Archive for April, 2016

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Growing Shortage of Sports Officials

 How Referee Shortages Threaten Player Safety

 By Doug Abrams

On March 27, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published a thoughtful article by Tim Stevens, “Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs.” The article led with this troublesome forecast: “Irate high school sports fans . . . are heaping so much abuse on referees that it is becoming hard for North Carolina and other states to recruit new officials as the current group edges toward retirement.” Because refereeing has “become so unattractive,” the article continues, interscholastic leagues may need to reduce game schedules for lack of officials.

The media regularly reports about chronic referee shortages, not only in school sports, but also in many community youth leagues. Just last year, for example, the associate director of the Minnesota High School League told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that an array of “’sportsmanship issues’ causes most officials to quit and presents ‘a major hurdle when recruiting new officials.’’’ The associate director pointed to “a sometimes hostile game environment, chiefly created by critical coaches and parents.”

The Deseret (Utah) Morning News explains that “[b]rand-new officials often suffer through their first season of abuse before deciding that refereeing just isn’t worth it.” Among the officials I have known, most signed up not primarily for the relatively modest stipends, but to remain active in the game while serving young athletes and their families. Most officials are family men and women with personal obligations and reputations. Most can find other ways to participate in community life free from public abuse dished out by other adults, sometimes within earshot of the officials’ own families.

In the younger age groups, many community youth leagues recruit teens to replace departed adult officials. In my last few years coaching 9-10-year-old squirt hockey teams, I cannot recall seeing a referee over the age of about 15, except occasionally in the playoffs. Teen referees typically seek to earn a few dollars, assume a leadership role, and demonstrate community service on their college applications. In my experience, the teens take their responsibility seriously and generally do an excellent job. But they too are often chased away, once they or their parents lose patience with parents and coaches who may tag the adolescents as even easier marks for harassment than adult officials.

Verbal and Physical Assault

Adult “referee rage” can grow vicious. In my final few years as a youth hockey coach, I frequently heard parent spectators showering officials with obscenities and other insults that the parents would not have directed at the family dog. But aural pollution does not end the story because, as Positive Coaching Alliance executive director Jim Thompson explains, “officiating a youth sports game is becoming an increasingly risky job . . . . “Youth Sports officials are under attack – literally” from physical assault. Parents and coaches have reportedly made officials run a gauntlet to leave the field, followed officials to their cars, and threatened them and their families. Parents and coaches have also punched, kicked, shoved, slapped, choked, head-butted, spat on, and stalked youth league officials during and after games.

Compromising Safety

What negative effects does this adult “referee rage” have on the players? Even casual observers notice when games may have to be postponed, rescheduled or even canceled for lack of available officials. Or when abusive parents or coaches deliver unwholesome messages about sportsmanship and respect to the athletes who watch or hear about their antics.

But another especially harmful result can escape the untrained eye. Particularly in contact and collision sports, the shortage of experienced officials can increase the risk of injury to players on the field, including players who follow the rules of the game.

“To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” Parents and coaches assume important enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

This essential control suffers when so many veteran referees quit each year. Many replacement refs are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.

What Can Be Done to Promote Safety?

Some of my prior columns have discussed measures that, amid the pressures that characterize the typical school or community sports program, can help counter adult “referee rage” that may compromise player safety. In written rules distributed during preseason parents and coaches meetings, leagues and teams should state their expectations for adult civility. Leagues and teams must discipline parents or coaches whose verbal or physical assaults on officials violate these rules. Unenforced rules remain merely words on paper.

Criminal prosecutors should take physical assaults more seriously than they sometimes do. In extreme cases when parents or coaches verbally or physically abuse teen officials, authorities should contemplate child endangerment charges.

Most parents and coaches do not cross the line into verbal or physical abuse of officials, and most adults may find such abuse disgusting. But the majority’s disgust does not diminish the harmful influence of the errant minority who do cross. Leagues and teams often get the quality of officiating that they deserve, and player safety may depend on the outcome.

 

Sources: Tim Stevens, Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Mar. 27, 2016; David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), July 31, 2015; Jim Thompson, The Double-Goal Coach, p. 4 (2003); Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News, Apr. 26, 2005; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clin. J. Sport Med. 451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, 125 Pediatrics 410 (Feb. 2010).

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Why Do We Force for Kids to Choose One Sport by the Time they are 10?

We have inadvertently created a problem for our kids over the last 20-25 years, and why I understand why travel team programs share a lot of the blame, I also feel that ambitious Moms and Dads have had a major role in allowing this problem to grow.

I’m talking about the reality that in just about every town and community across the US, travel programs in most every sport have cropped up everywhere. That’s okay, but what concerns me is that so many travel programs are aimed at kids around the age of 9 or 10.

