Prospect Communication's Youth Sports Blog - "Taking You Beyond the Game!", features our own articles and commentaries that deal specifically with youth sports. Browse the site to read any articles that may be of interest to your sports organization. The articles are copyrighted to the authors (Michael Langlois & Mary-Louise Langlois) and they may not be reproduced without permission. To inquire about licensing the right to reproduce any of the site's content please contact us at inquiries@prospectcommunications.com

Prospect has a unique and specialized approach to communications skills and issues management geared towards those involved with youth and minor sports. Michael and Mary-Louise's work in this area is ideal for parents and coaches who want to make the most of children's involvement in sports.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Youth sports, bullying and a story that warms the heart

“Bullying” has become an often-used term in recent years, and rightly so.  More and more people have stepped forward to try to, somehow, deal with a phenomenon that has actually, sadly, been around for generations. 

Years ago it wasn’t necessarily called “bullying”, but the impact was the same.  If you were somehow “different”, you were targeted, picked on.  It might be the way you “looked”.  (To the aggressor, any little physical feature would do.)  It could be your religious or ethnic background.  It could be your physical size.  It could be the way that you spoke, or where you came from.

Just about anything was fair game to those whose small minds and cruel hearts made it a twisted game.

The abuse came in many forms.  A child might be pushed around physically.  They may be ignored or talked about behind their back.  The attacks might have been verbal and constant.  They could be subtle or not subtle at all. 

When adults do this it carries no particular name.  It is simply seen as petty and mean-spirited.  When young people do it nowadays, it is called bullying.  And that’s exactly what it is.  And it does have to stop, however impossible a challenge that seems to be.

While more attention is, thankfully, paid to this sickness these days, it has always been a sad, ugly part of the human existence.  What causes youngsters to act out in this way—envy, discomfort, their own insecurities, anger, hatred— is a question no one can fully answer.  Regardless, what we now call bullying  remains one of our deadlier societal “diseases”—and one that we have not been able to cure.

A touching story from Rick Reilly at ESPN (click to see his piece) tells the tale of a young high school girl in Arizona who has been struggling to cope with “bullies” at school.  Her story is all the sadder, on the one hand, because though she is a sophomore in high school, her ability to connect with others is not like that of most kids in Grade 10.  Her level of comprehension is evidently more at a Grade 3 level.

As you will note in the story, at the end of the day, it is some of the school’s popular athletes who deal with her struggles in a passionate, touching manner.

In truth, it has been the experience of many people throughout generations—as far back as anyone can remember—that it has too often been the “cool” kids, the “popular” kids, especially the athletes in a school setting (whether it be elementary school, high school or college and university) who are the ones who pick on, ridicule and bully others—anyone who is “different” from them.

They use their group mentality to intimidate, threaten and ensure “silence” when silence is needed protect their own inexcusable behavior.  Yet ironically, many of these same athletes are often lauded publicly by their coach or school teachers who see them as “leaders”, all the while either willfully ignoring or being unaware of the nasty behavior that lurks behind the phony veneer of the popular athletes they trumpet as school leaders.

This story I am referring to today has a happy ending, however.  It took a mother’s direct intervention (after school authorities were incapable of handling the situation) and a positive response from the high school football team to make it happen, but the outcome has been an uplifting one for all concerned—except the bullies.

That the school’s football players were able to make things better for the young girl without resorting to a bullying mentality or approach themselves is encouraging in itself.  I invite you to check out the ESPN story.

We’re a long way from solving an issue that has been part of the human condition for far too long, but perhaps stories like this will embolden other “popular” young people, including young athletes, to take a stand and make a difference.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

“Bad parents” movie reflects reality

Someone sent me a clip recently of a trailer for the movie Bad Parents”, found on the Active for Life Magazine website.  The movie tell the stories of a group of soccer parents, and well, you can imagine the storylines that ensue.

As funny as the movie appears to be, it may also provide some insight into the filmmaker’s experience as a sports parent - or at least someone who has observed the often impossible-to-defend behavior of parents on the sidelines and in the stands.

The parent attitudes reflected in the story are, not surprisingly, rather poor.

