

The potential for abusive invasion of privacy has led USA Hockey to enact a prohibition. The USA Hockey SafeSport Program Handbook provides: “Cell phones and other mobile devices with recording capabilities, which includes voice recording, still cameras, and video cameras, increase the risk for some forms of abuse or misconduct. As a result, the use of a mobile device’s recording capabilities in the locker rooms is not permitted at any USA Hockey sanctioned event, provided that it may be acceptable to take photographs or recordings in a locker room in such unique circumstances as a victory celebration, team party, etc., where all persons in the locker room are appropriately dressed and have been advised that photographs or recordings are being taken.”

USA Hockey’s SafeSport Program calls on local programs to “adopt specific policies regarding the use of mobile electronic devices and phones and prohibiting the use of a device’s recording capabilities.” The Rye Rangers’ locker room policy, for example, provides: “Cell phones and other mobile devices with recording capabilities, including voice recording, still cameras and video cameras, are not permitted to be used in the locker rooms. If phones or other mobile devices must be used, they should be taken outside of the locker room.”

Keeping Pace With Technology

I suspect that in various sports, many youth and high school teams and leagues have not thought much about the risks that mobile electronic devices pose in locker rooms where partial or total undress happens. A player has no reason to have a smartphone or similar device in the locker room before, during, or after practices or games. If the player brings a smartphone to help arrange for a ride home or for some other reason afterwards, a coach or designated parent may hold it and return it afterwards. If an injury requires a call for emergency assistance, the call would be made by a coach or parent, and not by the injured player anyway.

Some parents warn their children to remain on the lookout for teammates’ surreptitious locker room photographing or filming. The onus, however, should not be on individual families to remain vigilant against unwanted personal intrusions. Constant vigilance necessarily deprives players of the camaraderie and team unity that make locker room experiences so worthwhile.

A team-wide no-mobile-device rule is preferable, and every parent and player should recognize its necessity. Indeed, if the team does not have such a rule, parents should insist that one be adopted and enforced. Invasion of privacy is not a mere youthful prank, and the victim suffering social ostracism and potential lifelong consequences can be any parent’s child.


Sources: Go Skate!, Steve & Sharon Ketchabaw Named Recipients of 2015 Emile Francis Award!, (Feb. 9, 2015); USA Hockey SafeSport Program Handbook, ; Rye Rangers Hockey Club, Locker Room Policy,





MODIFIED SCHOOL TEAMS: Are Middle School Sports Programs Becoming Extinct?

Allow me to share a secret with you.

As most of you know, I do a number of speaking appearances each year on the topic on the topic of sports parenting. And as part of my preparation, I invariably talk first with the host or organizer who invited me to get a better sense of what their unique concerns are. Over the years, I have found that to be much more effective and thorough in helping sports parents, coaches, and administrators. (I say this, because I know there are other sports parenting programs in existence which have a general  cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach, and I know that kind of approach doesn’t always address the key issues).

I find that when the issues touch upon high school athletes, or at the other end, the kids just starting out in sports, there tends to be real answers and solutions. But when the topic begins to focus on the middle school years,  those important years of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, that’s when things can get very difficult.

Why? Because the grades of 6th, 7th, and 8th can be tricky. This is the time when kids are often fully exposed to the concept of being cut, or of no longer being the sole star of the team as they were when they were younger.

And then there’s always the issue of whether you allow your son or daughter to play on the middle school modified team, or just let them play on a travel team, or allow them to do both.

Modified sports are those organized and coached sports teams that your local school puts forth, and often include sports like soccer, volleyball,  basketball and so on. The coaches are hired by the school district.


Now, let me first say that I recognize that for a lot of reasons, some being financial restraints, many school districts no longer offer modified sports. Or the school doesn’t have enough field space or court time. Or enough manpower to coach the teams.

And in some districts, it’s not so much that they don’t have the fields or money, it’s because they realize that the serious athletes have already been playing on travel teams for the last few years. And there’s no way that those kids are going to play on a modified team where the competition is seen as a step down.

But for those districts that DO offer modified teams, it gets complicated in other ways. For example,

Do you cut kids? I mean, if you have a 7th modified basketball team and 100 kids try out, you have to have cuts.

So how many do you keep?

And what about playing time? Should it be equal, or do the better kids play? Most coaches, even at the middle school level, want to win. But if your team has 20 kids on it, how do you get them all some playing time?

