DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: Will New Guidelines for Youth Football Make A Difference?

Ken Belson of the NY Times did a wonderful article this past week about a new initiative from U.S.A. Football, the nation’s governing body when it comes to amateur football, to do something to stop the dropping numbers of HS students who are deciding not to play football. Belson reports that since 2009, HS football numbers have declined by as much as 20%.

That’s a significant percentage, and of course, most of it can be attributed to rising concerns about concussions. Despite a tremendous upsurge in research on how to prevent or diagnose concussions, the hard truth is:

o There is still no football helmet on the market today that will prevent a concussion. True, the more advanced helmets can do a lot to soften the blow to the head, but no helmet can claim to prevent concussions from happening.

o And while there are medical protocols in place for a suspected concussion, there is still no definitive method to determine if a football player has suffered a serious hit to the head. Doctors can only determine real damage to one’s brain only in an autopsy.

NEW GUIDELINES FROM U.S.A. FOOTBALL

U.S.A. Football, in an attempt to do what is can to modify and make the sport safer for kids who want to play tackle football between the ages of 6-12, have announced the following changes:

Reduce the number of kids on each team during the game to no more than 6 to 9.

Have the kids play on a smaller field.

No more run backs on kick offs or punt returns.

All players must start each play from a crouch position, not a three-point stance.

Will any of this help? Or more directly, will parents feel more assured about letting their kids plays tackle football? If today’s callers were any indication, the answer is a resounding no.

Most of today’s debate centered on whether kids would be better suited to simply bypass tackle football and opt for flag football instead – at least until they are 13 or 14. By that age, their brain is close to being fully developed, and their head has more strength and support from their neck and shoulder muscles.

Dr. Robert Cantu, the Boston University neurosurgeon,has long advocated this approach, and I must say, I agree. If young football players want to play the sport, they are much better served to play touch football or flag football in elementary and middle school. Then, when they reach high school, not only can they turn to tackling, but more importantly, they can learn the safe and fundamental way of how to execute a tackle properly without risking harm to their head.  At the HS level, there are plenty of well-qualified football coaches who can teach these essential basics to football players.

To me, in light of the reality that we are in this transition phase where we are still waiting for medical science to catch up with more insights on how to prevent concussions, as well as how to treat them, Dr. Cantu’s approach makes a lot of sense. And by the way, for more information, there’s an enlightening article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek  that ran this week about what’s happening regarding the latest research in this area, much of which is being sponsored by the NFL.

Sad to say, the medical experts still say there is no effective way to prevent  a concussion, and even worse, we are still 4-5 years away from having a simple blood test to determine whether a football player has had a concussion. In other words, we are still in the dark.

 

 

 

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COLLEGE RECRUITING: Verbal Commitments versus Letter of Intent

I gets lots of queries all the time when it comes to the arcane world of college recruiting, and one question comes up all the time:

How can a college coach offer an athletic scholarship to a kid in 8th or 9th grade — is that offer really legit,or just some sort of publicity stunt? And in addition to that first question, others follow right away:

1 – Can the athlete count on that scholarship money being there when they graduate HS?

2- What happens if that college coach who made the offer has since moved on, or has been fired? Is the university and the subsequent new coach on the hook for the scholarship for the kid?

3 – And what about the athlete? Suppose they change their mind about going to that college which offered the scholarship….are they legally bound to go there because of what they decided when they were in 8th or 9th grade?

I thought it was relevant to explore this subject on the air, once and for all. But in truth, some of this discussion came up the other when a top HS football player in NJ was suddenly blindsided by the new football coach at UConn who told the kid that yes, the previous UConn head coach coach had promised you a scholarship as a verbal commitment, but that coach is gone now, and I’m the new coach, and sorry….but I don’t have that scholarship for you.

Or as the coach, Randy Edsall, put it, “We’ve decided to go in a different direction”….meaning that he wanted to offer that football scholarship to another player. Meanwhile, the kid who was counting on going to UConn was hugely disappointed.

Fortunately, the young football player (and his parents) learned a harsh lesson. The verbal commitment he made to UConn really didn’t amount to any kind of obligation from the university. All it really told other potential college football coaches was that the youngster was really set on going to UConn, and as such, they shouldn’t even bother to pursue him.

