DADS AS SPORTS PARENTS: Everything I Learned About Youth Sports I Learned from My Father

My Dad —  Hall of Fame Sportscaster Bob Wolff – passed away two weeks ago at the age of 96.

My father was one of those rare individuals who knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He loved sports, and he loved talking about them on the air. And he not only had the good fortune to call a bunch of famous games in his life (e.g. Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the Colts-Giants 1958 overtime NFL championship game, the NY Knicks only two NBA championships, etc) but he set a record along the way recognized by Guinness that he was the longest running sportscaster of all time. Dad broadcast sporting events from 1939 when he was a sophomore at Duke on the local CBS radio station in Durham, NC, right up until June of this year. That’s a run of 78 years.

But for the Wolff family, Dad always made it clear that as much fun as he had broadcasting professional and collegiate sporting events, nothing gave him more satisfaction than watching his own three kids play competitive sports. My older brother Bob was a highly successful pitcher in HS and at Princeton in the late 1960s before going on to a distinguished career as a pediatric neurologist. My sister Margy may have been the best natural athlete in the family, and starred in HS basketball. She would have been a three-sport star except that she was in school just before Title IX was passed.

And most of you know of my own background as a record-setting wide receiver and shortstop in HS before going onto play at Harvard and then drafted and signed by the Detroit Tigers after my junior year.

In short, it was my father who taught me everything I know about youth sports. On my radio show this AM, I tried to pay tribute to him by asking listeners what kinds of life-long lessons had their own Dads pass onto them. The response was substantial.


When I was a kid – like any youngster – I wanted to learn how to hit a baseball well…how to shoot a basketball….how to throw a spiral with a football…how to run a pass pattern…how to play pepper with a bat and ball….and so much more.

I also wondered about the intricate rules of the sports I played….like the infield fly rule…or why football teams always punted on fourth down….or how to set up an effective zone defense in basketball…or better yet, how to break a zone defense.

And like kids everywhere, I found out that cheating in sports just wasn’t accepted or allowed….and that being a good sport when you lose is not easy.

But all of these lessons – -and many, many more – didn’t come to me naturally or instinctively.

Rather, they all came from conversations from my father. Perhaps you’re a Dad now yourself…what kinds of lessons are you imparting to your kids?

What are your top priorities? How do you teach them?

How do you react when things aren’t going well for them?

Are you a sideline yeller and screamer?

My suggestion is to give some serious thought as to what kind of impact you’re having on your son and daughter.



My Dad was all about praise…that is, long before I had ever heard of John Wooden, my father would use praise and more praise in order to motivate me.

If I had a bad day at the plate, rather than castigate me or belittle me, my father would take just the opposite approach, and point out how tough the pitcher was….or that I was actually making good adjustments, and if only I had gotten one more at-bat, he was certain I would hit a line-drive double.

Somehow, those words of encouragement kept me going.

I recall playing in a college summer league game one hot, Sunday afternoon. I was a right handed batter, and I was facing a kid who wasn’t all that big and he didn’t throw all that hard. But he had a tremendous curve ball.

As much as I tried to make adjustments at the plate, he struck me out 4 times in a row. Mind you, I was 19 at the time…and I had never looked so bad in a game in my life! I was convinced that any chance of playing pro ball was now gone.

But on the long car ride home, my Dad pointed out that the pitcher did indeed possess a really good deuce…and that while I needed to learn how to slap the pitch the other way, that I shouldn’t be that tough on myself. He was calm…patient…and encouraging.

Well…fast forward a few years…that righthanded pitcher I faced that afternoon? He was from St. John’s University – his name was Steve Ratzer – and Steve not only signed a pro contract, but he actually made it all the way through the minors to the bigs, all because of that great curve ball.

In other words, apparently I wasn’t the only opposing batter who had a hard time facing him. But again, it was my Dad who helped me get over that 4-strike out performance.

So praise and encouragement are high on the list…and they should be on yours as well – especially when your youngster has a tough day.



My Dad was a big believer in preparation and hard work...that is, if you wanted to shine in the classroom OR on the athletic field, you needed to prepare in advance so that you COULD shine. That meant working hard to get into top shape….to be ready at the drop of a hat…to show the coaches that you really COULD play and prove it to them.

Hard work and preparation….those two lessons have remained with me for my entire adult life – and go far beyond just trying to make the team in sports or trying to beat out the competition. These are truly life lessons….and I’m grateful that my father explained to me why this approach works. Because the truth is, they really do work.



My Dad used to explain to me as a kid that fair play is essential to making one’s victory have real substance and meaning.

