Author Archive

COACHING TIPS: The Plight of the Benchwarmer…What Coaches, Parents, and Kids Need to Know

For those of you who follow ASKCOACHWOLFF.COM, you know that our friend and colleague, Doug Abrams, wrote a most powerful column this past week on this website.

It was such a powerful topic that I felt compelled to talk about it on my WFAN radio show this AM.

In short, in this day and age, when we are all so caught up and focused on who ares rising young stars in youth and amateur sports, I think Doug’s point of view is very much right on point.

That is, what do we do with the kid who doesn’t start on the team…the youngster who is hoping to get into the game but probably won’t…the player who has to sit and wait for his or her time to get in.

The young athlete who, unfortunately, is labelled, or viewed, as a benchwarmer, sees and views the game at hand much differently from the coach or from the way his teammates do. That is, the coach (and I’m talking primarily about HS varsity coaches here) is focused on his game strategy and X’s and O’s….the starters are locked in on following the coach’s game plan, and hoping to have a good game. But the kid on the bench? He’s hoping that the game results in a lopsided score so that maybe, just maybe, he or she might get some playing time.

That may be harsh, but deep down inside, for anyone who has ever sat on a HS varsity bench, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

And of course, there’s more. The parents of the benchwarmer are also wondering why their child isn’t getting more playing time. You know what happens next: the coach starts getting emails or calls from the kid’s parents as to what’s going on.

THE MOST DIFFICULT MESS OF THEM ALL

Let’s back up. Playing time at the elementary and middle school ages (as well as travel teams) should never be a problem. Every kid on the team should play at least half the game. And coaches, you have to make sure that happens. That’s the most important part of your game approach. Winning at those ages is NOT your top priority. Getting kids lots of quality playing time is. That’s rule number one.

I recall when I was coaching youth soccer. The games were often divided into quarters, and I kept a detailed scorecard for each quarter, and made sure that not only did each kid on the team play at least half the game, but I also made sure the youngsters rotated positions.

Was this time-consuming in terms of keeping track of playing time? A little bit. But I knew two things:

1 – That in the end, my won-loss record in coaching youth soccer wasn’t a top priority.

2 – That the moms and dads and grandparents who came out to watch the games were there for one singular purpose  — to watch their child play, and play at lot. They did not come out to see them sit on the bench.

And a couple of things happened….my youth soccer teams won more often than they lost…why? Because I think since all the kids on the team knew they were going to play, and play a lot, they brought an extra sense of energy to the games.

And two…the kids and their parents came away from the games with a sense of joy.

Trust me, that counts for a lot.

At the youth level, coaches, I can’t emphasize that enough.

But admittedly, things get more complicated as kids get into HS age. Example. One of the callers on the show this AM complained that his son played on his HS football team, went to every practice, but never got a minute of playing time in the games. Hard to believe how a coach could do that to a kid. But I fear that this kind of thing happens more often than we want to admit.

There was also significant debate about a HS coach simply telling a senior player on the team that: “Look, you’ve earned your spot on the roster, but you need to know that you’re not going to play much this year, if at all.”

While I feel for the coach being honest with the senior, I also know that the player is most likely not going to cut himself from the team. Instead, he’ll stay on the team, and hope and pray for a few seconds of action. From the coach’s perspective, he admitted that it bothered him that he would have to pass by this kid on the sidelines during the game, knowing full well that the kid desperately wanted to get in, but that the coach knew he wasn’t going to play him.

My perspective? If a kid makes your roster, then Coach, you are then obligated to make sure he or she plays and contributes even in some small way to the team. To become a perpetual benchwarmer is not only not fair to the kid, but it also plants serious seeds for division on your team.

BOTTOM LINE FOR COACHES?

Please give the concept of benchwarmers some serious thought and reflection. If you know you’re the kind of coach who tends to only play his starters all the time, then tear off the Band-Aid and keep only a minimal number of players. That is, cut the benchwarmers.

If, however, you’re the kind of coach who CAN find playing time for all of your players, then keep a solid number and make sure they all play at least a little bit.

In other words, this is one very, very delicate issue. Just remember this: Playing time for their kids continues to be the Number One complaint from parents to coaches.

 

COACHING TIPS: Be Sensitive to the Concerns of Your Benchwarmers!

 Emotional Safety — and the Harms of Benchwarming

By Doug Abrams

Headlines these days pay close attention to youth leaguers’ physical safety – concussions, over-use injuries, and other risks and conditions that damage health and well-being. But player “safety” also means emotional safety, this column’s subject. Parents and coaches fulfill their most important missions when an athlete emerges from the final youth league game both physically healthy and emotionally healthy.

In our society that places so much emphasis on sports, few humiliations damage a youth leaguer’s emotional safety more than chronic benchwarming.

USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body, sets a wholesome standard for youth leagues: “Fair and equal opportunity for all to participate.” The National Hockey League, USA Hockey, and more than a dozen other prominent hockey organizations recently adopted a Declaration of Principles reaffirming that “hockey is for everyone”; the foundation for this imperative is respect for “each individual’s physical, emotional and cognitive development.” Similar aspirations should drive decision makers in other youth sports.

