Archive for April, 2017

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: New Study Suggests More Concussions in Girls Soccer than in HS Football

There was a recent study published headlined by a medical professor at Northwestern University who says that girls who play HS soccer suffer a much higher incidence of concussions than boys do – even those boys who play HS football.

As you might imagine, I was somewhat stunned by this. After all, the vast majority of attention in recent years has been paid to the long-term concerns regarding the health of football players. Sure, it’s well known that concussions can occur in any sport, but this new study shifts the focus to girls’ soccer, and that caught my eye.

In the study, which looked at 41,000 injuries to HS athletes in 9 popular sports between 2005-2015,  6,400 concussions were tabulated.

And during that time span, the concussion rate for girls’ soccer was higher than in football – and especially in the years from 2014-2015.

Now, if you’re a sports parent of a daughter who plays soccer, what does this mean? Suddenly, you may be having some of the medical misgivings about soccer as the parents of football players do. Of course, as I have noted over the years, concussions are part of all sports, and accidents do happen. I would daresay that it’s rare to find a kid who hasn’t suffered at least one concussion during their playing career.

But that being said, concussions do come in different degrees, and athletes and parents and coaches have to be careful about the handling of serious concussions. And medical doctors caution about repeated concussions; that is, one hit to the head can be treated, but if the youngster returns to action too soon, and receives another concussion, that’s where long-term concerns come into play.

 

In any event, I asked my listeners this AM as to what’s causing the spike in female concussions?  Is this due to excessive heading of the ball in soccer? Or heading being done incorrectly?

Should the girls in soccer be wearing more protective headgear? I know some girls wear protective headgear AFTER they suffer a concussion….but should they all be wearing headgear as a precaution as well?

And of course, is there just too much physical contact during the game?

Not surprisingly, the responses ranged from too much heading, and that it’s taught incorrectly at the younger ages when the most damage can be done to a developing brain. Head gear is also now receiving more and more attention as a protective measure. And finally, one caller suggested that the refs have to do a better job in controlling the physical action on the field in order to minimize physical contact. Kids falling to the turf and hitting their heads on the ground is a major source of concussion.

AND WHAT ABOUT GIRLS LACROSSE?

In addition, I know there’s been a lot of talk in recent months about girls lax and girls being told to wear headgear to protect them from concussions.

But from what I can tell, while some schools make such headgear mandatory, this protective trend isn’t really taking off in a big way – even though I can personally tell you from the years of watching my two daughters play lax in HS that there’s no question that getting hit in the head by a stick or errant pass is alarmingly routine in games.

Yet in discussing this issue with my daughters, they both felt strongly that protective headgear in lax would be a mistake – that it’s just not needed, and that it would indeed make the game much more aggressive as players would take more liberties in attacking opponents on the run and using their sticks.

Remember that traditionally, girls lax has been considered a non-contact sport. To me, though, and perhaps you share my views, I have never believed girls lax to be a non-contact sport. And if you have even seen a HS girls lax game recently, I’m sure you feel the same way. It is hardly a non-contact sport, and the fact that the girls do have to wear mouth guards and eye goggles and carry sticks and throw around a heavy hard rubber ball makes it a dangerous activity.

So where do we go from here? For starters, both in girls soccer and lax, more than ever it’s incumbent on parents and coaches to make sure that kids are well taught about how to head a soccer ball, and how to play a competitive game but not doing so in a physical manner. Same goes for lax. Learn how to use the lax stick as a tool, but not as a weapon. Learn how to control the ball and learn how to pass it correctly.

No, sadly, concussions are not going away. But we really do need to adopt protective measures at the youth level to make sure our daughters are protected.

YOUTH BASEBALL TRENDS: “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”

When Casey Stengel was managing the hapless New York Mets in their first year of existence in 1962, Casey became so frustrated with his team’s lack of fundamental baseball that he once exclaimed in frustration: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

That moment was well over 50 years ago, and of course, Casey, as he was wont to do, was exaggerating more than a bit.

