Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Choosing a Path for Your Child in Sports—All Things are Sold

In his essay on Compensation, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes about the dualistic nature of the world we live in. He states, “For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something… In nature nothing can be given, all things are sold.”

As our life experience grows, most of us realize the essential truth of Emerson’s views on compensation. As discussed elsewhere in this blog (You're NOT too Small, Heavy, or Slow!), compensation plays an important role in an athlete’s success. An athlete, small in stature, may also possess extraordinary quickness; one who is slow may have exceptional strength. These compensatory attributes often provide athletes with different paths to success.

But as a parent or coach, have you also considered the compensatory effect of your choices? Have you considered how the same excesses that lead to athletic “success” may also exact an equal or greater price? Do you know what you’re selling?

Take for example a high school girl’s varsity basketball team that I helped coach during its “Open Gym” and Fall League preseason. The head coach, a friend with whom I played years ago, is a knowledgeable, hardnosed disciplinarian. In pursuing excellence, he’s more likely to chastise a player’s mistake than compliment one’s success. Fun is secondary to work. The preseason commitment for players, stretching over a three-month period, involved three voluntary two-hour practices and one game per week. Perfectly legal under the by-laws of our state’s high school association, the time commitment of these preseason activities approached that of my regular high school basketball season many years ago. Under the grind of this heavy preseason schedule and my friend’s uncompromising coaching style, a number of girls quit (and still others considered doing so).

So in the balanced equation that is Emerson’s law of compensation, what do these players gain and what do they lose?

I fully expect that this team will enjoy greater success on the court. (It’s already evident in their early season record.) They will win more games than they otherwise would under many other coaches. They will take pride in their accomplishments, appreciate how hard work has prepared them for success, and possibly apply this lesson to other parts of their lives. With their shared sacrifice, they may enjoy an even closer bond with their teammates. And for a few, the likelihood of a college scholarship may be improved.

But to the opposite, a price is also paid. Girls who might have enjoyed the high school basketball experience (and still succeeded on the court) were lost early on. In at least one instance, participation in anther sport was sacrificed. For some, the tough, critical coaching style may diminish the experience as a whole. What should be a fun, rewarding, and successful experience, may instead become a chore—just one more activity to list on their college application. Players may “burn out” later in the season. More troubling is the potential long-term effect on each girl’s desire to continue playing sports. I suspect that many of the girls on this team, though appreciating their high school basketball experience, may never want to pick up a ball again once their “career” is over. The enjoyment and health benefits of continued adult participation will be lost.

So what’s the best path? Do the benefits justify the excesses and price paid? In the example cited above, are the possible rewards worth the long practices, extended season, and other sacrifices made by the players? That’s for every administrator, coach, parent, and athlete to decide. But it’s a decision that should be made with full awareness of what’s lost to the path not taken.

For my part, I believe that the type of high school experience I described above is too skewed towards the work/sacrifice component. I suspect that it’s not atypical of many other high school sports programs that have morphed into coach-driven, all consuming extracurricular activities. Sports seasons today are too long, participation in other high school sports is diminished, and joy too often sucked out of the young athletes who want to participate in organized sports at this higher level. Self-directed play is also a casualty of the extensive time commitment associated with today’s organized sports activities.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Possibly the girls on my friend’s team will enjoy their season and learn valuable life lessons. Maybe they will see their sacrifices as worthwhile. It will be interesting to follow these girls over the next several years and to learn what each of them thinks in retrospect about her experience.

But in regard to youth sports, coaches and parents should undoubtedly seek a more balanced approach—one that protects joy, while also encouraging a child to begin appreciating the importance of hard work and its connection to success. Positive coaching and parental support, with an age-appropriate emphasis on winning, should dominate the organized youth sports experience. Encouraging excesses early on, and paying the compensatory price, is simply a wrong-headed approach. For each parent and coach, the goal is to help each child achieve his or her potential while also preserving the long-term benefits (joy, continued participation, health) for every child!