That is, if the other team was short-handed, or didn’t have their top players on hand that day, or somehow their team wasn’t at their  best – well, it was nice to come away with a win….but in the end, a victory like that somehow didn’t feel as good as a win when you truly defeated that opponent when they were at full strength.

When you did that….that was something to be proud of.

The same philosophy applied to those tournaments where sometimes coaches try to navigate around a tough opponent in order to advance. My father never understood that approach – that is, if you want to be the best, then you have to BEAT the best.

These days, when I hear about coaches – and kids – sometimes looking for short cuts to advance, well, it’s not really cheating…but you do wonder about whether the win is worth boasting about. In other words, when you come away with a big win in sports, it means that much more knowing you beat the best.


Look, being a sport parent – as I have said many times on my show – is a lot more complicated and difficult these days than ever before….and not only is it a challenge for a parent to navigate all of this, it’s even more bewildering for a kid.

That’s why you really need to give some conscious thought as to what you want your son and daughter to take away from their years of playing sports.


The outpouring of love and support for my Dad has been overwhelming to both me and my family,and we are eternally grateful. The truth is, my Dad was a tremendously talented sportscaster who took great pride in his work and his work ethic. But as anybody will tell you who ever met my father, as good as he was a sportscaster, he was an even better human being.


REFLECTIONS: The Games That Your Young Athletes Will Remember…

Editor’s note: DAN VENEZIA, a former professional baseball player in the Twins’ organization, is a youth sports coach and author of the children’s book, “Coach Dan on Sportsmanship.” His website is 

Dan recently shared his coaching story with me, and I wanted to share it with you.

I’d like to share a great story, one that happened on Ash Wednesday during my rec basketball game of middle school kids. At the end of the first quarter, I was talking to the refs and they pointed out that one of the opposing players was autistic.  The opposing team had only 5 players show up that day, we were winning by 15 or 20 and already slowing it down.  So we stopped the fast breaks, and stopped taking three pointers.  I honestly did not notice this player as he really wasn’t involved or engaged in any of the plays.  His team had not won a game all season, which was probably why they had dwindled down to just five players.

I immediately called a time out and let my team know about the boy we were playing against.  I asked them to try and get him the ball without making it obvious.  Miss the pass, or make a poor one.  The goal was to get this player (Stephen) the ball and to get him to score.  I was so happy that every one of my kids bought into this concept.  Slowly but surely, they got him the ball.  I wish we could have captured the moment on video because his face lit up each time the ball made it into his hands.  The problem was, he was on our side of the court and although we backed off on defense, he dribbled a few times and then would pass it on to his teammates.

After 3 or 4 attempts, I called another time out and spoke to the opposing coach.  By this point he knew what we were trying to do.  I told him it would be helpful if we got Stephen the ball on his side of the court because we would love to see him make a basket.  So we left him open in the corner and he began to get passes from his teammates but with each pass he would give it back to one of his teammates.  After another time out, I instructed my team to play tight defense on everyone else, giving Stephen no alternative but to shoot.

Once again, my team responded and Stephen took a shot from 3 point land and missed, but not by much.  You could hear the crowd in the gym catching on and slowing building a sense of momentum with each pass and shot. The ooh’s and ahh’s got louder each time.  Then, with an open lane, Stephen dribbled twice and took a 10 foot shot, banking it in.  The place erupted, a standing ovation followed and Stephen smiled from ear to ear.

I couldn’t be more proud of the nine 7th and 8th grader’s on my squad.  I told them that they would not remember every rec basketball game or youth sporting event, but this game is one they would remember for a lifetime.  The important lessons of compassion, team play, and sportsmanship are ones that will stay with them for a good long time.


The irony of it all, was earlier in the day, I had made a decision for the Lentin season.  Instead of giving something up, I had decided to give up something but didn’t know exactly what to give.   I came up with a simple 4 word motto to try to live by.  “Make today mean something!”

In truth, I wasn’t thinking about that motto during the game; it just sort of happened.  It wasn’t until later on that evening that I realized that “today” had meant something for so many people, the fans, the players, the officials, and most importantly, for the young man who simply put the ball in the basket.




REFLECTIONS: A Breath of Fresh Air When Kids Lead the Way…..

The Last Shot: High School Basketball Pride in the Heartland

By Doug Abrams

In the past few weeks, headlines have carried stories about disturbing conduct by high school sports fans. The Herald-Standard reported, for example, that throughout a basketball game in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, some students in the stands chanted “Build that wall! Get them out of here!” and other racial slurs at opposing African American players.

