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ACCOUNTABILITY WITH ATHLETES: What’s the Right Punishment for the 3 UCLA Hoopsters Caught Shoplifting in China?

Here’s a pop quiz for you.

What’s the appropriate punishment for the three freshman UCLA basketball players who were caught shoplifting in China?

Now, they all said the right things at their recent televised press conference…that they will learn from this experience….that they apologize…and what they did was not who they really are – not the way they were brought up.

They even thanked the President and the United States Government.

Okay. This was all good AND was to expected. And UCLA has handed them an indefinite suspension.

My question to you:

Should it be for a few games?

Should they be allowed to return and play in the Pac-12 conference games later this season?

Should they be suspended for the entire season?

Should they be kicked out of school entirely?

Should they lose their athletic scholarships?

Should they do some sort of community service?

Now, before you answer, a few facts to consider:

Fact number one: In China, stealing is considered to be a most serious crime, When Trump said that these kids – who apparently shoplilfted merchandise not from one store, but from three were looking at 10 years in jail in China, that wasn’t fake news…that’s real news.

Theft in that country is a big, big deal. There is total zero tolerance for this kind of behavior, regardless of whether you’re a Chinese citizen or a visiting basketball player.

Fact number two: What would a college do with a typical or regular student who was caught shoplifting? Chances are the school probably would not get involved at all. Being arrested wouldn’t interfere with their student status, but the kid would have to deal with the judicial system on his or her own. That is, no one from the university or a coach or the President of the US would get involved.

But this case is, of course, different….why?

Because when you are a representative of your university and are travelling in a foreign country, it’s no longer just about you. As a representative of the university and the team, you are fully expected to behave in a manner that is respectful and honorable.

So, if you’re UCLA, or Coach Steve Alford – a former star player and protégé of old school Coach Bobby Knight at Indiana — what’s the right message to send here? Alford has said that the three players – LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill – will have to earn their way back to playing time. But he wasn’t more specific than that, or what they would have to do to earn their way.

GIVE THE KIDS A SECOND CHANCE?

Or do you subscribe to the theory that all teenagers make dumb mistakes, and as adults, we need to accept their miscues, forgive them, and move on. Apparently, in China, this theory doesn’t hold much sway.

Remember a few weeks ago, we were discussing teenage accountability — about learning to take responsibility for one’s mistakes…learning how to think ahead of the consequences of one’s actions BEFORE you commit them?

Well, this case is Exhibit A. And the callers this AM on my radio were fairly outspoken. The vast consensus was for harsh punishment – to either kick them out of college or to suspend them for the year. There wasn’t much compassion for giving these kids a second chance and to let them compete again this year.

One young caller — who was 23 — said that he had encountered a similar situation a year or so ago when he was a member of a D-I college swim team. On a team trip to Puerto Rico to compete in a meet, two of the team’s top players were caught drinking which was against team and school rules. They were summarily dismissed from the team. The caller said that losing their two top competitors hurt the team’s chances during the year, but no one on the squad disagreed with the punishment. The two swimmers knew the rules before they left for Puerto Rico, and they knowingly broke them. They thus has to face the consequences.

Many of the callers today felt the way. It was assumed that either Coach Alford or someone from UCLA sat down with the entire basketball team before they embarked for China, and said, “Look, you’re going to be representing UCLA and our athletic program in a different country which has a much difficult culture and different laws. Be respectful and don’t do anything stupid.”

Bottom line? These three kids are lucky to be back in the US. But mark my words: I won’t be surprised if they are back playing in games before Christmas. Let’s just hope this “teachable moment” has some real effect on their young lives.

 

GETTING CUT FROM A TEAM: What Parents — and Coaches – Need to Know

FOR THE PARENT….

I want to discuss difficult moments in an athlete’s life when – as the Mom or Dad – you find yourself on the spot to have to say the right thing – to find the precise words – to talk with your son or daughter when things aren’t going their way.

We’re talking about key or crucial conversations – and every sports parent has them.

For example, what do you say to your youngster when they don’t make the cut for a travel team?