But when Coach Edsall delivered the bad news – that he had given his scholarship to another HS player – the NJ kid was the odd man out. And since this happened just a few weeks ago, it appeared that the football player was out of luck. Fortunately, as word got out about the kid’s predicament, some other college football programs contacted him, and now he’s looking at offers from other schools. But no, after being psyched to play for UConn, that dream went away, thanks to a short phone call from the UConn coach.

Even worse, this kind of thing happens more than you might think.

LEARNING THE ROPES FROM AN EXPERT

In any event, when it comes to athletic scholarship do’s and don’t’s, I always invite long-time Sports Edge contributor Wayne Mazzoni onto the show.

Wayne has been dispensing advice to scholar-athletes and their parents for many years, and he also serves as the pitching coach at Sacred Heart University.  (For more information about Wayne and his speaking engagements, go to his website: GetRecuited.net).

Wayne made it very clear that these so-called verbal commitments from college coaches to young HS athletes really have no legal binding whatsoever on the college or on the kid. Rather, it’s nothing more than a way for a college coach to basically “stake their turf” to announce to other college programs that “we really like this kid, and we want him or her to go to our school when they graduate.”  But beyond that, the college is not obligated to give the kid a scholarship, nor is the kid obligated to attend that college when he or she graduates.

So, in effect, it’s a nice boost to the kid’s ego, but beyond that, it’s not more than that.

Things change, though, when the kid is entering their senior year, and the deadline comes to sign a national letter of intent. This process is carefully monitored by the NCAA, and they make it clear to the university tendering the athletic scholarship that they are now officially locked in to giving the kid what has been promised. At that point, in most cases, the young athlete is thrilled to sign the letter, which formally acknowledges this is a done deal (however, I should point out that there are various loopholes when the letter of intent, for example, if the college coaches leaves for another program; this kind of thing happens all the time.)

But by and large, it’s that written letter of intent that binds the university to offer the scholarship to the kid. From what I can tell, it’s more binding on the school than the youngster, who retains the right to change his or her mind before actually matriculating at the school.

And just as a reminder: there are three divisions in the NCAA: D-I colleges, which can offer the maximum number of athletic scholarship by sport. Note that a D-I school doesn’t have to offer any scholarships, but they can if they choose to. D-II colleges are allowed to offer athletic scholarships as well, but at a much reduced level from D-I schools. And D-III colleges are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships at all.

It’s a generalization, but usually only football and basketball give out full rides, and that’s because thanks to attendance and TV contracts, they provide enough revenue for the college to do that. With other sports, like baseball, soccer, field hockey and so on, those athletic scholarships are usually sliced and diced considerably. For example, a baseball player usually receives only 1/4 full ride as compared to a buddy who is on a baseball team.

The point is, if your son or daughter is lucky enough to be recruited, you need to educate yourself on the rules and regulations. The NCAA handbook is a very thick and complex book, so before tackling that, you might want to check out GetRecuited.net.

 

ABUSIVE COACHES: There is Never Any Reason for a Coach to Grab or Shove a Player

If you hadn’t heard about this story, let me tell you about the Morehead State Men’s basketball coach Sean Woods. Up until a few weeks ago, Coach Woods had been at Morehead for several years, and had enjoyed success with the program; in fact, the school had recently renewed extended his contract through 2019.

Everything seemed to be working great.

Except that the coach apparently had a habit of showing his displeasure or frustration with his players by physically hitting or pushing them.

That is, according to several media reports over the course of this season and in previous years, Coach Woods has allegedly pushed, shoved, and even head-butted some of his players when he was upset with them or their play.

Recently, it reached the point where police were brought in and actually charged the coach with misdemeanor battery. And as a result, Coach Woods was then suspended from his coaching duties at Morehead.  Coach Woods is due in court on Feb. 9th  to respond to those charges.

And not surprisingly, along the way, the coach tendered his resignation to the university.

A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR COACHES WHO CAN’T CONTROL THEIR EMOTIONS

The history is this: There was a pushing incident involving Coach Woods with one of his players back in 2012, when Coach Woods shoved one of his players in a game against the University of Kentucky. It was caught on videotape, and Coach Woods was suspended for a game for doing that.

But now, these latest charges stem from two of his players this season, who claim that the Coach assaulted them during a game against the University of Evansville back in November, 2016. One player says the coach pushed him hard in the chest, and the other player says Coach Woods shoved him during, and after, the game.