If most of us are honest, we have all (well, most of us) said or done things at a youth sporting event that, upon reflection, we acknowledge we should have handled differently.  The emotion of the moment, especially when one’s own children are involved, often seems to turn otherwise thoughtful individuals into something, well, less than that.

Adults yell at referees (in fact, we just came across a story whereby a youth hockey coach was suspended for ten years for punching a 16 year-old hockey player), they scream at the kids on the field, usually creating much more anxiety than positive emotional support as a result of screaming things like, “get rid of the ball…get it out…GET IT OUT….”.  And those kind of shrieks are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to negative parent behavior—behavior that can drive their own children completely away from youth sports.

Sadly, youngsters may be embarrassed by their parents’ actions or worse, may copy and adopt the troubling adult behavior themselves.

It just leads to a carousel of negativity, hurt feelings and the result can be that youth sports, instead of being an enriching and healthy experience, becomes toxic and draining for all concerned.

A quick look at the movie trailer may be a timely reminder for all of us to set a much better example.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Acknowledgement for Taking You Beyond the Game

We were pleased to receive a note recently that listed us as an award-winning youth sports blog site.

This is the correspondence that we received:

I am pleased to inform you that Taking You Beyond the Game! has been recognised for excellence due to the contribution its top quality editorial offers the kids sports world.
KwikMed are a leading health (care) provider and and are regularly covered in the mainstream national press for their professional, modern approach to healthcare. They are one of just two fully licensed online pharmacies in the USA. This year, our specialist panel of judges have reviewed hundreds of different sites from across the internet before hand-picking the very best for each category. Taking You Beyond the Game! is among the elite selection of awardees that our judges felt made a real contribution to the kids sports category and you can see your site in lights here:

There are many outstanding sites among the award-winners, and it is a pleasure to be included in that company.

We appreciated receiving this acknowledgement, because we are serious about the work we do in trying to help instil certain values in the youth sports community through our seminars, books and the Taking You Beyond the Game site.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

An opportunity for a “second chance” a lesson for youth sports coaches as well

I was reading this week about a wonderful story—a former major-league baseball player who suffered a concussion in his first at bat in the big leagues, and never had another…until now.

Adam Greenberg is the name of the player.

Greenberg was 24 years of age when, in his first major-league plate appearance playing for the Chicago Cubs, he was hit in the head by a pitch.  Severely concussed and hospitalized, he eventually battled through post-concussion syndrome and returned to playing baseball at the minor-league level.  But he never had the opportunity to play in the majors again.  He kept battling to get that chance, but teams just weren’t interested in giving him another shot.

Now, at the age of 31, he will get that opportunity, albeit briefly, thanks to the Miami Marlins.  (Click here to see more on the story.)

While the circumstances around the Greenberg “story” are certainly unique, it does raise an important issue when it comes to youth sports.  All too often coaches in youth sports overlook a young player because they are too “small”, not strong enough or “tough” enough—at least in the minds of those coaches.

They make a quick and often unfair determination that a particular individual can’t play or won’t ever be good enough.  They don’t look at the bigger picture.  They fail to see the potential.  They often aren’t equipped, as coaches, to identify if the young player has genuine determination to succeed, and just needs time, experience—and real coaching—to really shine.

Coaches like that miss youngsters with heart, cast away players who are late-bloomers, or ignore youngsters that bring the kind of genuine “leadership” skills that narrow-minded coaches don’t even know how to look for.  Those coaches also can’t identify a youngster who will be a real team-player, for example, and contribute to their team in a host of important ways.

It’s easy to spot the biggest and fastest players at the youth level.  Anyone can do that.  They are often born early in the calendar year, and are simply more physically advanced than many of those they compete against.  So they have a clear advantage.

Just like Greenberg is getting a second chance—albeit it is just for a day, in his case—a lot of youth coaches should not rely on instant assessments or a one or two-day tryout when looking at young players.

Too many kids with real potential - and character - get overlooked that way.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kids need to learn “how to lose”, yes, but do we really teach them how? And do we know how to teach it?

One of the criticisms about the introduction of Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) in sports such as soccer here in Canada is that it “kills competition”.
The truth is, that is not what LTPD is about.  What LTPD does look to do is to move Clubs, coaches and parents away from an obsession with winning at the very young ages and instead, focus on ways to help each individual player develop their skills.  Youngsters who want to play purely for fun can do exactly that.  Those that aspire to a future in the sport will be able to focus on what’s really most important:  enhancing the skills they need to achieve their goals.