But a few weeks ago, in a most provocative column in the New York Times, sportswriter Bill Pennington echoed Casey’s sentiments — sentiments, by the way, that not only do I share but they are shared by countless baseball coaches and fans across the country.

In short, Bill’s article basically said that due to the expansive growth in recent times of private coaches for hitting and for pitching instruction, we have now produced a ton of young ballplayers who are well skilled when it comes to those particular facets of the game….but unfortunately, the other parts of their baseball skills have been either somewhat left behind, or ignored, or just not taught. To be fair, Pennington wasn’t blaming the private instructors; he was just reporting what he has found.

In other words, young ballplayers today know that when college coaches or pro scouts come looking, they’re focusing on certain basic skills – can a pitcher throw really hard, and can a kid hit well and hit with power?

The problem is, all the other key stuff involved in playing baseball, like knowing how to field one’s position, or how to put down a sac bunt, or how to run the bases is either ignored, or just assumed that it can be taught later on. And as Pennington points out, it’s now fallen upon college coaches to spend copious amounts of time to educate college kids on the basics of the game.

It’s a startling observation and accusation…but it’s all true. Here’s a direct quote from Bill’s article:

In the last decade or so, a generation of top ballplayers has, in most cases, spent little time learning how to accurately throw across the diamond, catch a fly ball, field a ground ball and turn a double play, run the bases effectively, make a tag at first base, or God forbid, bunt.”

I anticipated a lot of calls on this topic, and indeed they poured in. Some callers pointed to the fact that most youth baseball leagues are coached by either Dads who don’t take the time to teach the basics, or for that matter, those Dads really don’t know the basics. Or that there’s just too much emphasis on playing a lot of games instead of having more practice sessions where drills can be implemented and taught.

Even worse, most practices just evolve into one long batting practice session where kids hit and the others just shag. That’s totally counterproductive in so many ways! A real practice session needs to focus on everything from cutoffs and relays, to how to run the bases, to how to play defense, and on and on Baseball is a complicated sport to play well, and in order to play it well, there’s lots of material that needs to be taught, and taught well.

To that end, Pennington pointed out that there’s lot of teaching material and guides that can be found easily online (such as MLB’s PlayBall.org) where youth, travel, and HS coaches can not only educate themselves on the finer points of the game, but where kids can learn inside baseball as well.

He also said that in his reporting, he discovered that lots of big-time college coaches at the D-I level recruit kids who can hit or pitch, but then the coaches literally teach them the finer points of the game.  That may hard to believe in this day and age, but it’s apparently a national trend.

CAN THIS TREND BE REVERSED?

Bill was also told by some top college coaches that they are now looking at the entire player’s skills set when they go to showcases to recruit. They want to see if the kid knows more about the game beyond just throwing hard, or hitting well. They want to see if the younger has a real feel of how to play the game.

But Bill did feel that this kind of turnaround – where kids begin to learn ALL aspects of playing baseball at an early age – is going to take a long time, and it’s going to take a real change in our current youth sports culture. I agree with Bill: baseball needs to be “reinvented” at the youth level if the game is going to survive in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Why Does This Trend Continue When the Best Athletes Don’t Specialize?

A recent study by the prestigious American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons came up with two conclusions that sports parents ought to keep in mind.

The problem is….they seem to contradict the other.

Specifically, the Academy said that a recent survey found that 45% of all current HS athletes specialize in one sport. That is, they play that one sport pretty much all year round and don’t spend much time in participating in other HS sports.

Now, we all know that there’s been a substantial increase in the amount of specialization in this country, but apparently the numbers are now reaching close to 50 percent, which is pretty stunning. Remember, it’s the orthopedic surgeons who are the ones doing all of the surgery to repair repetitive use injuries in teenagers, such as Tommy John arm operations, torn ACLs, and so on. There are studies that show a direct correlation between all-year round specialization and a rise in youthful injuries.

But here’s the interesting part. A secondary conclusion of that Academy survey showed that when they talked to current professional athletes, only 22 percent of these elite athletes felt that it was a good idea for their kids to specialize in one sport. In fact, whereas the vast majority of most HS and college athletes felt it was a smart idea to focus on one sport in order to get ahead, only 62% felt that was important.