What do you say if they just played a terrible game – maybe even let in the winning goal, or gave up a major turnover, or made a key error?

How do you handle these kinds of delicate situations – whether your kid is 8 or 18?

As a parent, do you simply say nothing – and just let your youngster vent?

Or if they’re saying nothing, should you try and get them to talk?

Do you try and minimize the impact – maybe even talk about something else on a different subject to just lighten the mood?

Or do you take a different tack – and express your anger – no, not at your kid, but rather at the coaches who ran the program and decided against your child?

Because while I know there is no specific right or wrong day to handle these kinds of delicate conversations, I do know that for a kid who loves sports, these are critically important moments in their young lives.

FOR THE COACH…

I’m also eager to find out more about how coaches implement their cuts these days.

Over the years, I have heard all sorts of complaints about how coaches give out the bad news to kids. Traditionally, back when I was in school, a coach would simply put the names of the kids who made the team on a roster and would post it on the bulletin board in the gym. I can still remember having my heart in my throat as I approached the list to see if my name were on it.

But these days, things have changed. Sometimes, the list is posted on a website, so that the youngster doesn’t have to feel  or experience the pain in public if he or she isn’t on the list. Some coaches feel that is somehow more humane.

And some coaches – especially at the youth level – will tell kids after try outs that they will receive a phone call that night if they made the team. That of course is most barbaric as a young kid will be waiting and waiting for a call that isn’t coming. And then it’s up the parent to console the child.

Other coaches will have all the kids who are trying out simply line up, and after a short speech in which the coach says something like “We had a lot of talented kids try out this year, but unfortunately, we are limited by the number of roster spaces, so if you don’t hear your name called out, thank you for your time and effort.” And then the coach proceeds to read out the names of the kids who did make the team. The others who didn’t hear their name are left to look around at each other, and just…leave.

Look –  there is NO one perfect way to cut kids from a team. But as a former coach myself, I always felt that if a youngster had worked hard in the tryouts and had been serious about making the team, if I had to cut him, I always took him into my office and explained to him why he wasn’t making the team, and gave him specific feedback on what he did well, and what he needed to improve upon.

These conversations didn’t last more than 10 minutes, but I felt a sense of obligation to give him a chance to ask questions and to react in private.

I was gratified to receive a number of calls from coaches this AM on my radio show who said that’s exactly what they do. They make the time to talk with each kid who is getting cut. The coaches find the kids respond better and that fewer parents call to complain.

Now, I recognize that as a coach, if you have dozens of kids trying out and only a handful will be selected, well, you’re not going to be able to talk to each kid who gets cut. But as you get deeper and deeper into the rounds of making the team – and the numbers winnow down – then yes, I do think it’s important to give the kids who get cut some positive feedback, a pat on the back, and some real instruction on what they need to work on.

THE NUMBER TWO COMPLAINT….

It won’t come as a surprise to you that the number one complaint that sports parents have is “my kid is not getting enough playing time.”

But the number two complaint is: ”My kid tried out and got cut….and it’s just not fair.”

That is one very difficult moment. For everyone involved.

It happens. It’s part of competitive sports. Not everyone can make the team and that’s the reality. But what do you say or do when it’s your kid?

The sports world is full of stories of top name athletes who got cut during their careers, but then, somehow, they rebounded and continued with their sports. So how do we as sports parents and coaches make sure these young people bounce back and are able to move on.

What did these parents and coaches say to these kids to encourage them to keep playing?

Just a quick refresher: Michael Jordan cut as a sophomore from his HS basketball team. Steve Young, the Hall of Fame QB, was 8th string at BYU, and didn’t even dress in uniform for home games as a freshman – and he certainly didn’t travel with the team for away games.

Jose Altuve, when he went to try out for the Astros at a try out camp, was told he was just too small to ever get a chance to play pro baseball. NFL running back Danny Woodhead set all sorts of rushing records in HS in Nebraska but was told he too was too small to earn a scholarship at the Univ of Nebraska. He went to a D-II school instead where, yes, he set all sorts of rushing records.

