Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Not-So-Good Life Lessons from Sports

Young people learn a great deal by imitation of what adults say and do. Some may reject what they observe, saying to themselves, “I’m not going to be like that,” but repeated comments and behaviors often become difficult to dismiss.

In a previous post I presented a few less than savory life lessons for young athletes, concluding that one of the best lessons learned by a former student was to think way beyond college, and even professional sports, to project a fulfilling career to pursue for the rest of one’s life.

Sports for nearly all young athletes, after all, are a recreational pastime that sooner or later end.

Here are additional life lessons observed or heard about in our family’s five years of recreational and travel softball. Fortunately, we have not observed physical abuse or violence, such as the Junta manslaughter or the Picard assault, and we have enjoyed numerous positive experiences of coaching, sportsmanship, and camaraderie, but the influences below that many coaches and parents exhibited in front of their children are not good.
Such as:

1. Coaches and parents scream from the dugout or sideline at the umpire about a pitch, at a vantage point from which they could not possibly see the true path of the ball.

Comment: Yes, most officials are paid to take the heat and some have a skin that is too thin, but come on, parents, isn’t it time for a reality check?
2. A coach screams from the dugout, “Can’t anyone out there make a play? What’s the matter with you!”

3. A first base coach fails to get an interference call on a play at first base. He then yells to his player, “Hit her harder next time!”

4. A coach’s negative, humiliating comments brings a talented, hard-working catcher to tears after three hot, dusty games. Her sin? A single mental mistake, on the last play of the third game. Another girl who made an error is told to drop and do ten pushups in front of everyone.

5. After a line drive third out to right field, the batter rounds first base and knocks down the second base player who was heading for the dugout. The second base player had to leave for the ER with a bloody, possibly broken nose. The umpires talked at length with the offending coach. We could hear the coach vehemently protesting, “There was no way that was on purpose.” Okay, coach, but what we did not hear either from you or your player was an apology. The game was a late bracket game in an end-of-the-year tournament. The teams represented major organizations.

6. We have heard of, though not experienced first hand, coaches swearing at their players.

Comment on the above gems of role modeling: As former Los Angeles Laker coach Phil Jackson said, “Anger is the enemy of instruction,” and as many a good teacher has recognized, “Punishment stops learning.” Both comments are backed up thoroughly by twenty-first century psychological research. As for the cursing, child-protective agencies would probably call it emotional abuse.
7. A physical therapist reports that nearly all young people come to him with overuse injuries. One high school softball pitcher had a shoulder and elbow so sore that he could hardly touch her. The therapist asked the girl’s father how much, especially pitching, she was doing every week. The father replied that she was spending a few hours a day on her game. How many pitches? “Only four or five per week.”  “Hundred?” the therapist asked. No, the father meant four or five thousand!

8. A recreational softball league asks parents of all stars: “Are you willing to change your vacation, or simply give it up this year?” Travel ball coaches don’t ask. They seem to assume you should be willing to give up vacation for the sake of their sport. One 12U team lists its schedule on the web as year round, with two weeks off in December and two off in August.

Comment: Gee thanks, coach. You’re so generous with our free time! The National Athletic Trainers Association, ever cognizant of overuse injuries, urges kids through age 12 to take “2 to 3 nonconsecutive months away from a sport if they participate in that sport year round” (p. 208). Comparable research-based recommendations, adjusted for age and stage of development, are made for older players.
9. At an out-of-town tournament, coaches and parents drink beer until 3AM—many nights, actually, but especially the night before an early game.

No comment.
10. Then there is the cost of elite club and travel sports. Minimum $1500 a year for softball, $2500 for soccer, $3500 and up for volleyball (and cheerleading—$3500 for cheerleading?!).
Comment: Quite a lesson for low and middle income families. Maybe—maybe—one child can be supported in a sport, but not two. We’ve met the families and heard the stories.
Sports are about having fun and learning life lessons. Adults need to be careful what they say and do lest the wrong lessons be picked up by their children. We’ve observed too many of the wrong kind in our short tenure with youth sports.

A question for coaches and parents. What would you be doing in youth sports if there were no college athletic scholarships? Would your behavior differ?

Ken Reed at and Walter Byers, former NCAA Executive Director, have both called for the elimination of college athletic scholarships.

An interesting thought experiment!

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