Would the school be better off just offering intramural sports, and forgetting modified teams?

What does the coach do if a kid misses a practice or game because of an outside conflict, like a travel team?  How tough should the coach be in terms of discipline?

How seriously do the varsity and JV coaches look upon modified teams? Do they really “scout” those teams, looking for future stars?

These are just some of the basic questions that face parents when they hear that modified team tryouts are going to take place. For some parents, they don’t even bother with having their athlete try out, because their son or daughter is playing on an outside travel team. And to them, playing on the school team would take a lot of time, especially if they’re playing elsewhere.


But for other kids, playing on a school team is a big, big deal, and they can’t wait to try out. Of course, with try outs also come the prospects of being cut. If your child doesn’t make the team, that’s a time to support them, and to let them know that if they want to still play that sport, there’s most likely a rec program in town where they can play.

It’s not always an ideal situation, but at least if they want to continue to play that sport, it’s worthwhile.

But above all, understand that modified teams rarely have much impact when the kids reach 9th grade and start to try out for the freshman or JV team. By that point, many kids will have started to benefit from an adolescent growth spurt, which can propel their sports career in a lot of positive ways. They will also have a much keener sense of where they stand in comparison to their athletic peers.

So the jury with middle school programs is still out. Each school district makes its own decision, and as a sports parent, you too have to make the call based upon what you think is right for your child. As far as I can tell, there is no definitive research regarding the positives or negatives of playing modified sports.

SOCIAL MEDIA CONCERNS: The Plague of Sexting is Commonplace with HS Athletes

The national epidemic of “sexting” — HS kids sending photos of naked classmates via text messages — has become the latest trend in social media that coaches, parents, and the law have been struggling to deal with.

As law professor Doug Abrams pointed out on The Sports Edge this AM, back in the 1970s legislatures passed very strict and tough laws regarding the transmission of photos of nude people under the age of 18. In those days, this was considered the domain of child pornographers, and not surprisingly, individuals convicted of these kinds of activities were looking at long yeas in jail and being registered as sex offenders.

But fast forward to today, and seemingly kids everywhere are texting revealing photos of themselves, often to unsuspecting classmates. As hard as it may seem, it’s become routine for HS girls to send topless photos of themselves, often to HS athletes in order to impress them.

Abrams did point out that prosecutors all over are drawing a line between child pornography and the silliness of teenagers swapping photos. As such, more than half of the states now have legislation drawing a distinction between the two kinds of activities. That being said, HS coaches and athletic programs are having a difficult time when it comes to this sudden changes in traditional social mores. This explains why HS football players, who have been caught sexting, have seen their games cancelled and forfeited. Coaches point to their poor social behavior. In one case, the football players were allegedly making the collection of sext photos into a competition; that is, the more you had, the more you “win” the competition.

And there are other complications. Suppose a football bully in the HS locker room decides to snap a photo of a teammate getting undressed – and then puts it out online without the teammate’s permission. Or takes a photo of a teammate who is in bathroom stall. I have the worrisome feeling that this kind of thing already happens.

Who’s in Charge?

Professor Abrams made it clear that the person who should be in charge of sexting discipline may not be the coaches. That is, it’s really up to one’s parents to sit down and explain the possible devastating consequences of sexting. As Doug says, “Once it’s out there in cyberspace, you lose control of it. It can go anywhere, and can be posted forever.”

I would like to think that parents who are aware of  the prevalence of sexting would take the time to sit down and explain to their kids how a quick photo of oneself could backfire in so many ways – not just now, but later in life.

Doug imagined in the year 2050, a potential US Supreme Court nominee might  be hugely embarrassed if, during their confirmation meetings, some naked photos of their teenage years resurfaces.

The point is, as advances in social media continue, and they will continue, it’s now more than important than ever for Moms and Dads to step up and to talk directly with one’s students. Better yet, this is one of those issues where parents and coaches should come together and explain the potential issues to their HS kids.

SPORT SAFETY: Has HS Football Become an Endangered Species?

The last few years have been a rocky time for HS football players – and for their parents as well.

So far this season, eight HS football players have died while participating in the sport. Clearly, no one ever wants to go through the heartache of watching a teen-aged son collapse  — and die — when playing a sport he loves. What an absolute nightmare.

