Archive for August, 2016

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: What’s the Best Way to Give Feedback to Young Athletes (…and their Parents)?

One of the basic fundamentals that all coaches embrace – whether at the youth, travel, or HS level – is that a coach has to give feedback to one’s athletes.

Problem is, it’s rare for a coach to be trained at any level on how to do this. In short, it’s just sort of “assumed” that coaches know how to do this. But anyone who has had a youngster play for a bunch of different coaches know that giving feedback is rarely standard or universal in nature.

A generation ago, coaches were considerably more gruff and tough in their demeanor. That doesn’t mean they were mean or sarcastic; it just means that it was hard to please them. I can recall vividly how difficult it was to get my HS football coaches to get them to smile just a little bit on a well-executed block or tackle. I remember how I could live for a full week on cloud nine if I ever got a pat on the back from the head football coach for a job well done.

But of course, times change. These days, it seems the tables have turned dramatically, almost 180 degrees, to the point where every coach lavishes constant praise on the athletes, and does so regardless of youth, travel, or HS level. Every kid, it seems, is “making tremendous progress” or “is just doing great” or “I couldn’t be happier with their skill level.”

But of course, if every kid on the team is receiving this kind of glowing feedback, how is it that some kids end up playing a lot whereas others are on the bench?

That’s a real dilemma. And invariably, it leads parents to wonder what’s going on. As in, “if my kid so good, why is he not starting?”

Good question. And most coaches can’t answer that.

Lost in this shuffle is the element of adversity. The vast majority of parents instinctively tend to shield their kids from adversity – to keep them protected from the cold, cruel world. But in the world of sports, such protection isn’t always the right thing. And it doesn’t help when the coach keeps heaping glowing praise on the kid.

Adversity is a major part of ANY athlete’s experience. Ask any top pro or college star and they were all tell you that they faced some sort of adversity in their career that they had to overcome. It’s just the way it is in sports.


Ian Goldberg, who has two young daughters who play softball and soccer, started to think about the feedback process. He was so moved by the lack of real and meaningful feedback at the youth level that he developed an online program (which is free) to aid and assistant youth coaches in giving real feedback to kids.

In effect, it’s similar to a report card from school. But the key is that, depending on the sport and the athlete’s age, the coach provide true observations on a kid’s progress, i.e. needs to learn how to control the  soccer ball effectively with both feet, needs to see the entire field better in terms of passing, etc. By pinpointing both the strengths as well as weaknesses, the youngster gets a much better feel as to what they need to work on.

Ian also points out that for travel team tryouts, it would be extremely helpful if the coaches posted precise criteria on their website as well. Just saying “We’re going to select the best athletes from the kids who try out” doesn’t do much to help alleviate the pressure on kids and parents. By being specific as to what they’re looking for can only help.

In any event, if you’d like to find out more, check out Be sure to look for the app to get you going on your critiques.

SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY: Today’s Appearance on The NFL Network

Just FYI…..many of you know me for my work in the field of sports parenting. But long before I became involved in this area, I did my undergraduate and graduate work in psychology. And I specialized in sports psychology which, back when I was in college, was pretty much an unknown and uncharted territory. It’s only in the last couple of decades that sports psychology has become accepted by the world of professional and collegiate sports. Before then, the old joke that “anybody who needed to see a sports psychologist ought to have his head examined” was a typical — and unwanted — response from coaches and athletes.

In any event, like most athletes, I always found that the mental side of the game to be fascinating. Sure, you had to have the God-given physical skills to play at the collegiate or professional level, but the truth is, you reach a point where in order to succeed and win, one needs to become more consistent and perhaps a bit better prepared psychologically than one’s opponents. That’s where the mental approach begins to have major priority.

After being a head college baseball coach at Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, NY) for nine years where we had several nationally-ranked teams (NCAA, Div. II), I was then asked to serve as the roving sports psychology coach for the Cleveland Indians. I served with the big league and minor league teams of the Indians in the early 1990s, just as Cleveland was beginning to assert itself as an American League powerhouse. I worked with, and got to know well, a number of the young stars on those teams. And I was elated when Cleveland awarded me with an American League championship ring when the Tribe won the AL pennant in 1995.

These days, I still am called to consult with top athletes who are having some difficulties in terms of performing at a top level, and I’m called by athletes and their agents across a variety of sports. And sometimes, I’m even asked to comment when a kid is struggling. To that end, I thought you might be interested in seeing a short clip of yours truly on The NFL Network this AM discussing the performance issues of Tampa Bay’s highly-touted place-kicker Roberto Aguayo, and what he might want to try to correct his course of action.