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Joy of Youth Sports—the Sports Parent Gift that Keeps on Giving

Would you like to help a sports parent discover how his or her child can enjoy success in sports? Do you have a “problem” sports parent on your Christmas list? (You know, the Mom or Dad who yells at referees, complains about the coach, or is convinced a college scholarship is waiting for his or her star.)

The Joy of Youth Sports makes a great gift for all sports parents. And it's one that keeps giving long after the holiday season is over.

Available on Amazon for only $8.95, this easy read describes five steps to a great youth sports experience—the one that not only maximizes athletic abilities, but also helps a child develop life skills and a joyful appreciation for playing sports.

It’s not too late to save a child! :-)


Friday, November 12, 2010


Playing sports provides you with many benefits including fun, physical exercise, competition, and an outlet to express yourself. When you get together with your friends in the backyard or driveway for a pickup game, you probably also enjoy the camaraderie—the warm feeling of good fellowship we get when we share an experience with others. To varying degrees, most of us take pleasure in this sense of community.

In both individual and team sports, pickup or organized, you will find many opportunities to be part of an enjoyable shared experience. In some cases you will find others that share the same passion for your sport—who enjoy its beauty and flow, competing to win, or the challenge of testing one’s abilities against personal limits or some standard of performance. With these individuals you often find friendship based on this common bond. In other instances, casual or less skilled players may have a limited interest in playing, but do so mainly because they enjoy being part of a group.

In team sports, your teammates share the experience with you. In games with your friends, everybody enjoys the shared friendly competition. But even in more serious competitive situations, with opponents you do not know, there is often a mutual respect based on everyone’s shared passion and enjoyment of the sport. You and your opponent are both part of the same community.

Individual sports also provide an opportunity for community—each competitor respectful of the other’s similar passion and commitment. Individual competitors can even find a sense of team between each other in certain situations. For example, two competitive tennis players representing rival schools may find themselves supporting and rooting for each other in a distant tournament.

In team sports, try to minimize internal cliques (i.e., small groups) and their often destructive effect on the chemistry of your team. Find and promote shared common ground with all of your teammates. If you’re in a position to lead, try to recognize potential disruptions within your team before they grow and take hold. A key word from you to another player may be all that’s needed to short-circuit a potential problem.

As you grow older, and begin to experience more injuries or responsibilities that take you away from your game, you will come to value the communal aspect of sports even more. In your pursuit of excellence, always try to respect your teammates, opponents and the game itself. Recognize and appreciate that you are all part of the same community, and that your sport makes the reward of this shared experience possible.


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Games Are Rarely Decided by the Refs

While watching a game from the stands, you will see missed or bad calls made by the referee or umpire. Sometimes the referee’s mistakes will seem to come in bunches or possibly at a crucial moment in a contest. But before you lose control and scream at the referee’s incompetence, keep in mind that most games and matches are rarely decided by poor calls. Almost always, the results are based on player performance.

Within each game, there are countless opportunities for your child’s team to exert its dominance over the other. Besides making the necessary physical plays, eliminating even a few of the many mental mistakes that occur in a game can often dictate who wins. Consider the number of errors made by your child and team over the course of the game, compared to the relatively few made by the game’s referees. Yes, referees can place their imprint on a game. Sometimes as a contest winds down, a single bad call makes a difference. But in the end, the game’s outcome is usually controlled and decided by the players performance (over the entire game)—not the referees.

One of the unfortunate aspects of youth sports is the behavior of some parents in the stands. As it relates to referees, certain parents will not only criticize the referees for actual mistakes made, but also for proper calls that go against their child or team. Sometimes parents do this out of misguided parental interest in their child’s success while other times they don’t understand the actual rules of the game. Even worse, some parents see referees as their personal whipping dog, an opportunity to let go of their day’s frustrations.

Almost everyone makes a critical comment here and there—sports are emotional for both the child and parent. But when a parent loudly and constantly berates a referee on every call that goes against his or her child, it’s time to step back and recognize the parent’s behavior for what it is—rude and unacceptable. This conduct sets a bad example for children and runs counter to the principles of every youth and scholastic program. Among the reasons why this behavior is harmful is that a child sees their parent assigning blame to the referee instead of where it typically belongs—with the player or team. In place of teaching the child accountability, the parent’s behavior is promoting a detrimental “victim” mentality.

