DANGERS OF THROWING CURVE BALLS: An Interview with Jeff Passan, Best-selling Author of THE ARM

Over the years, I have received lots of requests from my WFAN listeners regarding booking guests for this show, but I have to admit, I received more requests for a book called THE ARM than for any other author.

THE ARM, which is subtitled Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports, is a fascinating, definitive, and stunning look at major league baseball and its obsession with not only scouring the world for young pitchers who throw 90-100 mph, but it’s also a detailed look at how fragile these young arms are, and are so susceptible to injury — especially Tommy John surgery.

The book is written by Jeff Passan, who by day is a popular baseball columnist for Yahoo Sports. THE ARM It’s a frightening, fully investigative work, and should be mandatory reading for any parent, coach, or kid who aspires to pitch in baseball.

I had so much ground to cover with Jeff on the show that I pre-taped the show this week. For starters, I asked Jeff why is there so an obsession these days for scouts to find pitchers who throw 90-100 mph. That is, it wasn’t that long ago that top pitchers in the majors, like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, won by changing speeds, hitting corners of the plate, and fooling batters. Even knuckleballers don’t throw hard.

Jeff answered this rather bluntly. “In truth, it’s a lot of hard work to develop a pitching style like that — to change speeds and fool hitters.  It’s just much easier these days to find a kid who throws hard.”

I have to admit that I think there’s a lot of truth in Jeff’s assessment.

WHEN WILL LL BASEBALL WAKE UP?

But more than that, I drilled him about the dangers of kids throwing curves. Even in his book, on page 262, he quotes Dr. James Andrews, the noted surgeon when it comes to arm injuries, saying once again that “kids shouldn’t throw curve balls until they’re old enough to shave.” In my world, that means around 14 or 15 years old.

But as I have observed for years, kids in LL Baseball throw curves by the time they’re 10, and especially are on display in the LL championships. This is in direct conflict with Dr. Andrews’ advice – even though he’s on the LL Advisory Board – and his wise advice is even posted on the LL website.

LL Baseball in the last few years has tried to pivot away from this issue, and now says that kids hurt their arms by throwing too much at full max. Everybody knows that and agrees with that – that’s not news – but to ignore the curve ball concern seems ludicrous and dangerous.

Passan said he was planning to meet with the LL Baseball folks in Williamsport soon to try and get them to finally provide some clear and straightforward advice for parents and coaches and kids. Here’s what I would personally recommend:

Tell kids NOT to throw every pitch at full max power. That’s a sure fire way to hurt your arm at a very early age, and will lead to surgery.

Tell kids NOT to throw curves or sliders until they are 14 or 15 and their arms have had a chance to grow and be stronger and become more developed. If Dr. Andrews is telling the world about the dangers of curves, and he does more Tommy John surgeries on teenagers than anyone, I would believe him — not LL Baseball.

Tell parents whose kids have a strong arm to be judicious about how many days they pitch in a row for various teams. Pitch counts are smart, especially if kids are attempting to throw hard each and every day. 

Finally, I happened to stop by the local HS baseball field yesterday afternoon, and a kid from Rye HS named Kirby was pitching. 6-4, 190 lb, smooth-throwing righty. And not surprisingly, there were half a dozen major league scouts in attendance to see this young man. All the scouts had radar guns, and on each pitch they would note the speed (fastballs were reaching 90 mph), and then they would write the speed down in their notebooks.

By all consensus, this pitcher will be a top draft choice – mainly because he has a gifted arm. I just hope somebody in pro ball teaches him how to really pitch, e.g hit spots, change speeds, and develop a change-up.

 

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Are HS Sports Programs Going to Fade Away Due to Travel Teams?

Today’s WFAN show focused on what happens next when HS athletic directors find it more and more difficult to hire qualified coaches. As discussed last week, there is such an exodus of talented coaches out of HS programs that school districts are really discovering that it’s a challenge to find –  and keep – good coaches.

Along these lines, I asked the listeners today to come up with solutions to this issue OR whether the rise of travel and club teams are simply going to erode HS programs to the point where school districts will stop offering sports entirely. They’ll just tell parents that if their son or daughter wants to play sports, then just go out and find a travel program.