The above is ideally accomplished in an environment that allows kids to try things and make “mistakes” in games—without worrying that a wayward pass may cost their team a “victory” and a chance to be “promoted” to a better league next season.

Too often in sports like soccer, coaches look for (“poach” in many instances) and select for their teams the biggest, fastest, oldest (born early in the calendar year) players to build their team.  A couple of these players at U9, U10 and U11 can often create a “winning” team.  Actually developing the skills of all the players on the teams becomes an afterthought, and gets lost in translation.

What about the small player, or the late-bloomer?  Forget it.  He or she gets lost in the shuffle when winning is what really matters.

But back to the criticism of LTPD:  some opposing LTPD say that kids need to “learn how to lose” and that by taking away scores at the young ages, we are doing a disservice to youngsters who need to face these important life lessons.

Well, while we all have to learn how to handle life’s trials and hardships, it’s difficult to see why little kids at the ages of 8, 9 and 10, for example, need to deal with “losing” a game.  For anyone in sports, there is plenty of time to “learn” to deal with losing and with things not going our way.  There is still a lot of competition within the LTPD philosophy, but the focus is simply different.  If nothing else, if it helps to reduce the number of youth coaches (and parents) who scream at young players to just “get rid of the ball” or “kick it out, kick it out…” and yell from the sidelines about what the adults see as mistakes—and thereby creating undue anxiety in youngsters paralyzed by the fear of making a “mistake”—it would be a huge success.

The really sad point about critics who just can’t accept the de-emphasis on scores and standings at young ages, and who harp on the notion that “kids have to learn how to lose”, is that many of those same people clearly don’t do a very good job of actually teaching their own children how to lose.

We can say the words, “kids need to learn how to lose”, but do we really understand what we should be teaching them?  It’s way more than learning how to lose a game without temper tantrums, though that would be a start.  It’s learning how to win graciously.  It’s sportsmanship.  It’s attitude.  It’s working hard, truly doing your very best, then learning how to keep your “wins and losses” in youth sports in some kind of appropriate life perspective.

Too often we visit local soccer fields and we see parents screaming on the sidelines and coaches out of control.  We witness parents, coaches and even very young players yelling at referees, showing a total lack of respect for decisions that are made.  Some of these same parents and coaches themselves don’t know how to lose—and they are the people teaching the young athletes.

It’s easy to spot “star” players who get all puffed up when they score the winning goal, but blame others and whine when they lose, or who treat their less talented teammates as “less than”.  Is that what kids should be taught?  Who is actually helping them to learn how to be a better “winner”,  “loser”—and teammate?

Being a “winner”—as a coach, parent or player—surely is about much more than how many goals are scored in a game.  That’s part of the equation, but only part.  And so often, that message is not taught.  All the other (important) characteristics that make-up a “winner”—including being a great teammate, setting the right kind of examples, supporting teammates when they are down, respecting the opposition—are often simply ignored because our team scored at the end and we won the game.

There is much more to teaching our kids about life and coping with losing than we can share here today in this space.  But let me reiterate the point:  it’s fine to talk about the importance of kids learning how to lose.  But who is doing the teaching?  Are we simply leaving the kids on their own?  Are we adults—coaches, parents, teachers, sports leaders—setting any kind of example?  What values do we hold that we are passing along?  More importantly, what values do we actually live and model?

Are coaches getting the professional development (yes even grassroots coaches benefit from ongoing personal development) to learn how to better communicate and help kids with learning to lose—and win? Because if the individuals teaching these life lessons about “losing” are the same people who make youngsters want to quit sports by the age of 13 because their parents and coached killed the love the youngster had for their sport, then we have much bigger issues than whether LTPD discourages keeping scores at young ages.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A team-oriented reaction put the exclamation point on Canada’s Olympic breakthrough in soccer