If you find yourself headed down this path, either don’t attend your child’s games or do a better job of controlling your behavior. Try to appreciate and enjoy the game in its entirety—not just from a win/loss perspective or one that overemphasizes the natural interest that you have in seeing your child succeed. Focus more on how your child is playing compared to the last time and whether your child is playing up to his or her demonstrated potential.

When the inevitable bad calls occur, view them as just one more obstacle that your child must overcome and carefully watch how your child responds. Your goal is to help instill a champion’s heart in your child.

Support your child by behaving in a way that builds his or her character and remember that most games aren’t decided by the referee’s poor calls.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Why We Play, Watch, and Coach

I recently finished coaching a middle school basketball team in our YMCA’s summer league. The end came quickly for my team—we lost the first game in our season-ending tournament. The game was close and the final outcome was decided in the last few seconds. And as often occurs in these close contests, the human drama was compelling.

What still amazes me about these hard-fought games is how disappointment, elation, failure, and success can all be compressed into a few minutes (occasionally seconds) within a single game. Moments unexpectedly stack one upon another, pressure exerts its influence, and advantage swings from one team to another. In this unlikely cascade of events, we often see character revealed. And sometimes we’re fortunate enough to witness behavior from the youngest of us that renews our faith in who we are and what we can be.

To this end, I want to talk about the boys on my team and some of the events that happened in this last game of our season.

Typical of the YMCA’s youth basketball programs, kids of varying ages and abilities were represented on each team. My team included two younger brothers of a boy I previously coached (who is now a talented junior on the local high school basketball team). The youngest is only going into sixth grade, but because of his skills and maturity was allowed to play with the older boys. Both are excellent players who are a joy to coach. The other boys on the team, like most young athletes, have their own set of unique abilities and weaknesses.

In the tournament game, our young sixth grade point guard played exceptionally well. It’s special to watch a smallish boy fearlessly drive into the lane and challenge a tall opponent—to watch as he gracefully shifts the ball to his outstretched, left hand and then lays the ball off the backboard for a basket. David versus Goliath. There’s a noble quality associated with this type of performance that always appeals to us. Throughout the game, this young boy demonstrated skill, composure, and tough-mindedness well beyond his small stature and young age. His older brother played equally well, dogging his opponent on defense and making key baskets when we needed them.

But this story isn’t really about the two athletic brothers. It’s about Adam, another boy who is more representative of the type of young player who participates in these leagues.

I’ve coached Adam for the past two years. He’s developed from an energetic, unskilled player to one who played an indispensable role on our team this summer. Adam is not especially athletic or tall. His ball handling, shooting, passing, and defensive skills are average at best.

But Adam has a unique talent. He is one of those few players who relentlessly pursues every rebound and loose ball. He plays with exceptional heart. It’s both astonishing and fun to watch this type of player. There are times against taller, bigger opponents when you just shake your head in amazement, turn to your assistant coach and say, “Do you believe Adam just got that rebound?!”

Adam, for his part, doesn’t really seem to appreciate his own unique ability. He sees the other good players making three point baskets and wants to be that type of player. To his credit, he’s improved his outside shooting and ball-handling. But this is not how he will make his high school’s junior varsity squad should he decide to try out for the team.

Now that you have an idea about the type of player Adam is, let’s get on with the story about the game and Adam’s role in its outcome.

We were playing well and leading for most of the game. But towards its end, required substitutions and excellent play by our opponent resulted in our lead dwindling to one point with twenty seconds remaining. Having been fouled, one of my players was at the foul line shooting a one-and-one.

And then everything began to fall apart. The boy missed the shot, our opponents got the rebound, and Adam foolishly tried to steal the ball. A foul was called on Adam. With no time going off the clock (and with me shaking my head in disbelief), the boy from the other team walked to the other end of the court and made the front-end of his one-and-one free throw opportunity. He then missed the second shot. But our opponent got the rebound, and within several more seconds scored another two points to go up by two. In just fourteen seconds, we saw our potential three point lead dissolve into a two point deficit.

