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SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Why Do We Force for Kids to Choose One Sport by the Time they are 10?

We have inadvertently created a problem for our kids over the last 20-25 years, and why I understand why travel team programs share a lot of the blame, I also feel that ambitious Moms and Dads have had a major role in allowing this problem to grow.

I’m talking about the reality that in just about every town and community across the US, travel programs in most every sport have cropped up everywhere. That’s okay, but what concerns me is that so many travel programs are aimed at kids around the age of 9 or 10.

Here’s what occurs. If a kid tries out for a local travel team at age 10 and subsequently gets cut, then for the most part, that child’s career in that sport is pretty much over. That’s because when a youngster is cut from a travel team, psychologically they feel so burned by that experience that they rarely come back to that sport ever again. In effect, these kids are transformed into “has beens” at a very tender age.

BEING FORCED TO MAKE A DIFFICULT DECISION….BUT WHY?

This past week I did a sports parenting seminar for the Smithtown (LI) Boosters Club, and during the question-and-answer session of my presentation, one of the Dads from Smithtown asked a very precise question – a question that, to me, truly captured the essence of what so many sports parents and their athletes are confronting these days.

And it focuses directly on this issue of specializing at a very young age.

Okay, here’s the question: your 10-year-old kid is a good, natural all-around athlete, and he wants to play multiple sports. But the travel coaches in your town tell him (and the parents) that he needs to make a clear choice now and to specialize in just one.

Now, the boy, an all-round athlete, would gladly play any number of sports and if he could, play them all year round on various travel teams. But of course, there’s just so many hours in the day, and his schooling takes up a lot of those hours.

But as this Dad pointed out, if the 10-year-old boy DOESN’T focus on just one sport, then the boy will feel — or fear –that they won’t be seen as being on the “fast track”  as one of the elite or more experienced players in that sport when they eventually try out for the HS or more advanced travel teams down the road. Only those kids who decided to specialize will be viewed as having more experience, have played against better competition, and have a real advantage when HS tryouts begin.

Even worse, there will often be a PERCEPTION from the HS and travel coaches that the youngster either wasn’t good enough at age 10 to make a travel team, or that he made a real mistake by not focusing on just one sport.

This, my friends, goes to the very core of the travel team dilemma…what does a 10-year-old  athlete decide to do?

And when he turns to his Mom or Dad for advice, what do you suggest?

Just pick one sport, and hope for the best? As to the other sports that the child loves playing, they simply get pushed off to the side and the kid can only play them, in effect, for recreation?

And of course, remember that this key decision usually takes place several years before a kid goes into adolescence. So that you have no idea just how big the kid is going to become in his teenage years, or how much his skill in that sport will develop?

WHAT AS A PARENT DO YOU DO?

Or more specifically, why do we allow this to happen?

In my perspective, this is a problem that we have invented for ourselves…and for our kids. Our children have to choose their sport when they’re only 10 or 11. The callers this AM all felt the same way. They understand that being on a travel team for a youngster is a big deal, a real badge of honor, but the parents also understood that being on a travel team can cost $5,000 and up. And if you have multiple kids playing sports, that gets into real money.

One caller complained that on his son’s travel baseball team, there were maybe 3 or 4 top players, but that every other kid was “pedestrian” or average at best. Yet they all paid a lot of money and the average kids assume that the more the play, the more their skills will improve. I pointed out that, yes, their skills will improve, but not necessarily to the level of being a top player.

The point is, travel teams are funded by hopeful parents who feel their child, in order to succeed to the next level, need to specialize in one sport in order to get ahead. Travel programs feed into this mentality. And as noted many times, travel programs can charge as much money as they want.

Is there an answer to this dilemma?

In truth, probably not. Every sports parent and child has to figure out what’s going to work for them. But from my experience, it sure would be a lot easier if travel programs stuck to just one season at a time. When young kids are “forced” to play just one sport all year round, this is where you hear about “burn out” and “repetitive use injuries” – new developments that didn’t occur 25 years ago with kids.

It would be nice to add some more sanity back into kids playing the sports they love. All of them.

 

An Interview with Sue Bird, All-American at UConn and WNBA Superstar

I had the opportunity to interview Sue on my show this AM, and I jumped at it. Lots of questions for her, but most of all, how and why is Geno Auriemma, the long-time head coach at UConn women’s basketball, so successful year after year. As you may know, UConn just won its 11 NCAA championship, which is a national record in any sport.

Sue starred for UConn as a 5-9 point guard, graduating in 2002 on an undefeated UConn team. Voted Naismith Player of the Year, and was selected number one overall by the Seattle Storm in the WNBA.

But growing up in Syosset, Long Island, she recalled that she played a variety of sports, including soccer, right through middle school and into HS. It wasn’t until she was entering her junior year and transferred to Christ the King HS that she focused solely on basketball. That was when she was about 16 and began to realize that college basketball scholarships for her were becoming a real possibility.