“Fair and equal opportunity” means more than just enrolling all interested youth leaguers and placing them on teams at appropriate levels of play. Enrollment and placement are the easy parts. The sternest challenge comes in games, when coaches eyeing the scoreboard get a tenseness in the stomach and might feel tempted to overlook some players for much or most of the contest. For more than 40 years, I coached youth hockey players who are now in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.  My former players still tell me why, in both the short term and the long term, emotional safety in youth sports depends on coaches who heed their better instincts by playing every team member.

Short-Term Emotional Safety  

In the short term, chronic benchwarming does not let kids be kids. Players join the team to play. They do not join to sit for a coach who thinks that benching some players might help win games whose scores families will likely soon forget. Former NBA player Bob Bigelow is right: “Few things violate a child’s basic wants and needs – and his or her basic rights – more than sitting on a bench.”

Childhood in America is meant to be a time of relative innocence and personal growth. Sports should deliver players fun and camaraderie, accented by personal achievement from giving best effort. Earning a living, paying mortgages, raising children, and similar weighty obligations will dominate their adult lives soon enough.

Long-Term Emotional Safety

In the long term, chronic benchwarming can leave permanent emotional scars from tattered self-esteem. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times published a letter-to-the-editor by a former Little Leaguer about memories of his chronic benching one summer when he was a fourth-grader more than a generation earlier. “Our coach played only the stars,” he wrote, “I remember nothing else of that summer . . . except the sole inning I played.  I struck out and screwed up a play in left field. For the remainder of the season, I was invisible to the coach.” The letter writer confided that “the shame and humiliation of that one night at age 9 never went away. I’m 50 now.”

Shame and humiliation can impose serious lingering deprivation. More than four decades of coaching youth hockey taught me that as many as a quarter of a youth team’s players are destined to lead difficult, challenging adult lives through no fault of their own.  On a roster of about 16 players, this means about three or four kids. When these players are adults years from now, they or a family member may experience disability or disease, for example. Or financial stress, loss of employment, serious accident or injury, or other crisis whose temporary or permanent dislocation can strike families swiftly and at random.

Today’s coach does not know which eager 11-year-olds will be dealt a difficult hand in life; the players do not know; and the parents do not know.  But these players are in the locker room, and they are standing right in front of the coach.

Nostalgia remains one of the great strengths of the human mind. When my former players cope now with family adversity, youth sports still provides some of their most enduring memories of pure, unvarnished fun. When adults hit personal roadblocks, they can draw confidence and fortitude from reminiscing about good times, including experiences years earlier on childhood playing fields or in locker rooms.

Coaches deprive their youth leaguers of emotional safety when bittersweet memories of chronic benchwarming disable this lifelong support mechanism. Players remember the good times, but they never forget the bad times.

The Key Question

Coaching other people’s children is serious business, a relationship grounded in trust and respect. How can youth league coaches know whether they are fulfilling their responsibility to help keep every player emotionally safe, now and later in life?

Look squarely in the mirror and ask one question: “How well do I treat my least talented player?” The answer will tell plenty about what emotional safety means to the coach.

 

Sources:, Declaration of Principles

https://nhl.bamcontent.com/images/assets/binary/290835644/binary-file/file.pdf; Bob Bigelow, Just Let the Kids Play (2001); Humiliation of Ineptness on the Field Never Left, L.A. Times, May 21, 2001, Part 5, p. 4 (letter-to-the-editor).

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Lavar Ball Tries to Undercut His Son’s Coach

I want to write about the latest outrageous antics of Lavar Ball, and how he had said publicly that Luke Walton, the head of the LA Lakers, has somehow lost control of this NBA team, and the Lakers’ ownership need to get rid of him.

I mean, really? This coming from the Dad of a first-year player (Lonzo) who is on the Lakers? Not to mention that Lavar has no real coaching pedigree or experience on which to make these assertions.

In short, he’s just a sports parenting Dad who doesn’t know when he has totally crossed the line. But of course, as one caller suggested today, maybe he truly is a marketing genius, and Lavar knows that as long as he keeps making outrageous comments, the media will flock to him and his door. And the more people talk about him, the more of his merchandise he can peddle.

Hmm….I hope not.

In any event, I wanted to get another perspective on this, and so I turned to Bob Bigelow. Bob was an All-Ivy League player at Penn back in the 1970s and he ended up as a first-round draft choice in the NBA. Since his playing days ended, Bob’s become – like myself – a very active sports parenting advocate based in Boston.

 

In short, Bob agreed with the assessment that Lavar has become most adept at using social media to help keep him and his three basketball playing sons in the spotlight. That being said, Bob felt that the comments about Coach Luke Walton did go too far; after all,  it is most rare for a father of an active player on the team to give voice to his opinion in such a public way.

The irony is that Lonzo has become just the opposite of his Dad. He keeps his mouth shut, doesn’t say to the media, doesn’t seem to want to try attention to himself. As a rookie in the NBA, he has impressed his teammates with his “pass first” approach on offense. True, his outside shooting needs to be improved, but overall, he’s made a genuinely solid impression. Except, of course, for his father.

Lonzo has said that he has no control over his Dad – which is certainly true – that his father is a grown-up and can say whatever he wants.

But you have to wonder what kinds of conversations he must have with his Dad about his father’s outspoken stuff. As noted, Lonzo has been relatively quiet and has tried very hard to stay out of the controversy. But he must cringe at what his Dad will come up with next.

