Doing the right thing: HS pole vaulter disqualified for sporting string bracelet

The case of Robin Laird from South Pasadena HS (CA) was both heartbreaking as well as provocative. As we discussed on the show, the girl thought she had won the track and field league championship for HS team when she won the pole vault event – only to see the opposing coach from Monrovia HS protest her participation because Robin was wearing a small string bracelet on her wrist that supported the World Wildlife Fund.

But the protest was upheld – the California Interscholastic Federation (and many other states) have strict anti-jewelry rules, and sure enough, Robin was disqualified, her pole vault didn’t count, and the championship went to Monrovia.

Lots and lots of calls on this case, e.g. the rules are very clear…her coach should have warned her before she competed…the girl herself should have known the rule, and so on. But no matter how one sliced and diced this case, the one item that bothered me the most was that the opposing coach waited for Robin to compete BEFORE he said he lodged a protest.

That is, shouldn’t he have said something to the girl before she vaulted? As Sports Edge contributor Doug Abrams wrote to me in an email, that would have been the right thing to do. And along those lines, if the CIF knew the coach had deliberately waited to say something AFTER she jumped, then he should have lost the right to file a protest.

To me, it’s a very hollow win for Monrovia HS. Sometimes, coach, you just gotta do the right thing.

Greater NY All-Stars v. USA All-Stars…HS Pitch Counts…Another aluminum bat death

This sounds like a great event for baseball players and fans alike. Lou Santos has pulled together an amazing event in which the best baseball players of NY (ages 18 and under) will have a chance to tryout (for free) in hope of being one of the lucky few to compete against the very best 18-and-under baseball players from across the country. For more details, go to Facebook and look up Greater New York Sandlot Athetic Alliance.

I know we coverd a lot of ground on yesterday’s show, but as noted, the death of a 13-year-old from upstate NY still haunts me. The youngster was pitching batting practice against some varsity players and was struck by a line-drive off an aluminum bat. He was in a hospital for a few days before succombing.

Amazingly, there was very little media coverage on this death, unlike the near-fatality in northern CA when a young player was drilled in the head. But as usual, the aluminum bat manufacturers immediately trotted out their defense: there’s only about a 5 mph difference between a ball off an aluminum versus wood bat….that the aluminum bat that was used with legal by NYS HS standards…and that very few kids get hurt playing baseball each year.

BUT HERE”S THE PROBLEM THEY NEVER SEEM TO ADDRESS: The Frazier kid from upstate NY is dead…Brandon Patch is dead….Gunnar Sandberg still has a hole in his skull from where the doctors worked on saving his life. Plus the lawsuits — and settlements — against the aluminum bat companies are beginning to pile up.

As I said on the show, if my kid were a pitcher in baseball or softball, I’d sure petition the league to use wood bats instead of aluminum.

PITCH COUNTS IN HS BALL. Probably not a bad idea, because it would protect promising pitchers from those coaches who either don’t know when a kid’s arm is getting tired (and hence more likely to get hurt) or those coaches who are so selfish that they’ll continue to pitch their ace hurler until his arm is ruined.

What the best coaches do….

Jeff Weiss was inducted this spring into the NYS Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame. Pretty impressive for a fellow who’s only in early 40’s. His list of accomplishments at tiny Lawrence Woodmere Academy in Woodmere, LI is staggering. Plenty of league championships, NYS championships, etc. Suffice it to say that he is considered of the best HS coaches in the country.

So, what does Jeff do that so many other coaches don’t?

As he said on my show this AM, among other things is that he and his staff review every practice session and question each other as to whether each kid benefitted from the practice, or whether the youngsters left frustrated. If the coaches get the sense that the kids were upset, Coach Weiss takes it upon himself to reach out proactively to the boy to see what their concern might be. That is, Jeff doesn’t wait until the kid comes to him; instead, he goes to the boy.

Same with parents in the stands. If Jeff thinks that a parent might be upset, Jeff doesn’t ignore or avoid the parent. Just the opposite: Coach Weiss picks up the phone and calls the parent right away.

A proactive coach? Hmm…maybe we’re onto something here.

Also, Coach Weiss carries anywhere from 13-15 kids on the team. He’s very sensitive to playing time issues, so much so that he will routinely take a kid from deep on the depth chart and have him start the second half of a key game. Makes no difference to the coach – he knows that boy worked just as hard in practice as the five starters.

Furthermore, Weiss says that even though that reserve might play 3-4 minutes in the second half of a close game, his presence on the court clearly improves the morale of the rest of the team and besides, the kid usually performs well.

I only wish I had more time to talk with Jeff Weiss, because it’s clearly no fluke why his teams win and win every year. Great coaches do indeed run their programs differently from all the other coaches.

