Author Archive

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: The List of “Don’t Assumes”……

I became involved in the world of sports parenting in the early 1990s when I was serving as the roving sports psychology coach for the Cleveland Indians. During those years, my own three kids were very young and just being introduced to the uncharted territory of youth sports. I was curious as what they (and my wife and I) might expect as they entered in the wild frontier of sports.

I wrote my first sports parenting book, GOOD SPORTS, which was published in 1992  by Dell. It was meant to provide an overview and prescriptive advice for Moms and Dads who had kids in sports. I recall doing doing hours of research for the book, and discovering so little in the library (this was, of course, pre-Internet and Google) about sports parenting. But there was certainly enough to fill the book, and as the years have progressed, the interest in this challenging topic has only grown more and more.

A few years after the GOOD SPORTS book came out, I was hired by Sports Illustrated to write a few columns on youth sports. But the response to those columns was so overwhelmingly positive that SI asked me to keep writing more columns. Over the course of the next ten years, I wrote hundreds of pieces for SI.  By then, and judging from the bags of mail I received each week, parents (and coaches) everywhere were looking for answers and guidance. It was clear that sports parenting was becoming more and more complicated. Ultimately, all of this led to my weekly sports parenting show on WFAN Sports Radio in NYC, which I have hosted and produced for close to 17 years.

The reason I mention all of this is because  it’s become clear to me that each year, an entire new group of young sports parents come into focus. Yes, they may have played sports themselves as kids, and they love sports, but as sports parents, they are often not prepared to know what it means when their little one takes the field for the first time.

To that end, I wanted to take a moment to present a short list for new sports parents. In other words. if the world of sports parenting is new to you, you might find this helpful:


Dear new Sports Parent:

Don’t assume….you know how to coach kids just because you used to play the sport. Playing the sport…and coaching it…are two different talents.

Don’t assume….you know how to handle your emotions when you watch your kid play. The truth is, very few of us can. Instead of grimacing during a game, do the best you can to put a smile on your face.

Don’t assume….you know how to talk to your child after a game is over. Give them plenty of time to chill in the car on the way home. DO NOT give them a post-game analysis. Let them doing the talking about the game – not you.

Don’t assume……you know the rules better than the ref or umps…especially if it’s a sport you didn’t play as a kid. For example, I never played soccer, ice hockey, or lax as a kid. So when my kids played those sports, I had to learn the rules for the first time.

Don’t assume….your child is blessed with unique and special athletic talent….chances are he or she isn’t. Yes, you want them to reach their full athletic potential, but let’s be candid: you have a better chance of winning the lottery than of your kid being the next great professional superstar.

Don’t assume……you know more about game strategy than the coach does….if you do, then maybe you should coach next year.

Don’t assume……the other parents on the sidelines look upon you as some of sports expert, that somehow you know more about the sport than they do. Best bet? Keep your comments to yourself. You never know who’s listening.

Feel free to download this list of Don’t Assumes and share it with your youth league administrators. In the meantime, my show airs live each Sunday from 8-9 AM EST on WFAN Sports Radio. You can stream it live on, and if you miss a show, you can link to each week’s podcast.

Contact us for more advertising information.

ACCOUNTABILITY WITH ATHLETES: Time to Employ Zero-Tolerance?

I used this morning radio’s show to focus on the importance of discipline with kids in sports today. In my opinion, and I realize I tend to be old school, there’s a general lessening of discipline with athletes today. Whether it’s because coaches are wary of having angry parents protest, or file lawsuits, or if they’re just tired of having to be the “bad guy” when it comes to making kids accountable for their actions, coaches, athletic directors, and athletic programs lean much more on gentle slaps on the wrist when it comes to punishing kids for doing dump, dangerous, or selfish things.

This trend troubles me. And judging from the avalanche of calls that came in on the show this AM, a lot of sports fans feel the same way. It’s been noted several times that many high schools have adopted a Code of Conduct, which basically outlines levels of penalties for HS athletes who break the rules. While that’s fine in concept, the execution tends to be tame. First offenders are given a warning, a second offense might mean a benching from a game. It’s only at the third offense that things start to get serious.