Bob agreed, and I took it one step further: Can you imagine if the Lakers decided that they would want to trade Lonzo, would any other franchise in the NBA ever want this kid – not because of Lonzo, but because of the father? Whether he realizes it or not, he’s made his kid toxic.

Bob laughed and agreed. That would be a most challenging situation for all involved. Who wants to trade for a talented kid, knowing that he comes with parental baggage?

THE START OF A DISTURBING TREND?

One of the callers mentioned that Eli Apple of the NY Giants may be a victim of similar outrageous comments from his Mom. Apple is a top defensive back in the NFL, and starred at Ohio State. But he’s been criticized by some of his own teammates this year, and his mother has taken to the media to defend him. I find this very odd and unusual. But it’s not too different from what Lavar Ball is doing.

In any event, the caller concluded – and I worry about this – that we might be seeing more and more outspoken sports parents in the immediate future. Parents taking issue with how their kids are being treated at the professional level. And if that’s happening at the pro level, you can only imagine what is going on at the collegiate and HS level.

In short, this is not good and doesn’t bode well for coaches who are trying to build a sense of team camaraderie when parents are openly talking and criticizing them in public. Yes, of course, parents can and do have their opinions. But giving air to them? It’s hard to see how this can lead to any kind of positive outcome.

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing SECRETS OF SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY REVEALED…

Today is the day I’m going to talk about sports psychology.

Many of you know me as primarily focusing on sports parenting issues, having written youth sports columns for a decade for Sports Illustrated, and of course, doing my Sports Edge show on WFAN Radio for the last 20 years.

But before I went into the area of sports parenting, I developed a strong and lifelong interest in sports psychology. This goes back all the way to my days in college and in graduate school. For years, I promised myself I would put my thoughts and insights into a book which focused on sports psychology, and would tailor it to athletes, coaches, and parents, and I’m happy to report that my book is now available for sale this week, both in bookstores as well as online at Amazon or BN.com. It’s available both in paper or as an ebook. The book is entitled Secrets of Sports Psychology Revealed: Proven Techniques to Elevate Your Performance, and in it, I’ve tried to provide the reader with a basic primer of what sport psychology is , and how a young competitive athlete can benefit from it. There’s even a chapter at the end on sports psychology and sports parenting, since the two topics often go hand in hand.

 

First, some quick history. Sports psychology is a relatively new science. When I was an undergrad at Harvard in the early 1970s and was studying psychology, and I was also an aspiring baseball player, I wanted to find as many books and studies as I could about the mental side of sports.

Of course, this was long before google and the internet, so there was no online search. I basically went through the old fashioned approach of library research: going through card catalogs in several of the Harvard libraries. To my amazement, and disappointment, there was only scant material.

In short, there was very, very little about sports psych that I could find in the literature. Oh, there were a few articles here and there, but for the most part, sport psych was a brand new field that was being practiced only in some degree by the East Germans with their Olympic athletes.

But beyond that, no one in American sports – especially at the professional, collegiate, or HS levels  – was fully involved in helping athletes when it came to their mental approach.

It just didn’t exist.

But for whatever reason, I found this topic to be fascinating and I continued to pursue it. And bit by bit, over the years, I was thrilled that it began to grow. I did my senior honors thesis at Harvard about sports psychology and specifically how top athletes viewed the world in a different way than most people do, and I also earned my Master’s in psychology as well. I had the opportunity to interview the members of the New York Knicks championship team in 1973, and I was fascinated by how these fellows viewed life. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

Along the way, I played professionally in the Detroit Tigers organization, and when I retired from that, I started to coach at the collegiate level. I also started to write articles and books about sports psychology.

AN AMAZING BREAK

Then, one day in the late 1980s – I got a call out of the blue from a gentleman I didn’t know named Harvey Dorfman. Harvey explained to me that he had been working for the Oakland Athletics for a few years  as their mental skills coach- this is when the A’s were winning World Championships – and he told me that he knew of my work and writing in sports psych, and he wanted to recommend me to other major league teams.

I was flattered and thrilled beyond belief – and to make a long story short, I was approached by several major league GMs and decided to sign on with the Cleveland Indians. For somebody who had a huge interest in sports psychology, and in working with top pro athletes, this was a dream come true. I spent the next five years working with the Indians in everyday contact with the major league players, the minor leaguers, the front office and so on.

Harvey, by the way, spent years in baseball and worked as a sports psych coach for several major league teams and worked with literally hundreds of top players, many of whom went onto become Hall of Famers.

Harvey Dorfman was my mentor – and he was considered to be the pre-eminent leader in the field of sports psychology for pro athletes. In short, he truly opened the door for people like me and others. In any event, I joined Cleveland in 1989. This was when the Indians were just beginning to rise and become dominant in the American League in the 1990s. Young minor leaguers like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and many others were in the Indians’ minors at the time, and it was the experience of my lifetime to get to know and work with these talented ballplayers.

