SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: Celebrating 18 Years of The Sports Edge on WFAN

This morning’s radio show on WFAN marked the 18th anniversary of the Sports Edge being on the air. And I want to thank you all for your tremendous  support, and great and smart comments and questions over the years.

We may be the only major radio show in the nation that focuses exclusively on sports parenting issues. And with the “here today, gone tomorrow” mentality of sports shows, being on the air for close to 20 years is pretty special.

I first became involved in sports parenting when my own kids were just starting out in sports, and now, 18 years later, they are in their 20s and 30s, and I’m happy to say, they still love sports and still enjoy playing them.

I think, to me, that’s the ultimate bottom line. That is, that their original love and passion for sports has stayed with them, long after their competitive days in HS and college and, in my son’s case, pro ball. As a sports parent myself, I’m very proud that they continue to go out and play in hockey games, take batting practice, pick up a lax stick and practice some shots on goal, and so on.

A LOOK BACK IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR

Once upon a time in this country, back in the early 1990s, I was one of a handful of people who was talking about the changing landscape of sports parenting. As I recall, back then, there was Fred Engh and I believe Bob Bigelow was getting involved in sports parenting as well. But one thing was for sure – the field of sports parenting was a new frontier.

And that was no surprise. After all, up until the 1980s or so, it used to be that kids learned how to play sports by playing pick-up games with their buddies and peers on playgrounds, sandlots, and open fields. The older kids chose teams, nobody sat out, and if there were a dispute on a call, we argued for awhile, and then just did a do-over.

There was no need for refs or umpires…..no need for tryouts…no need for one’s parents to intervene.

As kids, we kept score for the individual game, and if the game had a lopsided score, we simply stopped and reshuffled the teams to make them more equal.

Nobody worried about individual stats….nobody worried about making All-League or All-State….nobody gave a thought to playing in college or in the pro’s. Did we dream about that stuff? Sure. But nobody took it seriously.

We just played….because it was fun to do.

But then things began to change, bit by bit.

Way back then, for example, there was this new concept of travel teams introduced. Now, nobody knew what travel teams were or how they would change youth sports, but like a spreading virus, once travel teams started, they grew and grew everywhere. Now you’d be hard pressed to find any town or community anywhere in the US where travel teams don’t exist.

PARENTS BACKING COACHES?

Right around the time travel teams got going, it seemed that after years and years of parents always backing up the HS coaches on strategy, discipline and so forth, suddenly, there was a growing rash of parents interfering with their kid’s coaches.

There were parents arguing with coaches about their kid’s playing time. Parents were getting in the face of their kids’ coaches, complaining bitterly, even threatening lawsuits against the athletic director and school district if the Dad felt his kid had been slighted.

Formal HS Codes of Conduct began to pop up, so that AD’s and coaches could point to prescribed kinds of punishments. But for the most part, the Codes were soft and did not promote a sense of strict discipline. That’s because the parents didn’t want the schools to adopt a zero tolerance policy. If they did, it might mean that their own child might run afoul of the rules and get booted off the team instead of getting just a warning.

These, there have been growing discipline issues with social media abuse, such as Twitter, Facebook, sexting. Of course, these things didn’t exist 18 years ago, but they sure do now, and they cause sports parents to have tremendous anxiety when their kids are involved.

For years and years, LL baseball allowed pitchers to throw as many pitches as they wanted. It  wasn’t until Steve Kallas came on the Sports Edge and pointed out that especially in Williamsport, top young pitchers were throwing hundreds and hundreds of pitches in a week of tournament play. Finally,  LL woke up and realized that they had to change their rules and regulations on pitch counts.

And of course, LL still allows young pitchers to throw curves and sliders endlessly, even though Dr. James Andrews, who serves on their board of directors, still says that kids shouldn’t throw breaking balls until they’re old enough to shave.

Don’t even get me started about LL and aluminum baseball bats, which in my opinion, is still very dangerous. Anybody  — and I mean anybody – who has ever thrown batting practice to a kid with an aluminum bat knows instinctively that the ball comes off the bat faster – much faster than off of wood. LL, please stop telling me that’s not true.

A NEW WAVE OF ADVOCATES

Now, These days, there are growing numbers of other people who have become sports parenting advocates, and I applaud that. From coast to coast, there are sports parenting advocates who are blogging….posting columns….doing TED talks….writing books….and so on. It shows that the gospel we’ve been trying to spread on Sunday mornings for the last 18 years is finally beginning to have a real impact.

But I must confess that I do get something of a chuckle when they post a column about this “new phenomenon” of pushy parents…or a lack of sportsmanship….or kids quitting sports at a young age….or how travel teams are having a major impact on their kids….and so on – and they write these columns as though these kinds of incidents are totally new developments in our athletic society and that they are the first to pinpoint them.

But you and I know the truth…we’ve been taking about these issues on the air at WFAN for 18 years. And like yourself, I’ll be most interested to see how the world of sports parenting changes in the years to come. What will the next generation of sports parents do when it comes to their kids in sports? That, of course, is the ultimate question. And will fun still part of the experience?

Until then, my thanks to the loyal readers of Askcoachwolff, and for those of you who listen to The Sports Edge on WFAN Radio each Sunday. I also want to send a special of personal thanks to Doug Abrams and Steve Kallas, two brilliant attorneys who share my passion for doing the right thing for kids who play sports. It’s nice to know that there are wonderful people in this world like Doug and Steve.

