When Being the Good Spectator is Wrong

A-League Rd 5 - Central Coast v BrisbaneA player dribbles up the sideline and pushes the ball past the defender in a U12 soccer game.  The defender tries to kick the ball; he’s late, too late, and kicks the dribblers shin pad instead.  The dribbler continues up the sideline without missing a step.  Another play that happens a thousand times and has already happened a dozen times in this game.  Yet the referee sprints to the defender and starts yelling at him.  The defender is only nine-years-old and the ref towers over him.  So the ref bends down so his face is inches from the defender while he is yelling at him.  Now the referee is pointing his finger in the defender’s face.  All the while, play is going on, not that the referee seems to care.  When it’s finally done, the defender is in tears.

I would like to say this is an article I read about some game somewhere, but it’s not.  It happened in my son’s last soccer game as I watched from the sideline.  I’d also like to say I said something to the referee though the defender was my son’s teammate not my son but I did not.  Truth be told, it wasn’t until well after a player from the opposing team had climbed into the referee’s car and the car was long gone out of the parking lot that the reality of what I witnessed really hit me.

This isn’t a post about bad or biased officiating.  It’s about a bully, much as I hate that word because of how we overuse it today, who has no business being anywhere near a youth sports field let alone refereeing a game, and how immobilized we all were.  In no universe is this behavior remotely condonable.  In no way should this person be allowed near young athletes.  The referee’s role is to officiate and perhaps to help teach and there were two appropriate approaches here.  In terms of officiating, if he believed the play warranted discipline for any reason then he should have blown the whistle and given card.  In terms of teaching, whether he handed out the card or not, if he thought it was a dangerous play, he still should have blown his whistle and used it as a teaching moment to explain to the kid or his coach or both where the issue lay.  Instead, he berated and belittled a young athlete.  That is inexcusable.

To be honest, I’m not sure what could have or should have been done.   And I’m not sure what I should have done differently in the aftermath.  I thought the boy’s father handled it well and I agreed with him when he told me, “I’m biting my tongue.”  But now I’m not sure any of us handled it correctly and I wonder if it’s because the news surrounding parents at youth sports is so prominent and not in a good way, we’re no longer able to identify when a situation calls for intervention and we’re paralyzed by the fear of being the “bad” youth sports parent.

What I do know I witnessed a bully bullying a young athlete and did nothing.

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The Private Coach

017 The Private Coach 001My son goes to private baseball and soccer lessons.  He goes once a week for an hour in each sport.  He does it in the offseason, basically for two months in the winter.  I tried softball lessons for my daughter too, but she wasn’t into them.  I think the lessons are great.  So I was more than a bit surprised at the palpable condescension when the subject came up at a coaches meeting as part of a discussion on making our travel program “more competitive.”  The inference being our program needed to be more like the gazillion, dime-a-dozen, full-time, full-year programs already out there.

When my son started with baseball lessons I felt like an idiotic, overzealous parent for taking an eight-year-old to a private coach.  I must have said a million times, “I know he’s not going pro” only to find out the coach worked with just about every kid in town.  His client list included at least ten other eight-year-olds.  The knowledge somewhat lessened my bemusement at the nine page program for a show my daughter participated in a few weeks later with her ice skating class.  The participating classes, including my daughter’s, took up half-a-page as did the credits.  The other eight pages were needed to accommodate the names of the private coaches (sometimes two or three of them) employed by each individual skater who performed in the actual show.  Seems I’m not alone in employing private coaches.

017 The Private Coach 003I had a private baseball coach growing up.  We just didn’t pay for him because his name was Dad.  Unfortunately that dynamic doesn’t work for my son, so he goes to a private coach because sometimes he needs a different voice to teach him (even if many times his coach and I say the same things.)  And he goes because though he doesn’t often want to have a catch, he lights up when he plays and he comes out of the lessons energized.  He goes to a soccer coach, which he does want to play always, because it’s an opportunity for focused technical skill development (table stakes in soccer much like skating is in hockey if you ask me) with more touches than he gets at his travel team practice.  And he goes because he wants to play goalie so we found a coach who dedicates half the lesson to goalie skills.   I have him go to both because they provide an environment for development and repetition from which comes the consistency which will help him improve which I want because I want both my kids to play team sports in high school because of the profound effect playing in high school had on me.  I am afraid if he doesn’t pick up a baseball during the winter and he doesn’t develop his technical soccer skills he won’t have that chance.