CAUTIOUS ABOUT WHEN TO SPECIALIZE

“Growing up, I would have never played basketball all year round as a kid,” Sue said, “I mean, just playing one sport all year round would have been boring. I enjoyed playing other sports, and besides, with soccer, I’m quite sure the footwork and quickness I learned from that sport helped me with my basketball progress.”

Sue was prompted to say this because one caller said he had a daughter who was 6-1 in middle school, and as a very good basketball player, she was being pressured by travel teams and even HS coaches to forego all other sports and just focus on hoops. We advised the father to be very careful about these outside pressures, that focusing on one sport all year round can definitely lead to burn out and repetitive use injuries.

Sue did mention that she started to receive form letters from college programs when she was in 8th and 9th grade, but it wasn’t until she was well along into HS that the college coaches really came after her.

THE COACHING GENIUS OF GENO AURIEMMA

She liked Geno right from the start because “he was honest and upfront. Coach Auriemma made it clear that if you came to his school, you would work hard and maybe have a chance to win a championship. But there were no promises about playing time, and no other fluff.”

When she decided to enroll at UConn, Geno showed his rare talent to reach each woman on their individual level. “I’m the kind of athlete where if you yell at me, I will respond to the challenge and step up my game. And Coach Auriemma knew that, said Sue. “But with other players on the team, he knew that if he yelled at them, they would become de-motivated and not play well. Coach had an amazing ability to know how to reach every player in just the right way.”

As to how UConn’s Auriemma prepared them for each game: “He would tell us that you have to prepare for the next game in the same way you would prepare for a big test in school. That is, you need to study hard and then study some more. That way, when you walked into the exam, psychologically you knew you were ready. Same with preparing for basketball games. But if you slacked off during the week and tried to cram the night before the test, you would go into the text being nervous and tentative. Again, same with basketball. You can’t do that and expect to win.”

Excellent advice for coaches who want to learn from Geno Auriemma’s example. And clearly those lessons have stayed with Sue for her entire collegiate and professional career.

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: More Questions Regarding Travel Team Choices

Because there continued to be such an outpouring of emails this past week to my show on the pros and cons of travel teams, I decided to do another show today on the same subject. And not surprisingly, this second show elicited another wave of strong calls.

I basically asked the same two questions as I did last Sunday AM:

As a sports parent or as a coach, has your experience with travel teams being a mostly positive one? Or has it been a negative one?

And on top of that, has the time come to place travel programs under the jurisdiction of either state or federal oversight?

The calls today were from a variety of parents and coaches, and from different sports:

> One father called to complain that he didn’t understand how a travel baseball program in his town had three different levels for kids in the same age bracket. Not only did this dad come away assuming that only the top tier team enjoyed the benefits of having the better players, but the dad began to become suspicious when his son (who was not on the top team) was told he made one of the lower travel teams, even though his try out didn’t involve any batting practice. The dad found that curious since his son was a position player. “I mean,” said the father, “how can they evaluate him if they (the travel coaches) don’t even see him take batting practice?”

This kind of thing, unfortunately, happens a lot, and gives real credibility to the worry that travel teams are more about making money than really offering really evaluations by coaches who know what they’re doing.

> Another dad – a softball parent – complained that his daughter played travel softball all summer, and that not only was it very expensive, but sometimes they would enter a weekend tournament on the road and the competition they faced was so weak that he didn’t think his daughter got anything out of the experience. “There was no quality control as to what kinds of teams they were playing. It would be a waste of a weekend.”

He also pointed out that since softball is a non-revenue sport in college, that parents should realize that softball players often receive very little financial aid in terms of athletic scholarships.

> That call was followed by a HS lax coach who said the same thing. Since lax is still not a major revenue producer at most D-1 programs, this coach pointed out that one of his top players received a partial athletic scholarship for lax – specifically, it was $1000 a year, just enough to cover the cost of the boy’s books. Sad to say, when a college coach has to slice and dice scholarship money, this kind of thing happens all the time.

In other words, in terms of getting a full athletic scholarship at the D-1 level, the only two sports that offer that kind of luxury are football and basketball.

JUST HOW DOMINANT IS YOUR KID?

Finally, the question that is always asked is whether a young athlete should bypass HS sports and just concentrate on playing one sport all-year round. This is still a very, very difficult question to answer.  My response is this: if your child is clearly dominant in his or her sport in HS – I mean dominant like LeBron James, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Breanna Stewart, or Sue Bird, all of whom were dominant when they were in HS — then an elite travel program is probably the very best move for that youngster.

But if your kid is very, very good in HS, but not a dominant star, then you might want to resist placing them in a year-round travel. Will they improve their game playing year-round? Yes, they will. But they will also improve their game AND probably have a lot more fun and develop life-long memories playing with their buddies on their local HS varsity team. AND if they can attend some showcases or even visit a summer camp at a college where they are interested in attending, those are other solid ways to gain some exposure to college coaches.  Parents and athletes often overlook that, or aren’t even aware of it, as many travel programs don’t even mention those.

What’s the bottom line? As a parent, you must remain diligent and ask the right and tough questions about travel programs. It’s still caveat emptor.