Sports parenting continues to be a most challenging topic for all of us, and as noted, I think we have made some progress. I just hope we can make even more progress in the next 18 years.

 

 

TRENDS IN SPORTS: How HS Boys Basketball Has Changed over the Last 30 Years

There was a time in this country when making a HS varsity basketball team was a fairly simple process. That is, hopeful kids tried out for the team under the watchful eyes of the head coach and his staff, in the hope that one would impress enough with one’s skills, size, experience, and speed to make the squad.

There were no outside influencers at work: no AAU teams, no travel or club teams, no letters of recommendation from one’s private coaches.

Just work hard, and hope and pray that all the time you spent working on your skills over the previous summer and fall would pay off in a big way.

Of course, those simpler times are long gone, but I thought it would be a good starting in my discussion with long-time HS varsity basketball coach, Bill Thom, who after 33 years of coaching kids in hoops, is going to retire at the end of this season. In March, he’s going to be inducted in the NYS Basketball Hall of Fame.

Coach Thom certainly agreed with how things have changed dramatically in boys’ basketball. “It seems as though kids and their parents are always looking for that extra advantage, to move up their game to a higher level, whether it be playing all spring and summer on an AAU team, or hiring a private coach.”

The problem is, as Coach Thom pointed out, that while it’s fun to chase the dream in basketball, it’s important to keep a sense of reality in focus. “In all my years coaching at Croton,” he explained, “I have had several players gone to play Division II or Division III basketball, but not a one at the Division One level.”

And the truth is, that’s the reality for most HS players. After playing four years of HS ball, the bottom line is that very, very few go onto play in college.

COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR PLAYERS = SUCCESS

But Coach Thom is one of those rare HS coaches who thinks proactively about making sure his players (and their parents) do stay on track. Key to his coaching philosophy are the following pointers:

Before the season begins, sit down with every kid on the team and define what you think their role is going to be on the team for the coming year.

It’s very important to get on the same page with each player before practice begins. That way, if the kid has different visions or expectations than you do, this is the right time to discuss them. Just make sure that you give the youngster a chance to voice his thoughts in case they are different from yours. And listen to him – don’t just blow him off.

Also, once you have defined his role e.g. “I want you to be our sixth man, to come off the bench and provide energy and instant offense,” just make sure that as the coach, you follow up on that promise. That is, if in the middle of a close contest, you decide to put another player into the game as your sixth man, understand that you’re going to have to explain your move to the player you promised but have now disappointed. Be careful!

Regarding kids hiring private coaches. “I always make sure I personally check out the private coaches, so I can give some real insight to the kids and their parents who want to hire them,” says Thom, “Otherwise, the kids might not get the right kind of instruction, and that can really backfire, plus be expensive.”

DEALING WITH PLAYING TIME ISSUES

Coach Thom also sits down with his team before the season to map out playing time.

“I have the players write down on index cards what their goals are for the year, and in particular, how many minutes they expect to play in each game. Once I have all the cards, I add up all their expected playing minutes with all the minutes from the other team members, and then I show the entire team how there just aren’t enough minutes in a HS game to accommodate all of their wishes. I find that exercise with the cards tends to be very helpful in illustrating to the kids how very few minutes there are in a game.”

As for the continuing expansion and influence of AAU ball?

“Well, AAU basketball serves the needs well of the top, top Division I players,” says Thom, “but for all the other kids who play, I’m not so sure. I do hope, as do many of my coaching colleagues, that the NCAA will very soon intervene and begin to gain much greater control on AAU teams. That’s the great hope.”

 

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: Parents Sue School District So Their Injured Son Can Play in Championship Game

Every so often, something happens in the course of amateur and youth sports that makes one pause….and makes one think about whether we as sports parent really do have our priorities in order.

Let ask you this: if your son, a HS football player, had been diagnosed with a possible concussion, would you allow him to go back and play in next week’s game?

Would it make any difference that the next game was for the state championship? That your son was the star running back on an undefeated team? That your son has assured you repeatedly that he’s absolutely fine?

I want you to think about that dilemma. Because we all know for a lot of parents, especially when it comes to the fuzzy world of concussions, this is a very, very difficult situation to find oneself in.

Now, let me give you more of the details>

Shawn Nieto is a top running back at Cleveland HS in Rio Rancho, NM. He’s a junior there. He’s also 5 foot 5, and weighs 140 pounds. That being said, he rushed for more than 900 yards this season and 18 TD’s.

A couple of weeks ago, in a state semifinal game, he was tackled hard, and there was direct and solid contact from a defensive player to Shawn’s helmet. As the play came to an end, everybody got up except Nieto. The Cleveland HS trainers ran onto the field and Shawn’s parents in the stands held their breath.

The trainers determined that Shawn was unconscious – that he blacked for 20-30 seconds before coming around. He was helped to his feet, and walked off under his own power to the sidelines.

Shawn says he never lost consciousness — that he had simply had the wind knocked out of him, and he was taking his time catching his breath.

On the sidelines, the team trainers administered a memory test, and Shawn correctly recalled two of the three words he was given. He also passed a balance test.  In other words, as far as he was concerned,he was ready to go.

