Archive for October, 2017

ABUSIVE COACHES: HS Varsity Football Coach Dismissed for Encouraging Taunting of Opposing Player

According to the Associated Press, a HS varsity football coach was let go in the town of Gray, Maine, because he had allegedly instructed his players to verbally taunt an opposing player who happens to have two mothers as parents.

The mothers, Lynn and Stephanie Eckersley-Ray, of Yarmouth, Maine, reported that the football coach at Gray-New Gloucester HS apparently told his players to verbally taunt their son every time he was tackled by yelling at him: “Who’s your daddy?”

However, despite these allegations, there were no reports of this actual verbal taunting being overheard during the game. Regardless, the superintendent confirmed that after the Friday night game last week, the football coach no longer works for the school district.

TRENDS IN YOUTH SPORTS: What’s Wrong with US Men’s Soccer?

So we’re in the middle of October and there are lots of major events happening in the world of sports including major league baseball playoffs and the upcoming World Series, the NFL and college football, and of course the start of the NBA and NHL.

But in spite of all the great goings-on in those sports, it’s hard to overlook one of the major disappointments for American sports fans this past week. And of cours, I’m talking about the US men’s soccer team not qualifying for the World Cup.

Their 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago sent shock waves throughout US Soccer.

But from a positive perspective, maybe this is just the kind of harsh wake-up call that’s needed to totally re-evaluate and re-examine how we raise our kids in soccer in this country.

After all, by not qualifying for the World Cup next year, this means that the top American soccer administrators now have a total of 5 long years to figure out what we’re doing wrong with our soccer program. After all, it’s become plainly apparent that we apparently don’t produce enough talented players out of our youth and travel programs.

I mean,  even the most die-hard soccer fans of the Trinidad and Tobago team thought they would lose to the US. Watching the game of TV, it was clear that hardly anyone showed up to watch the game against the US!

And with the solitary exception of Christian Pulisic, most of the commentary that I’ve read about the US soccer team in recent months is that it has too many older players and more importantly,  very few young rising stars like Pulisic.

When I opened the phone lines on my radio show this AM, I was besieged with calls. Lots of soccer fans and coaches with real expertise who know their game, and they shared the same concerns that I have, i.e. it seemed, by all accounts, that the men’s soccer program was making progress in recent times. But if that’s true, how could they stumble so badly in these qualifying rounds?

How come we’re not more dominant? And yes, I know that in most countries around the world, soccer is their top national sport. But that being said, Americans have been focused on soccer big-time since the 1980s. And yet we’re still trying to find our way with the men’s game.

We talk all the time on the Sports Edge and on this website about the US Soccer Federation and how they are convinced that the only way to get American soccer players to improve is for them to walk away from their HS varsity team and to play solely on a Federation team. Such a choice causes great emotional distress for kids who have to choose between playing with their HS friends on the school team or playing on a Federation team.

But is that approach actually working? I mean, Pulisic is a star…but who else? And remember, Pulisic opted to go play for a German team for his last year of high school.

Here’s the bottom line: How is it possible that we are the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world…and yet, we still can’t figure out how to produce top male soccer players?

Please don’t tell me it’s because soccer is new to Americans. That may have been an excuse some years ago, but it doesn’t work any more. The American men’s team has made it into the World Cup consistently since the 1980s. Or that America needs its very best athletes to play soccer instead of football and basketball. Well, that’s not going to shift because top HS basketball and football players can earn a full athletic scholarship to college whereas college soccer programs only offer partial rides.

And does just firing the coach and the people at the top make sense? Does that make for a big change? Probably not.

THE CALLERS SPEAK OUT

One or two of them offered that we need to have youth coaches do a much better job at teaching the fundamentals of the sport. As one long-time coach noted, “Our soccer parents are so focused on winning that they don’t allow their kids to learn the basic skills of the game. That doesn’t happen in Europe and South America where the skills are more important.”