Superstitions v. pre-game rituals: luck v. preparation

This -past Sunday’s show was great fun for me, as I always enjoy trading observations with other sports psychologists, and clearly Garrett Kramer had plenty to say about dealing with slumps and, at the other end, how athletes can find their way back to the “zone.”

I do want to make something clear. There’s a real distinction beween going through superstitious behavior as opposed to going through a set, pre-game ritual. Just making sure you’re wearing the same pair of lucky socks each game is more just a matter of superstition. On the other hand, finding and developing a comfortable pre-game ritual is more about trying to focus your body and mind on the upcoming game. Wade Boggs was known for always eating chicken each day as a pre-game meal. Some call that a superstition. To me, I call that part of his pre-game ritual. Boggs clearly knew that his body was comfortable in eating chicken as he prepared for a game.

All top athletes have their own pre-set rituals. And for young athletes, it’s a good idea to find what works for you. Some athletes listen to music before games; others play video games. Some just like to take naps before games. You have to find whatever works for you. Remember, taking care of the mental side of your preparation should be a key part of your athletic development.

Should HS varsity athletes have the right to have a coach fired?

As I noted on this morning’s show, over the years I’ve covered a lot of ground regarding sports parents who, at the high school level, go into the AD’s office and demand that a coach be dismissed.

But I’ve never heard of a situation where a bunch of varsity players put together a petition to demand that their coach be fired. And even more strange was the main reason why: the kids felt that their coach wasn’t pushing them hard enough in practice!

The response was extraordinary. Just about half the callers felt that the kids showed great maturity and should be awarded for their efforts. However, the other callers felt that since the team was doing well (9-4 so far on the season), there was no compelling reason to accede to the players’ wishes.

What bothered me the most about this unusual set of circumstances was the long-range effect: that is, if you allow a bunch of HS athletes can weigh in and decide to fire their coach, that sets a very unsettling precedent. After all, what coach would ever want to be hired knowing full well that if things don’t work out, then he or she might be fired by their players!

Overall, it seems to me that the coach and his staff should have been more responsive to the kids when they first came to him with their concerns. According to news accounts, the coach basically laughed at the kids’ concerns, and that of course only made things worse. Good coaches know that they should be smart enough to what their players are requesting, especially if it can only benefit the team.

More on BYU women’s rugby: an important post-script

I’ve been impressed by the number of postings from both fans as well as members of the BYU women’s rugby team. As I noted in my earlier comments, I do feel that it’s incumbent on the team that wants to be accomodated to make sure that they let the tournament directors know well in advance of any special provisions. In this case, the BYU team wanted to remind USA Rugby that, as in years past, they would prefer not to have to play a game on a Sunday.

According to the New York Times (April 16, 2010), USA Rugby had reassured BYU as late as March 11th that they would be accomodated in their request. Based upon that reassurance – -according to the blog postings I received – the BYU team relied upon that promise, only to find out as the tournament drew near that their scheduling request had somehow not been carried out.

By the time the error had been discovered, because the teams had purchased non-refundable plane tickets, it was too late to change the tournament schedule. In other words, the fault in this particular case certainly seems to rest with the USA Rugby staff — not with the BYU team.

That is, as per my blog from yesterday, the BYU team DID do all the right things. They went out of their way well in advance to insure that their scheduling needs would be granted, and once they were told their request would be granted, they made their flight plans.

I haven’t heard or seen any kind of response from USA Rugby and in fairness to them, maybe they do have an explanation. But if everything the BYU players says is true, it would seem — in my opinion — that USA Rugby owes the team a huge apology and ought to at least do something as a gesture of good faith to let the BYU athletes know that USA Rugby really messed up. I’m also very grateful that the BYU team let me know so quickly of their feelings on this matter. Thank you Cougars!

Religion and sports: What’s right in terms of making accomodations?

The curious case of the BYU women’s rugby team is a good place to start on this debate.

In short, the BYU team, which is a club sport, features 35 members, all of whom are Mormom. For Mormons, playing sporting events on Sundays is frowned upon, so when the BYU team advanced in the national playoffs this week to play Penn State on a Sunday, the BYU women decided to forfeit rather than advance in the tournament.

It was a dramatic call, to be sure. Turns out, though, that in years past, the BYU team had always been accomodated so that their games in the tourney were on Fridays and Saturdays. This year, though, due to a glitch at USA Rugby (the touranment organizer), by the time the scheduling error that forced BYU to play on a Sunday was found, it was too late to make any changes in the brackets.

Sure enough, when BYU defeated Wisconsin-Milwaukee 46-7 on Saturday in Florida, the team had already decided to forfeit their game on Sunday. For the seniors on that BYU team, that had to be a bittersweet decision.