So here’s the disconnect: we now have a generation of HS athletes who are convinced that specialization is the key to success…..and yet those athletes who are at the top of the athletic pyramid feel pretty much that’s not necessary.

A DILEMMA FOR SPORTS PARENTS

If you’re a mom or dad who has a kid starting out in sports, there seems to be a strong inclination to push one’s child into one sport at age 5 or 6, and keep them progressing as quickly as possible on that one track. If the parent has a favorite sport, say, ice hockey or soccer, parents are inclined to gently prod their kid into playing all year round in that one sport that the parent is familiar with.

Common sense, of course, dictates just the opposite: why not expose the child to a variety of sports, such as soccer, hockey, tennis, swimming, baseball, lax, and so on….and then let the child decide which sport (or sports) they would like to pursue?

Problem is, judging from the calls this AM, it would seem that too many parent s don’t want to take that kind of chance with their kids to play a variety of sports, or to trust them to decide what sport to play. Besides, motivated parents don’t want to “sacrifice” a year or two of development time when their child could be accelerating their advancement in one sport.

WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?

So if close to 50% of HS athletes only play one sport, what does this mean? For starters, it means that all-around athletes who used to play two or three HS sports during the year are no longer competing for their school at different sports. That means that HS coaches are looking at fewer talented players coming out for their squads. And in turn, it puts pressure on the HS coaches to try and “attract” top athletes to focus on their sport, rather than share them with their coaching colleagues.

And of course, with specialization, there’s a rise in repetitive use injuries, burn out issues, and for too many athletes, a sense that they are no longer playing sports because it’s fun and enjoyable, but instead, it’s become more of an obligation and a chore.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Why are Fewer Kids Playing Baseball and Softball?

At a sports parenting event this past week in Norwalk, CT, several of the attendees mentioned that in recent years, there’s been a definite downward trend in terms of kids coming out for baseball and softball, especially at the youth levels.

That got me thinking, because certainly the popularity of sports goes up and down in cycles, pretty much like everything else in life. For example, we already know that youth football numbers have decreased dramatically due to worries about concussions. And the numbers for American youth involvement in tennis has also gone down, although there’s no clear reason as to why.

On this morning’s radio show, some callers suggested that the real, underlying reason for fewer numbers in certain sports has more do with the impact of elite travel teams than with a general lack of interest of the kids. What they meant was that unless a youngster is being viewed as a star at age 9 or 10, and as a result, are good enough to make an elite travel team, then all the other kids who are pretty good but not good enough to make the travel team often discover there are no other outlets in which to practice, play, and improve their skills.

DISENFRANCHISED KIDS

In other words, these “on the bubble” kids as a I call them, find themselves basically disenfranchised. They really don’t have any other outlets in which to play their sport, and as a result, they leave that sport, and in many cases, they leave sports all together.

This is a development that really hasn’t been well documented, and yet, judging from the callers today, this is a growing trend. Kids who play baseball at age 9 or 10 either make an elite travel team, or if they get cut, then there’s no real place to work on their skills and improve. And the result is that fewer and fewer baseball players come out each spring. By the time these kids are HS age, the numbers for baseball and softball have become exceedingly small.

Or, more and more parents are convinced that their kids truly need to specialize in just one sport at an early age. So if a kid decides at age 6 or 7 to play soccer all year round, those kids a generation ago would have tried out for baseball or softball. But these days, due to specializing in just soccer, they no longer sign up for baseball or softball.

Overall, all of this is very unsettling. I mean, how does a parent or a coach determine that a kid at age 9 or 10 is one of the elite? Especially when these kids are still years away from their teenage years and possible growth spurts and lots of other changes associated with adolescence. Nobody seems to ask that question as it relates to kids losing interest in playing sports. What happens is, from the time they’re 10 until they’re 14 and ready for HS, they have stopped playing because they were deemed at a young age as to not being good enough to make a travel team at age 10.