As one caller said today, his kid tried out, made a travel team, and they paid their fees. But after a few weeks, they realized he team wasn’t going to be a good fit for their child. When the parent asked for some sort of partial refund, the travel team said sorry and refused to pay.

The parent wanted to know who he could report this to. Sadly, the answer is no one.

 

DEALING WITH FINANCIAL CONCERNS: The Built-in Value of Used Equipment Banks for Kids

Used-Equipment Banks: One Way to Reduce Costs and Boost Enrollment

 By Doug Abrams

Much has been written lately about the escalating costs of playing youth sports, particularly at the travel and elite levels. Commentators have described burdens imposed by interstate travel and lodging, handsomely paid team coaches, private lessons, scouting services, and the rest.

Much has also been written lately about ways to help restrain costs, particularly at younger age levels in community sports programs below the travel and elite ranks. Many parents sacrifice to assure that their children can play in these programs, but some families are doubtlessly priced out of participation. Sacrifice or no, young parents (a bulk of youth sports parents) also face other financial commitments that can sorely test the family budget.

This column is drawn from my experiences starting up a community youth hockey program when I moved to mid-Missouri from New York several years ago. Particularly at the younger age levels, we sought to boost enrollment by maintaining an “equipment bank” that loaned used equipment to families whose children wished to explore hockey before deciding whether to make a more lasting commitment.

These loans can help attract tentative players to community start-up programs and more established programs alike. Most of these young kids are beginners, not yet ready for travel or elite sports. Initial equipment costs may be their families’ first hurdle, but these costs should not move the finish line out of reach.

Many community youth sports programs already maintain equipment banks. Much of what works in hockey can also work in other sports with high start-up costs. Readers can examine the various guidelines explored below and consider whether to adapt some to suit their own local program’s needs and circumstances.

Creating a Surge

When I moved to mid-Missouri in 1989, the nearest youth hockey was played at a rink operated by the parks and recreation department in Jefferson City, about 100 miles from St. Louis. “Youth hockey” in Jefferson City consisted of about two dozen kids of all ages, who chose up sides and matched lines one night a week under coaches’ supervision. A few kids had full equipment, and some had virtually none. Two players had goalie equipment, some of which did not fit well.

Within three years, Jefferson City youth hockey enrollment had grown to about 175 players who were fully outfitted. Within another two years, we began entering teams in the leagues based in St. Louis and Kansas City. Because youth hockey interest in Jefferson City appeared likely to exceed the hours available for practice sessions and games during these early years, the department raised the possibility of waiting lists, which fortunately never happened thanks to careful scheduling.

No one reason alone accounted for the surging enrollment in those early years, but our equipment bank must rank high on the list. Some hesitant parents confided that their kids often changed interests and hobbies every month. These parents told us that three and four figures seemed a steep price before their child showed lasting interest in hockey.

Kids like new stuff, and some of our bank’s used equipment looked . . . well, used. Much of this used equipment was designed primarily to get a player started, perhaps for a couple of weeks or a few months. Most kids did not wear loaned equipment for very long. Once the player signaled a hockey commitment that was likely to last, the parents usually began purchasing their own equipment, most new and some used.

Guidelines

Drawn from our Jefferson City experiences in those early years, here are some guidelines for youth leagues and parents who wish to maintain equipment banks to outfit young players as they explore a new sport:

Put safety first. Particularly in contact or collision sports, ill-fitting or especially worn- out protective equipment risks injury. For example, youth sports concussions were not yet on the national radar screen in the early 1990s, but we recommended that parents purchase new helmets unless a particular used helmet passed safety inspection and was properly fitted by a sporting goods professional. Lightly used skates, quickly outgrown by the original wearer, might suffice if the skates fit.

Appoint an equipment committee comprised of parents and other former players who are knowledgeable about equipment purchases. We appointed an equipment committee and charged it with several responsibilities, including these: (1) Soliciting donations of used equipment; (2) Inspecting donated equipment to approve what was considered safe, and to discard what was deemed unsafe or too worn out; (3) Storing used equipment in a place that will avoid deterioration; (4) Reconditioning donated equipment that the committee decided could be done relatively simply; (5) Maintaining a written inventory of loaned equipment to assure that families would return it at the end of the season or other period of use; and (6) Because many parents were new to hockey, speaking at preseason team meetings to educate about safety and proper fit.

On or off the equipment committee, try to enlist a sporting goods professional’s volunteer services. This professional – ideally, the owner or knowledgeable employee of a local sporting goods business — can inspect used equipment for safety, and can fit used equipment to a particular player. When a parent borrows used equipment, the business loses a potential sale. But most families do not rely on used equipment permanently, so this volunteer service can generate future sales and local good-will.

Hold a used-equipment sale or an equipment swap during the preseason period. At the ice rink during the preseason period, our program would enable families to come together to buy, sell, or trade used equipment that their players had outgrown. The equipment committee inspected this equipment for safety and offered its advice. We urged parents to bring their player to any sale or swap session where proper fitting might become an issue. Some families did not participate in these sessions but chose instead to donate used equipment to the program outright.