Now, we all know about Sandy Koufax sitting out the first game of the World Series in 1965 because he wouldn’t play on Yom Kippur. And there have been lots of other stories about religious accomodations in sports. But in this case, after listening to the smart and lively calls that came into my show, I come away with two conclusions:

1. That if you’re an athletic director, coach, or parent, it’s up to you to be proactive BEFORE the season begins. Take a moment to look at the schedule, and see if there are any religious conflicts on tap (e.g. games or practices on any religious holidays) If there are, then nows the time to make alternative plans to the schedule — just so you can avoid what happened to the BYU rugby team.

2. Speaking of which. I know this may sound cruel, but in this case, it was really BYU’s fault for not doing their homework and checking the dates on the tournament. If they had, they would have seen early on that if they advanced through their bracket, they were slated to play on a Sunday.

Again, a little advance planning would have solved this issue, or at least given USA Rugby a chance to re-jigger the games. While accomodation is a good thing, it’s up to the school and team that wants to be accomodated to bring this issue up far in advance.

Backyard Sports: A Novel Concept that Focuses on Kids Having Fun Playing Sports

A few years ago, I was approached by Danny Bernstein, a listener of my show who was eager to launch a new kind of activity for kids who play sports. Specifically, Danny’s vision was to set up soccer, basketball, and other programs in which kids of all different ages and abilities could simply have a chance to pick up teams and play games.

That’s right. No parents, no refs, no uniforms, no league standings, no A or B teams. Just kids left to choose up teams and play.

So what happened? I mean, in a day and age where kids are driven to compete at the highest levels, specialize in sports at a very young age, have private coaches, and even go to specialized camps to focus on their sports, Backyard Sports has been a refreshing and resouding success.

As Danny said on my show yesterday (that’s right – I brought Danny back on the show again), the kids who come to play at Backyard are kids who currently play on travel teams, high school teams, and so on. The difference here is that when the kids play at Backyard, they’re free to simply enjoy themselves. No pressure to win. No parental pressure to appease.

For example, if a kid always play fullback on his travel team, at Backyard he can play forward. If a kid plays outfield in Little League, here he can try and pitch a few innnings. In other words, it’s fun as kids instinctively love to experiment and try different things out in sports.

But these days, parents and coaches tell me all the time that kids rarely have the luxury to try and experiment. There’s just too much pressure to keep doing what they do well, and if they ever veer off the path, there’s a coach to bring them back into line.

Thank goodness for Danny Bernstein. You should check out Backyard Sports – nothing like going back to the future.  

Sports Parenting 101: Be Wary of “Cookie Cutter” Sports Parenting Seminars

We all know that the world of sports parenting has changed dramatically since we were kids. The truth is – we continue to be in a state of transition and flux, and to that end, there are precious few guidelines when it comes to giving Moms and Dads real solid advice about what’s the next step in sports.

I’ve been involved in the world of sports parenting since the early 1990s, and I’m the first to admit that you should be wary of parenting experts who offer so-called “tried-and-true” tips on how to give your kid that extra competitive edge. I’m particularly wary of those programs that offer cookie-cutter seminars or programs where the presenters take a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  Unfortunately, that’s how those presenters are trained by their national corporate office, and as a result, they usually aren’t able to address the individual needs and concerns of a particular community.

If you feel that your sports group or league could benefit from having an expert come in and speak to your parents/coaches, take a moment or two to interview the presenter and see what kinds of advice they have in advance for the issues that you’re facing. Don’t be swayed by lots of fancy packaging. What you want is some real solutions to what truly plagues your young athletes.

When will the aluminum bat madness finally end?

Another tragic incident occurred in the San Francisco area about a week ago when a young HS pitcher was drilled in the head by a line drive off an opponent’s aluminum bat. The youngster suffered severe brain swelling, and was placed in a medically-controlled coma over a week ago. As of this posting, he was still in intensive care.

How many more of these cases do we have to deal with? Anybody who has ever spent any time around a baseball diamond will tell you that there’s a huge difference between a ball struck by an aluminum bat versus a ball off a wooden one. And yet, a number of major organizations, including Little League Baseball, claim that there’s no difference at all – that wood and aluminum are the same. What a disgrace.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits continue to pile up. The family of Brandon Patch, who died after being hit in the head by a line drive off a metal bat, won close to a million dollars when they took Louisville Slugger to court. Other legal cases from Oklahoma, New York State, and other places are beginning to crop up as well, with injured kids winning dollars from aluminum bat manufacturers.

As attorney Steve Kallas pointed out on my show, this situation is becoming analogous to the tobacco cases over the last two decades where cigarette companies denied that smoking was bad for one’s health, or that nicotine was addictive. We’re seeing the same kind of pattern with aluminum bats.

Parents and coaches – be forewarned. Baseball – -and softball — are better and safer games when played with wood bats.