With six seconds remaining, the other coach decided to call a timeout to set up his team’s defense. Adam walked slowly over to the bench, hanging his head. I yelled out, “Adam, get your head up. The game’s not over. You might still have an opportunity to score.”

And prophetically, after play resumed, our point guard quickly moved the ball up, saw Adam open just inside the foul line and passed him the ball. With less than two seconds left, Adam took a short jumper. It was nice looking shot. It easily could have gone in. But instead, the ball hit the back of the rim, momentarily rolled around, and then fell out as the buzzer sounded to end the game.

After the two teams shook hands, I gathered my players and took a moment to congratulate them on their excellent play. And, of course, I complimented Adam on his outstanding rebounding and effort.

Shortly after the game, I approached Adam and his dad. After talking with his dad for a few minutes, I turned to Adam and again complimented him on the way that he had played.

“But coach, I lost the game,” he said.

At that moment, the opposing coach happened to be walking by, overheard Adam, and stopped. He gently asked him how many minutes were in the game prior to the last 20 seconds. He asked him how many opportunities there were for Adam’s teammates to make the key plays that could have also won the game.

For my part, I reminded Adam that all of the great players fail at some point—everyone fails. I’m not sure if Adam took much consolation in my words, but I loved what happened next.

One of Adam’s friends, who looked to be a basketball player for their high school, was behind him listening to our conversation. Without hesitation, he said, “Yeah Adam, remember what happened to me last year?” He then went on to describe the game situation in which he had failed to make a key play that would “have won the game.” This boy honestly related to Adam’s failure and stepped up to try and ease Adam’s disappointment.

In a game filled with special moments and uplifting performances, this may have been the best one.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Provide Team Structure

An effective youth coach provides his players with a basic foundation of team structure. This typically takes the form of offensive and defensive sets/formations, plays, and practice drills.

I've described in previous posts how beginners benefit from assigned roles and a simplified framework in which they can contribute and succeed. In much the same way, but at a higher level, your players will benefit from a shared team structure.

Most children respond best in an environment that provides both a secure “home base” and opportunities to explore new ground, gain fresh experiences, and learn more advanced skills. The comfort zone of team structure reduces uncertainty and can provide a wellspring of fallback behaviors that can win the day in difficult, stressful circumstances. Team structure also helps instill a sense of order and discipline that innately appeals to most young athletes. You should remember that part of the appeal of youth sports to children is that these activities are structured fun.

At the beginning of each practice and game, your players should automatically follow established warm-up routines. Not only do these structured activities help a player loosen up, but they also help the child enter into the proper mental state of readiness for the upcoming practice or game.

Coaches differ greatly on their offensive philosophy. Some believe in scripting every movement within plays while other coaches support a more unstructured, read and react “freelance” approach. Even if you let your players freelance within an offense, you should provide an offensive set (formation) to initiate the play sequence. In addition, provide some basic plays for your team. These sets and plays represent a team structure that your players can fall back to in difficult game situations.

As you teach teamwork and team skills, remember that you are always creating structure. You are weaving a connective arrangement of behaviors and outcomes. The more effective your instruction, the stronger these connections will become. This, in turn, will build a sense within your players of having control over their environment. They will grasp how a certain stimulus evokes a certain response. They will develop confidence that their knowledge provides them with a resource to handle even the most difficult moments in a game. And finally, they will have a base of structured understanding that will prepare them to learn even more.

Be careful to avoid overuse of structure and set plays as this can inhibit your players’ personal development. Ultimately, you want to teach your players self-reliance. You want them to have the capacity to fully react and adapt to new situations on their own. For many boys and girls participating in youth sports, the best outcome is the ability to continue playing and enjoying their sport well into their adult years. If you can provide this knowledge, you have done well.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

When a Player Talks with Mom and Dad in the Stands

One of sport’s benefits is that it helps a young child develop an increased sense of self-reliance. A child’s first steps into organized sports are a new and sometimes intimidating experience. Learning new skills, fitting in with peers, adapting to a structured environment all take a child into a strange new place.