Ask the program’s longtime coaches to solicit used equipment from their former players. Before 1989, I had coached for 20 years in the Nassau County recreation and parks department’s program at Cantiague Park in Hicksville, New York. I had also coached at a New England summer hockey camp. I wrote to a few dozen of my former players who were then in their 20s and 30s. I asked them to send the Jefferson City program equipment that they had finished using and may have stored in their attics. Most of the players responded with boxes and packages, and we reimbursed postage. Some of the equipment was unusable for safety concerns or deterioration, but most enabled us to outfit kids.

Consider contacting other nearby programs and the league, which may store used equipment that is not moving.  The various established St. Louis-area youth hockey programs supported our effort to bring league play to Jefferson City. A few programs responded positively to our requests for used equipment, which they delivered when they faced off in scrimmages against our teams. One generous St. Louis director told me that he could spare some used equipment because his program’s inventory exceeded need, and that equipment sitting in their storage room did no kid any good. In later years, the league itself provided some used equipment from time to time.

Consider seeking local corporate donations that would permit purchase of new equipment. We tried (usually unsuccessfully) to secure donations from local companies for equipment purchases and other immediate needs. Fundraising is not for the faint-hearted. Offering sponsorships or other local publicity may offer incentives, but many local businesses receive plenty of requests every year. A company might be particularly receptive to a solicitation made by a youth hockey parent whom the company employs or does business with.

Beware of Internet sales. Fast forward to the present. The Internet continues to revolutionize many aspects of American life, but the sports program should advise parents that reliance on websites for purchasing used protective sports equipment brings both convenience and potential risks unknown 25 years ago. I know plenty of careful parents who have been satisfied with their website purchases. But impersonal transactions based on photographs do not permit safety inspection of the equipment or personal fitting of the child.

Remain innovative.  Local needs and circumstances may present opportunities that we did not consider 25 years ago. For example, national youth sports governing bodies and local leagues may seek to boost enrollments by conducting sessions that allow kids can “try” the particular sport before the family makes a commitment. These exploratory sessions work best when they outfit kids safely in proper equipment, and when a used-equipment bank can help open initial doors for families whose kids who wish to test the waters by enrolling.

National governing bodies and individual equipment companies may also have grants or other incentives available for outfitting underprivileged youth. If a program thinks it might qualify, it cannot hurt to watch websites and make inquiries. The extra care might make participation available to families who might find themselves on the outside looking in.

 Good Fortune

I speak from personal conviction because an equipment bank launched my own hockey experiences. When I was a young teen nearly 50 years ago, Nassau County opened the Cantiague Park Ice Rink a few minutes from my home. When I attended the recreation and parks department’s first youth hockey session, I showed up with no equipment, except for a beat-up stick, a cup, a $10 pair of skates, and a pair of mittens. But the department supplied goalie equipment (new and used, as I recall). I became a goalie when I decided to put it on rather than sit in the stands until my friend’s parents picked us both up an hour or so later.

That night led to youth hockey, high school hockey, college hockey at Wesleyan University, and more than 40 years of youth hockey coaching. And now regular opportunities to write youth sports columns such as this one.  I don’t know what hockey-less decades would have been like, but I remain thankful for the path that hockey paved.

My own good fortune is why I urge cooperating with parents who contemplate whether to commit to a potentially expensive new sport that seems to interest their young child. I was one of those kids whose interests changed monthly, so I was not a good bet for major hockey expenditures right away. As my hockey interests grew, my parents remained supportive. But I am still grateful for the loaned start-up equipment that I wore beginning when I showed up at Cantiague’s first youth hockey session with virtually none a half century ago.

TRAVEL TEAMS: Are You and Your Kids Pleased with Them?

I asked a basic question on my show this AM, and the response was amazing.

As a sports parent or as a coach, are you pleased with how travel teams have evolved in your community?

I presented this question because after presenting at the annual convention of New Jersey HS Athletic Directors this past week in Atlantic City, NJ, this was an issue that kept coming up. HS AD’s, of course, deal with this issue all the time, as it’s becoming increasingly difficult for top-end athletes to decide whether to remain with their HS varsity program…or to go off and play for an elite travel program, which usually forces the youngster to bypass their HS varsity teams and to play exclusively all year-round for the travel team.

In some sports, it’s become more and more common for top players to simply transfer out of their hometown HS and ship off to a prep school for their junior or senior year in school. Prep schools like to say they offer better overall academic training for the student, but for the most part, it’s more about allowing the kid to play at a higher competitive athletic level than their local HS or even local travel program.

But as was evidenced by the outpouring of calls this morning, it would seem that a LOT of sports parents and coaches are increasingly concerned about the growing influence and impact of travel programs. The comments ranged from:

>Parents need to do their homework and ask questions FIRST before allowing their kids to try out and play on a travel team. Why? Because travel programs are not regulated or overseen in any way by any kind of independent third party.