Here’s a possible solution

To me, as a firm believer in zero tolerance, there’s no need to provide several chances. Just make it clear to the kids on the team at the beginning of the season that these are the rules, and if you break them, you can expect to be dismissed from the team. Harsh? Perhaps. But trust me, kids will start to think twice before they do something stupid and risk being booted from the squad.

The beauty of zero tolerance is that it actually makes the athlete think first about the consequences of their actions, rather than figure what it all means after they’re caught. To me, the essence of the teenage years is educating people to develop this first sign of maturity – to think about their actions BEFORE they do something dumb.

I bring this subject up as I was reflecting on the recent punishments that were handed down to the two football defensive backs at John Jay HS in San Antonio, TX. You recall these two kids: late in a game, they deliberately assaulted an unsuspecting ref from behind. He narrowly escaped a serious injury.

Last week, the two football players were banned from playing any more sports for the rest of the year. Since one kid is a senior, this wasn’t much of a punishment. The other boy is a sophomore. He can petition to play sports again next year. But basically, that was it.

True, the local prosecutor may bring criminal charges against the boys, but nothing has indicated that’s going to happen. Even worse, when the boys made an appearance on Good Morning America a couple of weeks ago, their lawyer was asked what kind of punishment they should get, he said “I think they’ve suffered enough.”

Good grief! Two football players deliberately attack an official from behind, knocking him hard to the ground, and the kids’ lawyer think THEY’VE suffered enough? Suppose the ref had broken his back and been paralyzed, which could have easily happened. Would the lawyer still make the same claim?

In any event, this case is becoming more typical of kids in sports these days, and if this trend continues, I fear that the sense of  respect that athletes have for coaches, officials, and other players will continue to disintegrate.

HOLDING KIDS BACK A YEAR IN SCHOOL: New Proposed NJ Bill Would Penalize Kids Who Repeat a Year

Why is this done? Why do parents decide to have their athlete repeat a year in middle school? Presumably it’s all about giving their young athlete an extra year of physical maturation and growth before they enter into HS competition.

This is a topic that I have touched upon in in the past. There seems to be two ages when this is contemplated:

One, when the child is about to enter kindergarten. Perhaps the Mom and Dad don’t feel that their child is emotionally or psychologically mature enough at age 6 to start school.  In effect, he or she is “young” for their grade, and the parents don’t ee any real upside with their child being one of the younger kids in the class.

This is very common place, and it happens all over the country. From a sports parenting perspective, in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with holding your child back – that is, let them end up being one of the older kids in their class. Later on, that can be of great help as they mature and find their way as an athlete.

However, being held back a year and asked to repeat it also occurs when a child is in middle school, often the 6th or 7th or 8th grade. At this age, while sometimes there are academic or maturation concerns, in many cases, this is a case where parents feel that, in order to maximize their child’s athletic potential, it’s in their best interest to hold them back.

Now….think back to when you were a kid. There was, and still is, a HUGE difference between a kid who is 12 and 13. Look at the giant 13 year olds who play LL baseball as compared to the 12 year olds who haven’t started adolescence yet. The difference is often significant.

Of course, with adults, there’s not much difference between a 41-year-old and a 42-year-old. But during the teenage years, one year’s extra growth can be a major advantage.

And apparently, there’s a tremendous number of middle school athletes who are doing just that: repeating a year in school. NJstate senator — former NJ Governor Richard Codey —  has a passion for coaching youth basketball in his home state, and he’s become aware that more and more talented basketball players are getting caught up in this trend.

The trend has become so prevalent that Gov. Codey is going to introduce a bill that would take away a year of HS sports eligibility from the youngster if he or she repeats a year in middle school. That is, student-athletes are allowed four years to play sport in HS. If Codey has his way, kids who repeat a grade in middle school would be allowed three years to play.

Good idea…or not?

On my show this AM, we had a number of calls who basically agreed with Gov. Codey’s concept, but a lot of them had questions as to how does one enforce this and so forth. People questioned whether a school or state even had the right to prevent parents from doing this, meaning how could NJ legislate as to what parents thought was best for their child.

Gov. Codey pointed out that when a youngster repeats a grade, that often has the impact of affecting other kids in terms of playing time. That is, if a star center in basketball is repeating 7th grade, then he’s going to take away major playing time from any other youngster who wants to play center.