Said one of the fathers of one of the players at the time of the incident: “This is not the first time the coach violated our trust because last year, during the season, he head-butted my son and turned around and asked him to forgive him, and he apologized. My son accepted his apology. The coach said he would never do it again. And as for the school, I’m still waiting for a response from them and to take corrective action. They say they are still investigating.”

But as noted, Coach Woods has since resigned. Morehead State now has an interim coach and will look for a new head coach at the end of this season.

For the life of me, I can’t understand how an adult coach could ever do this.  Oh, I know some coaches will claim that they have anger management issues….but to me, if you have anger management issues, then in my opinion, you really shouldn’t be coaching kids in the first place.

Some of us remember Bobby Knight physically assaulting his players at Indiana, and that eventually led to his dismissal even though he had put together a tremendous winning record. Speaking of coaches with successful programs, how about Ohio State’s Woody Hayes punching out an opposing player from Clemson in a college bowl game on national TV Then more recently, Mike Rice at Rutgers was justifiably let go for grabbing his players, throwing basketballs at them, ripping them with profanity, and so on.

And yes, I know we have a forgiving society, and people deserve a second chance, but as a head coach? I mean, you are charged with leadership and with responsible behavior. That’s a fundamental part of the job. As such, I can’t imagine how a coach who does this to his players would really ever deserve a second chance. In my opinion, it’s just unconscionable.

Just as I feel sports parents need to be held to a zero tolerance standard, the same goes for coaches as well.  In other words, as a coach, you should just know better ALL THE TIME not to push, bully, grab, or assault your players. If you do, then you — just like your athletes – have to be accountable for your actions.

The callers on my show this AM all agreed with this, some of them remembering when a coach assaulted them many years ago. It left an indelible mark on their memory. Others praised coaches today who clearly draw the line between yelling at one’s players as opposed to grabbing or pushing them.  While I’m not necessarily in favor of verbal abuse (verbal abuse is right there with bullying), I was heartened to hear the coach in question didn’t resort to physical violence.

As to what would a parent should do if their son or daughter told them about a coach who was physical? No question this is a serious complaint and needs to be fully examined and investigated. Those basketball players at Morehead were right to have spoken about their coach.

We all hope and pray that this kind of abuse has been drastically reduced from a generation ago, when it was somewhat seen as a coach just being tough with his players. But it was unacceptable then, and still unacceptable today.

 

 

 

REFLECTIONS: Teaching Our Athletes the Right Lessons in Life

 More About Teaching Youth Leaguers Courtesy and Respect

By Doug Abrams

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

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

At Home and On the Road

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

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

A Personal Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Watching and Learning

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

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

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

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

ACCOUNTABILITY: What Would You Do?

A few weeks ago, I presented some hypothetical sports parenting situations to you, and I asked listeners to my radio show for their thoughts and opinions. One of the common themes in these “hypotheticals” — which, by the way, are all based upon real-life situations – -is the concept of accountability. And the truth is, in a world of increasingly complicated sports parenting issues, it’s harder than ever to try and teach your son or daughter to be accountable and to do the right thing.

And sometimes, it’s even harder for the parent to do the right thing as well.

So, with that being said, how would you handle this hypothetical?

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF….

You’re watching a HS varsity football game, and your son is playing in the game as a wide receiver.

It’s been a chippy game, and the refs have been busy trying to maintain law and order throughout the contest.

But on one play early in the third quarter, in which there’s a play that takes place across the field, your son – who is clearly far away from the play – gets blindsided by an opposing linebacker. There was no need for the hit. It was clearly unnecessary. In any event, your son is very slow to get up. He does get to his feet, he wobbles a bit, and then falls back to the turf. Time is called, and he is helped off the field by the team trainer.

There is no flag on the play because everybody’s attention was drawn to the action on the other side of the field. And yet — because you watch your son on every play — you know without a doubt that the opposing linebacker pulled a cheap shot on your son – a real unnecessary blindside shot —  and that player didn’t get caught by the refs.

From your perspective, the refs not only should have called a penalty, but should have also disqualified that linebacker.

Your son does not come back into the game. He is held out for concussion protocol. After the game, he is okay, but clearly still shaken up by the unprovoked hit.