If we’re trying to get kids to stay in shape and learn all the life-long lessons from playing sports, well, we’re not doing a very good job of encouraging them.

THE IMPACT OF VIDEO GAMES

The other concern that popped up this AM was that more and more kids are spending more time playing electronic and video games. True, those games involve eye-hand coordination and one’s score is kept, but I think we all agree that playing video games is not really a sporting endeavor. Regardless, they are very tempting to kids, and it would seem that more and more kids now compete in traditional sports like baseball or football, but do so vicariously via video games.

What’s the bottom line? For better or worse, the travel team culture continues to have more impact on kids in sports these days than perhaps we might think.. And once again, I just wish that there were some federal guidelines or oversight to not only regulate the travel industry but also to provide sports parents with some needed help.

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Epidemic of Trying to Find Refs and Officials to Work Youth Games Continues…

Another Reminder About How Referee Shortages Can Threaten Youth Leaguers’ Safety

By Doug Abrams

Late last month, The Daily News (Longview, WA) published a thoughtful youth sports article by Jason Leskiw, “Officials Shortage Widespread Problem With No Solution Yet in Sight.” Prominent among the reasons for the shortage of officials in Washington state and Oregon, he wrote, are “unruly fans and parents.”

In previous columns, I have described how the shortage of officials can threaten player safety. This column repeats the message at the end here, but first let’s review some prior news articles. These articles demonstrate that the chronic shortage, driven by abusive adults, plagues interscholastic leagues and community youth leagues not only in the Pacific Northwest, but also throughout the nation. In my final few years as a youth hockey coach here in Missouri, I frequently heard parent spectators showering officials with obscenities and other insults that no respectable adult would direct at the family dog.

Lack of Respect

Last March, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published an 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.”

A year earlier, 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.”

Under the headline, “Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect,” the New York Times ran an Associated Press article in 2015 about the acute shortage of experienced youth sports officials from coast to coast. The AP reported that “[b]y all accounts, finding and retaining referees is becoming more and more difficult” because of “growing animosity and poor behavior among fans and coaches.”

In 2014, the Bakersfield Californian reported that all county high school varsity and sub-varsity leagues continued to experience referee attrition similar to that reported most recently in Washington and Oregon. A former president of the county’s Officials Association, a longtime baseball umpire, explained the primary cause: “Nobody wants to umpire because most people . . . don’t want to go out there and get yelled at, screamed at, and shown up.”

The Deseret (Utah) Morning News explained 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 over the years, most stepped forward 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 (verbal and sometimes physical) dished out by other adults, often with the officials’ own spouses and children looking on.

“Parents Expect NHL Referees”

In the younger age groups, community youth leagues frequently 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 list community service as a credential on their college and employment applications. In my experience, the teens take their responsibilities seriously and generally do an excellent job. But they too are often chased away, once they or their families lose patience with parents and coaches who may tag the adolescents as easier marks for harassment than adult officials. Every teen official is someone else’s child.

In 2013, CBC News (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a story under the headline, Teen Hockey Refs Quitting Over Verbal Abuse. The vice president of the Saskatchewan Referees Association explained why so many teens in the province refuse to officiate in the younger age groups. “I go the rink all the time and supervise,” he said, and “I have a hard time sitting there and watching games because parents just start yelling and swearing for no reason.” The targeted referees are “kids . . . doing their best,” but “parents expect NHL referees.”

Compromising Safety

What negative effects does this adult “referee rage” have on the players? Even casual observers notice when games may be postponed, rescheduled, or even canceled for lack of available officials. Or when parents or coaches trash sportsmanship, civility, and respect in full view of their young athletes. Safety issues, however, can escape the untrained eye.

Especially 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 enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among medical professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

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

What Can Be Done to Promote Player Safety?

Some of my prior columns have discussed measures that can help counter abusive adults who may compromise player safety. In written rules distributed during preseason parents and coaches meetings, for example, leagues and teams can state their expectations for adult civility. Leagues and teams must back up these expectations by disciplining parents or coaches whose abuse of officials crosses the line. Rules unenforced remain mere words on paper, awaiting the next incident.