He also pointed out that this kind of hold back practice was becoming more and more routine in NJ, and that it’s also more and more of a national issue. And what’s sad, he noted, is that too many kids who are big for their age at 12 or 13 tend to plateau and don’t grow much when later in their teens. In other words, they are stars in middle school just average later on in HS.

There were other callers who wondered how the NJ Interscholastic Athletic Assn would be involved on this. The NJIAA is already saying that middle school sports is out of their jurisdiction, and they wouldn’t be able to enforce this.

In other words, it’s going to be most interesting to see how all of this plays in the NJ legislature. While everybody agrees that this is a growing problem, nobody seems to be sure how to prevent it from happening everywhere.




TITLE IX ISSUES: 40 Years After Title IX Became Law, Why Are There Still So Few Female Coaches?

 How Narrowing the Gender Gap in Youth League Coaching Would Serve the Players

 By Doug Abrams

 Late last month, the Bergen Record and carried two articles about the under-representation of women in youth league coaching ranks nationwide. The University of Minnesota’s Nicole LaVoi estimates that women coach only about 10% of boys’ teams, and barely a higher percentage of girls’ teams. Many youth leaguers, says writer Kara Yorio, finish their playing days without ever having a female coach.

This column describes how the stark imbalance, and the gender stereotypes that help fuel it, disserve both boys and girls. The disservice begins on the field because in several sports, many women’s playing experience equals or exceeds the playing experience of many men. Experience typically translates into knowledge. The disservice can last into adulthood because playing for female head coaches or assistant coaches teaches boys and girls life lessons about gender equity in our society.

Experience and Knowledge of the Game

More than 40 years after Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the United States has many young and middle-aged women who grew up playing sports in youth leagues and beyond. Many mothers and other women today can teach boys and girls plenty about skills, and Yorio profiles female youth league coaches who measure up.

A local youth sports association restrains player development when the board of directors appoints an inexperienced head coach over an applicant considerably more experienced in the game. An association teaches skills best by assembling the deepest possible coaching pool, and not by artificially restricting the pool’s size.  Associations fail in this mission when subtle cues consign qualified women to seats in the stands, overlook women who wish to coach, or channel them into auxiliary roles as “team moms.”

In It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (2009), Michael A. Messner found that traditional expectations often push men and women in different directions, even when a woman’s resume shows years of athletic experience. “The head coach—nearly always a man—is the leader and the public face of the team; the team parent—nearly always a woman—is working less visibly behind the scenes, doing the ‘housekeeping’ support work; assistant coaches—mostly men, but including the occasional woman—help the coach on the field during practices and games.”

Traditional expectations do not end with head coaching slots. Boards of directors also assemble applications from parents and other adults who seem better suited for assistant coaching positions because they lack background in X’s and 0’s, but can help the head coach lead the youngsters.

On most of the youth hockey teams I have seen in the past 40 years or so, the coaching staffs included one or more inexperienced or less experienced male assistants, including ones who began paying close attention to the game only when their own children enrolled. Many of these assistants likely never played hockey as kids. The assistants might not have been ready for head coaching, but most made positive contributions by helping to conduct practice sessions, supervise the team, and provide leadership on the bench during games.

Many less experienced female assistant coaches can make these contributions as well as many less experienced men can. Assistants – men and women alike — may graduate to head coaching after gaining more experience. In their advertising and other outreach seeking qualified coaches, youth sports associations should foster coaching education by specifying that both men and women may serve in accordance with their individual talents.

Gender Equity

Youth sports teaches youngsters not only playing skills, but also lifelong citizenship lessons. These citizenship lessons should include ones about appropriate gender roles. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette correctly urges youth leagues to “acclimate all kids to women coaches from a young age” because “a more diverse mix of men and women coaching . . . would help change assumptions that tend to form early.”

With about 35 million children playing each year, sports is a prime engine for influencing assumptions of boys and girls who will spend their adult lives working in gender-neutral settings. Behavioralists and child psychologists debate the relative influences of biology and social environment on children’s attitudes. But these professionals generally agree that “nature” and “nurture” can each affect socialization because experience can develop and change attitudes during childhood and adolescence.

Girls perceive a female coach as a strong role model, and boys learn greater acceptance of gender equality when they perceive a woman in a leadership position. LaVoi is right that “when females occupy coaching positions it provides evidence, for boys and girls, that women can succeed and be powerful.”