As a parent, what do you do? There are several pathways to consider. Should you say anything to your son’s coach after the game? Should you approach the opposing head coach? How about the kid who levelled the unnecessary hit? Should you find him and confront him?

Or do you corral the officials who worked the game, and ask them why they didn’t see the play and throw a flag?

Or do you find your school’s athletic director and file a formal complaint about the play? Do you consider filing a lawsuit?

Do you contact the police for assault and battery on your kid?

Or do you say nothing at all? That is, take the approach that it’s just part of the game and be grateful that your kid is seemingly going to be okay.

SEEING RED…

We had a lot of calls this AM and almost all of them agreed that, as an angry sports parent, they had a great urge to confront the opposing player after the game and get in his face. Or, to get in the face of the opposing coach right after the game. Some callers suggested they would confront the refs who worked the game, demanding how they could have missed such an egregious foul?

But after awhile, cooler heads started to chime in. That is, although many of us would like to have an immediate confrontation and punishment for that player, the adult and civil thing to do is to address your school’s athletic director, tell him or her how angry you are, ask to make sure the game film can be viewed the next day, and that you would like punitive action to be taken by the opposing AD on that kid.

Of course, some listeners weren’t satisfied with this kind of approach, but I tried to remind them that immediate confrontation would follow in the path of “two wrongs don’t make a right.” And I was heartened to hear other callers agree with that.

But let me back up for a moment. All sports parents know that in any sporting competition, there’s always a chance your youngster can get hurt. That’s just an assumption of the risk of playing sports. But when your kid is hurt deliberately, that’s when parents see red and want immediate retribution. That’s an understandable and very human emotion to protect our kids.

But of course, that is not acceptable in our society, and rightfully so. Your first priority is to take care of your kid. You can work with the proper authorities, such as the AD and even perhaps the police, later on.

I fully understand that at the time of the incident, you want to take immediate and presumably harsh action. But I urge you….DO NOT give into your anger. As I often say, someone has to be the adult here. And that someone should be you.

 

ABUSIVE COACHES: When HS Coaches Want Kids to Practice Their Sport….All Year Round

We all know about the ongoing tug-of-war between HS varsity coaches and travel team coaches, and how all coaches are eager to have their top athletes dedicate the bulk of their practice and game time to each coach’s respective sport.

We know about all of this from the battles between HS varsity coaches who insist that the talented athlete make a commitment just to play on the HS   varsity team. But at the same time, the travel coach is pretty much making the same demand of the kid; that is, choose between the elite travel team or your HS team.

But…here’s a new wrinkle that was only recently brought to my attention.

I am hearing about the ongoing and growing rivalry among HS coaches who, in their attempt to build up their own sport’s program, are now asking their players to dedicate a good chunk of the year to that one sport. That is, not only does the kid focus on that one sport during its season, but the head coach is strongly suggesting that the kid practice that sport all-year round — even at the expense of the youngster playing on other HS teams.

SPECIALIZATION….ENCOURAGED BY HIGH SCHOOL COACHES?

Let me explain. Your kid is a real good all-round athlete, and plays a lot of sports. Let’s say he plays football, basketball, and baseball at the HS varsity level.

But the HS football coach tells your son –and his teammates – that if they really want to improve and succeed next year, then they really need to commit to weight training in the off-season, and need to lift and run at least three times a week. Plus they need to find substantial time to get some extra work in on their position. Maybe even watch video tape.

Problem is, your son is also a member of the HS varsity basketball team. And varsity baseball team. And he has homework every night, plus maybe even a part-time job or performs some community service. In other words, he’s busy. And adding more football practice time in the winter and the sprint is going to be a real chore.

So how does he tell the football coach that he’s going to miss those weight-training sessions? And when he does, the football coach isn’t going to be happy to hear this. After all, the coach wants his OWN program to come first – not basketball or baseball.

The truth is, the football coach may not care about the other teams at the school…he only cares about his football program. Especially if he’s not on the HS faculty as a teacher, but has been hired as an outsider. Mind you, it doesn’t have to be football. It could be soccer, lacrosse, ice hockey, field hockey, whatever sport.