Sure, we all tend to focus on those gifted athletes who are seen as being superstars by the time they are 10. But the woods are chock full of athletes who were cut….or told they weren’t good enough…or that they were too small.

But somebody along the way must have said something to these athletes to help them find their way.

Whenever my own kids got cut from a team,  I made a conscious effort to first give them some space and then, most importantly let them talk. Let them vent on about their frustration, how they thought the coach liked them, or how they felt were definitely better than other kids on the team.That’s okay….let them get it out of their system. You don’t have to say much. Just be sincere.

And then, after the angers and tears subside for a day or two, then I would ask if they still want to play that sport. If yes, I would make my task to find another league or outlet where my youngster could play. In the end, in my experience, it’s more that the youngster wants to play on a team and have some fun and feel good about themselves. I just always felt that I wanted my kids to determine when they would decide to walk away from a sport, rather than having as their last memory the sting of being cut by the coach.

As noted, the reality is that kids do get cut in sports. But if there is a way to soften the blow, I think that’s key for both the sports parent and the coach.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Why Running Track is Good for Your Child in So Many Ways

In what has become something of a tradition on NYC Marathon Sunday, I like to spend an hour talking on the air with long-time running coach, Joel Pasternack who is based in northern New Jersey. Joel is a veteran of many marathons, having competed and done very well in his races back in the day.

I like to talk running with Joel because he always seems to touch upon topics that I, for one, would never think about. And if you’re a sports parent, and your son or daughter has shown some interest in running competitively, these are some key points that Joel made on the show this AM:

There are lots of studies that show that track and field is by far the most popular in HS all over the country.

When I asked Joel why, he immediately pointed out that, unlike the current national obsession to have kids try out for travel or club teams in other sports, when it comes to running track, there are no cuts from HS teams. That is, if your youngster wants to be on the team, then as long as he or she goes to the practices, then they’ll be able to compete in the races and meets.

Of course, they are timed by stopwatch and run against other runners, but in this day and age of super-competitive sports at increasingly younger ages, it’s reassuring that any youngster can still go out and be on the HS team.

Running is, of course, one of the least expensive sports. 

There have been a lot of reports recently that elite sports in this country are increasingly becoming more of a divide between families with money and those that don’t. But with running, the major cost is purchasing a pair of running shoes. There are no travel team dues or other major equipment costs.

Running can be a family sport.

Joel reports that one of the best ways to encourage your kids to run is by letting them see you run, and then inviting them to run with you. Start with short races – maybe just one lap around the track. But then start to encourage them to run with you in local 2.5 or 5 kilometer races. And if they can’t run or jog the entire distance, that’s okay. Let them know it it’s okay to slow down and walk when they get tired, and then to run again when they refreshed. As the parent, stay with them and encourage them along the way.

A caution about marathons and bucket lists.

Joel did say that for a lot of adults, being able to run a marathon is on a lot of bucket lists. He warns people that running a marathon is not only not easy, but it can be devastating to one’s body and legs and knees if you’re not fully prepared. To that end, Joel says it takes probably 3 years to progress to the point where you can run in a marathon and walk away unscathed. Too many people feel that they prepare in a just few months, and Joel feels that could be dangerous.

He also cautioned that kids under the age of 18 – even if they are in great shape – should also not run in marathons. His feeling is that they should wait until their 20s as their bodies are still too young and developing to deal with the punishment that a marathon means.

Get your kids involved at a young age.

Joel is a big proponent of getting kids into youth running programs, and the good news is that there are lot of them. To find such a program close to you, go to USATF.org and find the state in which you live for a complete listing.

ATHLETIC DIRECTORS: Why are So Many HS AD’s Calling it Quits?

On last Sunday’s radio show, I asked whether the time has finally come to seriously think about walking away from traditional HS varsity sports programs.

I asked that question because so many talented and gifted coaches have become tired and worn out by the endless number of sports parents who confront them about their kid’s lack of playing time, or not being given certain awards, or just not getting enough attention from the coach. And these coaches just decide that as much as they enjoy working with young kids, it’s just not worth their time and emotional effort to deal with their Moms and Dads. And so, the HS coaches quit- and many of them go off to work for club or travel programs.