Most of the callers were distressed by this prediction, but they all acknowledged that this was a growing concern. These were some of the suggestions to stem the tide:

1 – Should schools pay more in terms of salaries for coaches? Maybe the school’s booster club can chip in more dough for these coaches? Would more pay help stem the tide?

2 – Or should a school board set up a brand-new position – someone who acts as a liaison strictly between the parents and the coaches? That is, the parents can go to that individual with their issues and concerns  — and just leave the coach and the AD out of it? Would that work? Hire someone as a professional buffer?

Remember, this exiting or migration of coaches stems from the harsh reality that parents everywhere continue to intervene and meddle with coaches. They just feel it’s their right to do so, and despite endless warnings not to do this, the trend only continues.

3- One caller, who said he was a long-time lax coach, said that he took care of any parental concerns by appointing his senior captains to handle any and all complaints from the players as well as the parents. The coach talked with the captains everyday, and found that this approach worked very well.

He also made it clear, though, that he worked very hard to make everyone of the team feel included; that is, he made it a point to get everybody into every game, even if only for a few minutes in the first half, so that every kid felt that he contributed to the team’s success. He also made sure in practice that the second and third tier kids got plenty of reps with the starters.

This coach’s approach made a lot of sense to me. True, it takes more work. But he said that in 18 years of varsity coaching, he had only two parents ever complain to him. To me, that’s remarkable in this day and age.

4 – Here’s another suggestion, although a radical one: should a school board really begin to debate whether just to give up on school sports altogether?  Tell Moms and Dads that if you kid really wants to play sports in middle school and HS, then the time has come to find an outside travel program – because this school is going shut down all sports.

This is what is done pretty much everywhere around the world except here. I often refer to it as the European model, as HS over there don’t offer varsity sports programs. If you want to play sports, you simply play for an outside club team.

I think the simple and harsh reality is that we’ve reached a point where parents are not going to change their ways; if they feel compelled to talk with the coach, they are going to continue to do that.

So if the parents aren’t going to back down, or change their ways, what I’m suggesting is that perhaps the time has come to find better ways to allow parents to channel their concerns.

Think about that…because that’s what’s happening everywhere.

So, if we just get rid of all HS sports programs, and just tell parents that if your son or daughter wants to play sports, then just find them a travel team. The truth is, I think you might be surprised at how many people will like this idea.

Why? Because for the most part, most sports parents who think their kids are going to be great athletes are already doing this. 

Think of it.Parents can then negotiate their own deals with the travel team officials. You could contract for more playing time for your kid, a particular,  uniform number, and so on. The sky is the limit.

And make it part of the deal that the travel team coach has to talk with you, the parent, whenever you want.

Sure, having your kid on a travel team might cost more of your pocket than a HS team, but think of all the bonuses:

Guaranteed playing time, better competition, more exposure to college coaches.

I will tell you that no caller advocated this approach. Nor do I. But maybe, whether we like it or not, this is going to happen.

OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: Why HS Coaching Positions Go Unfufilled

What Can Happen When Parents’ Abuse Chases Away Coaches

 By Doug Abrams

The other day, a want-ad of sorts appeared on the computer screen while I was reviewing youth sports articles in the nation’s newspapers. The want-ad was longer than the few-inch ones that typically dominated newspaper classifieds and now appear regularly on Internet sites. In the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, Steve Craig wrote a lengthy, well researched article below this headline: “Help Wanted: Maine’s School Administrators Struggle to Find Coaches.”

The article reported that each year, school districts in Maine and other states suffer high turnover among middle school and high school coaches. In some schools, as many as a quarter of coaching positions open up each year. “Long termers,” men and women with coaching tenures measured in decades rather than months or a few years, seem a dying breed in the United States today.

A Sense of Entitlement

School districts frequently get few applicants — and sometimes none — for advertised openings, even varsity positions. The Press Herald offers several reasons why. The bulk of interscholastic coaches have traditionally been teachers, but greater classroom obligations today leave less time to juggle coaching with family and other personal commitments. Coaching a high visibility sport can demand a 12-month-a-year commitment from teachers and non-teachers alike. Non-teachers may find it difficult to fit afternoon practice and game schedules with their “day jobs.” Coaching stipends remain modest for the hours expected.