It wasn’t just Canadians who responded to the courageous effort put forward by the Canadian National Women’s Soccer team at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.  Many sports enthusiasts around the world warmed to the squad’s show of skill, determination and pride in fighting back from a less than stellar result at last year’s Women’s World Cup (and a tough loss in the semi-finals to the number-one ranked U.S. side just a few days ago), to capture a well-earned bronze at the prestigious Olympic event.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the entire tournament for Canadian supporters was the reaction of Diana Matheson, after the Canadian player knocked home the winning goal in the bronze-medal game against France in the 92nd minute.  Matheson’s joy was certainly obvious, but her immediate reaction was to point to the front of her jersey crest.  Unlike so many athletes nowadays whose first instinct is to draw attention to themselves (even at times to the extent that they automatically point to their own name on the back of their jersey after they score a goal), Matheson’s response—pointing to the Canadian crest—was instant and obviously genuine, and sent a wonderful message to young athletes around the world.

There is an old expression, that athletes should play for the name on the front of their jersey (team or country) rather than the name on the back—their own.  This notion gets lost all too often in a sports world driven by money and ego.

But for a brief moment, when the Canadian team overcame many odds to achieve something special at a major event, a small gesture seemed to mean the world.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Hope Solo, leadership and being a true team player

It’s usually unfair to try to assess, from a distance, whether an athlete is being a good teammate or a good “leader” on their particular squad.  That may be especially true in what I am posting about today.

Well-known United States soccer goalie Hope Solo recently voiced her displeasure with comments from Brandi Chastain, herself a former U.S. national team player.  As part of her job as a TV analyst, Chastain had commented on the play of one of Solo’s teammates at the Olympics- now ongoing in England.  A minor furor ensued after Solo went after Chastain via Twitter.  For her part, Chastain stressed that she was simply doing her job—to speak honestly about what she was seeing on the field.  Solo did not back down from her comments, even though her coaches reportedly spoke with her about the situation.

In the case of Solo and the notion of being a team player and leader, we are talking about one of the best women soccer players—certainly one of the finest goalies—ever to compete for the United States  Yet Solo seems, at times, to create controversy—at the very least distractions—that may be OK for her, but may well have a potential negative impact on her teammates.

The question then becomes, what is more important?  The right of the individual athlete to express themself openly and freely (and honestly), or for athletes on a team to say and do nothing off the field of play that could in some manner negatively affect their team?

An Associated Press reporter, much closer to this situation than most of us are, posted on the subject with an excellent piece available here on ESPN.  I recommend that you have a have look at the article.

It’s a difficult balance.  Athletes are often criticized for providing robot-like answers and pre-programmed messages when interviewed.  These sanitized discussions shed little light on what an athlete is really feeling.  Yet, when an athlete does step out and say things that aren’t in the athlete “handbook” of things that are safe to say, their comments are scrutinized- sometimes unfairly so.

With regard to Solo's most recent outburst, the debate will likely continue as to whether she placed herself above the team in some fashion, by taking to Twitter—albeit while “defending” a teammate who she felt had been unfairly criticized by a TV commentator.

My view is simply this:  teammates can support one another in a lot of different ways.  A private chat, for example, or a subtle pat on the back on the field of play when things are not going well for a teammate can demonstrate genuine support.  And yes, sometimes a strong, supportive public statement can be part of being a leader and being a really good teammate.

In this instance, my sense is that Solo could indeed have handled things a bit differently and still been true to herself and been a supportive teammate.  But she could have done so without bringing attention upon herself and creating consternation within the team—if that was indeed the outcome of her “tweeting”.

Perhaps if the American team wins the Olympic gold, all will be forgotten.  If not, there will likely be even more scrutiny than there otherwise might have been, with people looking for the reasons why the team did not rise to the occasion- together.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Some media folks are missing the real value behind Long-Term Player Development

Reading a column in the Toronto Sun recently was eye-opening. It demonstrated that there remains a lot of resistance to the Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) initiative in the soccer world in Canada. 

It is understandable that if those commenting on LTPD only do a cursory overview of what this initiative is really about, they might come to the conclusion that “competition is being destroyed” and the sport is just trying to make kids “feel good” as we forget about keeping scores and winning or losing.

Of course, youngsters eventually need to learn about competition and winning and losing.  But is this necessary at the age of 9?  Or is it indeed more important to ensure that kids learn the game,  really develop their skills and are allowed to play in a relatively stress-free environment so they can actually enjoy the soccer experience and, yes, have fun while learning?