Children are more apt to develop these perceptions when their local sports associations appoint (as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matthew J.X. Malady advises) “the right coach, not the right gender.” The association’s next, and sometimes equally challenging, step is to support each coach’s effort to succeed with players and their families, including some players and families who may initially be wary of a woman’s appointment to a head or assistant position.

The Challenges Ahead

For some people, stereotypes die hard. Just a few days ago, Major League Baseball’s playoffs suggested that challenges remain for advocates of gender equity in sports leadership at all levels, including youth leagues. ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza became the first woman to offer on-air commentary throughout a nationally televised playoff game. Mendoza is a prominent former softball player, a four-time first-team Stanford University All-American and a two-time Olympic medalist, one gold and one silver.

I agree with most reviewers that her articulate, insightful contributions met or exceeded the standards generally set by male on-air television sports commentators. But I was not surprised to read the usual brushback from some website readers and at least one radio sports talk show host, many of whom seemed taken aback by an accomplished female athlete’s appearance in the broadcast booth of a so-called “male” sport.

According to Maury Brown, writing in Forbes, “Mendoza has become a rising star in the broadcast world, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s proven to be a solid baseball voice.” For her part, Mendoza told USA TODAY’s Nancy Armour that “It’s 2015. I just want to get to the point where as long as you’re good at what you do, it shouldn’t matter who you are, what your gender is. . . .” This aspiration defines the essence of a meritocracy.

Youth sports associations need to rise above timeworn gender stereotypes and double standards, even when the board of directors might face doubters at first. For his book, Messner questioned male coaches about the informal channeling of women away from youth league coaching to be the “team moms” who organize road trips, arrange for postgame snacks, and perform similar auxiliary chores. Most coaches said that they had never thought about the prevalence or impact of informal channeling. Players and their families would be better off if more sports associations did think about it nowadays, and if they acted on their better instincts for the boys and girls they serve.


Sources: Kara Yorio, North Jersey Women Defy the Notion that Only Men Can Mentor Youth Teams, ; Kara Yorio, For Women, a Gender Gap Persists On Youth Coaching Sidelines, ; Michael A. Messner, It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (2009); Matthew J.X. Malady, Why Don’t Any Women Coach Big-Time Men’s Sports? And Why Don’t We Care?, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 7, 2012; Nicole M. LaVoi, Occupational Sex Segregation In a Youth Soccer Organization: Females In Positions of Power, Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, vol. 18, p. 25 (Sept. 2009); Maury Brown, Jessica Mendoza Will Be Back Next Year As Baseball Analyst For ESPN, Forbes, Oct. 9, 2015, ; Nancy Armour, Jessica Mendoza Took Long Road to Historic ESPN Analyst Job, USA TODAY, Sept. 10, 2015.

TRAVEL TEAMS: Does the IMG Academy Represent the Next Step in HS Travel Football?

Two weeks ago, in the NY Times, sportswriter Jere Longman looked at the IMG Academy HS football program in depth. Started just a couple of years ago, the IMG administration is very upfront about their approach: in short, they are recruiting nationally (except Florida) for the very best HS football players in the country.

And so far, they have succeeded. Their starting QB, Shea Patterson, is considered the nation’s top HS prospect. He’s already won two state championships in Louisiana, and so he figured that he could prepare himself for D-1 football by attending IMG. He plans on graduating this winter, and then enrolling at Ole Miss so he can hit the ground running next fall as a true freshman trying to compete for a starting job.

According to Longman, IMG has about 20 plus top D-1 prospects on its  football team this year, so Patterson is not alone in his pursuit of big-time college, and ultimately, professional dreams.

IMG’s facilities, based in Bradenton, FL, is state-of-the-art, complete with a 5,000 seat stadium. Top-level coaches, trainers, and of course, dorms for the students. In a way, this HS is run more like a rigorous college environment: students go to class in the AM, and then four hours of practice and conditioning in the afternoon.

Of course, all of this comes with a price tag — just under $71,000 a year. That’s more expensive than the vast majority of college in this country. Yes, there are financial packages available, but $71,000 is a fairly hefty sum of money.

The IMG Academy, which started out in the 1970s as a training facility for tennis players, has now grown into offering more sports, such as basketball, baseball, soccer, and so on. And they claim that their graduates do indeed go on to play in top college programs all over the country.