But from the school’s perspective, especially in light of the new state laws regarding athletes and concussions, not only was Shawn prohibited from playing any more that day, but under New Mexico law, he now fell under the state mandated concussion protocol, which meant that he had to sit out for at least seven days before practicing or playing again.

That meant, of course, that Shawn would miss the state championship football game, which was to be played in 7 days.

WOULD YOU LET YOUR SON PLAY?

Shawn was crushed. He insisted he was fine. He insisted that he didn’t suffer a concussion. He pointed out that after the semi-final game, he drove back with the team on a three-hour bus ride home, and then drove his car home from the school. Plus no headaches.

So, what did his parents do?

They of course sued the school district to let their son play in the championship game!

Among other preparations for their day in court, the family had their son see a doctor the very next day, who examined him and said he showed normal cognitive function.  The parents then took that medical evaluation, and got their day in court in front of a state district judge, just a day before the big game.

The judge heard the case, and read the doctor’s evaluation. Plus he could see for himself that Shawn wasn’t outwardly injured. Even more, the school district didn’t bother sending anyone to present their side of the case. That’s to understand why, but I guess as far as they were concerned, they were just following the law of New Mexico.

The judge made his decision. He lifted the ban on the kid playing.

The next day, Shawn Nieto suited up and was ready to play in Cleveland High’s state championship game and to defend their undefeated season.

But in the intervening hours, the physician who examined Shawn that week heard about the case, and she was flabbergasted. She wrote in a letter that the parents had never told her that Shawn had been ruled unconscious the week before. If she had known that crucial fact, the doctor claimed, she would have never cleared him to play!

THE COACHES TO THE RESCUE

And now, here’s the curious twist in this case.

Shawn’s coaches who clearly had been watching all of this  – said to Shawn that he hadn’t practiced all week, and as such,  decided not to start him, or for that matter, to play him. He got in the game on one play, a kickoff late in the 4th quarter. It would seem that all of his legal wrangling had really not gotten him to where he wanted to go.

Meanwhile, his team won 48-35. And in addition, Shawn’s replacement ran for 200 yards on the day and scored a touchdown.

Law professor Doug Abrams discussed this case at length on WFAN this morning, and made it clear that this lawsuit, which was decided in favor of the athlete, should not be viewed as a legal precedent for other parents to follow. It was hard to understand why the school district didn’t bother to even defend their actions, and because of that, the judge really didn’t have much but to allow the kid to play.

But Professor Abrams made it clear that it would be difficult to think that other Moms and Dads, eager for their son or daughter to play when told not to, could use this case as legal doctrine.

But more than that, both Doug and I salute the coaching staff at Cleveland HS for having the common sense to realize that yes, kids do get hurt playing sports, and especially with concussions in football, it’s always much smarter to be on the side of caution. Nieto might indeed have been perfectly fine to play in the next game, but the trainers felt he had been knocked cold. That was their professional opinion. And the state law made it clear that an athletes can not play again for another 7 days.

So the coaches can up with the right solution. Yes, Shawn Nieto could suit up for the game, but even though it was a championship game and he was the starting halfback, the coaches made the right call: they kept him out of the game except for one play. After all, just suppose Nieto had been hit again during that game, and had suffered a concussion again. Then, he would be looking at his HS career coming to an end (remember, he’s only a junior).

Bottom line? The coaches should be saluted for having the right approach here, even when the athlete and his parents may have lost their vision as to what’s the right and safe thing to do.

PITCHING CONCERNS: HALL OF FAMER JOHN SMOLTZ CALLS FOR END TO RADAR GUNS ON YOUNG PLAYERS

One of the more disturbing trends over the last 30 years in baseball is that we have become a nation obsessed with radar guns. There was once a time that only pro scouts had radar guns, and they varied in velocity; that is, some guns would project one speed for a pitcher, and another make of a radar gun would project a different speed. But no matter.

Suddenly, it seemed as if the only way a kid could be considered a prospect – either for pro ball or for college – is if he touched 90 mph on a radar gun. Suddenly, the kid’s won-loss record or ERA were tossed aside. Suddenly, it didn’t seem to matter whether the kid knew how to change speeds effectively or could throw strikes.

All that mattered, first and foremost, was whether he could throw hard. Real hard. It was as if throwing hard was the singular criterion to being a good pitcher. And the radar gun was right there to measure a kid’s velocity.

The result? An entire generation or two of talented pitchers who registered less than 90 mph were tossed to the side. Not enough speed for pro ball. Not enough speed to be our top pitcher in college.

It was stunning and disheartening. Kids who consistently won at every level they played were being told that they just didn’t have what was needed to get to the next level. And it was because of the radar gun.

HIT 90 ON THE GUN OR GO HOME

Why? Because radar guns were invented, emphasis on velocity wasn’t so strong. This is why long-time major league stars like Whitey Ford, Jamie Moyer, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux got the chance to play pro ball and show their stuff. But it is safe to say that if those fellows were in HS or college today, they wouldn’t get a sniff from any scout.

As a result, for years people like my Dad, Hall of Fame sportscaster Bob Wolff, has decried the radar gun. Others have followed suit. But for the most part, these protests have fallen on deaf ears.

Enter John Smoltz into the picture. A recent entry into the Hall of Fame, Smoltz said last week at a youth sports symposium in Florida that the time had come to cut back on using radar guns, especially at the youth and amateur level. Yes, radar guns do serve a purpose at the professional level, said Smoltz, but little kids and high schools who try to throw at max speed all the time, this has led to all sorts of arm injuries and shattered dreams.