Now, a generation or two ago, this kind of thing was never an issue. HS varsity coaches knew that the best all-round athletes in the school routinely played two or three sports, and the coaches didn’t interfere with the other coaches in terms of making demands on the kids out of season.But just as travel teams have interfered with HS teams and have forced kids to choose between a travel team and their HS team, so now the other HS coaches within the same HS are making all-year demands on their athletes.

And the kids are caught in the middle.

 

DON’T WORRY….IT’S ONLY “OPTIONAL”

I received a ton of calls this morning on my radio show, as apparently this has really become a problem. Some callers said that coaches like to try and tip-toe around the year-round commitment by saying to the kids that “not to worry – these extra sessions are merely optional.” But athletes – especially those who are fighting for a starting position or to just make the team – know full well that these optional practices are hardly that. Yes, the head coach may not be running them officially, but he certainly is getting plenty of feedback from the coaches who do them as to who is there, and who isn’t.

In short, that’s just not fair.

Another caller said that when the HS coaches are members of the school faculty, there is usually less of a problem with this. Why? Because faculty routinely see each other everyday and in order to maintain friendship with their colleagues, they are reluctant to run roughshod over them and their sports teams. But when the coaches are hired as outsiders, they don’t know the other members of the faculty, and are more likely to focus only on their own sport.

The other thought that was mentioned several times was the role of the AD. That is, it’s up to the HS AD to keep an eye on this kind of all-year practice and to emphatically make it clear to all of one’s coaches that this is not acceptable as it places undue time and pressure on the athletes. That, to me, seems like a logical solution, but apparently some AD’s either don’t put the law down as many parents and kids want.

As my colleague Steve Kallas said this morning, and I thought his comments were right on target: “It was very hard to be a sports parent 15 years ago. And these days, it’s only become more difficult.”

Truer words were never spoken.

 

 

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: The Pressure on Kids — and Their Parents — to Choose Just One Sport

On the last day of the year of 2016, Karen Crouse, a long-time sportswriter for the New York Times, did a long article about how the football coaches are Ohio State and Clemson, two of the top four teams this past season, love to recruit athletes who are multi-sport performers.

In the article, Crouse spoke with Urban Meyer, the head coach at Ohio State, and with Dabo Swinney, the head coach at Clemson, and both men made the case that they much preferred to recruit those top athletes who were had played more than one sport in high school. Most of their recruits, of course, were top HS football stars, and that’s the only sport they played. But there were others, such as Sam Hubbard of Ohio State, who was recruited as a top lax player and was actually playing lax at Ohio State before he made the switch to football.

Swinney pointed to his starting QB at Clemson, Deshaun Watson, who had been a star in basketball in HS as well as a top football player. And on a more personal note, Swinney has three young kids who all play football, basketball, and baseball. Urban Meyer, who signed out of HS as a pro baseball player, eventually played college football for four years once his baseball career came to an end.

In fact, Meyer was recently distressed when one of his HS-age daughters decided to give up playing HS basketball in order to play volleyball all year round. Meyer was torn because he’s an old-school guy who knows the merits of not specializing.

HERE’S THE PROBLEM

While Crouse pointed out in her article that specialization too soon in a sport is a growing trend, what she missed was that no one knows how to stp this from occurring. Too many parents — and their kids – start to feel the subtle yet strong psychological pressure to specialize in just one sport at increasingly younger ages. Fifteen years ago, it was common place for a talented athlete to have one sport they liked to play all-year round – just so they wouldn’t fall behind their peers in that sport. But they also played perhaps one or two other sports, usually right through HS.

So a kid might specialize in soccer, but also enjoyed playing for their HS’s basketball and baseball team. But unfortunately, as more and more parents perceive that the pressure to concentrate on just one sport is increasing with every passing year, now we find more and more kids not only just playing one sport, but they simply give up on playing other sports. That’s a shame. Even worse, as we know, overspecialization often leads to repetitive use injuries as well as burnout.

I don’t know how many years I have been writing about, and talking about, this disturbing trend, but it seems as though at least 20 years. It is a real issue, and yet, because too few parents seem to want to rock the boat, they simply follow along and let their kid specialize. The problem is, even if a kid is a talented athlete, if he or she hasn’t been exposed to playing a variety of sports when they’re in youth and HS sports, they may find themselves focusing on the wrong sport, and then have difficulty in making the transition to another sport. Trust me, a kid like Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard is a rare exception these days. That’s why Karen Crouse wrote about him.

