Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports

Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports

by Bob Bigelow, Linda Hall, Tom Moroney

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"Bob's message is a must for all parents and coaches. He challenges adults to understand their effect on youngsters, and that kids' needs have to be met first."

Bob Trupin, Westport, CT

This is not just another book touting improved sportsmanship and better coaching to remedy the violence in youth sports today. Just Let the Kids


"Bob's message is a must for all parents and coaches. He challenges adults to understand their effect on youngsters, and that kids' needs have to be met first."

Bob Trupin, Westport, CT

This is not just another book touting improved sportsmanship and better coaching to remedy the violence in youth sports today. Just Let the Kids Play is the first book to identify the youth sports systems as the cause of the problem, and offers practical ways to rebuild them so they better serve the physical and emotional needs of children.

First-round NBA draft pick, part-time NBA scout and youth coach Bob Bigelow joins journalists Tom Moroney and Linda Hall to put youth sports under harsh review. They explain the controversial belief that elite traveling teams at young ages should be abolished and replaced with equal playing time, team parity and shortened seasons, among others. Focusing on soccer, basketball, baseball and hockey, they highlight ten programs nationwide where these principles are working, and offer ways to integrate them into existing programs without sacrificing a child's chances for success.

Soccer moms and hockey dads will discover that it really is possible to sleep in on Saturdays without sacrificing their child's future!

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The authors, who all have children of their own who have played youth sports, contend that children should compete in these programs to have fun and learn the basics of sports activities. However, as former NBA player Bigelow, journalist Tom Moroney, and writer and editor Linda Hall show, children often have difficulties enjoying themselves because organized sports programs emphasize winning at all costs. Many parents also apply a great deal of pressure on their own children to perform at a thletic levels beyond their abilities. The authors argue that both the parents and organizations that sponsor sports programs need to change their philosophy to allow children to enjoy themselves while participating in games. This unique book suggests ways to organize athletic programs to emphasize play rather than competition, stressing that younger children should become involved to have a good time. Only when they become older should they participate in more competitive programs. With practical tips on restructuring the sports programs themselves, this book will be invaluable for parents in preparing their children for organized sports. Recommended for all public libraries. Patrick Mahoney, Off Campus Lib. Services, Central Michigan Univ., Mount Pleasant Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Youth Sports: There Must Be a Better Way

At the start of a grueling season that doesn't seem to have an end, in the middle of a tirade between coach and players, at the end of a stressful car ride to a faraway gym, many parents wonder: "Am I doing the right thing?"

Picture the typical youth sports game-a blur of motion and sound. Some parents are busy cheering or chatting among themselves. Others are prowling the sidelines. The prowlers mean business. These parents become field generals, barking orders and commanding their children to excel.

In this world of high volume and hyperventilating, one parent stands out. You can hear him from the parking lot. "Mark your man," he screams to his little boy. Red-faced and nearly breathless, this father runs up and down the sidelines, keeping pace with every play. "See the ball," he growls. And this, his favorite one-liner from the "General Patton Does Soccer" playbook: "Stay within yourself!" The louder he screams, the more he seems to expect from his son.

He is the reason his wife doesn't enjoy going to the games anymore. Today, as she listens to him bellow, she finally asks: "Do you think he even understands what you're telling him out there?"

"Of course he does. I've been telling him this all year. Stay within yourself!'' the father shouts again. Just then, an opposing player steals the ball from his son, dribbles around him and heads straight toward the goal. Score!

That pushes the father to the edge. As the boy walks off the field, the father makes a beeline for his son. "Why didn't you do what I told you to?" he yells. "Aren't you listening to me?"

"I'm listening, Dad, but I don't know what you're talking about."

Such is often the case in youth sports. There is a disconnect between what adults say versus what children want and need to hear. What adults want and need from youth sports is often not what children want and need. It's as though the adults and the children live in different worlds and speak different languages.

More dramatic and disturbing examples of how far adults stray from their proper roles in youth sports occur every day-from assaults on coaches and officials to brawls among parents, even a fatal fight between two fathers.