On my radio show this AM, Smoltz reiterated his feelings about the radar gun, and urged baseball coaches and parents to reflect on what has happened because of our national obsession with radar guns. Smoltz emphasized strongly that we really need to let kids go out and pitch without the added pressure of having to throw every pitch as hard they can. Otherwise, kids are getting hurt at younger and younger ages, and even worse, more and more kids are undergoing Tommy John surgery.

I pointed out that only about 75% of all Tommy John surgeries are successful, and Smoltz agreed. Most parents never seem to either know that or just assume that their kid will be one of the lucky ones.

THE TIME FOR STRONG ACTION IS NOW

What’s so sad about all of this is that it’s easily preventable. And maybe with John Smoltz’ support, the country will finally wake up. We could start with having LL Baseball in Williamsport stop posting the radar gun scores on 13-year-old kids who pitch in LL. From there, we could just make it a general rule that in all youth baseball games, radar guns are banned.

That would be a great start. And in an era where more and more kids are walking away from baseball, this would help stem that tide.

 

DANGERS OF HAZING: What Needs to Be Done to Prevent Such Attacks

Official Responses to Hazing

 By Doug Abrams

The Ooltewah (Tenn.) High School boys’ varsity basketball season is over. The school superintendent canceled the remainder of the schedule on January 6, after three older players were arrested for allegedly raping a 15-year-old freshman teammate in a cabin during the team’s overnight stay at a tournament in nearby Gatlinburg on December 22. The attack smacked of hazing, an abuse frequently discussed on askcoachwolff.com and in other youth sports circles.

One of the three Ooltewah perpetrators allegedly stuck a pool cue up the victim’s rectum, causing severe lacerations that required a week’s hospitalization after emergency surgery to repair the colon and bladder. The other two perpetrators allegedly pinned the victim on a bed and, according to the victim, filmed the assault on a cell phone. According to WRCB-TV, the three alleged assailants (who are unnamed in the media so far because they are minors) face charges of aggravated rape and aggravated assault, both felonies.

The school superintendent said that he canceled the season to allow law enforcement’s investigation to proceed without disruption. But allegations quickly surfaced that Ooltewah’s basketball program has tolerated a culture of hazing and bullying marked by a pattern of assaults unremedied by coaches or other school authorities.

Absent from the Ooltewah news accounts are statements from other players’ parents complaining that canceling the team’s season unfairly stigmatizes their sons for the misconduct of a few. Such statements sometimes arise when hazing results in sanctioning an entire team, but the Ooltewah assault’s utter savagery may have turned the tables here. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports say that the superintendent acted following mounting community anger directed at school authorities for inaction.

Prevention and Response

Rick Wolff has treated hazing issues several times on “The Sports Edge” and on askcoachwolff.com. I share his disgust with the practice and his calls for meaningful prevention efforts, including written anti-hazing policies backed by removal from the team or other stern punishment for violation. Brooke de Lench, executive director of the MomsTEAM Institute, also places obligations for prevention where they belong — on parents, and on coaches and other league officials.

In any field of endeavor, however, no prevention effort can prevent 100% of the targeted conduct. Just last month, Reuters wrote about a new research paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers found that “hazing is still common in U.S. youth and collegiate sports,” including teams whose institutions presumably maintain written anti-hazing and anti-bullying policies.

Written policies and other prevention efforts have teeth only when authorities vigorously enforce them. Regardless of how events play out in Ooltewah, the remainder of this column provides some general thoughts about how parents, coaches, school authorities, and youth sports associations’ boards of directors should respond when hazing occurs.

When Hazing Happens

Without canceling the season, authorities may discipline the perpetrators while allowing the rest of the team to resume playing. Each case must be judged on its own merits. Are school or team authorities confident that they have correctly identified the perpetrators? Did the perpetrators comprise a sizeable percentage, or a majority, of the team? Was the rest of the team really innocent? Did other players try to cover up the hazing afterwards? Do the other players refuse to identify the perpetrators? What did one or more of the coaches or other authorities know?

Some hazing is so serious that canceling the season is the soundest response. (If the facts are as alleged, the Ooltewah incident would qualify.) Where one or more players ignore a written anti-hazing or anti-bullying policy, prevention efforts have obviously failed. A known culture of hazing and bullying, sustained over time, also demonstrates failure.

To stem existing patterns of abuse and to prevent future abuse, more dramatic official response may be necessary. Cancelling the season, publicized in the school or the media, may send players and their families a message more forcefully than suspending individual players from school or the team, or both, and letting the game schedule proceed.

If authorities cancel the season (or otherwise discipline the entire team) for the misconduct of a few, such collective discipline is consistent with the nature of team sports. Collective punishment may be advisable if the guilty players cannot be identified, or if (as discussed above) a dramatic sanction may seem in order.

One way or another, punishing the entire team is supportable because teams rise or fall as a unit. (Remember the old saying, that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”) If three members of a varsity basketball team combine for a last-second buzzer beater that wins the game, every player – including ones on the bench – share in the victory. If three members commit acts of hazing, every player may share in adverse consequences imposed after authorities do fact finding and consider various options.