The truth is the new LTPD model is not about killing competition—not at all.  In fact, there will be plenty of competition, especially as the players go through the system.  The Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) will be launching (in 2014) a new league for elite players called the Ontario Player Development League.  But rather than a focus on promotion and relegation—which enables too many coaches to forget about developing their players and instead look to “poach” the biggest, oldest, fastest players from other Clubs that they can lure to their teams—coaches now will have to have high-level certification. They will need to understand how to run effective practices (not just “scrimmage” constantly) and how to teach, train and develop all of their players.  Instead of worrying about promotion and relegation, local Clubs can instead work toward ensuring they meet high standards in coaching and player development—and not just building up their “trophy case”.

Importantly, LTPD will work for those youngsters who simply want to have fun and stay in the game because they love it and also for those who aspire to a future in the game. Sometimes the same commentators who complain that Canada is “not good enough” at the international level also criticize LTPD, which, ironically, is in fact whole-heartedly supported by a host of top players and soccer coaches from some of the best soccer-playing countries in the world.  These supporters are not simply “academics” or, as the critics would like to suggest, “do-gooders”.  These are the sharpest minds in the sport, individuals who know the game  and who have simply come to realize that the way we have done things in Canada for too long is, simply, backwards.

Most of the top soccer countries in the world have been doing this for so long they don’t even have a name for it.  It's just the way they develop their players.  Check out the current literature in the United States.  The Americans, who have jumped far ahead of Canada on the soccer field in terms of “winning” when it actually matters, are big believers in LTPD.

Throw in the fact that some of Canada’s current and recent former stars, like Jason DeVos, Dwayne De Rosario, Kara Lang and Diana Matheson have all said publicly they wish this approach had been in place when they were young, and maybe we should listen to those who have been there and are still in the game now—and can see first hand what Canada lacks.

And what we lack is time on the ball.  Touches.   The ability to play calmly under pressure. 

You don’t learn to play under pressure when parents and coaches scream at 10 and 12 year olds for “making mistakes” in a game, when the only barometer for success is not if your players and your team played smart, technical soccer, but whether you managed to win a game.

You learn to handle pressure when you are allowed to to master the ball and can get comfortable with the ball at your feet when pressured on the field.  That can’t happen when parents and coaches are yelling at young players to “get rid of the ball” and “just kick it” down the field with no purpose.

Parents and coaches yell that kind of thing constantly because they don’t want to see their team lose.  Forget whether the youngster is learning anything.  Just get rid of the ball and we may not give up a goal and God forbid, lose this important game—at the age of 11, or whatever.

Kids have to learn to make “mistakes”—and be allowed to make mistakes.  They need to be allowed to be creative and take what they learned and tried out in practice on to the soccer pitch.

If we train our coaches better (and that’s a big element of LTPD), we will make soccer (and hopefully all youth sports who are also following this path) more enjoyable for all the kids out there, while also creating an even better “elite” player who can compete well at the international level.

And just maybe we will finally begin to give even more aspiring youngsters a shot at a future in the sport, whether that is playing at the collegiate level in Canada or the United States, playing professionally in North America or elsewhere, or playing for their country. For too long in Ontario, a “select few” were chosen at an early age for extra training and provincial or national teams, and many “late-bloomers” were ignored and missed.

Is winning and losing important?  Of course—but all in good time.

LTPD will provide lots of competition.  But in the short term, it may also help parents (and many coaches) begin to understand that winning games at the age of 8, 9 and 10 doesn’t really matter a whole lot.

So let's save the winning and losing and the valuable life lessons that "losing" hopefully teaches us (though you’d never know from watching some parents on the sidelines) for when wins and losses will really matter.  For  now, the really important "outcome" is making sure our kids enjoy- and get better.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A 6 year-old inspires a long-time professional football player to keep believing in himself

Every once in a while you come across a story that is too nice to ignore—and is a story that provides a wonderful message for all of us, young and old, as well.

I encourage you to click on the link here to read an unusual but uplifting piece from ESPN about former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.  In brief, a young 6 year-old fan of Jacobs wanted him to re-sign with his old team, the Giants, and apparently went so far as to send Jacobs money in the mail so the running back would be able to stay in New York and sign with the Giants.

