Advice From the Pros to Parents and Coaches
By Doug Abrams
In the Sun Herald late last month, writer Patrick Ochs reported on a talk that former all-star outfielder Darryl Strawberry delivered in Biloxi, Mississippi. Reflecting on his 17 seasons in Major League Baseball, Strawberry spoke about youth league parents who stunt their players’ development by sapping their enthusiasm for the game.
“We need to get back to letting kids have fun and enjoy themselves,” said Strawberry. “Parents need to chill out. Don’t go to games yelling. Let them play.” The eight-time all star does not like what he sees. “Parents today push their kids and before you know it they’re 18, 19 and don’t want to play anymore.”
His solution? “We just have to get back to understanding that the game is fun. . . . It’s fun. Fun. Remember, fun.”
Strawberry is the latest former professional star to talk about fun to youth league parents and coaches. Earlier last month, CNN’s Sophie Eastaugh wrote about an interview that former tennis great Bjorn Borg gave to Open Court’s Pat Cash. “When we’re traveling around Sweden we see all these crazy parents, I mean it’s unbelievable,” said Borg. “[Y]ou can see sometimes the kids don’t want to play. It’s like the parents push them to do something they don’t want to do.”
Borg’s bottom line about youth tennis? “At this age, it has to be fun.”
In his 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, pitcher John Smoltz also stressed fun as an emotional foundation of youth sports. At the same time, he warned about physical excesses, including premature specialization in one sport and what he called the “epidemic” of Tommy John surgeries stemming from overuse of youthful pitching arms.
“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at fourteen and fifteen years old. That you have time, that baseball’s not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports,” said the perennial major league all-star who played three sports each year in his youth.
Since his induction in Cooperstown, Smoltz has also emerged as a leading opponent of using radar guns to rate youth league pitchers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports his advice that by encouraging youngsters to throw as hard as they can too often, this increasingly popular technology can actually damage their arms and their future prospects.
Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr
Two hockey legends also stress fun and decry premature specialization. Wayne Gretzky was a multi-sport athlete in his youth, and in the Globe and Mail he said that he encouraged his five children to have fun with various sports. “Just go out and play,” he told them. “Just enjoy it. . . . Learn what it’s like to be around your teammates – the highs of winning and the lows of losing.”
“The love and passion I had for the game was my key,” says Bobby Orr, who remains thankful that he “never had that taken out of me by my parents or a silly coach.” “I have stacks of clippings that tell of children being berated by an angry parent, humiliated by a frustrated coach,” he told the Boston Herald. “We’re talking about serious hurts, damaging blows, very personal wounds, all knowingly inflicted by adults who ought to know better.”
Orr told the Toronto Star that when parents and coaches stray, the problem “usually takes care of itself. The player will eventually quit hockey; it’s as simple and sad as that.”
Striking a Common Chord
This accumulated wisdom from these and other pros about emotional and physical excesses in youth sports should resonate with parents and coaches. The pros know what they are talking about.
After moving up from rung to rung, the pros have reached the pinnacle of their games and they are looking down from the top. They know what it takes, and they know what wise parenting and wise coaching can mean to the minuscule few youth leaguers who make it big, but even more important to the multitude who do not. These elite athletes speak from the heart because usually they are not talking only about their own children. They are talking about what is best for the millions of American kids who play sports every year.
Virtually all of these athletes strike the same refrain – make the game fun, maintain perspective, don’t burn out the kids, don’t physically overtax their young bodies. If more parents and coaches took this advice, perhaps the percentages of youth leaguers who quit playing by about the age of 13 would fall below the usual range of about 70%.
Listening to star professional athletes talk about nurturing young athletes must resemble listening, say, to a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry talk about what makes high school chemistry classes work. The Laureate may say the same things that the local high school chemistry teacher says. Parents may think that they know better than the teacher, but it is hard for parents to close their ears to someone whose resume includes a Nobel Prize.
Parents and coaches similarly may think that they know better than the array of youth sports reform voices who have been sounding the alarm for the past several years. But it is quite another thing for the adults to close their ears to someone whose resume includes major league stardom and perhaps a Hall of Fame nod.
More youth leaguers would be much better off if more parents and coaches would listen to the wisdom that the pros speak in unison.
Sources: Patrick Ochs, Darryl Strawberry Has the Best Advice For Baseball Parents, Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald, June 28, 2016; Sophie Eastaugh, Bjorn Borg Shocked By “Crazy Tennis Parents”, CNN, June 16, 2016; John Smoltz, Hall of Fame Induction Speech, http://genius.com/John-smoltz-hall-of-fame-induction-speech-annotated (July 26, 2015); Mike Luck, Smoltz: Radar Guns Not Good For Youth Sports, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 12, 2016; Eric Duhatschek, The Great One’s Message to Parents: Let Your Kids Have Fun, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 26, 2008, p. A3; Joe Fitzgerald, Adult Egos Stick It to Youth Sports, Boston Herald, Mar. 14, 2012, p. 10; Bobby Orr, Orr: My Story (2013); Stephen Whyno, Hockey According to Bobby Orr, The Canadian Press, Oct. 16, 2013, p. S3; Paul Irish, Orr’s Hockey Message? Have Fun: NHL Legend Says Parental Pressure Can Make Kids Quit, Toronto Star, Oct. 15, 2012, E5.