>Too many travel coaches attempt to lure kids into their programs with the promise of a heightened platform to college coaches. That may – or may not – be true. Parents and kids: caveat emptor.

> Too many travel coaches may not be as qualified as their slick brochures or websites might promise. Just because one might have been a top player in their prime doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they will be a top coach with kids as well.

> It’s difficult to protest to a travel team coach if your son or daughter is not having a positive experience with the team. Why? Because if you complain to the coach, don’t be surprised if they simply suggest your youngster just leave the squad. And no refund of fees.

In truth, there were too many calls to handle this AM. This is one of those days when I wish I had 2-3 hours to cover these topics.

The overall point I tried to make was :

Should travel programs be overseen and regulated by some sort of state or federal agency?

Too many unsuspecting parents automatically assume that every travel program is put together for the sole benefit of the kids. While that may be true in some part, parents and kids have to know that travel programs are for-profit operations. Even the big, big well-known travel programs are still a business – and they report to no one.

Bear in mind that lots of big elite or club programs say they have built-in their own rules and regulations on who they hire, their coaching philosophy, and so on. But that only means that their so-called guidelines are watched over by themselves – not by an outside third party.

I continue to strongly advocate that the President’s Council on Physical Fitness would be the perfect vehicle to start to oversee the travel team and showcase industry in this country. I just think real guidelines are now needed for this multi-million dollar industry which is part of every town in our country.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Is Adam LaRoche Being a Good – or Bad – Father?

Here’s what I find so amazing about sports parenting issues:

You never know when the next controversy is going to come from.

Case in point: Long-time major league slugger Adam LaRoche made national headlines this past week, insisting that he had language in his contract with the Chicago White Sox that his 14-year-old son could spend as much time in the White Sox clubhouse as he wanted. And indeed, the boy has pretty much been an everyday presence in the White Sox clubhouse this spring.

But over the last few days, the GM of White Sox, Ken Williams, approached LaRoche and asked him if he could “dial it back” meaning not have the young teenager in the clubhouse every day.

Incensed but polite, LaRoche — who is slated to earn $13 million this season – responded by saying this may indeed be his last season in the bigs, and as such, having his son – who is home schooled by the way – spend as much time with him as possible is very, very important to LaRoche as a dad.

Some other important details. By all accounts, the boy is not the issue. He’s polite and non-intrusive. Yet he does dress out in his own White Sox uniform, and even has his own locker.

AN ACT OF SELFISHNESS?

When I opened this issue for discussion on WFAN this AM, the calls poured in. And what might surprise you is that most of them praised LaRoche for being a kind and caring dad, but most of the callers also felt he was out of line with his demand to have his son be behind closed doors. One caller even said that such a demand was flat-out selfish in terms of the other players on the team.

“No other player is going to call out LaRoche for doing this,” the caller said, “but I have to think that there must be several players on the team who either feel uncomfortable with having a kid in the clubhouse all the time, or for that matter, they’re thinking they should be bringing their own kids int there all the time as well.”

Chris Sale, the All-Star pitcher for the White Sox, has praised LaRoche and calls out Chicago’s front office for having made Adam  a promise and is now trying to wriggle out of it. Sale’s accusations could clearly polarize the team in a wrongful way while still in spring training.

Some calls suggested that there’s probably more to this issue that has been made public. Having spent a lot of time in major league and minor league clubhouses over the years, I tend to agree with that assertion. Despite Sale’s contention that everybody on the White Sox roster is fully backing LaRoche, my instinct tells me that’s probably not true. In fact, I would surmise that a few players went to Williams privately and told him in confidence that they don’t think it’s right for Adam to have his 14-year-old there all the time. But that being said, they don’t want to go to LaRoche and tell him directly as that might result in a real chasm.

WOULD YOU WALK AWAY FROM A BIG PAY DAY?

So what happens next? LaRoche is now seriously leaning towards walking away and just retiring. That would mean walking away from $13 million, but of course, he feels the money is less important than the principle here – that of spending quality time with his son. Ken Williams has said that he doesn’t want to ban the LaRoche kid – he just wants him to be there less often.

Bear in mind that over the years, other big league players and coaches have let their kid in the clubhouse on occasion, and even take batting practice. But for the most part, these have been on a limited basis only. Being there full-time is a different kind of presence.

I, for one, feel that LaRoche is off base in his insistence that his son be allowed there everyday. I can certainly see how the boy could be viewed as a potential issue for the rest of the team, and that in Adam’s zeal to be a good father, he has inadvertently stepped on the toes of his teammates. And that’s not fair. Besides, in my opinion,  a 14-year-old boy would benefit greatly by spending time with his own age peers than just hanging around millionaire major leaguers who are in their 20s and 30s.

SPORTSMANSHIP: When Things Start to Get Ugly at High School Sports….

A Role for High School Athletes When Fans Resort to Slurs and Vulgarity

By Doug Abrams

Last Friday night, Catholic Memorial School downed Newton North High School, 77-73, in a hard-fought Massachusetts basketball division title matchup at Newton North High School. Catholic Memorial is an all-boys private college preparatory school in West Roxbury, and Newton North is a public school that has a large Jewish population in the community and the student body.