As things turned out, Jacobs was not able to re-sign with his former team.  But the neat twist in this story is that Jacobs not only “refunded” the young boy’s financial support (with interest) but actually sought out the young boy so that he could spend some private time with the youngster.

It sounds as though Jacobs also found some personal motivation—and inspiration—as a result of meeting with his young admirer.

With all the negative sports stories that we can’t help but notice, it’s tremendous to see one like this.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

College runner shows us the meaning of sportsmanship

It’s easy to find—and we sometimes write about them here—examples of poor sportsmanship, as demonstrated at times by professional athletes.  But it’s much more heartwarming to focus on times when individuals in sport really capture the essence of sportsmanship, showing that you can be an elite athlete/competitor and still handle situations with grace.

One such individual has captured attention in recent days—a long-distance runner named Meghan Vogel, a student-athlete from a Division III school in the United States.  After seeing a fellow runner fall in front of her, rather than run by and “get ahead” in the race, Meghan stopped, helped her fellow competitor up, and proceeded to assist the fallen runner to the finish line.

The story is well-detailed at ESPN.

This brings to mind a situation from a few years ago, also in women’s collegiate sports in the United States, when a player hit a home run, but fell rounding first base and suffered a serious knee injury.  She couldn’t get up, but a rival player went over, picked up her opponent, and carried her around the rest of the bases to ensure the player would receive credit for her home run.

We don’t see (or at least hear about) these kinds of acts of selflessness often enough, but when we do, we should highlight and celebrate them.  Because every once in a while, in a very competitive world, individuals sometimes stand above the crowd and show that sports—and life— is, in the end, about much more than winning and losing.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Referee abuse in youth sports out of control

Recent media coverage of instances of abuse of officials in youth sports demonstrates that too much emphasis is being placed on “winning”.

Sports are inherently competitive, yes.  It is natural to compete—in life and certainly in sports.  That applies to youngsters and adults alike.

But the over-emphasis on “winning” at the early ages in sports leads all too often to the kind of over-the-top behavior that simply can’t be justified—and should not be tolerated, either from parents or the young athletes themselves.

One such situation occurred recently in Alabama, where, if you can imagine,  a grandfather went after the umpire after a girls softball game. (Click to read more.)  The grandfather was eventually charged and faces up to ten years in prison.

We also cite a recent article in the Winnipeg Sun by columnist Paul Friesen.  Friesen writes about how youth hockey is losing countless young officials because of the abuse they receive at the hands of parents—and players. It’s a  very discouraging story.

Some will suggest these are simply isolated instances of poor conduct that do not reflect a greater problem.  In fact, it is a serious problem.  These two incidents happen to have been reported by the media.  The truth is that inexcusable behavior rears its head commonly in hockey rinks, on baseball diamonds and on soccer pitches and basketball courts on a regular basis wherever youth sports are played.  And the issue quite rightly raises the argument that there is simply too much emphasis placed on “winning” games at young ages in sport.

Young people have to learn to “win” and “lose” at some appropriate point in their life, without question.  But is it really necessary at the ages of 8, 9 and 10, for example?  There is plenty of time to learn to compete properly, to handle “winning and losing” and to shoot for “victory” when winning can and should be part of the competitive equation.

Parents often set a horrible example in this regard for their children.  They yell and scream at game officials any time a call goes “against” their son or daughter’s team.  Where does this lead?  Too often, it leads to youngsters mimicking their parents’ awful behavior.  The young players disrespect adult officials, or try to intimidate young officials who are simply trying to do their “job” to the best of their ability.

We are all tempted (and have likely set a poor example somewhere along the way ourselves) to be upset at a referee's decision, for example.  But we need to check our behaviour and not allow ourselves to act in a way that reflects badly on us- and on the values we should be trying to uphold and example for our children.

All parents love their kids and enjoy cheering for them at a sporting event.  But this can be done positively—without constantly blaming officials if things don’t go our way.  Sadly, emotion often overwhelms the moment and unfortunately, some parents become so over-invested in the sporting activities of their children that their behavior is an ongoing embarrassment.

It’s a sad commentary when young soccer and hockey referees leave the sport because they don’t feel safe and protected, as a result of the unacceptable behavior of adults as well as the behaviour of young athletes who are often simply—and sadly—reflecting what they witness themselves.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Brett Lawrie’s minimal suspension sends the wrong message to kids

Recently, a young major league baseball player, Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays, was called out on strikes in the 9th inning of a close game.