In other words, having to deal with meddlesome parents has become the tipping point for coaches.

But as it turns out, it’s not just HS coaches who are throwing in the towel. It’s also more and more HS Athletic Directors who have found that their jobs have only become more complicated and more time-consuming in recent years, so much so that they, too, are walking away from the stress and strain.

In the forthcoming December issue of New Jersey Monthly magazine, long-time journalist Dave Kaplan writes an exclusive feature on this issue. And while Kaplan concentrates primarily on New Jersey in his article, this is a phenomenon that is occurring all over the country. More and more AD’s are finding that their jobs are endless — “all day and after dark” – is how many AD’s describe their job, and despite the high pay (usually at least $100,000 a year) and the prestige that comes with being the face of the school’s overall athletic program, for more and more AD’s it’s just too much.

Kaplan writes that in NJ, there are more than 400 HS AD’s, but that each year, the turnover rate continues to climb. Right now, there are close to 50 vacancies. Even worse, whereas a few years ago, an AD would stay on the job for 20 years or more, nowadays, they stay for only a few years.  One caller said that in his school district, the long-time AD had been there for 30 years. But since he retired, there had been 5 AD’s – -and none of them last more than a year or two.

Why is this happening? Kaplan points out that with school budgets shrinking, more districts are combining the AD’s job with those of being an assistant principal. While that might save money, it just doubles the workload onto an already overtaxed AD. Don’t forget that the AD usually oversees as many as 70 or more coaches in the school district, and when coaches leave, it’s the AD who has to replace them. And it’s not easy to find a JV field hockey coach.

And of course, the AD is responsible to make sure all the transportation for away games is handled, that the refs, umps, and officials know if there’s a problem with the weather, and has to make sure that all transfer students are eligible to play. But the biggest problem for AD’s these days is having to deal with disappointed parents who don’t think their kid’s coach is competent or giving their youngster enough playing time.

Of course, these kinds of parental meetings suck up lots of time from the AD – time that he or she just doesn’t have. And even worse, parents often want follow-up meetings as well. That means more time being used up.

A REAL PROBLEM THAT’S NOT GOING AWAY

As a result, we now face a growing crisis in which not only HS coaches are quitting, but so are their bosses – the HS AD’s.

To that end, maybe the time will be upon very, very soon where public HS simply say, “Enough. We have decided that in order to save money, we’re dropping all interscholastic sports. If a kid wants to compete in sports, go out and find a club team outside school. The benefit to the taxpayers is that we no longer have to spend millions of dollars on athletic budgets, plus we can dismiss all the coaches and the AD. That will save on payroll.”

Think this can’t or won’t happen?

Well, I hope it doesn’t, but the way we’re headed now, I think this new wrinkle might occur sooner than we think. And even worse, once one school district makes this move, I fear that lots of others will follow suit quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

PARENTS V. COACHES: Still the Biggest Issue in Youth and Amateur Sports Today – and Getting Worse

If there is one trend in youth and amateur sports that continues to rise in this country, it’s the issue of more and more HS coaches leaving the ranks. No matter where you live, whether it’s in New York, California, Texas, Florida, Maine, or any of the states in between, the rate at which HS coaches are resigning their jobs has become an alarming epidemic.

What’s the reason for the mass exodus?

The answer is pretty simple.

Parents.

Whereas a generation or two ago, parents rarely interfered with their kid’s coaches in HS, nowadays it has become just the reverse. Whether it’s because parents feel that they have invested so much time and energy and money into their child’s athletic career, the last thing they want to encounter is a HS coach who doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for that kid as his or her parents do. That is, the HS coach may want to have the kid play a different position, or doesn’t feel that he or she should be a captain, or that even the youngster hasn’t done enough to be a starter.