High school division title games usually generate few headlines outside the immediate area or the state, but this game has gained national attention. Several fans cheering for Catholic Memorial taunted their opponents with chants of, “You killed Jesus; you killed Jesus.” Catholic Memorial administrators apologized the next day. Catholic Memorial fans said that their players were taunted with chants that included “Where are the girls?,” which they viewed as anti-gay slurs.

This is not the first media report about overheated high school fans who, somewhere in the nation, cross the line between healthy partisanship and rank vulgarity. I doubt that it will be the last.

“This is not what our school stands for”

To people disturbed by media reports such as last Friday night’s, improving fan behavior will not come easily. Education and dialog in the schools might have some positive effect, and so might the specter of student disciplinary proceedings in appropriate cases.

I do not pretend to have a sure-fire response for eradicating the slurs and vulgarity that waft from the bleachers at so many high school games in various sports, but I do suggest an immediate response that might sometimes work. What if the players and coaches themselves, supported by school administrators in attendance, temporarily halted the Catholic Memorial-Newton North basketball game minutes after tipoff, moved to the microphone, and firmly told the crowd before resuming play that, “This is not what our school stands for”?

“It’s Not Fair”

I am reminded of a basketball game early last year at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Throughout the early minutes, the eighth-grade Lincoln players saw fans in the stands verbally abusing one of their courtside cheerleaders, who has Down syndrome. The players themselves stopped the game and approached the stands to halt the maltreatment of their classmate.

“The kids in the audience were picking on [the cheerleader], so we all stepped forward,” Lincoln Middle School player Chase Vazquez said later. “We walked off the court and went to the bullies and told them to stop because that’s not right to be mean to another person,” teammate Miles Rodriguez told Fox & Friends. “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong,” teammate Scooter Terrien explained to WTMJ-TV, because “we’re all created the same.”

Reports indicated that when play resumed, the verbal abuse stopped.

 Lessons To Be Learned

Peer influence matters in the elementary and secondary schools, and athletes and coaches often hold a particular place among the student body. Rick Wolff, Brooke de Lench, Jim Thompson and others have spoken and written about the leadership role that a team can play when it acts together to counter bullying that targets vulnerable classmates. By stepping up to protect a seemingly easy target who was no match physically or emotionally for bullies, the Kenosha middle school basketball team demonstrated that these youth sports experts are on the right track.

The experts’ lessons might transcend bullying and hold an antidote to other antisocial high school fan misconduct, such as that reported from Friday night’s basketball game in Newton. Will a team’s united intervention usually work? I do not know, but I believe that this immediate intervention is worth exploring by coaches, school administrators, and the athletes themselves. The exploration can be particularly fruitful when, during the preseason, teams anticipate future issues that might stain the local sports culture.

Respect

One final thought. . . . When a news outlet reports fan excesses such as what surfaced last Friday night, some blogging readers invariably complain that the nation is drowning in “political correctness” that places slurs and vulgarity out of bounds. These readers, who suggest that victims need thick skins to “tough it out,” are the ones who are out of bounds.

Publicly slurring a person’s race, ethnicity, religion, disability, or other identifiable difference from the mainstream demonstrates disrespect for the person’s worth. In the America that we should want for ourselves and our families, respect is not “politically” correct. It is simply correct.

 

Sources: Evan Allen, Catholic Memorial Students Chant Anti-Jewish Taunt at Game, Boston Globe, Mar. 12, 2016; CBS News, Mass. Catholic School Apologizes For Anti-Semitic Chant, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/boston-catholic-memorial-newton-anti-semitic-chant/ (Mar. 13, 2016”; Valerie Strauss, Catholic School Supporters Say Anti-Jewish Chant at Game Followed Anti-Gay Slurs, Wash. Post, Mar. 13, 2016; Middle school basketball players defend bullied cheerleader, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/wisconsin-middle-school-basketball-players-defend-bullied-cheerleader/ (Mar. 12, 2015); Players Leave Court Mid-Game to Confront Bully of Cheerleader With Down Syndrome, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/03/13/players-leave-court-mid-game-to-confront-bully-cheerleader-with-down-syndrome/ (Mar. 13, 2015); Deneen Smith, Welcome to D’s House, Kenosha (Wis.) Times, Mar. 9, 2015.

 

SPORTSMANSHIP: Some Good News Regarding Kids Playing Sports

Advice From Youth Leaguers Who Overcame Physical Challenges:

Fun, Sportsmanship, Smiles, and Competition

 

By Doug Abrams

 

Newspapers and magazines regularly report the seamy side of youth sports. . . . Parents who taunt referees from the stands. Parents who assault coaches, referees, or other parents. Parents who impose unreasonable pressures on their sons and daughters. Win-at-all-costs coaches who drive 10-year-olds to quit rather than warm the bench. Teams whose ever-expanding schedules disrupt home life and price many families out of participation. And other excesses that mark many local sports associations.