The young (only 22) infielder thought the home plate umpire had made a mistake on an earlier pitch, and was particularly infuriated when what Lawrie thought was “ball four”, was instead called “strike three”.

Lawrie, an energetic player, reacted by going after the umpire and throwing his helmet down on the ground.  He ultimately had to be restrained by his manager.  The helmet flew up and hit the umpire on the leg.

The league responded by giving Lawrie a four-game suspension, which he has appealed.  The expectation is that the suspension will be reduced to only two or three games.

The league had the opportunity to send a very strong message to players and fans—and impressionable youngsters as well—that game officials, even if players think a mistake has been made, must be respected.  Disagreement is natural.  Violent outbursts, however, are not acceptable.

If a young player like Lawrie knows he can act in this manner, with minimal punishment, what is the motivation to modify his behavior in the future?

I read an article this week about a grandfather (yes, a grandfather, a man in his mid-50s) who went after an umpire of a girls little league game in Alabama.  He has been charged with a felony and could go to jail.  Here is a link to the story at Yahoo Sports.

Imagine:  an adult attacks a little-league umpire in the parking lot after a game.

This type of behavior is one of the many reasons that a number of sports are moving away from scores and standings at the early ages of youth sports.  Too many coaches and parents are focused on “winning” rather than ensuring that all the youngsters get to play and enjoy the youth sports experience—and hopefully, learn new skills along the way.

Sadly, sports, as much as it can and should be fun, can also bring out some of the worst emotions and responses from adults.  We set an example for children.

Unfortunately, the recent examples set by Lawrie, Major League Baseball—and that grandfather—are very poor ones.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

An athlete saying what they feel out loud is not always the best thing

It’s easy to be critical of professional athletes when it comes to what they say in media interviews.  Often they are criticized for being “boring” and having nothing to say, in part because they speak in endless clich├ęs.  However, if an athlete does say something out of the ordinary, they are often in turn  condemned if their comments are construed as negative or not “politically correct”.

It is no doubt a delicate balancing act for athletes.

That said, it was disappointing to hear a comment recently from a member of the Toronto FC.  After the Major League Soccer team had just lost its eighth consecutive game to begin the 2012 MLS season, the player in question, Ryan Johnson, appeared to take umbrage with the strategy and tactics of his head coach, Aaron Winter.

Quotes attributed to Johnson were detailed in an Associated Press story after the game.

Said Johnson, "It's embarrassing, I think. It's embarrassing that the fans come to watch us and we're just playing so defensive. You saw the frustration for me because I felt we were on our heels the whole time just waiting for them to play the ball. We were just sitting in our half the whole time," he explained.
"We did that the last game against Montreal and it was the worst. It was the worst feeling, like I didn't even want to play any more. It's awful."

Observers have different views on whether a coach should ever “call out” his own players in public through the media when they under-perform.  In this case, it appeared to be the player calling out his own coach.

We can debate whether a player has the right to express their extreme frustration after a tough loss.  Most would likely agree that it’s only natural to feel frustrated when a team works hard yet continues to lose games.  By all accounts Johnson is a responsible, dependable player for the Toronto side.

What is disappointing, though, is to hear a player say—out loud—the phrase, “like I didn’t even want to play any more…”

If that is true, then by extension fans have every right to believe that the player was not in fact playing his best, was not putting out for the team and was certainly not demonstrating leadership on the field.  A player may well disagree with the tactics he is asked to execute, but his job—once the strategy is accepted and implemented—is to play within the team’s system and do everything they can to make it successful.

Given the big salaries that many professional athletes make nowadays, they often have more say in how a team is “run” than they did decades ago.  But ownership still pays the bills, management still signs the players and builds the team.  For their part, players freely choose to sign with and stay with a particular team.  Ultimately, the coach is hired to develop and execute a plan for his or her team.  If there is an issue, some serious disagreement between players and coaches about the “plan”, then surely that should be addressed internally and privately—and not publicly through the media, when it can be perceived as sour grapes and a player not taking responsibility for his own—or his team’s—failings.