See link below:

Rick Wolff on the NFL Network


SPORTSMANSHIP: What To Do When Neither Team Tries to Win….

Game-Fixing and Youth Coaching Ethics

By Doug Abrams

Under the headline, “Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament,” Fox Soccer writer Alex Dowd described a U-18 girls game played on July 28 at the US Youth Soccer National Championships in Frisco, Texas. He reported that the two teams, the Ambassadors FC and the Carlsbad Elite, each needed only a tie to advance to the semifinals as the first- and second-place finishers in their group play bracket. The game ended in a scoreless tie, both teams advanced, and another team was eliminated.

With the help of game video posted online, Dowd described the game: “Essentially they’re just rolling the ball back and forth, not even pretending to compete. With the ignoble 0-0 result in the books, both teams collected the point needed to advance to the semifinals. That certainly looks like match fixing, through and through.”

Headlines and stories in other media outlets were similarly harsh on the two teams. USA TODAY (“Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game”) said that “it looked like neither side was trying to score or do much of anything.” GotSoccer (“Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships”) described the “somnolent 0-0 draw” and likened the contest to “a morality play in shin pads.”

In statements afterwards, the two head coaches denied match-fixing charges. According to TopDrawSoccer, the Ambassadors’ coach said that “Both teams were through pretty much, so there was nothing to play for. Earlier in the day, there had been 18 people collapsed due to the heat.” His Carlsbad counterpart said that “Playing a low pressure style was in our best interest looking ahead to the semi-final to help preserve our players physically for the next match, having already played two 90 minute games in the extreme heat.”

“Disrespectful to the Game”

US Youth Soccer issued a statement after its National Championship Series Committee met with both teams and conducted a thorough investigation of the evidence presented. The committee found insufficient evidence of collusion, but it determined that the teams were “disrespectful to the game, the competition and US Youth Soccer.” The disrespect had “compromised” the “integrity” of the championship series and its “ideals . . . of fair play and sportsmanship.”

The committee imposed fines and disciplinary action on both teams, and US Youth Soccer said that it would conduct further investigation to determine whether “the actions of the coaches were adverse to the best interests of soccer or US Youth Soccer.”

“Honors Won Without Fair Play”

This column is not about one sport or one national championship series, but about what can happen when temptation rears its head during tournaments in various youth sports at every age and experience level. The coaches may be paid, or they may be volunteers. The games may take place in community youth leagues, travel team play, or interscholastic leagues.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs arising from last month’s soccer game, reports periodically surface of youth coaches who seek tactical advantage from throwing games or manipulating scores in national, state, and local tournaments. These reports not only test youth coaching ethics; they can also threaten the future credibility of the coaches themselves, including coaches with otherwise unblemished records.

Many youth coaches doubtlessly weigh tactics during tournaments, which frequently feature multiple games in a few days, sometimes on only a few hours’ rest. To conserve stamina with the team comfortably ahead, for example, the coach may pace first-stringers or reward substitutes with extra playing time earned during the season.

The ethical compass points in a different direction, however, when the coach deliberately tries to lose a game or otherwise to jockey for advantageous placement in a later round. The line between reasonable pacing and deliberately trying to manipulate outcomes may sometimes be hazy, but coaches cross the line when the players themselves figure out that their leaders are scheming to pull a fast one.

US Youth Soccer is right that in national tournaments and local community play alike, the integrity of sports depends on competitors who try their best to win. Angling to lose or tie disrespects the game by denying players the fruits of athletic competition. The British Association of Coaches points the compass in the right direction: “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”

‘We Were Embarrassed”

One element evidently absent from reports of the Ambassadors-Carlsbad game – but important to Rick Wolff’s listeners — is player disgust at coaching shenanigans. Reported efforts at match-fixing frequently draw immediate negative reaction from youngsters who know right from wrong. Even where the effort appears initially successful, the coach may lose in the long run because few people respect ethically challenged people for very long.

Players and parents may forgive a coach’s errors of strategy, or the coach’s lack of knowledge about the finer points of the game. But players or parents may find it difficult to forgive sharp practice that soils the values that drive sports and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Youth coaching depends on credibility, and credibility depends on more than X’s, O’s, and scoreboards.