Excesses lead news commentators to seek a better way. Headlines such as these have appeared in just the past two months or so: “How To Make Your Kid Hate Sports Without Really Trying”; “Youth Sports: Insanity and Big Business: We Gotta Let Kids Be Kids”; “Kids’ Sports Culture Needs Repair”; and “New Years Resolution For Youth Sports Parents: Miss Some Games.”  One writer even asks, “Should We Ban Parents From Kids’ Sporting Events?

Bad news about youth sports abounds, but this column reports two human interest stories that offered good news late last month. The stories profile youth leaguers who have earned acceptance and support by overcoming physical challenges. But chronicling fortitude and determination is not this column’s primary purpose. I write here because we should listen to what the profiled youth leaguers say about what sports competition should be. Their words deserve attention.

Overcoming Barriers

The first of the two February stories, from the New Hampshire Union Leader, profiles 14-year-old freshman Tristan Wilmott, a junior varsity basketball player at Hillsboro-Deering High School in Hillsboro. Tristan stands only three-foot-five and weighs only 42 pounds. He has mulibrey nanism, an extremely rare genetic condition that, as described by writer Jason Schreiber, “causes considerable growth failure and other abnormalities affecting the heart, muscle, brain and eyes.”

Tristan has “taught us how to really work as a team,” one Hillcat teammate tells the Union Leader. “He definitely raises the spirits of everybody on the team,” adds his coach.

The second story profiles Spirit Sparkles, a cheerleading squad comprised of special needs students at East Lawrence High School in Trinity, Alabama. “The girls raised our spirit level more than anyone else,” the varsity cheerleading squad’s sponsor tells the Associated Press about the cheerleaders with conditions such as Down syndrome.

Fun, Sportsmanship, and Smiles

One recent news commentary appeared below this headline: “Why Do We Play Sports? We’ve Forgotten.” The three February stories prod us to remember.

“Winning is always nice,” the perceptive Tristan Wilmott told the Union Leader, “but at the end of the day it’s all about having fun.” “It’s good sportsmanship and everything. That’s why I like it,” he told CBS News about his JV basketball team.

“No matter if we’re winning or losing, she always has a smile on her face,” a senior cheerleader told the Associated Press about a Spirit Sparkles member with Down syndrome.

Fun and sportsmanship on the field, and smiles from the sidelines, while athletes strive to win . . . . Youth leaguers would be better off if parents and coaches paid attention to what these young athletes said last month about how sports influences their lives.

 

Sources: Jason Schreiber, Height Didn’t Keep 3-foot-5 Player Off Hillcats Team, N.H. Union Leader, Feb. 22, 2016; CBS News, “Never Give Up”: Teen With Rare Disorder Inspires Team,  Feb. 24, 2016; Deangelo McDaniel, Unique East Lawrence Cheerleading Squad Includes Special Needs Students at Varsity Games, Decatur (Ala.) Daily, Feb. 23, 2016; How To Make Your Kid Hate Sports Without Really Trying, http://www.abc-7.com/story/31021729/how-to-make-your-kid-hate-sports-without-really-trying, Jan. 21, 2016; Kevin McNab, Youth Sports: Insanity and Big Business: We Gotta Let Kids Be Kids, ColoradoBiz, Feb. 5, 2016; Tim Trower, Kids’ Sports Culture Needs Repair, Mail Tribune (Medford, Or.), Feb. 13, 2016; Bob Cook, New Years Resolution For Youth Sports Parents: Miss Some Games, Forbes, Jan. 3, 2016; Mark E. Andersen, Should We Ban Parents From Kids’ Sporting Events?, Daily Kos, Feb. 14, 2016; Beau Dure, Why Do We Play Sports? We’ve Forgotten, Huffington Post, Jan. 5, 2016.

COLLEGE RECRUITING: Insider Tips from Noah Savage, Princeton Basketball

With March Madness and state basketball playoffs ongoing, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the concept of college recruiting of HS basketball players. To that end, I asked Noah Savage, who served as the captain of the Princeton basketball team in 2008 and who, as a 6-8 sharpshooter, was an All-Ivy selection, to come on the Sports Edge this AM to talk about what aspiring players (and their parents) should know about playing in college.

Being not that far removed from being a HS player himself, Noah spoke candidly on a wide range of topics and handled a number of calls. Here’s a brief recap of his suggestions:

Division I or III? If you, as a player, don’t know where you might fit in as a college player and at what level, Noah cautioned that pretty much every teammate of his at Princeton had been superstars at their respective HS programs. That is, regardless of how much playing time they got in college, they ALL had been All-this or All-that in HS. Noah recalls that when he was being recruited by Princeton, one of the recruiting coaches told him that Noah — who was All-State in New Jersey – would be competing against a kid from Ohio who had recently scored 52 points in a game.

But as Noah points out, the game changes dramatically once you’re in college. “Let’s say you were a 6-5 center in HS….in college, suddenly, at 6-5, you’re being seen as a guard. The kids are bigger, faster, and stronger than the kids you competed against in HS. And for many players, it’s just too bi of a jump.”