In a sport that is already afflicted by the “blame game”—notably players flailing their arms and blaming one another regularly on the field of play, in full view of spectators and large television audiences—this kind of comment seems to send another poor message to impressionable youth players.  As in, if things go wrong, blame someone else (the coach, the system, your teammates…) rather than look in the mirror and work harder to do a better job yourself.

Frustration under difficult circumstances is understandable and expressing that frustration can be understandable as well.

But publicly laying the blame for a lack of success at someone else’s feet is rarely the best response.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Three simple questions that can make you a much better youth coach…

It’s always good to walk by a sports field or arena and see a youth coach working with youngsters who is passionate about and really committed to what they are doing.

When that passion turns negative, however, it’s a concern.

When we conduct seminars for youth coaches, we try to stress some simple but important notions.  One is this:  as a coach, you make a very big impression on the young people you interact with every day.  The other is:  youngsters will remember your words and actions for a very, very long time.  So you should always ask yourself, as a coach, “How do I want to be remembered in 20 years?”

It’s a pretty important question.  Because if you want to be remembered as someone who made a real and positive difference in the lives of the young people you worked with, if you want to have had an impact on their values, their desire to “succeed”, their ability to overcome challenges and the hurdles that they will inevitably encounter, then the opportunity is there for you.  You can be the kind of coach that teaches them every day—about sports and about life—and makes them feel better about themselves and their potential.

Or, you can stress the importance of winning over all else, play favorites, laud (and also exemplify) the wrong kind of “leadership” and perhaps even destroy confidence through negativity, poor behaviour and/or constant yelling and negative reinforcement.

There are shades and nuances of course.  Most coaches are not all one way or the other, when it comes to the traits I just described.  But in all cases, whatever impact you have and memory you create, you are writing the script every day—right now— for what your athletes will say, feel and think about you 20 years from now.

Sometimes as youth coaches there is so much focus on winning that you inevitably try to find the biggest, fastest and most skilled players to achieve that goal.  As a result, your real role as a youth coach is sometimes lost.

Every youngster learns differently.  Some need to hear the lesson.  Some need to see the lesson.  Most need to repeat the “skill” asked of them over and over to build the confidence that they can do it “right” in a game situation.

But of course, there is much more to coaching than developing the skills of your players, as important as that is.

For example, do you ever ask them why they love the sport they play?  If not, ask the question.

Do you ever ask your young players what really motivates them, personally, to want to come to the field of play in the first place?  If not, again, try asking them.

I can’t tell you how many coaches I’ve worked with over the years that neglect to ask these most elementary of questions.  Yet the answers can reveal so much.

By taking the time to speak one-on-one with the young people you are responsible for as a youth coach, and asking these simple questions, it will be a window into their world.  You may be able to connect even better with them, truly understand their feelings, aspirations and dreams-  and also help them be even better than they were before. 

It may also help to make you a much better coach.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

“Bounty” system delivers a terrible message for young people

Professional sport is big business.  It’s about money—and winning. 

That true sportsmanship is not always (ever?) at the forefront of “game plans” and motivational strategies—when the result is the only thing that matters—is not a shock to anyone.

But recent revelations that some NFL coaches (in particular, former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinate Gregg Williams) have routinely employed what is referred to as a “bounty” system are profoundly disturbing.

Pro football, by its very nature, is already a physical, often violent sport.  It remains wildly popular, though the violent aspect of the sport is finally beginning to receive attention, especially as we discover that more and more former players, sadly, are living out their lives with dementia and various ailments that are clearly related to hitting—and being hit—throughout their football careers.

So it is ironic that, at a time when the world is finally beginning to take issues such as head trauma and concussions (and the long-lasting repercussions of such injuries) seriously, that there are still coaches who apparently “teach” professional players to try and injure opponents so those players are “knocked out of the game”.  And, the players are rewarded if they manage to knock an opposing player out.

Williams was once the Head coach of the Buffalo Bills.  We encourage you to read the article (linked to WIVB) which details some of the concerning elements of the impact this kind of behavior at the professional level can have on our youth.

We know young people are often influenced by how adults and especially sports “heroes” act.  Here’s hoping this is one example that will be punished severely by the powers-that-be at the NFL level, sending a message to all youth coaches and players alike that this kind of behavior—and thinking—is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.