Here’s what occurs. If a kid tries out for a local travel team at age 10 and subsequently gets cut, then for the most part, that child’s career in that sport is pretty much over. That’s because when a youngster is cut from a travel team, psychologically they feel so burned by that experience that they rarely come back to that sport ever again. In effect, these kids are transformed into “has beens” at a very tender age.

BEING FORCED TO MAKE A DIFFICULT DECISION….BUT WHY?

This past week I did a sports parenting seminar for the Smithtown (LI) Boosters Club, and during the question-and-answer session of my presentation, one of the Dads from Smithtown asked a very precise question – a question that, to me, truly captured the essence of what so many sports parents and their athletes are confronting these days.

And it focuses directly on this issue of specializing at a very young age.

Okay, here’s the question: your 10-year-old kid is a good, natural all-around athlete, and he wants to play multiple sports. But the travel coaches in your town tell him (and the parents) that he needs to make a clear choice now and to specialize in just one.

Now, the boy, an all-round athlete, would gladly play any number of sports and if he could, play them all year round on various travel teams. But of course, there’s just so many hours in the day, and his schooling takes up a lot of those hours.

But as this Dad pointed out, if the 10-year-old boy DOESN’T focus on just one sport, then the boy will feel — or fear –that they won’t be seen as being on the “fast track”  as one of the elite or more experienced players in that sport when they eventually try out for the HS or more advanced travel teams down the road. Only those kids who decided to specialize will be viewed as having more experience, have played against better competition, and have a real advantage when HS tryouts begin.

Even worse, there will often be a PERCEPTION from the HS and travel coaches that the youngster either wasn’t good enough at age 10 to make a travel team, or that he made a real mistake by not focusing on just one sport.

This, my friends, goes to the very core of the travel team dilemma…what does a 10-year-old  athlete decide to do?

And when he turns to his Mom or Dad for advice, what do you suggest?

Just pick one sport, and hope for the best? As to the other sports that the child loves playing, they simply get pushed off to the side and the kid can only play them, in effect, for recreation?

And of course, remember that this key decision usually takes place several years before a kid goes into adolescence. So that you have no idea just how big the kid is going to become in his teenage years, or how much his skill in that sport will develop?

WHAT AS A PARENT DO YOU DO?

Or more specifically, why do we allow this to happen?

In my perspective, this is a problem that we have invented for ourselves…and for our kids. Our children have to choose their sport when they’re only 10 or 11. The callers this AM all felt the same way. They understand that being on a travel team for a youngster is a big deal, a real badge of honor, but the parents also understood that being on a travel team can cost $5,000 and up. And if you have multiple kids playing sports, that gets into real money.

One caller complained that on his son’s travel baseball team, there were maybe 3 or 4 top players, but that every other kid was “pedestrian” or average at best. Yet they all paid a lot of money and the average kids assume that the more the play, the more their skills will improve. I pointed out that, yes, their skills will improve, but not necessarily to the level of being a top player.

The point is, travel teams are funded by hopeful parents who feel their child, in order to succeed to the next level, need to specialize in one sport in order to get ahead. Travel programs feed into this mentality. And as noted many times, travel programs can charge as much money as they want.

Is there an answer to this dilemma?

In truth, probably not. Every sports parent and child has to figure out what’s going to work for them. But from my experience, it sure would be a lot easier if travel programs stuck to just one season at a time. When young kids are “forced” to play just one sport all year round, this is where you hear about “burn out” and “repetitive use injuries” – new developments that didn’t occur 25 years ago with kids.

It would be nice to add some more sanity back into kids playing the sports they love. All of them.

 

An Interview with Sue Bird, All-American at UConn and WNBA Superstar

I had the opportunity to interview Sue on my show this AM, and I jumped at it. Lots of questions for her, but most of all, how and why is Geno Auriemma, the long-time head coach at UConn women’s basketball, so successful year after year. As you may know, UConn just won its 11 NCAA championship, which is a national record in any sport.

Sue starred for UConn as a 5-9 point guard, graduating in 2002 on an undefeated UConn team. Voted Naismith Player of the Year, and was selected number one overall by the Seattle Storm in the WNBA.

But growing up in Syosset, Long Island, she recalled that she played a variety of sports, including soccer, right through middle school and into HS. It wasn’t until she was entering her junior year and transferred to Christ the King HS that she focused solely on basketball. That was when she was about 16 and began to realize that college basketball scholarships for her were becoming a real possibility.

CAUTIOUS ABOUT WHEN TO SPECIALIZE

“Growing up, I would have never played basketball all year round as a kid,” Sue said, “I mean, just playing one sport all year round would have been boring. I enjoyed playing other sports, and besides, with soccer, I’m quite sure the footwork and quickness I learned from that sport helped me with my basketball progress.”

Sue was prompted to say this because one caller said he had a daughter who was 6-1 in middle school, and as a very good basketball player, she was being pressured by travel teams and even HS coaches to forego all other sports and just focus on hoops. We advised the father to be very careful about these outside pressures, that focusing on one sport all year round can definitely lead to burn out and repetitive use injuries.