ASK THE COACH DIRECTLY

In any event, Noah had some good advice. “Go to a showcase or summer camp, and ask the college coaches there who have seen play — ask them directly for their assessment of where they think you can play. These coaches will tell you the truth. It may not be what you hoped to hear, but unlike a lot of AAU coaches, or HS coaches, or even parents, the college coaches will tell you the truth.

“And by the way, if the coach says you might be a preferred walk-on, don’t be seduced. Walk-ons rarely play, and often get cut the second year as new recruits come into the program.”

I pointed out that, according to the New York Times, close to 40% of all college basketball players transfer out by the end of their sophomore year. “That’s because the college coach tells the sophomore player that the kid is not as good as we thought he was going to be. In other words, the coach is telling the sophomore that he’s probably never going to see any playing time.

“That’s a tough conversation, but at least it’s honest. Then the player can decide for himself whether he wants to remain in the program, or transfer out. In other words, the kid can decide what’s best for him. And a lot of them do transfer out.”

TWO KEY TAKEAWAYS

Noah also advocated two other key points:

One, you MUST do your homework and ask the recruiting coach the tough questions, e.g. where do I fit into your program? How much playing time when I have my freshman year? Will I be on the travelling roster? What year is the kid on the team now who plays my position? And of course, how much scholarship money will I receive?

Being told you’re a preferred walk-on, or let’s see what kind of freshman year you have and then we’ll talk about possible scholarship for your second year are serious red flags. In other words, the coach is under no obligation to you at all.

And two, leave your parents out of the decision. Yes, they can and should meet the college coach. But after that, all communication should come from the athlete to the coach, never from Mom and Dad.

To hear the entire interview, go to WFAN.com and find the link for Rick Wolff’s podcast.

SPORT SAFETY: Physical Therapy When Coming Back from an Injury…

This is a given. If your son or daughter plays competitive sports, at some point in their career, they’re going to get hurt.

It might be an ankle sprain, a bump on the head, a jammed neck. Or it might be more serious, such as a sprained MCL, broken leg, etc.

The good news is that if your kid gets hurt, chances are they will first see a doctor for a diagnosis, and then be referred to a local physical therapist who will work with the athlete and guide them back to being healthy again and ready to compete.

Now, a little background. Back in August, I had an operation to repair my hip. The procedure is called hip resurfacing, which is in the same ballpark as hip replacement, but not as extreme.

After Dr. Edwin Su of the Hospital for Special Surgery worked on me, I knew I would be headed for several weeks of physical therapy.

And to that end, I attended ProClinix in Armonk, NY, where Dr. Brian Dombal is one of the principals and a terrific therapist. Brian, along with his colleague Dr. James Cassell, did an amazing job in literally getting me back on my feet and jogging and working out within a matter of a few months. These days, I’m happy to report, I’m back to my regular running schedule 3 or 4 times a week, whereas last year at this time, I could hardly stand up for more than 5 minutes. And running was simply out of the question.

Because I was so impressed with Brian and his staff at ProClinix, I asked Brian to come on my radio show this AM, because he sees young athletes every day in his practice, and he knows first hand  the worries that the kids have, as well as their parents.

Brian made some important points: first and foremost, it’s essential that there a clear line of communication among the physical therapist, the parents, the school coach, and the school’s trainer. In other words, there should never be any possibility of misunderstanding of how well the injured athlete is progressing, and what is his or her timetable to return.

Brian also made it clear that each athlete has to work at their own pace. That is, the physical therapist has to listen carefully to the athlete regarding their progress, and never give in to the pleadings of the parents or the coach who is eager to have the youngster return to action. Coming back too soon to play runs a serious risk of aggravating the original injury.

Along those lines, the issue of repetitive use injuries came up. “I see kids who are literally playing two or three sports in the same season,
Brian explained. The chances for injury when repeating the same actions over and over again is substantial. Problem is, kids these days are so eager to keep up and compete with their peers that they don’t want to take any time off from their sports, even if their body is telling them they’re hurt.

“That’s a real concern,” Brian points out. “Kids need to understand that, sometimes, they have to back off and let their body rest.”

But psychologically, that’s not always easy to do as kids don’t want to fall behind the others. And with only so many weeks in a season, the idea of sitting out is difficult for any kid.

At the other end, if a youngster is coming off a serious injury which involved surgery, it’s often on the physical therapist to help guide the individual and reassure him or her that they’re healed and ready to go. “This decision has to be made in direct consultation with the physician,” says Brian. “But to me, the key is whether the athlete clearly is able to run and perform at 100 percent. If there’s any holding back or gingerness, then he or she is not ready to go out.”

Here’s the bottom line: there was a time not long ago when physical therapists were around but not really a major part of the sports scene. The good news is that these days, they are. Be proactive. Before your son or daughter – or even yourself — need to find a physical therapist, do your homework now and find someone in your area who is well regarded.

Trust me, if you and your family are involved in sports, at some point you will need a physical therapist.