Authorities should tread carefully, however, before sanctioning the entire team for the misconduct of a few unnamed perpetrators. For example, imposing team-wide consequences might tar the future reputations of innocent team members, who might remain subject to speculation from employers, colleges, and others about whether they participated in the wrongdoing.

In most states today, however, if the perpetrators are adjudicated in juvenile court for serious crimes such as aggravated rape or aggravated assault, their identities will become part of the public record. If perpetrators of a violent hazing are tried in adult court, their individual identities will also become publicly known.

Much or most hazing probably never reaches law enforcement or the media. In the absence of criminal or juvenile charges, the perpetrators may not remain anonymous for long because kids talk, even when the perpetrators do not film their assaults.

 

Sources:  Tenn. Code Annotated, sec. 39-13-502 (2015) (aggravated rape), sec. 39-13-102 (2015) (aggravated assault); Stephen Hargis and Kendi Anderson, Ooltewah Students Charged With Rape, Assault After Teammate Injured With Pool Cue, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dec. 29, 2015; David Carroll, Supt. Smith Cancels Ooltewah Basketball Season http://www.wrcbtv.com/story/30892245/sources-student-took-video-of-ooltewah-basketball-rape-incident (Jan. 6, 2016); Ooltewah High School Basketball Season Canceled: School Officials Under Gag Order, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Jan. 7, 2016; Brooke de Lench, Bullying: An Ongoing Problem In Youth Sports, http://momsteam.com/health-safety/bullying-ongoing-problem-in-youth-sports (May 12, 2009, and 2013 update); Reuters, Hazing Still Common in Collegiate, Youth Sports (Dec. 24, 2015). (reporting on Alex B. Diamond et al., Qualitative Review of Hazing in Collegiate and School Sports: Consequences From a Lack of Culture, Knowledge and Responsiveness, British Journal of Sports Medicine (Dec. 2015)).

 

 

TRENDS: More on the Next Generation of Sports Parents

I had no idea that last Sunday’s “Sports Edge” show on what the Next Generation of Sports Parents would generate the response that it did.

In sum, we had by far and away more phone calls on WFAN and more hits on Askcoachwolff.com to this topic that any other topic that I’ve covered in the 18 years I’ve hosted the weekly radio show.

Think about that. More of a response than for shows about concussions…aluminum baseball bats…..kids suffering Tommy John injuries….shows about Title IX issues….countless shows about friction between sports parents and their kids’ coaches. In short, it was astounding.

So I decided to revisit the topic this past Sunday on the show, and once again, received an onslaught of calls. Apparently, parents are concerned about what kind of legacy we are leaving for our kids who play competitive sports, and how they will raise their kids (our grandkids) when they become parents.

Again, the reaction was mixed. Among the calls that came in on the topic included these observations:

— That our kids today definitely have a sense of entitlement when it comes to competing in sports and in life. That our athletes don’t seem to react as strongly to losing and to adversity as we did when we were kids. That is, if a youngster gets cut from a team, or doesn’t get much playing time, then that’s okay with the kid. They accept it and merely move on.

Oh, as one caller observed, they may be disappointed, but they don’t make a personal campaign to improve their game.

Or, another said, that they expect Mom and Dad to step in and rectify the situation with the coach…in other words, kids feel entitled to success.

— One of the major themes is that our athletes don’t seem to have as much fun, or draw as much enjoyment, from playing sports as we did. Too many kids today look upon sports more as simply  a means to get ahead, perhaps into a better college, or to put something more on their resume.

— One Dad chimed in and said that he had raised and coached his son all the way to age 18 in sports, and now that the Dad was a grandfather with a 4-year-old son, he wasn’t sure he was psychologically prepared to go through the same process again. Too much work, too much time, too much effort.

Needless to say, these callers were not too optimistic about these kids becoming sports parents down the road.

ON THE POSITIVE SIDE…

— On the other hand, other callers said that today’s athletes are much more aware of fair play when it comes to sports than we were….that our athletes today are better trained when it comes to a sense of sportsmanship.

— Then others felt that kids today will have their kids shy away from playing competitive sports because they don’t want their children to have to suffer all the stress and anxiety of trying out for travel teams. Let’s face it – we expose our kids to a grueling sense of competition at early ages.

— Then there were some people emailed and said that tomorrow’s sports parents are going to be more competitive than we were, and will start to plan out in advance how their kids are going to be raised playing sports.

Like last week, it was noteworthy as to how insightful the calls were, but also noteworthy that they ranged all over the topic. There was one universal theme, though, and that was it was felt that our kids really don’t go out on their own (as we did) and play pick-up games just because they enjoy the experience – that it’s fun. It’s well accepted that kids today don’t go out and play. They almost need to have a formal practice or a formal game in ordr to participate. Very odd, but that is indeed a large part of the legacy we are leaving for them.

But one happy note. The very last caller said he had enjoyed watching his son play sports from the time the boy was very young, all the way through his HS and college career, and that the son still enjoyed playing sports. The Dad reported that he was absolutely delighted when, out of the blue, his son went to his Dad and thanked him sincerely for introducing him to his sport (soccer) and how much fun he, the son, had had from playing the sport.

It was the perfect way to end my show.

SPORTSMANSHIP: What – If Anything – Should Be Done About Lopsided Scores?