The damage is obvious, but the solutions harder to find. And that is where this book begins. The solutions to these problems, and the solution for the hyperventilating soccer dad, is not for the child to figure out how to fit into the adult's world, how to meet adult expectations. The solution is for the adults to look at youth sports through the eyes of the children, and to serve the wants and the needs of those children at play. This will require not only a change in adult attitudes, but changes in the sports systems themselves.

I don't offer you this guidance lightly or without the credentials to back it up. I was a first-round draft pick and played in the National Basketball Association for four years, toe-to-toe and elbow-to-elbow with the stars of the game. I played basketball at an Ivy League college, in high school and in the driveways of my hometown, where children of my generation got the best education in sports there is: from each other.

Today I'm a lecturer, an occasional professional scout, a youth sports coach and an administrator. I'm the father of two sons who have played youth sports since first grade. These days I travel the country talking to parents, coaches and other youth sports administrators about what is wrong and how to give youth sports back to our children.

You won't find advanced degrees in physical education, sports science or child psychology on my resume. I do not labor over complex theories or reams of statistics. Instead, I take what I have learned from the best men and women of physical education, sports science and child psychology. I apply their work to what is happening in the gyms and on the playing fields all over America, and I hit the road. I travel to cafeterias and lecture halls, wherever schools and sports organizations can find a room. I look parents and coaches straight in the eye and tell them much of what they are doing is wrong.

During these talks, I ask the audience tough questions, questions that I also ask you now. Can you read the headlines about assaults and brawls at youth sports events and still believe we have created healthy systems for all children? Can you look at the startling numbers of children who get fed up or burned out and who quit youth sports at an early age, and still believe we're doing right by them? Can you look at your own children, your friends' children, or the children on your team and feel assured that they are not paying a price-a price that allows the adults in charge of youth sports to get what they want?

Not only can the youth sports systems controlling our children's lives ruin their fun, but also they often deny individual children fair opportunities to reach their full potential. With the cruelest irony, these systems rob us of athletes who, had they been given a fair chance as children, might have been terrific players as high school seniors or as adults. As a consequence of these misguided youth sports systems, we sacrifice the present and the future.

There is no way to accurately measure that toll. A lot of potentially great players have simply moved off the sports radar screen before high school. We could argue about whether or not today's sports professionals are better than those who grew up without endless seasons of organized youth sports. As I watch games in person and on television, as a scout for colleges and for the pros, I have no doubt that players today are no better than players of previous generations. In fact, some things, such as teamwork, have suffered.

Give Back the Games

This book describes a grassroots revolution, with bottom-to-top changes in the ways we organize and operate our systems of youth sports. These actions rely on common sense and your love for your children. These are changes to be made in your community, on the team that you coach or perhaps simply within your own family.

Organized youth sports involve an estimated 30 to 35 million children each year and, along with them, their parents. Youth sports are second only to school in the amount of interest, investment and involvement of parents on behalf of their children. For some people, strictly measured by those three gauges, youth sports actually come in first.

Youth sports can be a wonderful experience. Consider the joy a child feels learning a sports skill or scoring a winning point. Consider the excitement and the pride of that child's parents watching from the sidelines or from the stands.

Coaches can have great fun amusing themselves by wondering if one of the youngsters on their team will be a star someday. Youth sports, organized and operated with children's best interests at heart, can offer some of the most delightful and memorable experiences of childhood-not to mention all the health benefits that exercise provides.

But in many ways and on too many days, organized youth sports need to be saved from themselves. They have a disturbing side, where troubling motives and unhealthy choices made by adults hurt the children who play.

One Chance at Childhood

Most of the changes offered here are fairly easy to make. In fact, some of them require less adult time and energy than do the organized systems already in place. Yet these changes carry might. Taken together, they can re-create the world of youth sports.

These changes speak to your vision of the childhood you want your child to experience and to remember. These changes speak to the kind of adult life you want to lead and the kind of parent you want to be.

If you listen to these stories and hear this advice, it will help you stop yourself and others from stealing away your child's right to have fun and to find success playing youth sports-and, believe me, for so many children that fun and that success are stolen away.