Whatever the reason is, if a parent doesn’t feel that their youngster is being coached properly, or being touted enough, or not getting enough playing time, then the coach is going to hear about it. And Heaven help the coach who happens to employ a coaching style which is loud or verbally tough; you do that enough these days, and you run the risk of being brought up on charges of being a bully. And that’s a serious accusation these days in our schools.

So what happens? As if the coach didn’t have enough on one’s plate to not only develop all the players on the team, put together solid practice regimens, plan out game strategies, and then try and win the games, the coach also has to prepare to deal with Moms and Dads who seem to feel that their youngster should be the epicenter of the team.

In my years of dealing with youth sports issues, I have to confess that this one singular topic has consistently become the most difficult AND the most precarious. That is, as a competitive sports nation, we really need to come to grips with what’s right for our kids and their coaches.

DO WE ELIMINATE HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS?

As I asked on my WFAN radio show this AM, have we reached a point where we should just give up on traditional HS sports and just go to a club system, like they have in Europe? That is, we here in the US can save a lot of money by not offering HS sports programs for our kids PLUS coaches wouldn’t have to put up with parents because there would no longer be HS sports teams.

Instead, kids who are athletic could play on outside club or travel teams (which, of course, are paid for by the parents). But there, if a Mom or Dad has a problem with the coach, then they would have the right to complain because the coach is being paid by the parents. And if the parent doesn’t feel a solution is possible, then the kid can leave that team and try to play for another club team.

This is how it works overseas, although please note that in an article in the New York Times, it’s pointed out that kids as young as 10 or 11 who, after playing on a soccer club team for a years, might suddenly find themselves cut or let go because the coach no longer feels that the kid is progressing properly, or doesn’t project to be a star.

It’s got to be very, very tough to be cut before one even reaches adolescence, and you can just imagine what the parents go through. But that’s the price to be paid with club teams, and as noted, this is routine business overseas.

So what’s the best solution for the United States? In truth, I don’t know. But I do know this. We need to come together and try and figure out a national game plan. Too many HS coaches, who are paid perhaps a few thousand dollars for 10 weeks of 24/7 work, are throwing in the towel – not because of the stress of working with kids – but because of the stress of dealing with the kid’s parents.

Lots of callers agreed this AM that something needs to be done. And to that end, if you have thoughts or suggestions, please let me know by posting your thoughts.

Ultimately, the victims in all of this are not so much the coaches or the parents who have high expectations, but the youngsters who have to live though all of this.

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.

 

COMMUNICATING WITH THE PARENTS: Part II of Doug Abrams’ Experiences as a Youth Hockey Coach

 Using Email to Communicate With the Team’s Parents (Part 2)

By Doug Abrams

Part 1 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. The Part provided emails that I, as head coach, wrote and sent during pre-season practice sessions to the parents on our 9-10-year-old Squirt hockey team a few years ago. The team played in the “house gold” league (the higher Squirt house league) against seven St. Louis-area house teams. The season ended with playoffs and a State Championship Series.

Part 2 now provides emails (again in italics) that the coaching staff sent to the parents during the regular season. Next time, Part 3 will provide the coaches’ emails to parents during the playoffs and the championship series.

The Regular Season: “‘Teaching Opportunities’ Ahead”

Our team lost the regular season’s opening game, and the coaches sent the parents this email two days later after the next practice session:

“We can draw valuable lessons from Sunday’s loss because athletes at any level can sometimes learn more from losing than from winning.  Quite frankly, if our team goes 9-1 in the first ten games, it is better to lose the first game than the tenth. In the long run, the team will be better off if the players learn about skills and temperament sooner rather than later.

Here are lessons that the coaches and players discussed briefly in the locker room before last night’s practice:

1)         It is no embarrassment to lose to a strong team when you give your best effort. We lost to a strong team Sunday, and all our players gave 100%. Every day of the season across North America, half of all youth hockey teams lose the games they play. Every losing team returns to skate another day.

2)         Learning how to ‘win like a winner’ can be easy, but learning how to ‘lose like a winner’ can be tough. We told the players that they played like winners – intense, skillful, clean, and sportsmanlike. But we also mentioned that once we started losing, a few players began complaining about the referee or criticizing teammates from the bench. The complaints and criticism were not strident, but they did happen.