Mismatches, Blow-outs, and Mercy Rules

By Doug Abrams

During the inter-semester break, yet another youth league blowout hit the headlines. The Fresno Bee reported that on December 26, Fresno’s Clovis West High School overwhelmed Rivera High-Los Angeles, 114-9, in a girls preseason basketball tournament in Huntington Beach, California. Clovis West led 42-3 after the first quarter and 74-3 at halftime. Eight Golden Eagles players each ended the game with more individual points than the entire Rivera team.

The Bee article’s web version reported that Clovis West “destroy[ed]” Rivera with “the biggest blowout in Central Section history.” After evident criticism directed at Clovis West, a follow-up Bee article by Marek Warszawski assumed a more restrained tone a few days later.

Warszawski said that the Golden Eagles showed restraint by ending their full-court press during the first quarter, by putting every player into the lineup without overplaying the starters, and by playing a looser defense in the second half. Clovis West’s coach told the Bee afterwards that “we never have nor will be ever intentionally rub someone’s nose in it,” but that the game “could have been a 200-point win – had we wanted that.” Warszawski reported that Rivera’s coach did not request invocation of the league’s “mercy rule,” which would have begun a running clock late in the game.

Controversy

The Clovis West-Rivera game highlights the controversy about how youth coaches, players, and parents should prevent and manage games whose scores spiral out of control. Recent headlines from coast to coast have concerned lopsided games not only in basketball, but also in football, baseball, softball, and other sports.

In many state high school athletic associations and youth leagues, mercy rules seek to hasten the end of especially one-sided games. Once a game reaches the prescribed score differential, the general approaches are either to run the clock in sports such as football and basketball that depend on time, or to call the game prematurely in sports such as softball and baseball. Sometimes the losing team holds the option whether to invoke the rule.

Proponents tend to defend mercy rules as safety measures because blowouts often stem from mismatched size and talent that invite injury, particularly in contact and collision sports. They also argue that mismatches inflict undue public embarrassment to the team on the short end. Proponents say that running up the score demonstrates lack of sportsmanship.

Opponents of mercy rules tend to argue that teams should not be shielded from even lopsided defeats because winning and losing are each part of the youth sports learning process. A solid defeat, opponents say, might even spur the losing team’s players to strive to improve their game. Opponents also argue that invoking a mercy rule can embarrass the underdogs even more than a lopsided final score can. Coaches of strong teams tend to argue that when “mercy” is not forced on them by rule, they can teach players self-control by adjusting their lineups and game plans.

Prevention

Sometimes the soundest – but often, the most ignored – first step is prevention. In interscholastic sports and youth sports leagues alike, mismatches normally do not happen by surprise. Unless one roster is suddenly depleted by illness or injury, mismatches are often predictable from imbalance that surfaces during the preseason period or early in the schedule.

Weaker teams can sometimes prevent mismatches by scheduling games carefully with teams of similar ability, but sometimes teams cannot determine their own schedule or placement.  A high school, for example, might have to play in a particular division for such factors as geography, the size of the school’s enrollment, or lack of sufficient divisions to permit truly competitive placement.

If a team cannot influence the schedule, it may be able to join a division in which it will likely be competitive. But I have seen youth teams that chronically lose by lopsided scores because parents and coaches, acting for their own egos, set up the team for failure by committing to, say, the A Division rather than the B Division.

In some youth leagues, teams are encouraged or required to play preseason “declaration games,” exhibition games that enable league officials and coaches themselves to determine each team’s most appropriate placement. Despite the games’ worthy prevention efforts, I have seen coaches scheme to maneuver their team into a weaker division by underplaying their “big guns.”

Teams sometimes enter tournaments or play open “club” schedules without candidly assessing their own ability level compared to those of likely opponents. If a team fills a schedule by taking on all comers, some of the “comers” may be quite strong.

Tough Calls

When prevention fails for one reason or another in interscholastic and youth league sports leagues, mercy rules depend on tough calls. I know responsible people who support these rules, and I know responsible people who oppose them. I do not question either group’s motives or intent. At the end of the day:

I favor mercy rules when leagues find them advisable to help promote player safety in contact and collision sports. When one football team trounces another by 75 points, for example, significant size and weight disparities likely helped explain the outcome. These disparities can also increase risk of injury to the members of the outclassed team. In 2013, an Arizona high school football player died from a traumatic brain injury suffered in the fourth quarter of a first-round playoff game that his team lost, 60-6.

I do not support mercy rules as measures to help spare the underdogs’ sensibilities. I believe that with proper support and guidance from their parents and coaches, kids can absorb one-sided defeats. I also think that unless the underdog seeks to invoke the mercy rule, ending games prematurely can be as embarrassing as a lopsided score itself. In the big picture of things, players on the losing end will be fortunate if the mismatch turns out to be their only major disappointment on the road to adulthood. Besides, it does not hurt kids to learn that some teams are simply more skilled than others, and that hard work toward improvement remains a worthwhile goal. Most successful athletes learn how to win by learning how to lose.

In the absence of safety concerns, I would prefer to trust both teams’ coaches to manage one-sided games and use them as learning opportunities. Lopsided losses test a coach’s capacity to teach the players resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. Because adulthood brings frequent adversity, the lesson is worth teaching in sports, when the stakes are relatively low. With the parents’ support, talented youth coaches can deliver the right message if they are given the chance.