The Mendham-Chester Patch reported that similar student chants, leveled at black and Hispanic opponents, marred a high school basketball game in suburban New Jersey. The Huffington Post reported that a Missouri public school superintendent publicly apologized after students in the stands collectively turned their backs on opposing high school basketball players during pre-game introductions, apparently a school tradition that no one had ever questioned.

“Everyone Will Remember”

Students refreshingly bucked this descent in Nebraska late last month at a basketball game between Columbus High School and Kearney High School. Kearney held an 11-point lead with less than 30 seconds remaining on the clock. Both teams’ fans began enthusiastically chanting, “We want Kyle! We want Kyle.”

Kyle Anderson, the team’s manager, had suited up for his first game and had yet to see action. The popular senior was no ordinary substitute. WOWT 6 News reported that ever since being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer five years ago, the Eagle Scout and former Homecoming King has undergone several chemotherapy treatments and surgeries. He volunteered as manager when his condition kept him from trying out for the team.

Columbus’ coach put Kyle in the game according to plan, and the manager responded by hitting a layup in the final seconds. The Columbus Telegram described the drama: “No one will remember the final score; everyone will remember Anderson’s layup.”

Columbus High School will move into a new building next year, so the Kearney matchup was the final regular season basketball game played in the nearly 60-year-old gymnasium. Kyle’s layup was Columbus’ last varsity basket scored in the gym, a proud climax for both teams’ students whose resounding cheers saluted the manager as the game ended.

People Are Always Watching

Leading national voices promote sportsmanship and respect as hallmarks of vigorous high school athletic competition. In some high visibility sports today, however, fans’ trash talking, taunting, and rowdiness sometimes eclipse these core values.

The Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star offers this healthy perspective for students in the stands who feel tempted to stray from partisanship to vulgarity: “People are always watching everything you do, so respect visitors, guests, and the people you represent . . . with your actions. After all, high school sports are about bringing a community together to support the students and one another.”

Before the curtain closed on nearly six decades of tipoffs in Columbus High School’s gymnasium, the final act pointed in the right direction.


Sources: Alyssa Choiniere, Parents Say Uniontown Players Targets of Racial Comments at Connellville Game, Herald-Standard (Uniontown, Pa.), Feb. 10, 2017;  Katie Kausch, ‘Build The Wall’ Chants Cause Controversy At NJ Basketball Game, Mendham-Chester (N.J.) Patch, Jan. 31, 2017; Aaron Ferguson, Hoops Fan’s Heckling Was Embarrassing and Disrespectful, Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.), Dec. 8, 2016; Ed Mazza, White Students Hold ‘Trump’ Sign, Turn Backs On Black Basketball Team, Huffington Post, Dec. 14, 2016; Brandon Scott, During His H.S. Basketball Debut, the Crowd Goes Wild For a Columbus Teen Fighting Cancer, (Feb. 26, 2017); Kollin Miller, Anderson Steals Show in Final Home Game, (Feb. 17, 2017).

REFLECTIONS: Teaching Our Athletes the Right Lessons in Life

 More About Teaching Youth Leaguers Courtesy and Respect

By Doug Abrams

This column is about courtesy and respect, two virtues that parents and coaches can teach children through sports. The lessons do nothing to enhance physical prowess, and they will not help make a player a standout collegiate athlete or a pro. But sensitivity to these virtues can help make the player a better person, and citizenship education remains a central goal of youth sports programs.

Like other citizenship lessons that pass from parents and coaches to children, lessons about courtesy and respect pass most effectively from the adults’ actions and not merely from their words. The adults carefully watch the children compete, but children also carefully watch the adults. Children learn from what they see.

At Home and On the Road

In early 2012, I wrote a column about how parents and coaches should treat custodians and other local service staff. “Youth league and high school sports programs usually depend on custodians, maintenance staffs, grounds crews, security guards, grass cutters, and other employees who go to work every day but frequently toil in anonymity, routinely ignored by team members who do not even bother to learn their names. Sometimes these employees face outright insults and discourtesy.” Conferring respect on service staff who help sustain the team’s home schedule, I concluded, “is simply the right thing to do.”

This column resumes where the 2012 column left off. The discussion here concerns how parents and coaches, at road games, should treat custodians and other service staff they will likely never see again. Remember, the players are watching, and parents and coaches are on display all the time.

A Personal Experiment

One Saturday morning a few years ago, I tried an early-season experiment before a few of our hockey program’s home games. I was the program’s president and a law professor, but none of the visiting teams’ parents or coaches knew me. I “dressed down” – a flannel shirt, a baseball cap, an old sweater and windbreaker, and jeans. As the visiting teams arrived, I remained in the ice arena’s lobby pushing a broom.

