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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

The Key to Enjoying Youth Sports: Take It Easy, Dad

August 03, 2003|Bill Shane | Bill Shane is an officer with the National Conference for Community and Justice, author of "Hey Batter Batter" (Kids Sports Press, 2003) and president of the South Irvine Little League.

By now we have moved beyond shock and perhaps have become accustomed, or even numbed, to stories about obsessive, over-the-top sports parents.

Incidents such as the hockey dad in Massachusetts actually killing another dad are both bizarre and macabre, and sports league officials can now purchase assault insurance. But what is really going on in the world of youth sports in 2003?

Few of us are naive enough to think that youth sports are a Norman Rockwell-esque gathering of the local kids, playing for Oreos as youngsters and later for the glory of high school and community.

We're in a world where high school basketball star LeBron James signed a $90-million shoe deal before scoring his first basket in the NBA. Alex Rodriguez is earning $252 million over 10 years playing shortstop for the perennially last-place Texas Rangers. We can't expect youth sports not to mirror those values in some way.

We all know the astronomical odds against any of our kids becoming a professional athlete, much less a superstar. And we know, but sometimes won't admit, that the odds are against our kids receiving one of the precious few college scholarships. It brings to mind the classic story of the parent talking to a coach: "Do you believe the parents you have on this team? They actually think their kids are going to get a college scholarship! Of course, my kid will, but those others are in total denial!"

Let's examine two specific examples of today's realities, and attach a few suggestions as to what might make the system a bit healthier.

Some youth baseball leagues start players at age 3 1/2. Perhaps we can start by letting our kids stay kids for at least a little while? We're so busy putting our children into structured, adult-supervised activities that they lose the opportunity to just play. How many adults remember the joy of playing baseball games like Workups, 500, Over-the-Line and Three Flies Up? How about choosing captains by placing alternating hands on the bat? Unfortunately, those rituals have all but disappeared from today's parks and playgrounds.

Youth soccer, especially AYSO, embraces a wonderful spirit of "everyone plays." Kids can start playing at age 5, and many of us are familiar with the "swarm" of players chasing after the ball, orange slices at halftime and snacks after the game. How cute!

But the top players (meaning their parents) often want more competition. About the time the kids become teenagers, they move into club, travel or all-star teams to play with and against other more skilled players. The cost is much higher, but the kids receive professional coaching and training. How wonderful!

The age at which the switch is made to the more demanding world of club soccer, though, has been dropping. "Under 8" teams are now often the starting point, with teams traveling extensively and competing in high-level tournaments where winning, championships and tournaments are the real objective.

Are 7- and 8-year-old boys and girls really best served by such an environment?

Here are some basic rules for parents. They should make the experience more enjoyable, enriching and rewarding for you and your children.

1) When you watch your kids play, don't ever, ever criticize the referee or umpire. So what if he or she calls a strike on a pitch that's clearly in a different time zone? And how many soccer parents angrily screaming "Offside!" actually understand the rule?

2) Let the coaches coach. Sit in the stands or on the sidelines and laugh, enjoy the game and cheer on the kids.

3) Rick Reilly has the best advice for postgame parent discussion: "Tell your kid he/she played great and ask what flavor ice cream to get. That should pretty much cover it all."

4) When it comes time to consider club and travel teams, be sure you are doing this for your child, not for your own ego.

5) Remember that the life lessons your child (and you) are learning about teamwork, sportsmanship, responsibility and effort are far, far more important than the scoreboard.

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