A few years ago, for example, respect and credibility evaporated quickly in an early round of the Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) High School Hockey League’s A-Division playoffs.  The Westwood High School Warriors led College Jeanne Sauve, 3-2, late in the third period, when Westwood’s coaches schemed to lose the game by pulling their goalie to let the opponents score. The coaches knew that by losing, the Warriors would draw an easier opponent in the upcoming semifinal round and avoid a faceoff against the league’s regular-season champion. With their net empty, the Warriors yielded the tying and winning goals and lost, 4-3.

The Winnipeg Sun reported that many Warriors players left the ice “visibly distraught” because they knew that their coaches had deliberately thrown the game. “It was brutal,” a Warriors forward told the Sun.  “We were embarrassed, and we’re sad we had to put up with it.” I was a youth hockey coach for many years, and I would never have wanted any of my players to feel that way about me.

20/20 Hindsight

Reputation earned over time is the youth coach’s greatest asset. Benjamin Franklin described the impact of even one ethical lapse: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Coaches who cut ethical corners seeking to lose or to manipulate outcomes may find it difficult, if not impossible, to recover their reputations, even if their schools or associations permit them to return to return to the sidelines. The Internet makes the difficulty or impossibility even greater today than ever before. The Ambassadors and Carlsbad coaches attracted national media attention because the game took place during a prominent national championship series. But even in a local weekend or holiday tournament, complaints about a named coach’s ethical lapse may find their way into the local press or blog postings that describe the game itself or parental or player misgivings.

The stain can be permanent, awaiting simple Internet word searches for the coach’s name. Permanence can be a serious consequence for a coach who wishes future coaching assignments or who seeks the respect from youngsters on future teams. Or for a coach whose reputation in the community might be sullied by tanking a game played by children and adolescents.

The prospect of permanently tattered respect and reputation is too great a price to pay for today’s gamble at a tainted outcome.


Sources:  Alex Dowd, Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament, (July 29, 2016); Charles Curtis, Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game, USA TODAY, (July 30, 2016); Peter Nolan, Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships,  (July 30, 2016); Will Parchman, Watch Two Teams Sit On a Match to Advance in a Youth Tournament, (July 29, 2016); US Youth Soccer Statement on Under-18 Girls Ambassadors vs. Carlsbad Game,  (July 30, 2016); Ken Wiebe, Swift Hockey Justice, Winnipeg Sun, Mar. 5, 2011, p. S3.



ATHLETIC DIRECTORS: When HS Coaches are Fired….

A few weeks ago, the long-time varsity boys basketball coach at Horace Greeley HS in Chappaqua, NY was fired. He’d been the head coach there for 24 years. That’s a long time. And for many of his players, he was beloved.

But the AD at Greeley decided to make a change. And of course, because it’s standard school and state policy pretty much everywhere not to offer comments about why a coaching change was made, there was no official reason or explanation for the coach’s dismissal.  “Just a change in direction” is the usual explanation.

Then about a week or so later, four long-time varsity coaches at Scarsdale HS (Scarsdale, NY) were also informed that their services were no longer needed. One of the coaches, faced with the reality of being let go, decided to resign instead.

Again, lots of outcry from the Scarsdale sports community about the abrupt dismissal: “How could this happen? Our kids LOVED playing for these people? How could the AD make such a radical move and not give any reason?”


And again, as expected, no reasons were given except the standard “this is a personnel issue, and we’re not allowed to discuss it.”

The dismissal of long-time coaches is always charged with emotion. First, it’s a tough decision for the AD who has to make a case to the school board behind closed door to fire the coach. Then, once given the bad news, it’s always difficult for the coach to face the reality that his or her coaching tenure is over at that school. And of course, it’s also very, very tough on the HS athletes as this suddenly changes the landscape in their careers.

There are a lot of unknowns here for the kids:  Who will be the new coach? How will the new coach run things? Most importantly, will the new coach see that I’m talented and good? And of course, the kids’ parents have the same concerns.

But let’s get back to the actual dismissal of the coach. It’s one thing, of course, if the coach didn’t have much of a successful win-loss record. At the varsity level, one of the top priorities is to win. No question. But does priority tallow the coach to play ONLY the team’s top players all the time, and not give other kids’ on the team any playing time?

And what about the coach’s ability to communicate? Is he “old school” and gruff with the kids with his feedback? If a kid comes to him and asks how he or she can get more playing time, does the coach simply tell them straight out: “Look, you’re too slow…or you’re too small….or you’re not as good as other kids on the team” or does the coach sugar coat their response?