The only real drawback so far is finding other teams to play. IMG was allowed to join the Florida HS Athletic Association, but had to promise that they wouldn’t recruit Florida players. IMG is okay with that, but finding opponents is hard. Most public HS teams won’t play them. Some of the better known parochial teams, such as Bergen Catholic, St. Joe’s, and Paramus Catholic, all based in NJ, will play them, but of course, that means a lot of travel time, expenses, and of course, a good chance your team will lose. For example, Bergen Catholic and St. Joe’s have both lost to IMG this season.


That, of course, is the ultimate question. I interviewed Lou Marinelli, the long-time and highly successful head football coach at New Canaan HS in CT, and Lou feels that if your son is good enough, then the college scouts will find him. That is, there’s no need to attend a private HS like IMG to raise your profile.Besides, Lou points out that when you play for an academy team like IMG, you lose out on the fun of playing with your friends and buddies from your community. There’s something to be said about enjoying the local HS experience.

Marinelli, who has won 10 state championships at New Canaan, says that college coaches are well versed these days to find potential prospects. Thanks to the internet and online video, the recruiting job has become that much easier when spotting players.

All this being said, there is no doubt some HS kids who would benefit from the national exposure and coaching at the IMG Academy. But the general consensus seems to be that this kind of elite travel football program is still a work in progress, an experiment that still is playing out. There is the price tag, of course. And finding worthy opponents will continue to be a challenge.

So far this year, the IMG Academy Ascenders – yep, that’s their nickname, is 4-1. Chances are that they will complete the season with no more losses. But the question remains – what happens to them next fall? Will there still be more HS teams who will want to play them?


SPORTS SAFETY: Let’s Not Give Up on Youth Football Too Quickly

In Praise of Youth Football

Guest Column from Wayne Mazzoni

Listening to Coach Wolff’s show this past Sunday morning, but not having the time to call in, I feel compelled to add to the conversation on youth football.  Having been a part of youth sports as a player, coach, and parent, I can tell you nothing equals the experience you get from youth football.

Just the way the sport is, you get an amazing balance of toughness and teamwork you just don’t get from other sports.  In fact, even players who consider a sport besides football as their primary sport will always tell you that the lessons learned from playing football made them a much better person and player in their main sport.

Certainly as kids get older, the more likely they are to sustain injuries, concussions specifically.  But the fact remains just about every other sport has its risks as well.  And of course, so does life.  How many people die from cars, trains, and planes? Yet the last time I looked, all these modes of travel were pretty crowded.   The fact is, without proper policing, training, and awareness, concussions can become a big problem.  But with all the research and attention being paid to this topic, youth coaches are now being trained to be very cautious when it comes to any type of head injury.  Very simply we always err on the side of caution.

I live and coach football in Fairfield County in Connecticut, generally considered one of the wealthiest counties in the country.  I see youth football alive and very well in these towns.  Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien, Westport, Fairfield, Ridgefield, Wilton, and the rest have thriving youth football leagues and excellent high school programs.  The parents of these kids are well educated and successful people, who still understand that so much is to be gained from youth football.  While any youth sport gets kids off their tablets and phones, football creates a family, a toughness, a team spirit that really cannot be replicated in almost any other facet of life.

Coach Wayne Mazzoni is the pitching coach at Sacred Heart University. He also coaches youth football with the 6th grade Fairfield Wildcats. 

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Why HS Football Continues to Lose Players

A few days ago, Ken Belson of the NY Times did a probing feature about the continuing decline of HS football numbers in this country.

Ken happened to focus on Maplewood Richmond Heights HS, a HS school from the St. Louis suburban area, a public HS that just five years ago was competing for a Missouri state championship in football. But this year, in June.  the school administrators decided to let football go as a HS sport.

The reason? Not enough football players.

In 2010, that school’s team had 38 players….last season, the number dropped to only 20, not enough to field a team in their league, and so the school curtailed the program. Similar things have occurred in other states, such as Maine and NJ, where public schools have dropped football.

Admittedly, this HS in St. Louis was relatively small in terms of overall numbers, but HS football coaches all over regardless of the size of their school have noticed a substantial drop in players coming out.