Then, of course, there’s the ongoing troubles about the lingering effect of concussions on kids who play football. Despite the growing awareness of this issue, the reality is that no one has invented a football helmet yet that can truly claim to prevent concussions. Minimize the impact of concussions, yes. But prevent or eliminate them? No, that hasn’t happened yet.

All over the country, the numbers of kids playing HS football continue to spiral downward. In most states, the numbers are down by 10 percent. Many HS programs with a long-standing tradition of having plenty of players are now realizing that their ranks are dwindling.

There are all sort of explanations for this, but most football coaches and AD’s suspect it’s the worry about concussions, and in some cases, the fact that a few kids die each year from playing the sport.

The Double Whammy of Death and Concussions

I asked the question on my radio show this AM: What do you think is the future of HS football? Will it eventually go away due to health concerns?

What was surprising is that I received several calls from Dad’s who said that yes, they loved football, they played HS and college football, and they are doing okay these days without any medical or memory issues. But they also said that they had deep concerns about letting their son play the same sport. You could hear the worry in their voice. On one hand, they knew all about the positives of playing the sport, but when they saw their 9-year-old suffer a hit to the helmet, or a 14-year-old suffer a concussion in a game, they worried about whether  – as a parent – they were doing the right thing in allowing their kid to keep playing.

Other Dads pointed to the fact that other alternative sports, like soccer, basketball, or even lax, all had similar issues with concussions. That is, just telling your son to play a different sport may not be the answer.

In terms of football deaths, I did point out that, statistically, HS football is much safer than it was than, say, in the 1960s, when in a typical year, you had 20-30 HS football players die. In recent years, it’s more like 12 deaths on a yearly basis. (I guess that’s somewhat comforting, unless of course, it’s your son who has collapsed on the gridiron.) And the deaths can be from any number of causes: heat stroke, broken spine, ruptured spleen, severe concussion, aneurysm, and so on.

What’s the right response?

So what do you do if your young son comes to you and says that he want to play tackle football? There is one of the toughest questions that any sports parent will ever face.

There is, of course, no one tried-and-true answer. But there are some things to consider:

> Esteemed neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu, who is an expert on NFL concussions, says that kids shouldn’t start playing tackle football until they’re at least 14. Why? So that their neck muscles have developed enough strength to help prevent concussions.

> Emphasize to your son that he has to first learn the basics of how to tackle properly. This is essential. Leading with one’s head on a tackle is extremely dangerous.

> Explain to him what a concussion is, what it feels like, and most importantly, to have the guts to tell the coach that you think you just had your bell rung. We all know that most football players refuse to come to out of a game after a hit to the head. That mentality has got to change.

> And finally, explain to your son that if he incurs 3 or more concussions during his HS football career, then no matter how good he is and how much he loves playing the football, the time has come to walk away from the sport.

Tough love? Perhaps. But in the long run, you may be saving his life.

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: Disabled Athletes Who Rise To Succeed

Another Story About a High School Athlete

Who Has Overcome Physical Challenges

 By Doug Abrams


Every so often, a human interest story captures the true spirit of athletic competition. The story is especially worth savoring when the spotlight shines on an athlete who is not yet old enough to graduate from high school.

On September 25, writer Laura Kirschman profiled Emmanuel Hilton, a junior varsity soccer goalkeeper at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pa. The Beaver Falls Times headline says what needs to be said: “Born Without Lower Legs, Congolese Soccer Player Finds a Home at Blackhawk.”

Soon after Emmanuel was born in the Congo, his mother abandoned him at night along the roadside (“thrown away” because of his condition, as he puts it). Kirschman reports that nighttime abandonment of newborns in that war-torn nation often means death or starvation, but Emmanuel was rescued and placed in an institutional orphanage.  Within a few years, he was adopted by an American couple, a Methodist pastor and his wife, who brought him to Chippewa, Pa. because they felt that he deserved a chance in life.

The reaction of Emmanuel’s Blackhawk High JV soccer teammates this past season? Coach Bryan Vitali told Kirschman, “He’s just such an inspiration to our team. . . .  It’s almost like a rallying cry for these guys. It’s just like, look at Emmanuel, look what he brings to the table everyday” as he guards the goal without wearing his prosthetics.

Emmanuel Hilton’s story reminds me of a similar captivating one that the media reported in 2005. After referees refused to allow senior Bobby Martin to play in a varsity football game, state officials ruled that he was eligible to play. Bobby Martin was born without legs. Like Emmanuel, he won his teammates’ respect.