My years of experience suggests to me that, in many cases, these two issues are often at the heart of these coaching changes: a lack of playing time for all kids, and the coach doesn’t communicate well. But the purpose of this column is to first focus on what’s the right way to announce to the community that a coach isn’t being re-hired.

Remember, HS coaches do not just have tenure like teachers. They are hired on a year-to-year basis, and they all know that. But if a coach has been on staff for a number of years, it becomes apparent that he or she has become a coaching fixture in that school. That’s one reason why it’s so jarring when it’s decided that they have been let go.

My question is….is there a better way to make these kinds of sudden coaching changes? Does the AD have any kind of responsibility to say more to the general community  than “we just felt the program needed to go in a different direction?”

Or is that indeed enough?

Legal concerns aside, can the AD say in his explanation that each year, I sit down with the coach and give him or her an objective performance appraisal on what they need to improve….and unfortunately, in this case, the coach really didn’t make any significant progress.

Can they at least say that? Do you know whether your school’s AD even does annual performance reviews with his staff of varsity coaches? And if they do, can parents or athletes see that standard performance review sheet that is filled out? That, to me, would be interesting to see because it would give a real sense of what the AD’s top priorities for the school’s coaches.

One of the many callers this AM suggested that the coach should have the right to speak freely about why he or she was terminated. That is, the school can’t or won’t say anything, but the coach can. The same caller – Tom from North Arlington, NJ – also suggested that perhaps coaches should be allowed to get tenure — perhaps after being on staff for 5 or 7 years. And then, maybe that tenure is re-evaluated again every 5 years after that.

Another caller pointed out that in some cases, coaches have protested their dismissal, and have occasionally won their appeal to the school board. But it’s admitted that is very uncommon.


The truth is, coaching changes come and go. It’s still very much a privilege to serve as a coach; it’s not a right. Even with just a few thousand dollars in salary, being a coach is a very special appointment. All that being said, there are lots of good coaches, but sadly, there are also weak ones. It’s the AD’s job to weed out the poor ones, and sometimes, even though some of the kids on the team (and their parents) truly cherish the coach, there are many other kids on the team who feel just the opposite.

It’s up to the AD, ultimately, to make the call.



SPORTS PARENTING TIPS: Coaching Kids is a Serious Responsibility

The response to Doug Abram’s column last week regarding “coaches who apologize” generated a remarkable number of downloads and hits, and that interest continued this AM on my radio show.

The general consensus was that — especially with younger athletes (10 and under) — who look up to coaches as trustworthy adults and solid role models, and who  don’t understand yet that the real world may be unfair, that coaches who make promises to their players (such as equal playing time in games) need to step up and apologize to those kids if such promises aren’t carried through.

The callers this AM quickly made it clear that as kids reach HS age, the expectation that one’s coach would apologize for such oversights not only don’t happen, but that the kids really don’t expect such apologies. By the time the youngster is 15 or 16, they have tasted enough of the real world to understand that not all promises come true. It was agreed that this isn’t fair, but again, the sense of the world being an unfair place becomes more commonplace with student-athletes.

Doug’s overall point – that coaches are indeed human and sometimes make errors in judgment just like all of us (including parents) — needs to be kept in perspective. Clearly certain behaviors and actions by coaches are not excusable in any way (e.g. bullying, or allowing bullying, or any kind of harassment, etc). But making mistakes in the heat of game competition can and probably should be forgiven, and kids and their parents need to understand that.


That being said, if a coach made a promise to a player, and the coach didn’t follow through, then it’s incumbent on that coach to seek out the player after the game, and even their parents if necessary, to privately apologize for the coach’s oversight and mistake. Just to assume that the player and his parents have forgotten about the unfulfilled promise is a real mistake unto itself. It will only fester and make the relationship between the player and the coach extremely strained.

The takeaway of this conversation is this: As Doug writes: “coaching other people’s kids is serious business” and that reality is at the basis of this sports parenting column, and indeed, pretty much all sports parenting concerns. And if you’re going to take on the responsibility of coaching, you have to keep this principle as your first and most important fundamental.

The same way that parents trust their children to educators in school, you as a coach, have to develop the same kind of care and sensitivity to those kids when they play sports. To that end, do not make promises that you can’t keep, and always be aware of your words as to what kind of impact they will have. Above all, if you do make a mistake, or screw up, have the courage of character to step up and do the right thing.

If you want your athletes to do the right thing, then you have to do the right thing too.