Coaching through one-sided wins can be as challenging as coaching through one-sided losses (and I have been on both sides of the fence). At least in my experience, most coaches of strong teams do not betray the trust to maintain the losers’ dignity in a mismatch. Most coaches know that without losers, there can be no winners. Most coaches do not seek to humiliate an adolescent opponent, and they feel a sense of embarrassment when the score begins to get out of hand.  Perceptive coaches also recognize that winning big can sometimes lead their own players to arrive at the next game overconfident, mentally unprepared, and primed for an unpleasant shock when the tables turn.

The stronger team’s coach can take reasonable measures to help control a lopsided score by fielding second- and third-stringers, who normally do not get much playing time (and who lose playing time altogether when a mercy rule short-circuits the game). The stronger team’s coach can also adjust the game plan. When my youth hockey teams found themselves on the top end of a lopsided score, for example, I usually asked our players at the bench whether they wanted to continue running up the score, or whether they wanted to slow things down without appearing to embarrass the opposition. They usually chose the latter approach, and their choice created a greater learning experience than a predetermined mercy rule would.

Our defensive players would then play forward, and our forwards would play defense, another learning experience because versatility strengthens any hockey team whose roster might be short some day from illness, injury or family commitments. I would encourage three or four passes in the offensive zone before a shot, useful because youth hockey players can always use more practice with their passing, especially in game situations. Sometimes we worked on new plays and patterns that we had not had much chance to try in games.

Fair Chances and Foregone Conclusions

In any league, one team will finish at the top and another at the bottom, but games challenge players most when both teams sense that they have a fair chance. In my 42 years coaching youth hockey, my teams occasionally won big and occasionally lost big, but the most invigorating games were ones whose outcomes were not foregone conclusions.

 

Sources: Clovis West Wins By 105 Points, Fresno Bee, Dec. 27, 2015; Marek Warszawski, Clovis West Girls Have No Reason To Apologize For 105-Point Win, Fresno Bee, Dec. 31, 2015.

TRENDS: What Will The Next Generation of Sports Parents Be Like?

Have you ever wondered what kinds of sports parents our children will become when they reach their 20’s and 30’s? In effect, what the next Generation of Sports Parents will be like?

Will they become even more super-competitive than we are? Will they try to start their kids (our grandchildren) on an elite athlete pathway at even younger ages? Will they become even more super-competitive, even to the point where they plan and plot the birthdays of their own offspring so that their children end up as the older kids, born right after the cutoff date for travel teams?

Or will these parents go in a totally different direction, and not get involved in in their kids’ sports at all? Just let them do whatever they want to do?

 

I asked this question on WFAN Radio this AM, and had a number of intriguing responses (be sure to find the complete podcast at WFAN.com).

Here’s the problem. In my knowledge and ongoing research, there are no long-range psychological studies as to what we will happen to our kids as they become the Next Generation of Sports Parents.

In other words, in our culture presently, where being the top or premier athlete is seemingly all that counts, have we reached a point where we are pushing too hard on our kids? Are they playing for the dream to turn pro….or just to please us and our egos?

Furthermore, has the fun really been bleached out of the equation? Think about that. From the 1920s to the 1980s, when sports were mostly pick-up games organized by kids and there was minimal parental involvement, we played for fun. But ask yourself: do our kids play for fun? Will our grandchildren play for fun?

I don’t know about where you live, but in my community, I rarely see any kids these days playing pick-up basketball, or touch football, or even soccer matches. Baseball or softball? Not a chance. Ironically, the athletic facilities have never been more plentiful or in better shape. But let’s face it: unless kids play in organized leagues or games sanctioned by parents, you just don’t see kids playing games with their friends It’s pretty much gone from the American landscape. And that doesn’t bode well for the next generation of athletes.

THE CLASSIC STATISTIC

You have all heard this statistic before from the Institute of Youth Sports at Michigan State: that 74% of all kids quit playing sports when they’re 13. …But my theory is this is not all due to burn out. Rather, it’s because kids by that age realize that they’re not going to be a star, so why make the effort? Why bother continuing to play sports through HS and go through all the work and effort that entails if they don’t think that’s going to add to the resume.

What about having fun playing ball for your school team? Doesn’t that count for something? Sorry. Apparently, not any more. A generation ago, making the HS varsity was not only a big deal in one’s town, but it also meant a great deal of fun playing with one’s buddies and friends on the school team. Kids weren’t driven about getting a college scholarship; they were more focused on having a successful season and beating their cross-town rival.

But these days, we’re made our kids mindful of their individual stats, and generating video tape that might capture the eye of a college coach. Would it be nice to have a winning year and beat the school rival? Sure, that’s fine, but too many parents have their kids looking beyond HS to college sports programs.

What gets squeezed out? Having fun. Generating memories. In short, being a kid. Those all get pushed to the side.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Sadly, the majority of the callers today felt that things are only going to get worse as our kids become sports parents. We’ve done TOO good a job in teaching them how to find that extra advantage, that extra edge to make them superior to their peers in sports. And when they have kids of their own, the consensus was that the lessons we taught our kids about how to get ahead in sports will not be forgotten.

As for fun? Well, that’s not a top priority these days, and most likely won’t be for the next generation either.

What a shame.

 

 

LEGAL CONCERNS: Are We Witnessing the End of Pop Warner Football?