Along the way, I found that pro players had many of the same issues and concerns and worries that most of today’s athletes have when it comes to playing at a high level. I encountered questions such as:

o Are pre-game rituals and superstitions okay to have – or should they be avoided?

o Is there is a guaranteed way for an athlete to reach the “zone” – that rare stretch in a game when everything is going your way, and everything seems to slow down…as a basketball player, you just don’t miss a shot…as a pitcher, you have perfect pinpoint control of your pitches…and so on.

o Does visualization really work – and is it a good practice for athletes?

o What about making adjustments in the heat of battle? You hear commentators talk all the time about a player having to make adjustments in a game – what does that really mean from a psychological perspective?

What about just taking a deep breath when things get tight? Does that work?

Questions like these pepper the elite athlete’s mind. Which is one of the main reasons why I wrote my book. More to the point, these days most athletes focus only on their physical skills – running, weight training, doing repetitions in their skills — that they rarely if ever focus on their mental approach to the game. In short, they just go out and play.

But as you climb higher on the pyramid of competition, you find that you begin to need every advantage you can get, and the mental side of your game becomes more important.

So I wrote the book to be an overview while also covering key topics. It’s deliberately written to be fully accessible – there’s no psychological mumbo-jumbo in it. It’s written for immediate and direct application and use by athletes.

A QUICK SAMPLING

Here’s just a very brief overview of some of the points I discuss:

1 – Let’s start with superstitions and pre-game rituals….This is all tied in with an athlete trying to get into the zone….and if he or she had a really good performance in their last game, then they are instinctively going to try and repeat everything they did in their pre-game preparation in the hope that will elevate him or her to the zone again.

That makes sense and also explains why athletes will often repeat the same pre-game meal (remember Wade Boggs and his obsession with eating chicken on game day?), or wearing the same clothes, or taking the same route to the locker room.

So these “superstitions” are fine – so long, of course, that they don’t get out of hand or interfere with the rest of the members of the team. In my experience, so-called superstitions are just a way to psychologically prepare oneself to play better.

2 – Then there’s visualization….This has been around for a number of years. I recall first reading about this mental rehearsal practice in a classic book entitled PSYCHO-CYBERNETICS by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who was a surgeon. Before doing an operation, he would mentally rehearse and “see” in his mind’s eye every aspect of the upcoming procedure.

Other performers do the same thing….actors, dancers, musicians, and so on. They want to visualize every aspect of their upcoming performance – and most importantly, see themselves performing in a totally positive way. That’s key. But to visualize properly and to do it right, you have to be very precise in your approach. This is covered in my book.

3 – What about the standard advice about dealing with pre-game anxiety by taking 2-3 deep breaths?

You hear that all the time from coaches and parents – it’s become common advice when a player is in a tight spot in a game: “Just take a few deep breaths.” But does this really work?

In my experience, I tell athletes not to try and avoid the nervousness, but to embrace it!

That is, when your body is so wired and seemingly anxious – that’s a good sign. That is, your body is telling you that it’s fully ready to rock and roll – that your body is humming like a tuned-up race car at the start – and that your body is full of adrenaline.

So, rather than try to avoid, suppress, or walk away from those feelings, I tell athletes to look forward to it…it means that your physical body and mental approach are alert and ready to go.

Many years ago, when Bill Russell was the superstar center of the legendary Boston Celtics, he would get so nervous before each game that Bill would have to throw up.  It became something of a regular event before games.

So much so that his teammates began to realize that they wouldn’t be ready to take the court until Bill threw up. But once he did, they knew that not only was Bill ready to go, but so were they. You get the idea. They all looked forward to and embraced Bill’s pre-game nervousness.

In any event, can you still take a deep breath when times are tight? Sure. But as you do, use that moment to remember to rely on your athletic instincts and experience. Learn to trust your hard-earned athletic skills. Those will get you through the tough times. It ‘s those key elements that will take you where you want to go – not just taking a deep breath or two.

4- What about self-talks? Do they work?

Well, yes, they do. But only if the athlete has done their homework long before the game.

 

When you find yourself in a jam, this is where your pre-game self-talk comes in handy.

Have you ever seen a pitcher in a game on the mound, seemingly having a conversation with himself? This is a self-talk in which the pitcher is using a few pre-planned reminders of the mental blueprint he’s trying to stick to during the game.

This keeps the pitcher from losing focus or losing control of his actions. Harvey Dorfman introduced me to the power of mental cue cards..These are small cards that many athletes use in their pre-game warm-ups to help remind them what they need to do to maintain their mental focus when it starts getting rocky on the field. Some athletes write reminders on their wrist bands…others in the bill of their cap….but again, these are the basis of self-talks.

I’m a huge proponent of these cue cards which I cover these in the book.

 

Again, this is just small sampling of the mental approach in sports, but I do hope you will pick up a copy not only for yourself, but to share with your athletic son or daughter. Since my days in college, when sports psychology was not even a well-known term, we have evolved where just about every professional or collegiate team has a sports psychology coach on call.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: NBA to Copy LL World Series with Junior NBA Championships

I was reading this past week about a brand new concept that’s being introduced by the NBA – a concept that will have a direct impact on kids who play basketball and who aspire to play at a higher level. The idea is aimed to develop a similar kind of national and international playoffs and world championship – just like they do each August in Williamsport – but with basketball kids who are 13 and 14 years old.

And like LL, the NBA would televise these games, and of course, they would show case these kids as rising stars in the game of basketball.