Another called chimed in and said that with the current tradition of HS varsity soccer in this country, our best players get confused. Unlike in other countries where this is no HS varsity sports – just outside club teams – our kids get hung up on what’s the right pathway for their success.

And of course, with travel teams in the US, there’s a real financial burden to families. In Europe, for example, when a kid signs on for a club team, he actually gets paid a small stipend. In other words, the team picks up the kid’s expenses – not his family.

To my way of thinking, the US is going to spin its wheel in terms of developing top players until the leaders of the US program can finally figure out a way to re-design everything, from the earliest introduction of the game at the youth level with more fundamentals, to a meshing between travel teams and HS teams, and offering some sort of financial inducement to allow a talented soccer player to keep progressing without pushing his family into serious debt.

 

COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: Part Three of Doug Abrams’ Column on the Power of E-Mail

Using E-mail to Communicate With the Team’s Parents (Part Three)

By Doug Abrams

 Parts One and Two of this three-part column urged community youth league coaches to consider using email to share observations and explanations with parents before, during, and after the season.

Part One provided emails that I, as head coach, wrote and sent during pre-season practice sessions to the parents on the Central Missouri Eagles, our 9-10-year-old Squirt hockey team a few years ago. Part Two provided emails sent to the Eagles parents during the regular season. Together the Parts presented a template for community youth league coaches who seek to enhance communication with parents.

Part Three now closes the trilogy by providing (again in italics) my emails to the parents during the league’s post-season playoffs, a single-elimination tournament for all eight teams that led to the State Championship Game, with its surprises for the Eagles.

The Playoffs: “The Path Is Always Strewn With Uncertainties”

As in any tournament, only one team could win the title. The coaches urged parents to control their expectations and continue their positive outlook:

 “Playoff tournaments are adventures, and the path is strewn with uncertainties. The players understand the meaning of post-season playoffs, and they will play their hardest, as they have while the team progressed during the regular season. (Now that we have finished with a winning record, who can remember that our first three games were two losses followed by a come-from-behind tie?)

At practice last night, the coaches told the players that if they try their best in a game, they will never regret the outcome later, win or lose. We meant it.”

* * * *

The Eagles won our opening-round playoff game against a team we had beaten twice during the season. Then we faced the first-place team in the semifinals. The game was tied late in the third period, but . . .

“The players took yesterday’s 4-3 loss hard because it came in single-elimination playoffs and ended our season.  The game was close, and our players finished with the grace they have shown all year, by shaking the other team’s hands in the proud hockey tradition.

Shaking hands after losing can be tough, especially when the team plays as well as we did yesterday. In recent years, some youth leagues in various sports have even considered dispensing with the post-game handshakes following trouble in the line. A few hundred youth hockey teams played in America this weekend, and half the teams lost. No team behaved with more class than our players did.

In the locker room after the game, we told the players that the parents and coaches are proud of everything they accomplished all season; that the other team yesterday wanted to win as badly as we did; that in an evenly-matched game, someone loses; and that every Eagles player will have future opportunities to shine in hockey again.” 

* * * *

With the playoffs over for us, the coaches sent the parents another wrap-up message a day later. We spoke not only about the players’ on-ice performance, but also about the team’s community service project, which the players had selected and performed earlier in the season:

“We chalked up achievements thoroughly impressive for a team of 9- and 10-year-olds. As the players developed their skills, they carried the team as far as their abilities permitted; earned opposing coaches’ praise for sportsmanship; finished the regular season with a winning record; and advanced to the State Championship semifinals.

The players learned citizenship and empathy by collecting hundreds of cans of food for the Central Missouri Food Bank, the local agency that in these difficult times serves children and their families who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our team’s families.

Each player assumed an important role, and no player warmed the bench. The season is over, and the coaches hope that the families will remember the past few months with relish. All team members — adults and players alike — share credit for a job well done. It was a good run.”