But time constraints, year-round commitments, unyielding team schedules, and modest stipends do not tell the whole story. The media also regularly reports about high school and middle school coaches who are driven out of coaching because of unrelenting abuse from some of their players’ parents. The executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association told the Press Herald that “many parents have a sense of entitlement,” and that “some parents apply pressure . . . that makes coaching less attractive.” “As the head coach, everything you do is questioned,” added one high school head lacrosse coach.

School coaches indeed face serious challenges from some parents. When confronted by insistent parents, for example, administrators may countermand the coach’s disciplinary decisions. Unable to recruit, public school coaches typically depend on players developed in local youth leagues, but a coach’s reappointment each year may turn more on parents’ satisfaction with the team’s win-loss record than on the coach’s demonstrated ability to lead the team to its potential by getting the most from the players who try out.

In the community and before the school board, coaches may suffer sniping from parents whose real beef is that their children are not in the starting lineup. In the Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.) in mid-April, sportswriter Chris Dobrowolski reported seeing parents’ “intimidation, harassment, threats and heated verbal exchanges” leveled at their children’s coaches. He says that abuse from parents “happens all the time.”

Face-to-face confrontations create trouble enough, but social media now leaves coaches fair game for parents emboldened by the anonymity of the keyboard. Just last month, the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press reported the resignation of the girls hockey coach at Stillwater Area High School near St. Paul. In 14 years behind Stillwater’s bench, he had compiled a 260-112-21 record and won two state titles, though the team finished 9-16-1 last season. The coach said that he resigned to protect his family from “an unrelenting and vicious personal series of verbal attacks from a group of parents” in emails and on social media. “I will simply not put my family through any more of this.”

The Pioneer Press reported that the Stillwater team’s booster club attributed the personal attacks to “a disgruntled few” parents of current and former players.

Chasing Away Qualified Officials

In my most recent column on Rick Wolff’s blog, I discussed how parents’ verbal and physical abuse can hurt players by driving away some the most qualified referees and other game officials. Particularly in contact and collision sports, shortages of experienced officials can increase the risk of injury because many replacement refs are not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field. http://24.124.64.148/askcoachwolff/2016/04/20/abusive-sports-parents-growing-shortage-sports-officials/

Chasing Away Qualified Coaches

Now the Portland Press Herald reminds us that abuse from some parents may also claim qualified head coaches and assistant coaches. Abrupt coaching changes do not usually implicate player safety, but players can lose out on valuable expertise and leadership when qualified coaches depart prematurely and the array of potential replacements remains thin.

In school districts that draw coaches from the ranks of both teachers and non-teachers, we can debate the general virtues of each category. On the one hand, a teacher-coach may combine knowledge of the game with an educator’s keen sense of pedagogy and motivation. A teacher-coach can also help supervise the team off the field because teachers are on the campus throughout the school day rather than only shortly before practices and games. On the other hand, a non-teacher may combine a greater background in the sport with a similar ability for pedagogy and motivation, sometimes drawn from years as a high-level player or an effective youth league coach.

In any school, however, each coaching selection depends on its own personalities. Teacher-coaches range from effective to ineffective, and so do non-teacher-coaches. But one way or the other, players are more likely to be hurt when abuse dished out by some parents leads coaches to quit before their time, leaving the applicant pool with only a few names, or even (according to the Press Herald) with none. Completing a double whammy, further hurt can await in games played without the most qualified referees, whose ranks some parents have also helped deplete.

Coaches chosen from deeper applicant pools are more likely to meet players’ needs and expectations than coaches chosen after school administrators must go begging for candidates to stem persistent high turnover. A buyers’ market remains more likely to produce better coaching selections than a seller’s market.

 

Source: Steve Craig, Help Wanted: Maine’s School Administrators Struggle to Find Coaches, Portland Press Herald, Apr. 25, 2016  http://www.pressherald.com/2016/04/24/help-wanted-maines-school-administrators-struggle-to-find-coaches/; Chris Dobrowolski, Parent Behavior Toward Coaches Must Change, Record-Eagle, Apr. 17, 2016; Jace Frederick, Stillwater Girls Hockey Coach Resigns After “Vicious” Verbal Attacks, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Apr. 8, 2016; Jace Frederick, Stillwater Girls Hockey Boosters Decry “Disgruntled Few” Who Attacked Coach, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Apr. 13, 2016.