Even worse, because we know that so few kids ever progress to play in college (even after specializing in one sport), they have, in effect, gambled that they would be good enough to advance to a college team and thus bypassed all the fun and joy they would have had in playing other sports in HS. That, it seem to me, is most disappointing.

My own three kids played a variety of sports in HS. My son John played soccer right through HS, and was a member of the school’s state team that was in the NYS semi-finals. In ice hockey, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer, and in baseball, he was good enough to have been drafted by the Chicago White Sox. He eventually signed with Chicago, but also played junior varsity ice hockey in college and intramural soccer. My daughter Alyssa was the captain of her HS swim team, and a top scorer on the HS lax team. And Samantha was an outstanding soccer player, superb HS basketball player, and her best sport was lax, which she played in college.

Yes, all three kids played on various travel teams. But if you ask them, they will tell you how much they thoroughly enjoyed playing with their close friends and classmates on their respective HS teams. Those memories are theirs for life, and they certainly wouldn’t have had them if they just focused on one solitary sport.

It sure would be great if I could get parents to finally wake up and ask the tough questions about whether specializing is truly the right move for their son and daughters. But alas, it’s so easy and tempting to caught up in the dream of your kid becoming a college scholarship recruit.

 

REFLECTIONS: The Power of a Simple Phone Call….

Repaying Favorite Coaches and Teachers Years Later

By Doug Abrams

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

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

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

The Need for Reassurance

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

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

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

Completing the Circle

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

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

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

REFLECTIONS: The Kids Always Remember Their Coaches….

The Players Remember

 By Doug Abrams

 Shortly before Thanksgiving, I was standing in a restaurant lobby, awaiting colleagues for a luncheon meeting of an advisory board that I serve on. A gentleman approached, excused himself, and asked, “You’re Doug, aren’t you?” I said yes, and he asked whether I remembered him. “I probably do,” I said, “but I don’t recognize you. You’ll have to help me.”

I suspected that he was one of my former youth hockey players, but I didn’t know which one. Years after a team’s last game, inability to recognize a player’s face the next time comes with the youth coach’s territory. No wonder I didn’t recognize the gentleman.  I coached him in the early 1990s, when he was 16. Now he is 42, married with children of his own. Images remain frozen in time, but faces change.

Once my former player gave his name, handshakes and reminiscing about bygone seasons quickly followed. After some storytelling, he knew that I indeed remember him. But equally gratifying was that he remembered me.

Chance Encounters

The late November belated reunion demonstrates one reason why youth league and high school coaches should think twice before letting short-term frustrations lead them to depart of their own accord while they still have more to offer.

Coaching sometimes brings short-term frustrations nowadays from challenges largely unknown years ago. These challenges lead many youth league coaches to serve only while their own sons or daughters participate, and they lead many high school coaches to hang up their whistles before their time. Particularly at the high school level, men and women with coaching tenures spanning decades rather than months or years seem a disappearing breed.

Whether to leave youth coaching is, of course, an individual decision for coaches and their families. But when a coach deciding whether to leave seeks my advice, I suggest considering not only the short-term highs and lows, but also the long-term rewards that continued service might hold.

One of the great long-term rewards – and this column’s subject — is that players don’t forget their devoted youth coaches. If a coach treats the team right, coach and players frequently maintain lifelong friendships based on shared experiences and mutual respect. I still keep in contact with many of my former players, though others (such as the player I met in the restaurant lobby) move on. I still get a charge whenever someone approaches in the grocery store (or a restaurant) with, “Hey Doug, remember me? You coached me 25 years ago on the Lions.”

“Pleasing to Remember”

Behind only the parent-child and child-sibling bonds, the teacher-student bond can be one of life’s most lasting. Coaches are teachers in every sense of the word, and players are their students. For a volunteer or compensated coach with more to offer, perseverance today can establish relationships that endure long after the coach blows the whistle for the last time. Chalk up these relationships as deferred compensation for a job well done, a valuable reward not measurable in dollars.

But fair warning. . . . Be prepared for failure to recognize a former player after a decade or more. Non-recognition happens all the time. Players may not initially understand because they see their faces in the mirror every morning. But they do understand once the coach stresses that only their faces, and not the memories and recollections, have changed.