* * * *

It was time for many of the players to turn to baseball and other spring sports — or so we thought until I received an unexpected phone call from the State Championship Tournament director two days later. The two teams that were slated to face off in the upcoming Championship game had just been disqualified. “Would your team,” the director asked, “like to play next weekend for the State Championship against the other team that had narrowly lost their semifinal game?”

Our team manager polled the parents, and the answer was a unanimous “yes.” After two hastily scheduled practices, we drove to St. Louis for title game and won, 7-6. In just two weeks, the  Eagles had lost and then won the State Championship, a winding path that few teams ever travel.

The coaches sent this email a few hours after our victory in the title game:

“We are so pleased that our players will savor the State Championship because they are good kids. Coaches can teach individual and team skills, but we cannot teach goodness, hustle, desire, dedication, camaraderie, and the other intangibles that define teamwork. Guided by their parents, players must bring the intangibles to the rink with them.

Even if we had lost this morning’s game, each player was already a winner for what really counts. A cooperative scoreboard was icing on the cake. To quote the earlier email: ‘All team members — adults and players alike — share credit for a job well done. It was a good run.’”

* * * *

A few days later, the coaches sent the parents another farewell message. Unlike the earliest playoff emails, this one followed a narrow victory, not a narrow defeat. Still, another “teaching opportunity” beckoned:

“When we lost the close semifinal game, we saw long faces in the locker room afterwards because the players took the State Championship series seriously and the loss really hurt. Quite a turnabout now when we see the photograph of the players beaming with the medals around their necks and the State Championship banner in front of them moments after the final game! I emailed the photograph to one of my own former coaches yesterday, and his reaction hit the target: ‘There is nothing like the smiles of a champion. If only we could freeze that feeling for moments when we need it.’

The real lesson from the post-season’s unusual ending concerns not the reward of winning, but the work it takes to win. When two evenly matched teams face off, the winner is usually the team that prepared harder for the game, and then tries harder in the game. Before players can score, they must make sacrifices that might not seem like fun at the moment. Sacrifices such as doing the drills, doing windsprints at the end of practice, scrimmaging hard, and waking up at least three hours before an early-morning game. The Eagles players made sacrifices, and the result speaks for itself.

 The Eagles had some good fortune during the season, perhaps even some ‘luck.’ But, as golfer Gary Player said, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’”

* * * * 

A week after the State Championship game, the team appeared on the mid-Missouri NBC-TV affiliate’s morning show, whose host praised the players as winners on and off the ice. A week later, the team appeared on the floor of the Missouri House of Representatives and the lawmakers unanimously passed a Resolution honoring the players for “developing and maintaining an excellent reputation for sportsmanship and fair play,” and for “collecting several hundred cans of food for [local food banks] that assist mid-Missouri children and families in need.”

Three weeks after the title game and the appearances on television and the House floor, the coaches urged the parents to look ahead:

“The players feel proud for giving 100% effort all season, and parents should feel proud for your unwavering support and encouragement. As you guide your players in future sports seasons, continue focusing on what is really important. Urge your players to have fun. Urge them to train hard for every game and to compete earnestly. Urge them to strive for victory, respect sportsmanship, and carry their teams as far as their abilities permit.

The players met and exceeded our reasonable expectations, and they did it the right way – with sportsmanship and fair play. Unexpected youth league championships such as ours can be the most memorable championships of all because the players reach the pinnacle on their own terms, without coping all season with needless pressure. Would the players have had fun, and would they have achieved so much, if their parents and coaches had dropped hints all season that success depended on winning the state title?

Everyone should take happy memories from this rewarding season. Lasting memories frozen in time. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, a youth league team’s greatest achievements often lie in ‘the journey, not the destination.’ The Eagles’ journey became a roller coaster near the end, but the kids had a great ride.”

HEROIC COACHES: An Interview with the Legendary Bob Hurley of St. Anthony’s Prep

In his long-tenure at St. Anthony’s Prep in Jersey City, Bob Hurley won 28 state championships with the boys’ basketball team. He has sent literally hundreds of his players onto to Division 1 programs on full scholarships. A few years ago, Coach Hurley was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is extremely rare for a HS coach. His two sons, Bobby and Dan, are head coaches at Arizona State and the Univ of Rhode Island respectively.