017 The Private Coach 004

When I sat down to write this I was sure I would find some profound insight or reason why he has a private coach.  The truth is never black and white and the reasons are a mix of wants, needs and fears, some his and some mine.  Toss me into the pool of crazy, sports parents if you like, but I really have no aspirations of a pro in the family and I’m not hoping for a college scholarship, though it would be nice as I’d like retirement to be more than the ten seconds in will take for my head to land on my desk when I die of old age in my office.

Have I lost the plot on youth sports?  Maybe. I’m not really sure.  Do I think private lessons are his ticket to the pros?  Absolutely not.  But just as I wouldn’t hesitate to get him an academic tutor if he needs help or a gentle nudge, I didn’t hesitate to get him a private sports coach (why is it we never tell our kids they won’t be President but we’re quick to tell them they won’t be a pro athlete?)  I think I’m a good baseball coach, but I am a CTO by trade, and it would a bit foolish and arrogant to think a full-time baseball coach isn’t better no matter how great I know I am.  If nothing else, the lessons give my son a chance to play once a week and give me a chance to pick up on some drills and techniques I can put to good use come the summer.

Stop Knocking Travel Sports

016 Travel Sports GoodI began 8U Travel because I thought it ludicrous my son was starting travel sports at the age of eight.  I still do.  I think the state of travel sports is verging on insane with “elite” programs looking to “take it to the next level” (whatever those statements mean) and forcing young kids to play one sport year-round preying on the fears of parents.  And I agree those same parents have lost the plot in their blind belief their kid is getting a college scholarship or “going pro” (she isn’t).  But people whining about travel programs ruining youth sports and the demise of the rec league are kidding themselves.  If the objectives of youth sports are kids being active, improving in their chosen sports, and gaining life skills, travel sports are the singular best option to deliver.

Before diving into the benefits of travel, let’s get the competitive, only focused on winning cards out on the table.  A common argument of naysayers is travel programs eliminate the fun with an over the top focus on winning.  Sports are competitive by definition, and it’s naïve to think rec leagues are not focused on winning just because they employ equal playing time rules.  The kids on my son’s t-ball team were constantly counting runs and trying to figure out who won the games in which no outs were recorded, everyone hit in every inning and the last kid up always hit a “home run.”  In Minors rec ball this past summer, I watched coaches try to stack their teams at the draft and, more than once, my son’s team was on the receiving end of some (expletive-deleted) bush league plays from coaches so worried about winning they resorted to tactics which would result in the next batter getting drilled at older ages.  All sports are competitive, the kids who play them want to win as do the coaches as do the parents regardless of playing time rules and the “everyone makes a team” scenario of rec leagues.

So what do travel sports bring to the party that rec sports cannot?

You want your kid to be active

The rec baseball season is 12 games plus playoffs over seven weeks.  It’s short.  It’s compact.  Travel baseball afforded my son the opportunity to play another nine weeks into the dead spot of summer when organized sports are few and far between.  Where we live there is no rec soccer after U7 so it’s either play travel or don’t play soccer.

You want your kid to improve

Every parent who volunteers to coach rec league should be applauded and thanked profusely.  But when the only prerequisite to being Coach is the ability to raise a hand, your kid’s development as an athlete is left to potluck.  Hopefully you get a coach who knows about the sport and can break it down into something a kid can absorb.  Of course, if I hear another “keep your back elbow up . . . .”

Then there’s that short, compact season again.  Players don’t get better in games.  They get better at practice.  My rec team could only find time for three practices last season with our two games per week schedule.  There wasn’t a lot of development going on there.  Of course, we could have added a third or fourth night a week for practice at which point what’s the difference between rec and travel?

There’s also the fact playing with better players speeds development.  It’s hard for a kid to get better as, say, a second baseman, when the other infielders have a 50-50 shot of fielding a grounder let alone knowing to try to get the lead runner.

You want your kid to develop some life skills

Learning how to be part of a team: Being part of a team, learning your role within it and understanding how teams work are social skills which serve a lifetime both professionally and personally.  The problem is rec teams are teams only in that the players wear the same color shirts.  By virtue of the everyone plays equal time, everyone plays every position and everyone bats in every spot in the lineup ethos (important and pivotal as it is), rec sports lack both the catalyst to drive player bonding and the reward systems which help kids learn how teams work.  Having to make the team helps immediately kick start the gelling process which is further accelerated by getting together for practices and games three to four times a week.  Coupled with the extra playing time together, it helps the kids quickly sort out the hierarchy in the team, who the better players are, who plays what positions, who the leaders are and how and when to lead and how and when to follow.  It just doesn’t happen with rec ball.