The coaches stressed that when you start complaining about the referee, you signal that you are giving up because losing teams focus on the ref. A team wins hockey games only by strong defense and strong offense – by keeping the puck out of the team’s net and by putting the puck in the opponents’ net. When players on the bench complain about the referee, they are not concentrating on what they must accomplish during their next shift on the ice.

The coaches also stressed that “TEAM” means all players supporting one another. Criticism leads to bickering that divides the team. Players who criticize teammates from the bench may make mistakes on the ice a few minutes later, and the critics will want and need their teammates’ full support. 

Both problems – complaining about the ref and criticizing from the bench – are issues at all levels of youth sports, and even in the pros. These problems are predictable because they occur on almost every youth hockey team at one time or another. The players understood what we coaches were talking about.” 

* * * *

In our second game, we faced the team that would finish in first place at the end of the regular season. We lost that game too, and the post-game email (sent after the team’s next practice, acknowledged that the parents and coaches still had “teaching opportunities” ahead:

“Here are the lessons that the coaches briefly discussed with the players before last night’s practice:

  • Hold your head high when you lose to a strong team after giving your best effort. In the locker room after the post-game handshakes, the coaches told the team that when players try their best (as we did), they should skate off the ice with their heads held high so that a casual spectator who just walked into the rink cannot tell whether the team won or lost.

2)         Hockey is only half physical; the other half is mental. For the past month, the coaches have told the players that the mental half of the game is as important as the physical.

We have a young team (mostly first-year Squirts), and the players were understandably nervous before the first two games, as they should have been. Before the game, the coaches told the players that if they try their best and have fun, the scoreboard will take care of itself. Of course, telling players to take a deep breath is easier said (by adults) than done (by kids).  Because much nervousness disappears once a player hits the ice for the first shift, the coaches kept the first few line shifts especially short so that every player could taste game action as quickly as possible.”

* * * *

Losing streaks can leave players and parents anxious, so the coaches wanted the parents to understand their central role in guiding the players from game to game, particularly through defeats. After our first two losses, the coaches sent parents this email:

“As the team improves each week and seeks to break into the ‘win’ column soon, we adults need to say and do the right things before, during, and after each game because the players remain alert to our verbal and non-verbal cues. Sports is important to these players. Words hurt, and the wrong words today can hurt for a long time. The players are more likely to remain enthused if they see enthusiasm in their parents and coaches. Parents play important roles because they spend much more time each week with their player than the coaches do.”

* * * *

Our third game was a tie, a step in the right direction. No victories yet, but the kids felt great afterwards. The coaches sent parents this email:

“The players should be proud of this morning’s 6-6 tie because we reached back for that ‘something extra’ every time we needed it. Pros and youth leaguers alike sometimes shut down mentally when the other team builds a lead, but we came from behind four times to earn the tie.  At the bench between the second and third periods (when we were down, 4-2), the coaches told the players to ‘show what we are made of’ in the third period and the team responded with four goals. 

After the game, we talked to the players about an incident that happened late in the third period. An opposing player evidently said something derogatory to one of our players. (Not worth repeating here.) The coaches told the players that we cannot control what opponents say or do, but we can control what we say or do. The coaches said that we must exercise self-discipline, even after misbehavior by opponents. We stressed that our team plays and behaves right, win, lose, or draw.

The parents and coaches can help by continuing to set the example that we want the players themselves to set on and off the ice. We adults watch the kids play in practice sessions and games, but (whether we realize it or not) the kids also watch us. And children ‘learn what they watch.’

Ethics begins at home, and football coach Knute Rockne was right that “one person practicing good sportsmanship is far better than 50 others preaching it.”

* * * *

Future games produced some wins and some losses. By the last month of the season, we seemed headed for a fourth-place finish in the eight-team league. From the beginning, the coaches told the parents that the players would carry the team as far as their abilities permitted. The players were proving the coaches right, but our email reminded the parents that the players had not done it alone:

“You may have noticed that we have near-perfect attendance at every practice and game. Near-perfect attendance does not happen by accident, and it is quite unusual on many youth sports teams. Kids do not have to play unless they want to. Sustaining  the ‘want’ is a primary responsibility of parents and coaches.