Coaches can sometimes set the tone for the team. In a preseason parents meeting, coaches can deliver the message that abuse of officials is “not how we do things here. Our sons and daughters are watching and we set the example.” Youth coaching resembles a season-long game of “follow the leader,” and the followers include both the players and their parents.

With criminal assault statutes already on the books, prosecutors should take reported physical assaults on adult officials more seriously than they sometimes do. And in extreme cases when parents or coaches verbally or physically abuse teen officials, authorities should contemplate child abuse or child endangerment charges.

Most parents and coaches do not stoop to verbal or physical abuse of officials, but the majority’s presence does not necessarily diminish the errant minority’s destructive influence. Parents and coaches often get the quality of officiating they deserve, and the stakes are high because 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; Assoc. Press, Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2015;  Jeff Evans, Kern County Association Faces Referee Shortage, Bakersfield Californian, June 10, 2014; Jim Thompson, The Double-Goal Coach, p. 4 (2003); Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News, Apr. 26, 2005; CBC News, Teen Hockey Refs Quitting Over Verbal Abuse, Nov. 25, 2013;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).

REFLECTIONS: The Games That Your Young Athletes Will Remember…

Editor’s note: DAN VENEZIA, a former professional baseball player in the Twins’ organization, is a youth sports coach and author of the children’s book, “Coach Dan on Sportsmanship.” His website is www.CoachDan.com. 

Dan recently shared his coaching story with me, and I wanted to share it with you.

I’d like to share a great story, one that happened on Ash Wednesday during my rec basketball game of middle school kids. At the end of the first quarter, I was talking to the refs and they pointed out that one of the opposing players was autistic.  The opposing team had only 5 players show up that day, we were winning by 15 or 20 and already slowing it down.  So we stopped the fast breaks, and stopped taking three pointers.  I honestly did not notice this player as he really wasn’t involved or engaged in any of the plays.  His team had not won a game all season, which was probably why they had dwindled down to just five players.

I immediately called a time out and let my team know about the boy we were playing against.  I asked them to try and get him the ball without making it obvious.  Miss the pass, or make a poor one.  The goal was to get this player (Stephen) the ball and to get him to score.  I was so happy that every one of my kids bought into this concept.  Slowly but surely, they got him the ball.  I wish we could have captured the moment on video because his face lit up each time the ball made it into his hands.  The problem was, he was on our side of the court and although we backed off on defense, he dribbled a few times and then would pass it on to his teammates.

After 3 or 4 attempts, I called another time out and spoke to the opposing coach.  By this point he knew what we were trying to do.  I told him it would be helpful if we got Stephen the ball on his side of the court because we would love to see him make a basket.  So we left him open in the corner and he began to get passes from his teammates but with each pass he would give it back to one of his teammates.  After another time out, I instructed my team to play tight defense on everyone else, giving Stephen no alternative but to shoot.

Once again, my team responded and Stephen took a shot from 3 point land and missed, but not by much.  You could hear the crowd in the gym catching on and slowing building a sense of momentum with each pass and shot. The ooh’s and ahh’s got louder each time.  Then, with an open lane, Stephen dribbled twice and took a 10 foot shot, banking it in.  The place erupted, a standing ovation followed and Stephen smiled from ear to ear.

I couldn’t be more proud of the nine 7th and 8th grader’s on my squad.  I told them that they would not remember every rec basketball game or youth sporting event, but this game is one they would remember for a lifetime.  The important lessons of compassion, team play, and sportsmanship are ones that will stay with them for a good long time.

MAKE TODAY MEAN SOMETHING!

The irony of it all, was earlier in the day, I had made a decision for the Lentin season.  Instead of giving something up, I had decided to give up something but didn’t know exactly what to give.   I came up with a simple 4 word motto to try to live by.  “Make today mean something!”

In truth, I wasn’t thinking about that motto during the game; it just sort of happened.  It wasn’t until later on that evening that I realized that “today” had meant something for so many people, the fans, the players, the officials, and most importantly, for the young man who simply put the ball in the basket.