In discussing this idea on WFAN this radio, I received all sorts of responses from basketball coaches and fans. The responses, I would say, were mixed to the NBA tournament.

But first, let me post verbatim from the NBA’s press release of a few days ago (I added the boldfacing):

“In showcasing the world’s top young talent, the Jr. NBA World Championship will be centered on four core values – teamwork, respect, determination and community – that will set a new standard in youth basketball development.  In collaboration with USA Basketball and FIBA, the competition will promote standards of safe play as well as the proper training and licensing of coaches to enhance the experience for everyone involved.

The Jr. NBA World Championship will align with the NBA and USA Basketball Youth Guidelines, which promote health and wellness in several ways including recommending age-appropriate limits on the number of games that youth should play.  All coaches participating in the Jr. NBA World Championship will also be required to be trained and licensed by USA Basketball (U.S.-based coaches) or FIBA (international coaches).

Youth at the Jr. NBA World Championship will not only compete on the court but will also receive off-court life skills education and participate in NBA Cares community service projects.”

I came away with a few takeaways from this announcement. Clearly the NBA is eager to take control of the pipeline of the best young players in the world. That has traditionally been the domain of AAU basketball in this country. What this new move by the NBA and how it will affect AAU is unclear. As several of the callers pointed out today, the AAU season goes from March through June, so at least on paper, this shouldn’t have an impact. Plus, the elite AAU teams are comprised of HS upperclassmen, not kids in 8th or 9th grade.

And the press announcement made it clear that only coaches who have been trained and licensed by USA Basketball will be allowed to coach in the tournament. Again, it’s unclear how this would affect AAU programs.

Another question that arose is how teams for the tournament will qualify. That is, will it be travel basketball teams or regional teams? Or just LL, will there be only local town teams that are allowed to participate?

QUESTIONS AND MORE QUESTIONS

One caller asked whether the kids and their teams who qualify would be somehow compensated for their advancement. After all, the NBA will make money from corporate sponsors and from TV sponsors. But just like LL baseball players, what do the kids (and their families) receive except for a lifetime of memories? As the caller said, “Memories are very nice….but why not add some some of financial stipend that can be used for the kid’s college education?”

That would be a very, very nice touch. LL has not offered that yet, but perhaps the NBA will be more enlightened.

Some sports parenting pundits have worried about the extra pressures that having young teenagers play on national TV is unnecessary pressure. But I don’t share that concern. Kids today relish the opportunity to strut their stuff on TV (to wit, look at the LL World Series), and I haven’t heard or read of any undue issues with that.

Plus if the coaches are truly well taught by USA Basketball on the elements of team play, discipline, defense, and so on, then I think that’s another major plus for these talented kids. As I have noted in the past, AAU coaches can vary widely in their ability to teach the whole game; too often, AAU has devolved into being nothing more than a personal showcase for kids to shoot and score.

So for right now, I’m cautiously optimistic about the NBA Jr. World Championship. I’m eager to find out more about the details, and if it works, then who knows? Maybe there will be world championships for other team sports, such as ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, and volleyball?

 

 

ABUSIVE COACHES: Knowing When to Draw the Line

When Coaches Instigate Their Players To Talk Trash

By Doug Abrams

 

In late October, the Yarmouth Clippers downed the Gray-New Gloucester Patriots, 13-6, in Maine high school varsity football. As Rick Wolff reported on this blog at the time, the game turned out to be the last one for the Patriots coach.

Before the game, several Patriots players told their parents and school officials that the coach had allegedly instructed them to taunt an opponent with “Who’s Your Daddy?” each time they tackled him. The opponent lives in a household headed by two women who are married to each other.

According to the Portland Press Herald, the two women said they were “appreciative and thankful” that some Gray-New Gloucester players and parents informed them beforehand that the coach had singled out their son. No Gray-New Gloucester players were overheard trash talking the opponent on the field, but the coach worked his last game for the team. The school district superintendent did not say afterwards whether the coach was dismissed or whether he resigned, but confirmed that the coach “no longer works for” the district. The district, the superintendent told television station WMTW, “does not tolerate threatening or discriminating behavior.”

This column discusses three harmful consequences that can follow when a youth league or interscholastic coach instigates the team to taunt an opposing player. Instigation can threaten player safety, compromise sportsmanship, and diminish the respect among athletes that brings out the best in sports competition.

Player Safety

Influenced by high-profile trash talkers in the professional ranks, trash talking increasingly infects high school sports and youth leagues in many communities today. For some pro stars, it no longer seems enough just to win; savoring victory also depends on humiliating the opponents. Regardless of what might pass as tolerable or entertaining in the adult professional world, the calculus is different at the youth level, whose athletes are children and adolescents.

Especially in a contact or collision sport such as high school football, a coach’s trash talking can incite dirty play that threatens control on the field and in the stands. No such safety risk marred October’s football game in Maine, but players are impressionable and a coach’s taunting has sometimes led teams to trade cheap shots from the opening whistle.

Pediatric professionals call youth coaches (in the words of Toronto neurosurgeon Charles H. Tator) “the most important individuals for maintaining safety” in the heat of competition. Coaches are the ultimate gatekeepers, a central role that depends on foregoing verbal abuse that most mature adults would find unacceptable coming from their own children.