When recognition fails me, I sometimes paraphrase remarks delivered by the beloved school master in the 1939 movie, “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” At his retirement dinner after more than 40 years teaching Latin at a British boys boarding school, Mr. Chips (Robert Donat in his Academy Award-winning title role) alerted the entire student body to the moments of non-recognition that awaited:

“If you come to see me in the years to come — as I hope you will – you may see me hesitate and you’ll say to yourself, ‘Oh, the old boy doesn’t remember me.’ But I do remember you – as you are now.” Images frozen in time.

Schoolmaster Chips closed his on-screen retirement valedictory in Latin: “Haec olim meminisse juvabit.” He did not identify the source, and he provided the students no translation.

The line is from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” and the English translation reminds us that nostalgia remains a long-term reward of teaching, or coaching:

In the future, it will be pleasant to remember these things.”  

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: How to WIN AT LOSING

As a sports parent, what do you say to your youngster who has just experienced “the agony of defeat” for the first time in their very young career?

That kind of parental experience  inspired sportswriter Sam Weinman to write a new book with the provocative title, WIN AT LOSING: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains. The father of two boys, 11 and 8, Sam starts his book talking about how one of his young boys had a meltdown after losing in a tennis match. Sam gave his son some time to feel the sharp pain of the defeat, but then after a few hours and after his son had calmed down, Sam tried to explain to him that the best way to deal with a defeat is to try and take away what part of your game needs to be worked on, what you need to improve on.

Without those significant takeaways, one will be stuck at the same level in sports, never really making progress to get to the next level. That’s the key in terms of winning at losing. Ironically, suffering a defeat can actually prove to be much more beneficial in one’s long-range career because if a youngster is so gifted early so that he or she lose, then they sometimes don’t learn to fully their game. That is, any possible weakness in their game is masked by their wins, and as such, they don’t feel the need to go out and work on their game.

But when you lose….well, that’s the wake-up. Young athletes begin to realize that they need to improve their game. They start to go out on their own and practice, practice, and practice. It might be working to develop their dexterity in dribbling a basketball with either hand. Or learning how to skate faster backwards. Or whatever the skill may be, the youngster who just flat-out decides to improve their game by having that inner drive to go out and work is key.

THE RIGHT GENES?

I have always felt – but certainly can’t prove it  – that having that inner drive to push oneself to get better in sports is perhaps a genetic trait. That is, some kids seem to be born with that kind of drive. Most others simply don’t. They are okay with their skill level, and see no reason to work any harder at it. But if you see your son or daughter at age 8 or 10 or 12 going outside – without any push from you – to work on their athletic skills on their own, you can rest assured as a parent that your child has been blessed with that inner drive to succeed.

To my way of thinking, there is no better barometer of a kid’s desire to want to get better – not just in sports – but in life in general.

But back to Sam’s book. He recounts a number of stories of how individuals dealt with setbacks, and only a handful deal with sports. He writes about entrepreneurs who cope with start-up issues, business executives, health and injury comebacks, and so on. One of the more poignant stories deals with the Columbia University football team which, back in the late 1980s, didn’t win a game for four season. That’s right – there were football players who never won a game in college.

Sure, they came close a few times. But in the end, they never had the joy of a celebratory locker room. Sam writes about these dedicated football players and how they bonded together, and how so many of them took away the hard-earned discipline they developed at Columbia to become successful doctors, lawyers, Wall Street types, and so on.

WE ALL LOVE UNDERDOGS

The beauty about sports, of course, is that as much as we love to win, we all celebrate the underdog’s achievements – especially that individual who had to overcome setbacks.

Everybody know s about Michael Jordan being cut from his HS team. But did you know that Derek Jeter made 56 errors in his first year of pro ball in just 126 games?  Yet he seemed to overcome that terrible fielding average and do okay. Pat Eilers, a wide receiver who transferred to Notre Dame from Yale even though his football coach at Yale told him “he would never even make the team at Notre Dame” ended up scoring the winning TD in the famous Catholics v. Convicts game between Miami and Notre Dame. Hall of Famer Steve Young went from 8th stringer at BYU and didn’t even dress in uniform for home games to All-American in three years.

In short, adversity is the stuff of sports. It happens everyday. The real question is: how will your son or daughter react to it when it hits them?