In short, Bob Hurley’s remarkable achievements fill page after page. He is that unique as a coach. But more than that, Coach Hurley is widely recognized as being one of those rare people in athletics who stand for all the right values when it comes to teaching kids in sports.

As I’m sure many of you know, St. Anthony’s had to close its doors due to financial restraints last year. Bob had served as the head basketball coach there since the early 1970s, and he did everything he could to try and keep the doors open. But in the end, there just wasn’t enough money to keep the school going.

But that school closing hasn’t slowed Coach Hurley down. On my radio show this AM, he joined me from Omaha, Nebraska, where he had been invited to speak and to run a basketball clinic for hundreds of Sudanese basketball players. As Bob explained on the air, Omaha has become a thriving home to more than 20,000 Sudanese immigrants in recent years, and like the rest of the world, Sudanese athletes love playing basketball. “They already have had a number of kids go on to play Division I programs here,” explained Bob, “and from what I say out in Omaha, there are lots more on the way.”

He continued: “It was also heartening to see the transition for these kids and their families into the American culture. Many of their parents wore traditional Sudanese clothing, but their children were clearly dressed as American youngsters.” Indeed, as I pointed out, the is all about the American dream, where all of us at some point came from ancestors who migrated to the US (with the exception of Native Americans).

In any event, I was very eager to get the Coach’s take on what’s going on with the current headlines of college coaches taking bribes from sneaker companies in order to push players to certain colleges. Hurley made it clear that he expects more arrests are going to escalate in the months to come. And that college basketball programs which deal with the sneaker companies are working hard right now to see if they might be implicated in any way.

“The fact that it’s the FBI speaks to how serious and widespread this issue is,” said Coach Hurley, “the NCAA just doesn’t have the manpower or staff to follow through or to enforce the necessary discipline. But with the FBI fully engaged, and then perhaps the IRS, this is going to have a major impact on college recruiting as we know it.

Coach Hurley continued: “I think we’re going to see a coming together of the NBA, the NCAA, the sneaker companies, AAU and so on. They clearly need to correct this problem, and figure out how this should work better. It’s obvious that the “one-and-done” of college basketball is not working. Maybe the time has come to emulate what they do in Europe, where a kid in his mid-teens can sign with a pro team and play on their club team for a few years before a decision is made as to whether he’s going to be good enough to sign a much bigger contract and play for the pro team.”

That’s an interesting perspective, because it would help eliminate any financial inducements by sneaker companies because the kids would already be under contract to a pro team. And if a kid gets to be 17 or 18, and it doesn’t appear that he’s going to be a top pro player, then maybe he goes to college and plays for four years there.

 

TALKING WITH HIS SONS ABOUT RECRUITING

I asked Coach Hurley about how this scandal would affect his boys. He said that it’s more of an issue for Bobby, who is the head coach at Arizona State in the Pac-12. “That’s because more and more of the top players who are being recruited in the Pac-12 and other major conferences are truly anticipating to be one and done players. Kids like Fultz and Ball who last year were selected first and second overall in the NBA. So Bobby is well aware of the pressures that college coaches feel about gaining any advantage they can to sway a kid to attend their school for a year before turning pro.

“But at other D-I programs, like the Univ. of Rhode Island where Danny coaches, it’s different. Most of those players do not expect to be one-and-done kids, so there’s less money floating around. Those kids would of course love to go pro, but already know the odds of that happening are less.”

What’s the bottom line? Well, first of all, we have to wait and see how many more coaches like Rick Pitino are booted out of their jobs, how many assistant coaches are indicted, and even how many HS kids who took money might be charged with a crime.

Once all of that is cleaned up, we can only assume that smart people like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and coaches like Bob Hurley will get together and try to come up with a solid plan that finally puts an end to this nonsense once and for all.