Learning how to deal with the fact not everyone is treated the same: I once heard former MLBer Art Shamsky say superstars are treated differently so you had better get used to it.  It’s a salient truth of sports and everyday life.  Have I mentioned in rec everyone is on the team because they signed up, everyone gets a shot at every position and everyone plays the same amount?  Travel sports, where the best kid plays short and bats third most the time, offer young athletes their first exposure to the fact not everyone is treated the same.  Even on my travel team, where I did my best to give innings to all the kids, the better players played more innings in the field and played more innings in key positions because they deserved it.

Learning how to work for what you want:  That reward system can help instill the “hard work” ethic.  You work hard at practice, you get opportunities to play.  Unburdened by the need to have everyone get a shot at short, I was able to reward kids who worked their tails off at practice with opportunities to play in certain positions or situations.  In rec, well, everyone got to play shortstop.

Beyond helping your kid be active, improve athletically and develop social skills, travel sports provide them the bonus of belonging to something larger, of accepting someone and being accepted simply because you share a uniform, basically of being “one of us” because you are part of the travel team.  There’s a circus in my town every July 4th.  My daughter loves the circus; my son hates it.  So while my wife and daughter where watching the acrobats and elephants last summer, my son and I went down to the field to throw the baseball around.  When we got there, several boys from the older teams in our program were playing a whiffle ball game.  My son walked over hesitantly because he knew no one and was instantly invited into the game simply because he wore the same hat.  The power of the uniform is enormous.

I understand the downsides of where travel sports are headed and perhaps already have arrived.  There are too many programs.  There are too many programs which prey on parents who are afraid little Sally is going to fall behind by calling themselves “elite”, charging a fortune and then forcing Sally to specialize in that one sport year round in order to justify the high price tag yet.  But if the objectives of youth sports are to be active, to develop athletically and to develop socially, the truth is rec leagues have almost no chance to deliver on those objectives.  Travel programs unequivocally do.  The key is choosing the right program with the right coach and philosophy for you and your child at the age and a price point which are also right for your family.  Maybe I’m lucky.  I’ve found a soccer coach who is understanding of my son missing practice because of baseball in the spring, just as I am lucky to coach in a program where I’m not forced to have the kids play year round to justify a cost.  Then again I wouldn’t be doing travel sports any other way.  I don’t think my situation is unique.  I think the benefits of travel sports are.

This Isn’t Day Care

014 Day CareWhat’s up youth sports parents?  I’m not talking about the bad behavior, the unbearable pressure they place upon their kids or the laughable yet undying belief their young player is going pro because they are good at the age of eight.  I’m talking about the lack of involvement, of helping out when needed, far too often the norm.  Parents are an integral part of youth sports.  I wrote about youth sports being an arrangement between the coach, the player and their parents a while back.  That contract is a two-way deal.

My son’s soccer team wrapped up its season this past weekend.  There was one referee at the first game and each team was asked to have a parent man one sideline.  It is not uncommon, and it is not the first time I was given the flag.  I don’t mind.  Though the other team’s parents outnumbered us threefold, not one of them could be bothered to do the same.  They sent a six-year-old kid instead.  Are you kidding me?

I’ve seen the same as a baseball coach.  After a furious but fast rain storm, our first game last season, our first game ever, was delayed for 30 minutes.  Both teams’ coaches were asked if we would recruit some parents to help get the field ready.  I asked a group of my parents, and I could tell by the look of disdain on one of the parent’s face there was no way he was helping out.  Ten minutes later, I look up to see three or four of my parents sweeping, raking, laying down Quick Dry® and the one parent camped out in his lawn chair three feet away watching them work.

I don’t get it.  With my son’s soccer team, I help set up the goals, lug the 50lb sandbags required to secure the goals, line the field, put up the corner flags, basically whatever is needed.  Heck, in my son’s second game this weekend, I even coached the first half because his real coach forgot one of the player cards required by whatever governing body there is and he felt so terrible he drove home to get it so the kid could play in the second half.  This after having to go pick up three kids and bring them to the game so we could field a team in the first place.  (As an aside, the boys played as good a half as they’ve played all year.  I’m just saying.)  I’m happy to do whatever I’m asked for many reasons.  First and foremost, I am going to make sure my son and his teammates (in that order, I am a parent after all) get to do what they enjoy most, play soccer.  Second, I know only too well how much the coach has on his plate and he can’t do it all by himself.  Third, I know the coach doesn’t like having to ask me to pitch in, but he’s doing it because it’s the only way he will be able to give the kids the attention they deserve and need.