The reason that is cited the most is the long-range concern about concussions. Ken made it clear that there’s still no answer to this problem, and there’s still no way to prevent a concussion. A caller did mention that a few NFL teams are studying rugby teams where physical contact is robust, but very few concussions are suffered. But as interesting as that development might be, the NFL and HS programs are a long ways off from adapting a rugby-like approach to football.

But here’s the interesting part. Concussions, according to Belson, are only a part of the reasons why football numbers are declining. In fact, Ken made it clear that there were other key factors that are often overlooked.

In fact, by the end of the show, Belson had come to these three conclusions as to why HS football is beginning to lose numbers.

Expenses — many parents tend to forget how just expensive a HS football program. Not only in terms of the equipment that’s needed, but the cost of multiples coaches, and the insurance premiums for players today. In contrast, other fall sports like soccer, cross-country, or even volleyball are a fraction of the cost of football. All taken into consideration, if the HS doesn’t have a substantial number of kids playing football, then the bean-counters start to think seriously about the expense.

Demographics — Belson also suggested that the population shift in the US has changed dramatically, and with that shift, kids’ interest in sports have changed. That is, with more Hispanic and Asian families around, their cultures tend to be more attracted to soccer and other sports rather than football.

Specialization — The final point that was made was that as more and more young athletes specialize in just one sport instead of playing two or three in HS, that too would account for a drop-off in football players. Many kids today just don’t want to commit to football as a year-round spot, especially spending a lot of time in the off-season weight room. They’d rather play a different sport.

Taken all together with parental concerns about concussions, you can see why HS football, although certainly not close to becoming extinct, is giving everybody involved a moment to pause and think.

INNOVATIONS IN SPORTS: How to Be at the Game When You Can’t….

3 Ways to Show You Care When You Can’t Make it to the Game

By Kathleen Burke, TeamSnap

Between the time it takes readying kids for school, helping with homework, keeping the family fed and, oh yeah, going to work, sometimes no matter how hard you try to plan ahead, getting to your child’s sports game just doesn’t happen.

It’s okay. No one can do everything all the time. The fact that you can’t physically attend some games does not mean you’re not interested in and supportive of your child. Though it may sometimes seem like it, parents can’t be everywhere at once! Here are a few tips to stay involved even if you can’t make it to the field for every game.

Follow Along From Afar

Although we can’t be in two places at once, technology can make it feel like we are. During those times when you can’t make it to the sidelines, there are tools you can use to keep up with the game remotely. If you can squeeze in a peek at your phone, you can keep up from the office, the house, the hotel room, or anywhere. When you get game updates in real-time, you can stay involved and cheer for your child through each play. If you have a smartphone, you can even get pictures and video as the game happens. When you talk to your child later, he or she will feel special that even though you weren’t physically there, you were able to follow along from a distance.

Ask Thoughtful Questions

Anyone can ask “How was the game?” and get the just as thoughtful response of “Good.” To avoid those lame exchanges, make an  extra special effort to ask specific questions of your child. Questions like, “What was your favorite part of the first half?”,“What was the best play you made?” and “What would you do differently if you could play the game again?” will garner more detailed responses from your kids, and can even open the conversation up to discussions on broader topics such as sportsmanship and work ethic. The point is, always allow your child to tell you about their experiences, rather than go into lecture mode.

Let Your Child Know You’ll Be There Next Time

With scheduling tools at your fingertips, hopefully you can plan ahead and attend every game, but even if you can’t make it to all the games, (hey, schedule conflicts happen!) make an extra effort to plan something special where you can spend some quality time with your son or daughter. It could be something as simple as tucking a handwritten note of support and encouragement into a lunchbox or backpack or as elaborate as hosting the end of the year team bash at your home for all the kids and parents. Chances are, if you take extra steps where you can to show your love, the feelings of appreciation will stick with them long after the season ends.

Want more tips and stories from the world of youth sports? Check out the TeamSnap Youth Sports Podcast and Blog  for everything a coach, manager or sports parent needs!

About the author: Kathleen Burke writes for TeamSnap, a web and mobile app used by 9 million coaches, parents, team managers and players to tame the logistical nightmare of wrangling schedules, practices, equipment and volunteers, providing up-to-the-second info on where everyone needs to be and what they need to bring.