Sue did mention that she started to receive form letters from college programs when she was in 8th and 9th grade, but it wasn’t until she was well along into HS that the college coaches really came after her.

THE COACHING GENIUS OF GENO AURIEMMA

She liked Geno right from the start because “he was honest and upfront. Coach Auriemma made it clear that if you came to his school, you would work hard and maybe have a chance to win a championship. But there were no promises about playing time, and no other fluff.”

When she decided to enroll at UConn, Geno showed his rare talent to reach each woman on their individual level. “I’m the kind of athlete where if you yell at me, I will respond to the challenge and step up my game. And Coach Auriemma knew that, said Sue. “But with other players on the team, he knew that if he yelled at them, they would become de-motivated and not play well. Coach had an amazing ability to know how to reach every player in just the right way.”

As to how UConn’s Auriemma prepared them for each game: “He would tell us that you have to prepare for the next game in the same way you would prepare for a big test in school. That is, you need to study hard and then study some more. That way, when you walked into the exam, psychologically you knew you were ready. Same with preparing for basketball games. But if you slacked off during the week and tried to cram the night before the test, you would go into the text being nervous and tentative. Again, same with basketball. You can’t do that and expect to win.”

Excellent advice for coaches who want to learn from Geno Auriemma’s example. And clearly those lessons have stayed with Sue for her entire collegiate and professional career.

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: More Questions Regarding Travel Team Choices

Because there continued to be such an outpouring of emails this past week to my show on the pros and cons of travel teams, I decided to do another show today on the same subject. And not surprisingly, this second show elicited another wave of strong calls.

I basically asked the same two questions as I did last Sunday AM:

As a sports parent or as a coach, has your experience with travel teams being a mostly positive one? Or has it been a negative one?

And on top of that, has the time come to place travel programs under the jurisdiction of either state or federal oversight?

The calls today were from a variety of parents and coaches, and from different sports:

> One father called to complain that he didn’t understand how a travel baseball program in his town had three different levels for kids in the same age bracket. Not only did this dad come away assuming that only the top tier team enjoyed the benefits of having the better players, but the dad began to become suspicious when his son (who was not on the top team) was told he made one of the lower travel teams, even though his try out didn’t involve any batting practice. The dad found that curious since his son was a position player. “I mean,” said the father, “how can they evaluate him if they (the travel coaches) don’t even see him take batting practice?”

This kind of thing, unfortunately, happens a lot, and gives real credibility to the worry that travel teams are more about making money than really offering really evaluations by coaches who know what they’re doing.

> Another dad – a softball parent – complained that his daughter played travel softball all summer, and that not only was it very expensive, but sometimes they would enter a weekend tournament on the road and the competition they faced was so weak that he didn’t think his daughter got anything out of the experience. “There was no quality control as to what kinds of teams they were playing. It would be a waste of a weekend.”

He also pointed out that since softball is a non-revenue sport in college, that parents should realize that softball players often receive very little financial aid in terms of athletic scholarships.

> That call was followed by a HS lax coach who said the same thing. Since lax is still not a major revenue producer at most D-1 programs, this coach pointed out that one of his top players received a partial athletic scholarship for lax – specifically, it was $1000 a year, just enough to cover the cost of the boy’s books. Sad to say, when a college coach has to slice and dice scholarship money, this kind of thing happens all the time.

In other words, in terms of getting a full athletic scholarship at the D-1 level, the only two sports that offer that kind of luxury are football and basketball.

JUST HOW DOMINANT IS YOUR KID?

Finally, the question that is always asked is whether a young athlete should bypass HS sports and just concentrate on playing one sport all-year round. This is still a very, very difficult question to answer.  My response is this: if your child is clearly dominant in his or her sport in HS – I mean dominant like LeBron James, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Breanna Stewart, or Sue Bird, all of whom were dominant when they were in HS — then an elite travel program is probably the very best move for that youngster.

But if your kid is very, very good in HS, but not a dominant star, then you might want to resist placing them in a year-round travel. Will they improve their game playing year-round? Yes, they will. But they will also improve their game AND probably have a lot more fun and develop life-long memories playing with their buddies on their local HS varsity team. AND if they can attend some showcases or even visit a summer camp at a college where they are interested in attending, those are other solid ways to gain some exposure to college coaches.  Parents and athletes often overlook that, or aren’t even aware of it, as many travel programs don’t even mention those.

What’s the bottom line? As a parent, you must remain diligent and ask the right and tough questions about travel programs. It’s still caveat emptor.

As one caller said today, his kid tried out, made a travel team, and they paid their fees. But after a few weeks, they realized he team wasn’t going to be a good fit for their child. When the parent asked for some sort of partial refund, the travel team said sorry and refused to pay.

The parent wanted to know who he could report this to. Sadly, the answer is no one.