Sportsmanship

Sportsmanship and trash talking don’t mix. Youth coaching resembles a game of “follow the leader” because the coach’s conduct heavily influences the team’s tone, for better or worse. Youth coaches represent themselves, their families, their schools, and their communities in every game. Trash talking neutralizes the values that coaches should teach, values that will outlast anything the coach teaches about the fundamentals and skills of the game.

Respect

Safety and sportsmanship depend on Respect, a pillar that a youth coach’s trash talking shatters. Coaches encourage respect for the game, for the family, and for opponents by teaching players to relish victory as reward enough, without descent into taunting or trash talking. And by teaching that targeting an opponent or the opponent’s family because of race, creed, color, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing characteristic is off-limits.

The players’ respect for the coach may also hang in the balance because, like most people, coaches get what they give. Players are unlikely to respect a coach for long simply because the coach carries a clipboard or wears a whistle. The coach must earn the players’ respect, not only by teaching skills and strategies, but also by demonstrating sound values through words and deeds.

Media reports indicate that when the Gray-New Gloucester coach urged the team to target the opponent who has two same-sex parents, several players (and their parents) summoned their own values by notifying the target family, reporting the coach to school authorities, and disregarding his instruction during the game.

Respect and Strength

Maintaining respect for game, family, and opponents signals strength, not softness. Respect does not diminish the desire to win, and indeed can stimulate that desire. At the ceremony enshrining him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2005, Ryne Sandberg explained why.

“[I]f there was a single reason I am here today,” the Chicago Cubs star told the audience, “it is because of one word – respect.” “I was in awe every time I walked on to the field,” he explained. “That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never ever your uniform. . . . I played [the game] right because that’s what you’re supposed to do – play it right and with respect.

Sandberg’s abiding respect strengthened his desire to win and sustained his competitive, but clean, play throughout his 16-year big league career. He would not have put up Hall of Fame numbers if maintaining respect had softened his passion for winning.

Conclusion: Taking a Near Hit

Sportsmanship and respect are the foundations of the good that happens in the game, and disrespect inevitably stains the game. Striving to win remains central to high school varsity competition, but sportsmanship and respect nearly took a hit in Maine high school football late in October, allegedly at a coach’s instigation. More than 40 years ago, the British Association of National Coaches set the ethical compass applicable to youth league and interscholastic competition:

“Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”

 

Sources: Rick Wolff, HS Varsity Football Coach Dismissed for Encouraging Taunting of Opposing Player, http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2017/10/20/abusive-coaches-hs-varsity-football-coach-dismissed-encouraging-taunting-opposing-player/ (Oct. 20, 2017); Mike Lowe, Gray-New Gloucester Coach Resigns; Allegedly Told Players To Taunt Opponent, Portland (Me.) Press Herald (Oct. 20, 2017); Seth Koenig, Maine High School Football Coach Canned After Claims of “Hate-Laden” Taunts, Bangor (Me.) Daily News, Oct. 19, 2017; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clinical J. Sport Med. 451, 455 (2009).

.

LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL: New Bat Rules go into Effect on January 1st

Christmas is almost here, and the New Year follows a week later….if you bought your kid a shiny new $300 LL bat just a few months ago, you might be surprised and shocked that at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, that expensive bat is going to become obsolete – and that you will have to go out and buy a new one for your kid.

Hard to believe but true. Steve Kallas joined me on my radio this show to highlight that this development has not been well publicized to the youth baseball world, and that parents are going to be shocked when they hear about this.

In short, only those bats that carry a USABat logo will be eligible to be used in LL (and to be fair, in all other youth leagues). All other bats will be banned.

Steve had suggested back in June that it would be nice if LL and the bat manufacturers offered some of discount or buy-back of soon-to-be obsolete bats. But as of today, we have not seen any evidence of that.

What is not lost on us is that more and more sports parents are saying that youth sports is becoming a case of haves- and-have-nots in sports. That is, in order for your kid to keep playing and  progressing, one needs a lot of money.

Having to buy a brand new bat would, it seems to me, fall into category.

Here’s a direct quote from the LL Baseball website:

The USA Baseball USABat Standard will officially be implemented in all Little League Baseball programs at the Junior League division and below, effective January 1, 2018. The majority of parents, coaches, and volunteers believe wood is the ideal material for bats. The new USABat Standard bats are designed to have a wood-like performance, while having the benefits of a non-wood bat.

Steve and I chuckled at this. I mean, if everybody in LL wants to use wood bats, well, why not mandate wood bats?

LL says that wood is scarce. Hmm. I’m not sure how accurate that claim really is, especially when new USABats are more expensive than a wood bat. Besides, for those kids who want to go on and play pro ball, they need to understand that pro ball still only uses wood.

LL has announced a USABatKit for those LL programs that are in good standing but need financial help. That’s a nice gesture, but in my experience, pretty much every LL needs financial help. Again, it would be nice if LL did more to help out in this major transition.

SO, JUST TO BE CLEAR…

If a parent purchased a new LL bat for their kid just a few months ago – and that bat doesn’t have a USABat sticker on it — that bat will not being grandfathered in.

In short, your youngster can no longer use that bat.

Honestly, I’m not sure why LL is doing this. They say they are trying to introduce a standardized bat that will emulate wood bats, which they claim everybody wants.