SPORT SAFETY: How Do We Keep Our Athletes Calm and Under Control?

When Intense Games Spiral Out of Control

 by Doug Abrams

Before Friday night, September 4, John Jay High School’s football team likely attracted few followers outside the local San Antonio, Texas area. But national anonymity ended literally overnight, when two John Jay players allegedly assaulted a referee in the final moments of a road game that the Mustangs lost to Marble Falls High, 15-9.

As the Marble Falls quarterback took the snap and handed off, one John Jay defensive player blind-sided the unsuspecting referee, and his teammate quickly speared the official after he fell to the ground. Inadvertent collisions between players and officials sometimes occur, but these hits appeared orchestrated and deliberate. The video played on television from coast to coast, and it quickly went viral, with more than 11 million YouTube views so far.

The two players said afterwards that a John Jay assistant coach had in effect ordered the action, by telling them on the sidelines that the referee “needs to pay for cheating us” (or something similar)  with calls that had gone against the team. The two players also claimed that the referee had passed racial slurs earlier in the game, a charge the referee denied. Pending further investigation, the school district suspended the two players, placed them in an alternative school, and suspended the assistant coach. Reportedly the assistant coach initially admitted targeting the referee and then left the team.

“That’s Where the Leadership Starts”

The University Interscholastic League, which administers Texas high school athletics, continues its investigation and factfinding. The book remains open, but one UIL executive committee member’s early comment caught my attention because its importance transcends football and any one game.

According to the Associated Press, the committee member questioned whether John Jay’s coaches “should have done more to calm emotions in a tense game.” He described “punches thrown, late hits and ejections” before the incident that gained national attention. “The only thing our kids really have is our coaches,” the committee member said, “That’s where the leadership starts.” The AP reported that the committee member called the September 4 game “a time bomb waiting to happen. And it did.”

Youth league and interscholastic games frequently feature intensity stoked by what former NBA player Bob Bigelow calls “the hot blood of emotions.” This column concerns the responsibilities of coaches and parents before, during, and after games when the adults can reasonably anticipate “time bombs.” Rivalries do not fester, and emotions usually do not spiral out of control, on the spur of the moment.

“That’s What You Get for Messing”

Safety may be the downward spiral’s first casualty. The John Jay football incident recalls a suburban Chicago junior varsity ice hockey game that ended tragically in November, 1999. With only seconds remaining on the clock, New Trier High School was comfortably ahead of its bitter rival, Glenbrook North High School, 7-4. It was the teams’ first faceoff since Glenbrook North had edged New Trier, 3-2, for the Illinois state junior varsity hockey title the prior season.

The November hockey game deteriorated from the start. In the stands, each team’s parents and students taunted the other’s fans and players. On the ice, players traded taunts and squared off in altercations unrestrained by their coaches. One coach reportedly even left the bench and strode onto the ice during the game to confront a referee. Glenbrook North’s coach allegedly targeted New Trier’s 15-year-old sophomore co-captain Neal Goss, whose three goals helped seal the victory. The referees called sixteen penalties, a particularly high number for a junior varsity hockey game.

At the final buzzer or within a second or two afterwards, a 15-year-old Glenbrook North player skated full speed across the ice, blind-sided Goss, and body checked him head-first into the boards. “That’s what you get for messing,” the player reportedly said as Goss lay prone on the ice, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

Compromising Safety

With responsible control and supervision, coaches and parents could have scripted a safer ending to the suburban Chicago JV hockey game, whose final score seemed so important at the time but quickly faded from memory. For one thing, adults could have cooled tempers as game day approached. All that the adults needed to do was to listen to their players because trash talking and threats of violence do not arise by spontaneous combustion when players arrive to play.

Verbal and physical violence marred the hockey game itself for an hour or more, but no adult in the rink – no parent, coach, referee, or league administrator – had the ethical compass, emotional strength, or sheer common sense to stop the game, deliver a public address announcement requesting calm, instruct the players to regain their composure, or take any other constructive measures to move the teams back from the brink.

Responsible Training and Supervision

The lesson from the New Trier-Glenbrook North game is that when coaches or parents let raw emotion overcome their good judgment in the heat of competition, they increase the risk of preventable injury. The injury may be to a player, an official, a fan, or other bystander.