Opening the Doors to Youth Sports

Emmanuel Hilton and Bobby Martin may present unusual cases, but their fortitude, and their teammates’ ready acceptance, demonstrate why sports should remain open to physically challenged boys and girls who otherwise would be stereotyped as incapable of participating. To the maximum extent possible, leagues and teams should encourage children with physical challenges to participate in sports with other children if their parents approve, their abilities permit, and participation does not change the character of the game or compromise safety.  Worthwhile programs, such as Little League’s Challenger Division, serve children whose conditions make integrated play inadvisable or impossible.

Striking a Balance

In early 2013, the U.S. Department of Education instructed the nation’s public school districts that federal law requires them to “provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics.” The Education Department’s authority extends only to the nation’s public schools, but equal opportunity should also guide private youth sports programs that federal education law does not directly reach.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that 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.” “While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team,” he continued, “students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.”

Federal law strikes a healthy balance. “[S]chools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game,” Secretary Duncan explained, “and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage.  But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to insure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else.”

Good for Young Athletes and Good for America

Youth sports paves a two-way street. The media regularly reports how children with Down syndrome, missing limbs, and other conditions win their teammates’ acceptance, support, and respect. Sports enables these children to learn, hone their social skills, and develop their self-esteem through competition. In turn, these children teach valuable lessons by surmounting barriers with uncommon perseverance and determination.

In public school districts and private sports programs alike, the impulse to include, rather than exclude, children marks youth sports at its finest.  Inclusion is good for the young athletes, and it is good for America.


Sources: Laura Kirschman, Born Without Lower Legs, Congolese Soccer Player Finds a Home at Blackhawk, The Times (Beaver Cty., Pa.),; USA TODAY, Football Player Without Legs Eligible to Play, (Sept. 20, 2005); U.S. Dep’t of Education (Jan. 25, 2013).

INNOVATIONS IN SPORTS: Using Technology To Help You Be a Better Sports Parent

Four Tips to Help Sports Parents Stay Sane

 By Kathleen Burke, TeamSnap

As sports parents, you have a lot on your mind. From safety concerns on the field to getting your kids to practices on time to juggling family responsibilities, it’s easy to understand why many parents often feel overwhelmed during each sports season.

Take a deep breath and keep these four tips to help you stay sane during times of stress, both on and off the field.

The Right Gear

Be sure your child’s safety gear is in good shape and doesn’t need to be replaced. If you are concerned about safety, conduct regular spot checks to be sure your child’s helmet, shin guards, face mask, elbow pads or any sports equipment they use are up to speed. Give yourself some peace of mind before the game even starts with the knowledge that your child’s protective gear will do the job it’s meant to do.

Try to Empathize

We all know that youth sports can be emotional for everyone. It can be tempting to fly off the handle at a coach or a ref when you don’t like the call or want your kid to have more playing time. At those times you have to remember that it’s not personal, and that most coaches and refs are volunteering their time for your child. If you have a legitimate concern, wait at least 24 hours after the game is over so that emotions can cool. You can then approach the coach in a respectful manner. Always bear in mind that your kids are just kids. Youth sports by their nature are full of ups and downs. You need to accept that. Try to see the game from the coach’s or ref’s perspective, and that will give you more of a perspective.

Get on the Same Page with Your Son or Daughter

 Hopefully, your child is eager and enthusiastic about the sport they’re playing. Nut if you’re not sure how they feel, set aside some quiet time to talk to them about it. Sometimes, especially at the younger ages, kids will surprise you and say that they would prefer to play a different sport from the one they’re currently engaged in. It pays to be an active listener to what your child is saying.

Make Things Easier On Yourself

Don’t be afraid to share the load! Rotate driving duties with other parents, make the kids do their  laundry with their uniforms, order take-out for dinner, and if you take video of the games, have a video party to show highlights. And use the latest technology to remember when it’s your turn to  bring game refreshments  and follow along with the game when life gets in the way of you being there.

Want more tips and stories from the world of youth sports? Check out the TeamSnap Youth Sports Podcast and Blog for everything a coach, manager or sports parent needs!


About the author: Kathleen Burke writes for TeamSnap, a web and

mobile app used by 9 million coaches, parents, team managers and players to tame the logistical nightmare of wrangling schedules, practices, equipment and volunteers, providing up-to-the-second info on where everyone needs to be and what they need to bring.