I’m not saying I am better than anyone else because I help out.  I do understand the beauty of sitting on the sidelines and watching your child play.  I understand the allure of coalescing and kvetching with the other parents because, lord knows, they’ve become your constant weekend companions.  But if you see the coach going to the car for the third time to get yet another bag of equipment your kid will need during the game maybe you should ask if you can grab something.  Youth sports isn’t about you or your wants and needs.  The single focus of youth sports is your child, and the objectives should be your child being active, having fun, learning how to function within a team, playing their hardest and getting better at whatever sports they play.  Sometimes as a parent you need to enable the opportunity for your child to play.  Sometimes you have to do a little work that goes beyond paying and playing chauffeur.  Sometimes you need to participate.  This isn’t day care after all.

A Bad Case of DPD

012 DPDI need help.  Desperately.  I am suffering from a bad case of delusional parent disorder (DPD).  I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the world of 9U soccer and my son’s place in it.  I can’t go on this way.

My son’s first love is soccer.  He’s pretty good at it.  He should be.  He has a ball at his feet all the time.  He’s turned the path between the family, living and dining rooms into his own soccer field.  He’s been in a program with the absolute best coach I’ve ever seen for three years.  They didn’t play games for the first two, just focused on development with lots of touches.  I watched my son become a creative, technical soccer player.  It was fantastic.

This year the games started as did my problem.  My son is the most advanced player on his team.  He’s team captain.  He’s scored all the goals for his team.  I know scoring goals doesn’t mean you’re the best, but he’s the focus of the offense, it runs through him.  While he’s got a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net, he’s not the most aggressive kid.  Sometimes he plays a little soft and lets himself get pushed around, not exactly the traits of the next Messi.

My issues started when the coach mentioned he asked another player, not my kid, to play with the 11U team.  I was stunned.  I have a hard time processing it.  I’m still hurt.  I’ve developed an anxiety around it.  I don’t want to go watch practice anymore.  I am even contemplating having him tryout for other programs come the spring though, as I mentioned, he’s got the best coach I’ve ever seen in any sport.  It’s probably worth mentioning my son isn’t bothered by it at all.

It gets worse.  Now he wants to play goalie.  Goalie?!?  Doesn’t he understand there’s only one goalie and lots of other players?  Even if it doesn’t work out as a striker (did I mention he’s scored all the goals?) he can always play midfield or, worst case, defense.  Can’t he see his best path is at any position other than goalie?

Look I get it.  I understand if he’s not aggressive against kids his own age, he’s going to get devoured against older kids.  I understand he’s not going to develop much when he’s going to play less and get fewer touches.  I know he is playing exactly where he should be playing.  There is nothing to be gained from “playing up.”  I also fully recognize if he wants to play goalie then he should.  He’ll enjoy it and he is more likely to put in the necessary work and see soccer through to its logical conclusion for him at whatever level that might be.  I really do know he’s not going to be a pro soccer player.  Really.  I do.  He’s nine-years-old.  Who the heck knows what’s going to happen?   Rationally, I get all that.  But we’re talking about my son, and there’s nothing rational about DPD.

I write all this because as a coach, my case of DPD is a reminder of what even my best parents go through.  It’s a kick-in-the-rear-end reminder of needing to put myself in their shoes and remember they’re scared, they’re anxious, they’re protective, they don’t know what to do and everything they say and do is because they have Bobby’s best interests at heart even if their words and actions suggest the exact opposite.   It’s a reminder although they see exactly the same things I do on the field, those things tell them a different story than the one I know to be true.  It’s a reminder even the ones who “get it” will be irrational at some point.  Much as I hate it, suffering from DPD as a soccer dad will make me a better baseball coach.

PostScript: In between writing and posting, I spoke with his coach who told me pretty much everything I laid out above.  He took the time to tell me all the areas my son is doing great in, how much he loves having him on the team and reminded me there is no rush.  We both agreed the aggressiveness will come or it won’t, but if it does . . .  He handled it perfectly, as I knew he would because he’s also taken the time to establish a good relationship with me as a parent in the program.  I sleep better at night now.  First because the boy is fine and happy (he even got to play a game at goalie), and second because I have a blueprint for the next discussion I have to have with a parent suffering from a case of DPD.