Sometimes both the parents and their younger children are hesitant to let go of each other. For example, I substituted for a fourth grade boy in a basketball game a few years back and shortly afterwards, looked down the bench and saw that he was missing. I didn’t concern myself too much about this, as I thought that he had gone to a water fountain for a drink. Several minutes later, he had still not returned to the bench. I looked more closely around the gym and found him seated next to his parents in the bleachers, calmly watching the game, drinking some water, and engaged in what appeared to be a casual conversation. I had to wave to him and his parents to get their attention and indicate that I wanted the boy back on my bench.

Although the situation I described above is humorous and likely to occur only with the youngest, most inexperienced children, a more serious parent/child connection occasionally appears.

Sometimes you will see a player on the court or field looking up into the stands and either talking or making gestures to one of their parents. You may also see a parent constantly shouting out instructions to their child. A player, especially an older one, who is carrying on a discussion with a parent while playing, is engaging in a destructive behavior. Not only does this behavior potentially harm a player’s sense of self-reliance and self-esteem, but it also distracts the player from the game’s action.

If you find yourself interacting with your child during a game, barking out advice to the point your child is continually looking toward you, you need to realize the problems that this can cause and try to minimize this behavior. A wise coach will not tolerate this conduct and will tell your child to focus on the game and only listen to instructions from the bench. Your child’s coach may also approach you and inform you that this behavior is unacceptable.

I've coached a couple of boys who were good players and great kids, but unfortunately had parents who were constantly instructing their child from the stands. The lack of self-confidence played all over these boys’ faces and in their constant need for approval from both their parents and me.

Be a positive force in building your child’s sense of self-reliance—insist that your child concentrate fully on the game and control your own behavior during a game. Be a great fan to your child and his or her team. Let the coaches coach.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fun? You Call this Fun?

No, this is not another article decrying organized youth sports for being too competitive and adult-driven. It's not about how organized sports can sometimes suck all of the fun out of a young athlete's experience in youth sports. And it's not yet another newsworthy tale of a parent behaving badly at their son or daughter's game.

Instead, I'm going to discuss the meaning of fun and how it applies to youth sports.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines fun as "what provides amusement or enjoyment." Another dictionary of mine defines fun as "lively, joyous play or playfulness." These both represent descriptions of an activity that generates a feeling within an individual. But is one person's fun, as it relates to playing sports, the same as another person's?

Different Flavors
The truth is that the word “fun” has different meanings. Fun has an elastic quality. Its nature can change depending on a person's mood and his or her expectations for participation. It's meaning sometimes changes based on group dynamics—the type of participants and the way in which they interact.

There is the relaxed, non-directed play that I sometimes refer to as “running around and picking daisies.” This form of play is all about the running, laughing, relaxed camaraderie, and simple animal joy that children experience when they move and release energy. Everyone has seen a group of kids playing an “organized” sport in their backyard or street and watched as the game devolves into giggling, exaggerated one-on-one battles, wild shots, “new rules,” and running after each other. These children are enjoying the “picking daisies” form of fun.

There is also the type of fun that is embodied in a more structured, competitive activity. This “running around” is more directed, set against an opposing force, and produces a more complex set of emotions that many children will also describe as “fun.” The competitive aspect of this more intense play provides a challenge which often spurs a superior, sometimes undreamed level of performance. “Fun” is experienced in a joyous individual or team moment where all the parts perfectly come together in that instant of time. Learning a new skill, and how to better compete, leads to an exhilarating “fun” feeling of greater self esteem and confidence. Preparing for, and reaching a shared team goal [think celebrating a championship] is “fun.” These forms of fun are especially appealing to older children who seek a richer experience in sports.

Fun and Organized Youth Sports
Having played sports for my entire life and coached youth basketball for a good part of it, I sometimes hear a parent or administrator casually say, “We’re just out here to run around and have some fun.” Yes, in some situations, that observation is dead-on—but not in most instructional youth sports programs with games and practices. The person who says, “Let’s just have fun,” does not grasp the essence of the goals pursued by a good youth sports coach. Most coaches (along with players and knowledgeable parents) want more.