Let's be clear up front about something else. When you try to make changes, you will meet with resistance-plenty of it. Some adults are so mired in the process, so caught up in "The Way Things Are" that they cannot see clearly to "The Way Things Should Be."

Disagreements and misunderstandings ignite the politics of youth sports. Pulling apart and questioning adults' motives generally exposes a minefield of emotions. Here's how the coach of a highly competitive third-grade boys' basketball team described his efforts to Dayton Daily News (Ohio) sportswriter Susan Vinella for a July 7, 1997, story: "We don't want to lose a ballgame because we played kids equally. It's sort of like a business: I'm trying to put the best product on the floor."

Product? These were eight-year-old and nine-year-old boys.

The sportswriter reported that the coach, with his team winning by twenty-one points and four minutes left on the clock, kneeled near a few players and explained why he wasn't sending them in. "There's too much time left. I don't want the other team to go crazy [and catch up]."

When the sportswriter asked the director of this league whether parents objected to the extremely competitive nature of the league, he responded: "We tell them our philosophy right up front. If parents don't like it, it's America and there are other places to play."

After the story appeared, a local radio station named the third-grade coach its "Idiot of the Week," and newspaper readers weighed in with criticism. The coach and the league director fired back with letters to the editor. Their words were taken out of context, they said, and the story didn't mention all the good they do. Both coach and director were outraged that anyone would conclude they didn't have the best interests of the children at heart.

The purpose of their basketball league, they said in their letters to the newspaper, is to "field premier, select" teams, starting in grade three. Their league, they said, is a "feeder system" to prepare children to compete in middle and high schools. They offer a "competitive level" of play, stressing "player responsibility" and improvement of skills, "expecting to win as a result."

The coach and director said those third-graders on the bench were pulled out because they had made "a few mistakes" and were "struggling" with the defensive "press" the other team had set up. They said the boys went back in after the coach's talk.

One of the team's young players even wrote to the newspaper, defending his coach. He doesn't argue like some coaches do, the boy said. "At one of my games, another coach got double technical fouls and called the ref an idiot."

Taken together, these letters articulate major problems in youth sports systems. The way I see it, these adults-most likely dedicated coaches-nevertheless have got it all wrong. They believe they have the best interests of the children at heart, but believing you do and actually serving children's best interests are entirely different. This is a fundamental split in youth sports today.

This select Ohio basketball team, in my opinion, encourages misguided choices by the adults on behalf of young children. Third grade should be the start of organized basketball games, certainly not a time to field "select" teams for competitive play. "Playing sports is about being prepared and accountable," the director's letter says. When you're eight years old, playing sports should be almost entirely about having fun.

Select systems at young ages feed some of the most destructive forces at work in youth sports today and give rise to some of the most ludicrous adult behavior. We need look no further than the young boy's letter about the other coach, with his double technicals and insults for the sports official.

For those who believe these systems are best for children, people who are committed to coaching and are up front about their goals, arguments like mine often fall on deaf ears. These people are not easily convinced that their misdirected approaches are not in the best interests of the children now or in their futures.

Sports Battlefields

This probably isn't the first time you've heard that things have gone terribly wrong in youth sports. You've seen the stories on television and in newspapers and magazines. Police have been called to respond to fights at games for children as young as four and five. Coaches and parents across the country have been arrested, even served jail time, for assaulting each other, game officials or even players. Coaches, officials, parents and players have been injured in these fights, some seriously enough to require hospital care. In Massachusetts in July 2000, a hockey father died after a fight with another hockey father, allegedly after a confrontation between the two about what one father saw as rough play during a pickup scrimmage involving their children.

The problems are worse than you may realize. I have a friend whose computer search service alerts him to almost every item that appears in any newspaper or magazine around the country about parents' misbehavior and violence at their children's games. My friend receives, on average, more than a story a day, all reports of adults gone over the top.

Across the country people are taking steps to stop this kind of behavior. You may have heard about "Silent Saturday" in Maryland and "Silent Sunday" in Ohio. These communities imposed gag orders on parents, demanding that they keep silent during designated basketball and soccer games.