But in the end, it just seems, as Steve said, like another money grab. I sure hope not.

 

COLLEGE RECRUITING: Parents, Athletes Need to Do Their Homework

If there is one topic that sports parents (and their athletes) are desperate to always find out more information, it’s the increasingly complex world of college recruiting.

Now, the irony is that even though you would assume that the recruiting process would become easier over the last 20 years, it seems to me that – if anything – it’s only become more complex. For parents and athletes, it’s become even more pressing to do your homework, map out a real plan, and to ask the right questions.

Why? Because you’re going to have to put together your own self-marketing plan to potential college coaches.

Now, over the years, when it comes to recruiting shows, I always call upon Wayne Mazzoni to get his insights and perspective.

Wayne Mazzoni is the long-time pitching coach at Sacred Heart University, and he’s also one of the nation’s leading experts on the college recruitment process. Be sure to check out his website at CoachWayneMazzoni.com. And on today’s WFAN show, Wayne surprised me a bit when he said that today’s athletes have to start mapping out a college plan as early as 9th or 10th grade.

It all starts with the youngster’s academic profile, and then you go through the process of winnowing down basic college considerations, e.g. large university or smaller college, urban or rural, what kind of major (engineering, liberal arts), and so on. Those are the basics and then you start thinking about college sports.

Of course, if your son or daughter is a top-flight, five-star athlete and has been a star for several years in HS, chances are that he or she has already been receiving calls and letters from college coaches for some time.

But if your kid is really, really good — but is NOT a five-star All-American player – the recruiting process is going to be time consuming. That is, you or your youngster will have to do much of the heavy lifting to get the word out to college coaches.

So, does your kid write directly to the college coach? How do you know whether your kid is good enough to play Division I, II, or III?

Should your son or daughter send a highlight video reel? Should you try and visit the coach in person? Or enroll at the coach’s summer camp?

These are the first questions, and in truth this is just the beginning of the process.

Now, over the years, when it comes to recruiting shows, I always call upon Wayne Mazzoni to get his insights and perspective.

A SELF-EDUCATION AWAITS YOU

I first met Coach Mazzoni more than two decades ago when we were both speaking at a local community college about sports and recruiting. Over the years, he has been in constant demand to speak to HS sports teams because the NCAA rules and regs have become even more daunting.

Bear in mind that every sport in the NCAA has its own set of rules regarding college recruiting, scholarship offers, dark periods, and so on. And the last time I looked at the NCAA recruiting rule book, it was as thick and comprehensive as an old Manhattan telephone book (remember the days of phone books?)

First and foremost, your youngster will have to determine whether they want to try and play at the D-I level, or perhaps at the D-II or D-III level. Of course, that’s very hard to know when your kid is only a soph or junior in HS. You should get objective opinions from people who know college sports and who have seen your kid play.

By the way, don’t be angry if your youngster is projected as D-III. Those programs are highly competitive, and even though they don’t offer scholarships, all those D-III coaches are active in recruiting top talent. And besides, ask your child this tough question: would you want to merely sit on the bench endlessly at a D-I program, or be a starter at a D-III school? Think about it. Remember, the fun is always in the playing.

Also bear in mind that college athletes are transferring schools at an epidemic number. That suggests to me that a lot of recruited athletes are jumping ship to another college. Why? Most likely it’s because they weren’t getting the kind of playing time they had hoped for at their first school.

But transferring often means sitting out for an entire year (and not on scholarship). Yes, a lot of kids do it, but trust me, it’s a real hassle.

ASK THE TOUGH QUESTIONS

These days, HS athletes are recruited primarily through travel team tournaments, showcase events, summer camps, and summer travel leagues.

They all have one thing in common: they are all expensive, and you have to make decisions usually based on very little information.

Of course they will all say that there’s is the best venue for your kid to be seen by college coaches.

How do you know? The best ways to do your homework is to ask the parents of other athletes in your town who have recently gone through the same process. Ask them which showcases were well run. Find out which travel teams were worthwhile.

Secondly, email the college coaches as what showcases or travel leagues they think are worthwhile. And be sure to ask when the coach is having his own summer camp.

In other words, go about this process like a true consumer who is not afraid to ask the costs, what can your youngster expect, what are his or her daughter’s prospects at the college (e.g. solid recruit, walk-on, or no chance at all). Remember, lots of HS athletes feel that they will simply walk on at a major university and become a kind of “Rudy” Notre Dame folk hero, someone who outworks all the other athletes.

Rudy took place close to 50 years ago, and most major D-I programs don’t even have tryouts for walk-ons anymore. Besides, the college coaches are going to be much more focused on the kids they activel recruited, and will not be paying much attention to the kids who showed up unannounced.

In other words, if your son or daughter is determined to play sports in college, make sure you go at this with a real plan in place. Speak up, be sincere, and be honest about your kid and just how talented they really are.

 

 

 

SPORTSMANSHIP: Are HS Basketball Routs Inevitable?

It’s that time of the year when HS basketball games sometimes turn into lopsided affairs, and each year I wonder why coaches and refs allow this to happen.

I mean, if you’ve been around the sport of basketball, it doesn’t take a great deal of expertise to see when the score of a HS game is quickly becoming out of control.