Although “picking daisies” is always part of youth sports, children can easily find this form of fun in unstructured neighborhood games and other play activities. Reach for something more in the youth sports programs you select for your child. Find ones that combine good instruction with an age-appropriate dose of relaxed fun. Help your child appreciate the richer forms of fun.

Copyright © 2010-2012 by Jeffrey S. Rhoads; All Rights Reserved

The Joy of Youth Sports
If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book:
The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the best youth sports experience for your child (Amazon $8.95)

(Kindle Edition $2.99)


Friday, March 5, 2010

The Coach's Kid Always Plays

If you talk to sports parents, one of the common complaints is that “the coach’s kid always plays.” Sometimes this comment refers to the coach’s child receiving more playing time, playing the glory positions (e.g. pitcher, quarterback, point guard), while in other more competitive situations it can also refer to the child playing in front of seemingly more capable players.

Is there merit to this observation or is this simply another example of sports parents tending to look at a situation through the lens of their child’s interests? It’s probably a little of both.

In youth sports, parent-coaches are essential—there are simply not enough individuals (without a child on the team) who are interested in coaching. Often, the parent-coach has played the sport in high school and is knowledgeable about the game. In these instances, the coach’s child may be more skilled than others on the team, have a greater understanding of the game, and also enjoy playing (and practicing) the sport. In other words, the parent-coach’s child may deserve to play a key position on the team or receive more playing time—especially in competitive leagues.

Coaches’ kids are sometimes held to more exacting standards and may feel that other players on the team receive preferential treatment. The coach’s child may face additional pressures including potential accusations of favoritism by their teammates. Sometimes, coaches over-compensate in their treatment of their child in an effort to remove any suggestion of favoritism. In these instances it’s not uncommon for the child to retaliate verbally when the parent-coach “corrects” a skill or behavior.

Before you begin complaining about the parent-coach favoring his or her child, try to objectively observe how he treats all of the team’s players. Do the parent-coach’s strategies and schemes provide opportunities for each player to potentially succeed or are they geared to specifically benefit the coach’s child? Does the coach give everyone an opportunity in practice and employ the teaching principles discussed elsewhere in this blog?

Be honest with yourself. Is the coach’s child the best player for a position and does this child need to play for the team to compete? Is your child clearly superior to the coach’s child or are they close in ability? The latter situation may prove especially difficult as some coaches may unfortunately justify playing their son or daughter based on their investment of coaching time and effort.

Also, talk with your child and understand how he or she feels about the coach’s kid and their role on the team. Your child may believe that the coach’s kid is the best player for the position. Despite your feelings, your child may like the coach and believe that the coach is fairly treating each player on the team.

If you believe the coach’s child is receiving unjustified preferential treatment in comparison to your child and others on the team, you may want to discuss the matter with the coach. Arrange a time (other than after a game) to objectively talk about your concerns. Try to understand the coach’s philosophy and specific reasons for making his or her choices. Do not accept blatant favoritism, but understand the difficult position that a child and their parent-coach sometimes face. If you feel strongly that the “system is broken," consider becoming a youth coach to provide the experience that you believe all young athletes should enjoy!


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Free Sports Software

In the Free Software sidebar, I've added a link to a program called GameDiary. This is one of several sports software applications I've developed within my Avaplay sports company.

I recently decided to release a "free" version of the software that contains some advertisements, but includes most of the features present in the paid version. You can go to www.avaplay.com to learn more about this and other sports software applications.

Here's a short blurb describing GameDiary and how you use it:

"GameDiary is a personal sports organizer that enables you to collect pictures, video clips (including YouTube videos), statistics and game notes to tell your sport season's story. Create a new Season, add games to the schedule, and begin collecting your media and game information. Print game summaries, statistic reports, a Season schedule/calendar, and your personal profile and sports card. Add sportscaster voice-overs or personal audio notes to enhance your media, share your Seasons with other GameDiary users, and much more. Designed for the athlete and sports parent, this single sports software program supports ALL sports."

If you're interested in "telling the story" of an athlete's sports season, I suggest you check out GameDiary.