Pop Warner Football has been an American tradition since at least the early 1950’s. Literally millions of kids and several generations of young athletes have learned how to play and enjoy tackle football from playing Pop Warner ball.

But as the scene shifts these days in sports, we may see the end of Pop Warner football soon. Let me explain why.

In 2011, a 13-year-old Pop Warner football player attempted to make a tackle, and he tried to do so by leading with his helmet. Sadly, the boy broke his neck on the play, and he’s now a quadriplegic.  A major lawsuit ensued, brought by the injured boy’s family against Pop Warner. As you might imagine, his medical bills for the rest of his life are going to be astronomical.

The thrust of the lawsuit is that the Pop Warner youth coaches really weren’t trained as to how to teach proper tackling techniques to younger kids. Or as was revealed in this case, the youth coaches hadn’t been paying attention to the coaching videotapes that Pop Warner provides. And that, of course, is most discouraging, to say the least.

Remember that most Pop Warner coaches do something entirely else for a living than coach kids in sports. That being said, it’s fully expected that the coaches will view the training tapes and other coaching materials so that the coaches can teach kids the basics and fundamentals of how to play the game. In this case, it was admitted that the coaches had not done their homework.

HOW MANY LAWSUITS?

Even worse, it turns out that the Pop Warner organization only carries $ 2 million in insurance liability coverage. The boy’s medical bills are going to start around $10 million and will go up. That’s not good news for Pop Warner and its insurance carrier. Yes, they may settle out of court with this young man, but this kind of financial stress is not going to bode well for the long-time football organization. Pop Warner also is looking at a lawsuit from the family of a deceased 25-year-old who killed himself. His family is claiming that the boy became seriously depressed from suffering too many concussions when he played Pop Warner ball. An autopsy revealed a good deal of CTE in the man’s brain.

In addition, as enrollment in youth football has declined suddenly in recent years, it turns out that Pop Warner as an organization has been losing money.  That’s not good news either.

What will happen to Pop Warner? It’s still too early to say. But bear in mind that this an outfit that has simply tried to bring fun into the lives of millions of young football players, and of course, the organization is not about generating profit. Yes, of course, these individuals who have brought suit against Pop Warner have every right to do so.

But as our society continues to be increasingly litigious, it’s just a matter of time before more and more lawsuits are filed against other youth sports organizations. And that could spell the end of these “for fun” operations.

 

 

 

 

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: New Jersey Divides Public HS Football from Non-Public Programs

The issue of whether public high schools should compete against non-public high schools (meaning private or parochial schools) has been a hot button issue for a long time, and in a lot of different states.

But in New Jersey, this has been a point of contention for several years now, especially in the area of HS football. Over the last decade or so, some of the northern non-public HS football programs have become real powerhouses. I’m talking specifically about schools like Bergen Catholic, St. Joe’s, and Don Bosco. And there are others as well.

Please note that there’s nothing wrong about this. Nor is it illegal. These schools have long recognized that, unlike public HS football teams which are restricted to just those students who live within that school’s district, the non-public schools can and do open their doors to kids from all over. Not just nearby, but some of these student-athletes commute a long distance on a daily basis. Others even come in from neighboring states.

What’s the attraction? Well, for starters, these powerhouse programs have developed into a great showcase for top college coaches, who are eager to scout these top athletes. And of course, as these programs grow in stature and in financial ways, they are able to schedule and compete against other top non-public schools from around the country. I covered the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, a few weeks ago in this space, and IMG is one of the premier HS football teams in the country. And they play against schools like St. Joe’s and Bergen Catholic.

Meanwhile, as for the public HS programs, they keep chugging along, and doing their best against these powerhouse programs, as they often appear on their schedule. You can just imagine if you were a top player for a public school, and when your team gets trounced by a top non-public school, that coach might suggest you ought to consider your talents to a better program….like his.

Now, for public HS coaches, for the most part they have been fed up by this growing disparity. I mean, every athlete and coach wants to compete on a level playing field. But clearly when one team is stacked with great talent from all over, the other team is quickly overwhelmed and demoralized.

NEW JERSEY RULES IN FAVOR OF COMMON SENSE

Two weeks ago, the athletic directors of NJ made history. They passed a strong resolution to separate the non-public football teams from playing the public teams. The measure still has to be affirmed by the Commissioner of Education in NJ, but for me, as an outsider, this just seems like a common sense move.

Let the powerhouse programs play each other. Let the public schools play against the other public schools. There’s no need to try and make a case that this is unfair or wrong. And yes, I recognize that, every so often, a public school football team will upset a powerhouse private school.

But for the most part, as one public HS coach said, “Look, those schools are apples. My school is orange.”

And that’s correct. Over the long haul, there’s no way that growing non-public football programs are ever going to be equal with the local public schools. In this day and age of increased competition and elite programs, kids will have to decide whether they want to enroll in a powerhouse program and run the risk of being a third or fourth stringer and rarely playing. Or would they have more fun playing at the local public HS where they can be a starter and maybe even a star.

Again, this is HS football. Not college ball. To me, it’s a no-brainer. The fun still resides in playing in the games. Play for your local HS team. And remember, if you really do become a star, you can always go on and play in college.

Meanwhile, as one caller asked, “If this is being done in football, why not continue the concept with other sports in NJ, like basketball and baseball?”

Good question. And yes, it’s also a good idea.