By this time late in the season, some players might look for reasons to skip practices or games if their parents browbeat them about hockey at home, or on the ride to or from the rink. Or if the coaches browbeat the during practices or games. We adults compliment the players with praise for their hustle, but the players also compliment us with their continued enthusiasm.

In a way, it is a shame that rules prevent us from having a different parent join us on the bench each period. You would be thoroughly impressed if you could watch the players’ faces. The players care, and the parents deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

For the rest of the season, we will probably win some games and lose some games, as every youth league team does. Achieving full potential signals success, and we adults should be proud of the players as we ‘keep the fires burning.’”

* * * *

Just when fourth place looked like a lock, we lost 9-2. This email followed:

1)         Hockey is only half physical; the other half is mental (again). When we fell behind 3-1 early in the second period, the mental half began to unravel, as it often does even in the pros. The coaches reminded the team that giving up the first few goals does not assure defeat. Sometimes the easiest time to score is when the opposition relaxes right after they score, and mentally strong teams can sometimes overcome an early deficit (as we did a few weeks ago when we came from behind four times to gain a tie). Our coaches will remain patient because NHL coaches earn hefty salaries for reminding their multi-millionaire players about the very same things. 

2)         During the game, the coaches tried rearranging some of the lines. A few forwards wondered why they were asked to play on a different line, or to play defense; a few defenders wondered why they were asked to play forward.

Tomorrow night we will remind the players that hockey is a team sport, not an individual sport. The coaches know which players prefer skating forward and which ones prefer defense, and we try to let players do what they feel most comfortable doing, consistent with their experience. But we will also remind the players that no team succeeds for long when everyone expects to get everything they want all the time. The kids will belong to teams (in sports, employment, and otherwise) for the rest of their lives; squirt hockey provides an early chance for adults to explain the need for mutual sacrifices.”     

* * * *

What are the sometimes overlooked rewards for parents and coaches? Consider this email:

“After yesterday’s game, the opposing coaches told me how much they enjoyed playing our team this season. We won both games, but the coaches said that the games were clean and sportsmanlike. ‘The way youth hockey should be played,’ one said. I extended the same compliment to their team.

Too often nowadays, we hear about parents, coaches, and players who spoil games because they cannot play with class, win, lose, or draw. Our players showed the same class during our early-season defeats as they did during this weekend’s victories. The opposing coaches gave us a genuine compliment yesterday, and we coaches wanted to share it with the parents, who have worked with us all season to teach the right lessons on and off the ice.

Now that opposing coaches are giving our team well-deserved praise, perhaps the parents should take a moment to give themselves well-deserved praise for setting the right example. At the pre-season parents meeting, the coaches warned that throughout the season, we would sometimes feel tempted to scream at the referees, or otherwise to vent our frustrations during games. The parents and coaches promised to set a wholesome example for the players by resisting temptation, and we have kept that promise all season.

Acting right is much more difficult than talking right. Mark Twain put it well: ‘Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often.’ It is no surprise that other teams’ coaches have praised our players for sportsmanship this season. A proverb says that ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree.’”

* * * *

The regular season ended on a high note:

“Saturday morning’s 7-2 victory guarantees us a winning record this season. Success in youth sports, however, has many indicators. After this morning’s victory, I talked with a squirt parent who made a thoughtful point. The parent said that our team’s greatest success is that the players, parents, and coaches genuinely like one another and get along so well. Camaraderie makes a solid place in the standings seem that much more worthwhile.

With more achievement ahead as we prepare for the playoffs, we hope that each family already views the season with a sense of satisfaction. Well-earned satisfaction is a sign of accomplishment.”

* * * *

We did finish the regular season in fourth place. The next stop was the single-elimination playoffs for all eight teams, climaxed by the State Championship game and its surprises. Part 3 of this column will provide the coaches’ playoff emails next time.