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Growing Shortage of Sports Officials

 How Referee Shortages Threaten Player Safety

 By Doug Abrams

On March 27, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published a thoughtful article by Tim Stevens, “Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs.” The article led with this troublesome forecast: “Irate high school sports fans . . . are heaping so much abuse on referees that it is becoming hard for North Carolina and other states to recruit new officials as the current group edges toward retirement.” Because refereeing has “become so unattractive,” the article continues, interscholastic leagues may need to reduce game schedules for lack of officials.

The media regularly reports about chronic referee shortages, not only in school sports, but also in many community youth leagues. Just last year, for example, the associate director of the Minnesota High School League told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that an array of “’sportsmanship issues’ causes most officials to quit and presents ‘a major hurdle when recruiting new officials.’’’ The associate director pointed to “a sometimes hostile game environment, chiefly created by critical coaches and parents.”

The Deseret (Utah) Morning News explains that “[b]rand-new officials often suffer through their first season of abuse before deciding that refereeing just isn’t worth it.” Among the officials I have known, most signed up not primarily for the relatively modest stipends, but to remain active in the game while serving young athletes and their families. Most officials are family men and women with personal obligations and reputations. Most can find other ways to participate in community life free from public abuse dished out by other adults, sometimes within earshot of the officials’ own families.

In the younger age groups, many community youth leagues recruit teens to replace departed adult officials. In my last few years coaching 9-10-year-old squirt hockey teams, I cannot recall seeing a referee over the age of about 15, except occasionally in the playoffs. Teen referees typically seek to earn a few dollars, assume a leadership role, and demonstrate community service on their college applications. In my experience, the teens take their responsibility seriously and generally do an excellent job. But they too are often chased away, once they or their parents lose patience with parents and coaches who may tag the adolescents as even easier marks for harassment than adult officials.

Verbal and Physical Assault

Adult “referee rage” can grow vicious. In my final few years as a youth hockey coach, I frequently heard parent spectators showering officials with obscenities and other insults that the parents would not have directed at the family dog. But aural pollution does not end the story because, as Positive Coaching Alliance executive director Jim Thompson explains, “officiating a youth sports game is becoming an increasingly risky job . . . . “Youth Sports officials are under attack – literally” from physical assault. Parents and coaches have reportedly made officials run a gauntlet to leave the field, followed officials to their cars, and threatened them and their families. Parents and coaches have also punched, kicked, shoved, slapped, choked, head-butted, spat on, and stalked youth league officials during and after games.

Compromising Safety

What negative effects does this adult “referee rage” have on the players? Even casual observers notice when games may have to be postponed, rescheduled or even canceled for lack of available officials. Or when abusive parents or coaches deliver unwholesome messages about sportsmanship and respect to the athletes who watch or hear about their antics.

But another especially harmful result can escape the untrained eye. Particularly in contact and collision sports, the shortage of experienced officials can increase the risk of injury to players on the field, including players who follow the rules of the game.

“To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” Parents and coaches assume important enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

This essential control suffers when so many veteran referees quit each year. Many replacement refs are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.

What Can Be Done to Promote Safety?

Some of my prior columns have discussed measures that, amid the pressures that characterize the typical school or community sports program, can help counter adult “referee rage” that may compromise player safety. In written rules distributed during preseason parents and coaches meetings, leagues and teams should state their expectations for adult civility. Leagues and teams must discipline parents or coaches whose verbal or physical assaults on officials violate these rules. Unenforced rules remain merely words on paper.

Criminal prosecutors should take physical assaults more seriously than they sometimes do. In extreme cases when parents or coaches verbally or physically abuse teen officials, authorities should contemplate child endangerment charges.

Most parents and coaches do not cross the line into verbal or physical abuse of officials, and most adults may find such abuse disgusting. But the majority’s disgust does not diminish the harmful influence of the errant minority who do cross. Leagues and teams often get the quality of officiating that they deserve, and player safety may depend on the outcome.

 

Sources: Tim Stevens, Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Mar. 27, 2016; David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), July 31, 2015; Jim Thompson, The Double-Goal Coach, p. 4 (2003); Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News, Apr. 26, 2005; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clin. J. Sport Med. 451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, 125 Pediatrics 410 (Feb. 2010).

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.