Parents and coaches who cringed as paramedics carried Neal Goss from the ice rink on a stretcher that cold November night doubtlessly wished that they could have set the clock back and done things differently. But by then it was too late because safety in youth league and interscholastic sports often depends more on 20-20 foresight than on 20-20 hindsight. Regrets and second thoughts cannot always make things right because injury offers no do-overs.

Maintaining composure and self-control throughout a tough game can test the mettle of players and adults alike. At any age, passions of the moment can easily overtake reason. But coaches and parents assume special responsibilities to maintain the safest possible environment whenever their youth leaguers play. If adults had fulfilled their responsibilities that night in November of 1999, Neal Goss would likely have walked out of the suburban Chicago rink because teens trained and supervised by responsible adults do not drive opponents’ heads into the boards at the end of a hockey game.

Nor do teens, trained and supervised by responsible adults, blind-side referees and cut them down on the gridiron.

Sources: Assoc. Press, Coaches’ Conduct Questioned in Hit on Texas Ref, Daily Journal (San Mateo, Calif.), Sept. 10, 2015; Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, vol. 39, p. 1 (2012).




HS CODE OF CONDUCT: Can We Get Our Athletes to Think Ahead if We Toughen Up the School’s Code of Conduct?

It was a real stunner when Mack Breed, the defensive coach at John Jay HS, came forth and acknowledged that he instructed his two defensive backs, Moreno and Rojas, to “hit” the ref and make him pay because the ref had made bad calls against John Jay all game.

And the two football players did just that. They followed the coach’s instructions, and blindsided the ref.

The video tape is very clear.

Now, let me try and put this San Antonio HS football assault into perspective…what the bigger meaning is.

By all accounts, these two HS students seem to be regular kids. Very presentable. Take school seriously.
John Jay HS is an award-winning HS in San Antonio.

And yet…they both claim that their defensive coach instructed them to deliberately take out the ref.

Two questions immediately come into play:

Why in the world would a coach — presumably a grown-up adult – actually instruct a player to deliberately hurt an official in a game?

And why wouldn’t these kids have enough common sense to stop and think about the repercussions of their actions before doing this?

I talk on WFAN all the time about the importance of accountability, and why our kids need to learn this crucial concept….to learn how to think ahead about their actions BEFORE THEY do it. In short, it’s a vital skill that teenagers have to consciously learn.

As a parent (or coach), if you can teach your youngster to always think ahead about what kinds of consequences their actions will have, then you have done an excellent job in teaching your kid to become mature. In this case, I would like to ask Rojas and Moreno to explain what they thought would happen to the ref if they hit him hard from behind, and also what kind of punishment they might be given for doing that.

The kids make their attack in the middle of a HS football game, with lots and lots of witnesses. And of course, every play in the game is videotaped.

And yet they still did it. In short, they didn’t think first about their actions.


I know I’m “old school” about this….but I do wonder about the seemingly lax rules that abide in Codes of Conduct. Many schools in this country give athletes several chances to screw up before the penalties start to become harsh.

Look, I understand that teenagers make mistakes. But my argument is that why are we so kind and forgiving? That is, if we made it abundantly clear to our teenage athletes that you don’t get a second chance, I wonder whether that might force them to think twice before doing stupid things.

That might sound like a modern day form of tough love, but I do think it’s an approach worth considering. If there were a zero-tolerance approach with today’s student-athletes, maybe they would think twice before getting drunk at a party, or breaking team curfew, or sending out something stupid on their Twitter account, or before they decide to assault a ref from behind.

Once they did begin to think ahead about their actions, they progress from being teenagers into mature adults.

In this case, nobody has asked the two football players what or how they thought they would be punished. Or if they realized they could really hurt the ref.

I presume they were just more interested in gaining some positive feedback from their coach for their actions….obviously, the coach is not very smart either by telling the kids to hit the ref.

So my takeaway is this: we really need to get our coaches and parents to make penalties and punishments really stand up so that there’s no temptation to break the rules. There’s nothing wrong with hazing a zero-tolerance policy in place. Kids will live with it and will learn from it. Besides, it might just prevent all sorts of other terrible incidents from taking place.

I would suggest you sit down with your HS athletic director to see if the time has come to toughen up your school’s Code of Conduct. You might be surprised at how lenient it is.