The first notable one this season occurred in Montana, where a girls’ varsity team defeated another school by the score of 102-to-zero.

That’s right. It was a total shutout.

Final score: Froid Medicine Lake HS 102….Brockton HS 0.

The backstory is that the losing team had a number of its starters who were ill and couldn’t play in the game. In fact, as the game began, Brockton was down to only 5 healthy kids – an eighth-grader, three freshman and a soph – and the tallest of them was 5-7. And then, early in the second half, one of their girls suffered a knee injury and couldn’t continue and so they played the rest of the game with only four girls.

In contrast, the winning team was at full strength, and had three starters who were at least 6 feet tall.

At the half, it was 59-0.

Yes, they had a running clock in the second half, but remember, it was five against four. Four girls who were inexperienced, shorter, and outmatched. I don’t know if the winning team tried to slow the game down, although I tend to doubt it if they scored 102 points. You gotta hustle to score that many points in a HS tilt.

ADULT SUPERVISION?

You would have thought that perhaps the two opposing coaches and refs would have met at half-time and discussed what to do in the second half to prevent this kind of lopsided event. Here are some things they might have considered:

0 Maybe just declare the game a win for the winning team, and play the second half as a kind of scrimmage.

0 Imagine how the victorious coach would have felt if one of his top players had been injured in this game. That is, suppose a girl had injured her ACL and was lost for the rest of the season — and got hurt where her team was up by 70 or 80 points?

0 Or, since the losing team played with only four girls for most of the second half, how about if the winning team decided to play with only four as well?

0 Finally — and this seems like the reasonable and obvious solution — if so many of the kids on the losing team were sick, why not just reschedule the game for a later date? Who wants to play in a game that’s truly non-competitive?

Look, these kinds of things do happen. I don’t see any reason why coaches and refs can’t get together and – like true adults and educators – figure out a way to handle these kinds of potentially embarrassing situations.

Unfortunately, we’re still in the beginning of the HS basketball season, and invariably another one of these lopsided routs will happen again.

Coach, refs, and AD’s: I ask you – there has to be a better way to proactively prevent these kinds of games from taking place.

DOING THE RIGHT THING: An Important Reminder

 Donating to Youth Before the End of the Year

 By Doug Abrams

 When I write for publication, I rarely recycle prior articles because fresh perspectives normally serve writers and readers best. The thought process that commits words to paper, said author John Updike, “educates the writer as it goes along.” The writer learns, and readers receive new ideas.

This column violates the “no recycling” rule because it reiterates a message about generosity that I have delivered here in Decembers past. Before the tax year winds down at the end of the month, the message invites readers to consider making modest tax-deductible donations to worthy causes that help improve the lives of children in need.

The Best Judges

Charitable impulse depends, of course, on personal financial circumstances and obligations to the family. Many households receive more charitable solicitations than they can satisfy, and many adults must manage the family budget closely. But in youth sports and elsewhere, adults seeking worthy causes that produce community betterment by serving needy youth do not have far to look.

Their child’s youth sports association, or the local parks and recreation department, may accept financial or in-kind donations toward fees or equipment for families that might otherwise be unable to meet the mounting costs of participation. Private donations may also help deliver state-of-the-art safety equipment such as automated external defibrillators (AEDs), which have saved lives.

National youth sports governing bodies maintain charitable initiatives that promote equal opportunity by reaching out to under-served youth. Because hockey is my sport, the USA Hockey Foundation, maintained by USA Hockey, comes to mind.

A parent or coach concerned about advancing player safety nationally might support leading advocacy and research organizations, such as the MomsTeam Institute of Youth Sports Safety.

Outside the sports arena, the parent or coach might have a favorite national, state, or local charity that focuses on needy youth. For example, children’s hospitals typically encourage donations not only for equipment and other direct medical needs, but also for toys, games, and similar amenities that make hospital stays more bearable for their sick and injured patients. These hospitals serve boys and girls from modest-income or indigent families, and from parents who might temporarily overlook toys and games amid the family dislocation that can accompany sudden hospitalization.

This list is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. The salient points are that private philanthropy matters, and that individual adults are the best judges of where their dollars can do the most good.

Filling Buckets

“But would my $25 donation really matter? Or would it simply be a drop in the bucket?”

“Every dollar makes a difference,” says former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, “and that’s true whether it’s Warren Buffett’s remarkable $31 billion pledge to the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation, or my late father’s $25 check to the NAACP.”

In his fable, The Lion and the Mouse more than two thousand years ago, Aesop focused primarily on recipients: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

In recent years, Maya Angelou reminded us that donations also pay rich dividends to donors: “Among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”

Buckets that collect seemingly small acts of kindness can fill to the brim.

Sources:  University of Missouri Children’s Hospital, Happiness For Health Endowment, http://www.muchildrensgiving.org/priority-happiness-for-health.html (endowed by Doug Abrams).

John Updike, in Encyclopedia of the Essay 868 (Tracy Chevalier ed., 1997); National Philanthropic Trust, Philanthropy Quotes, https://www.nptrust.org/history-of-giving/philanthropic-quotes/

(quoting Bloomberg and Angelou); Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse, Aesop’s Fables: A Classic Illustrated Edition, p. 38 (1990).