For all that the visiting teams’ adults knew that morning, I swept the floors, emptied the waste baskets, kept the plumbing and heating operable, and performed similar tasks that often went unnoticed but made the ice arena a safe, clean place for them and their families.

Hockey people who knew me had always conveyed courtesy and respect, which I had always tried to reciprocate. But I wanted to see whether parents and coaches would react differently when I didn’t look or act the part of a league official or a professional.

As they asked me directions to the locker rooms or the pro shop with their children at their side, a few of the visiting teams’ adults punctuated their requests with “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you.” Most did not. The interchanges had little eye contact, and little hint of the respectful tone of voice that I had heard from people who knew my roles in the league and the community. With her boy in tow, one mother even called me “Son,” though I was clearly older than she was.

The changed content and tone of voice seemed unfortunate because some of the visiting teams’ parents and coaches could have done better. The change was likely unwitting because these adults were nice people who meant no animosity from talking down, and they remained well behaved in the stands later as their teams played clean. With their children watching in the lobby, some of the adults simply missed opportunities to deliver a wholesome lesson through actions and words.

Watching and Learning

What is the lesson for youth leaguers? All persons are entitled to courtesy and respect as they perform their assigned roles, including persons who may never cross our paths again. This entitlement extends to strangers who cross our paths on road trips, such as restaurant waiters, hotel service workers, and retail store clerks. Each role has worth, and none should be taken for granted.

For someone perceptive enough to sense the other person’s circumstances, it doesn’t take special effort to treat the person with the same dignity that the person delivers in return. Road trips enable parents and coaches to send children the lasting message of “one standard for all.”

After my law school graduation, I served for two years as law clerk to New York Court of Appeals Judge Hugh R. Jones. Judge Jones taught his staff that a person can become a good lawyer only after becoming a good person. I think that the same order of priorities should prevail in other occupations. First things first.

Judge Jones reinforced his words with actions. Whenever someone approached his office while my attention in the outer room was diverted within earshot, I could not tell whether the visitor was the Chief Judge or the custodian who emptied the wastebaskets. The Judge’s high official position did not obligate him to give everyone the same courteous and respectful welcome, but he always did. He treated everyone right, and I watched and learned. Nearly 40 years later, I still remember the lesson.

REFLECTIONS: The Power of a Simple Phone Call….

Repaying Favorite Coaches and Teachers Years Later

By Doug Abrams

 My most recent column explained the enduring player-coach bond. “Behind only the parent-child and child-sibling bonds, the teacher-student bond can be one of life’s most lasting. Coaches are teachers, and players are their students. . . . If a coach treats the team right, coach and players frequently maintain lifelong friendships based on shared experiences and mutual respect.”

From some of my former players and from other readers, that column generated more reactions than any other I have written. Spurred by these reactions, I expand below on what the lifelong bond can mean for players and their coaches, and indeed for students and their classroom teachers.

I focus on one gesture that can enrich relationships. The gesture involves the telephone, and it enables today’s parents to repay their own favorite coaches and teachers for their influence years and even decades ago.

The Need for Reassurance

For the past several years, I have made regular telephone calls to a few of my favorite teachers and favorite coaches. These calls might come a few times a week, or they might come weekly or bi-weekly. The calls usually last a few minutes. Some of my former coaches and teachers are in their sixties, seventies, or even eighties.

The telephone provides welcome opportunities to repay favorite coaches and teachers. I remain a grateful debtor, eager to share memories with men and women whose service years ago helped make the memories possible.

Phone calls may seem like minor gestures, but the calls are not minor to yesterday’s coaches and teachers who need reassurance that their past efforts made a difference. The voice at the other end always closes the conversation with a request to call again soon.

Completing the Circle

These phone calls are reminders that coaching and classroom teaching done right should not be taken for granted. Inspired coaching and teaching reflect the “something extra” that marks accomplishment in any field. Inspiration – going the extra mile for players or students – deserves respect because it does not happen by accident.

Speaking as an educator and as a former youth hockey coach for several years, I remain thankful for my own upbringing. In addition to solid parental influence, I never had a bad teacher from kindergarten through law school. Nor did I ever have a bad coach in any sport. Many adults today cannot look back at such good fortune, and I don’t take my good fortune lightly.

As today’s parents and coaches raise their own families, phone calls to favorite former coaches and teachers help complete an important circle. In childhood and adolescence, players and students need their coaches and teachers. Years later, coaches and teachers need their former players and former students. According to the proverb, what goes around, comes around.