In February 2000, Florida's Jupiter/Tequesta Athletic Association became the first league in the country to require parents to attend a course on behavior and to sign a parents' pledge before they may enroll their children in youth sports. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), leagues nationwide have followed with mandatory pledges and courses of their own.

These are good steps, but we need more. We need to reform the youth sports systems in place-including the way leagues are organized, teams selected and players managed. Unless we rebuild systems from bottom to top, we're putting salve on wounds that will not heal.

I've seen sports from all sides now. I was an NBA first-round draft pick out of the University of Pennsylvania. In my senior year of high school, several magazines named me among the top fifty basketball players in the country.

I have run sports clinics for all ages, from kindergarten to professional adults. I have spent more time in gyms, rinks and fields, and watched more children play more games of baseball, hockey, soccer, football and basketball than most adults. I have conducted more talks on this topic in more schools in more communities than anyone I know.

I've met the enemy and, yes, it is us. We have the power to change the way things are done, and the tools are within our reach. My vision of better systems in the future is not a field of dreams. These changes are as close as your next league administrators' meeting, your next season's team signups or your next game.

By following through on these changes, you will cut to the core of the misguided structures adults have developed for children. The changes set down in the following chapters will help to quiet the madness on the sidelines and give our children back the joy of play.

And here's the best part: These new systems will not get in the way of any child's dreams, even the dreams of the most fired-up young competitor. After you make these suggested changes, your kids will be able to take sports as far as they would like, whether that is high school varsity, college or the pros.

These new systems, once in place, will make those children better players if they reach those top levels.

Changes Create Controversy

I'm all for children playing hard, competing in games, and winning and losing, but I believe in programs and teams that serve primarily the children's wants and the children's needs, not those of the adults in charge. However, people like me who espouse such shifts in priorities are often lambasted as being soft or wimpy by the "tough guys."

In 1997 the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association implemented what is known as "non-results-oriented" tournaments for children under age ten. Scores would be kept, but not standings. In other words, teams would not be eliminated. Most importantly, the results would not be calculated in order to determine an overall tournament winner who then would be awarded the trophy at the end of the weekend.

The idea was aimed at taking some of the pressure off the children (and their coaches). With less pressure to win, the idea was that coaches would allow more children-whatever their abilities-to participate more fully in these tournaments, which are often season-ending events.

I love this idea (in fact, you'll find more about this in chapter 8), but pundits in the media crucified the people who spearheaded this change. John Leo, a usually sensible columnist for U.S. News & World Report, decided the move was a bunch of politically correct baloney dreamed up by those who unrealistically seek to protect all children from the heartache of losing. In a June 22, 1998 column in the magazine, Leo got downright sarcastic by suggesting that, instead of not recording the results, soccer officials could make sure all children are happy by simply giving each one credit for a goal "when he or she touches the ball for the first time."

What an unfortunate distortion. The facts are that children play hard at these tournaments and they know who wins or loses. What's taken away is the glorious trophy ceremony at the end that tells children the trophy is the most important reason for being there.

When adults make winning their priority, their choices often hurt at least some players. When they place winning above nearly everything else, their behaviors can escalate to the kinds of out-of-control antics and violence we see in the headlines.

However, if you heed only the bloodletting and the violence, you will miss the point. There are equally insidious but less obvious ways in which adult egos violate youth sports and suffocate children's spirits every day on fields, in gyms and in ice rinks across the country. The harm is usually perpetrated by seemingly well-intentioned but nevertheless self-centered adults who cannot subjugate their desire to win in order to help all children develop as players. These adults lose sight of the value of staying committed to such bedrock principles as allowing all children equal access, meaningful playing minutes and ownership of what are supposed to be their games.

¬2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Just Let The Kids Play by Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: HCI, The Life Issues Publisher, 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.

Meet the Author

Bob Bigelow is a first-round draft pick and former NBA player with the Kansas City Kings, San Diego Clippers and the Boston Celtics. Named one of the 50 best basketball players in the country in high school, he played college ball for Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly and has given more than 400 talks nationwide.

Award-winning journalist Tom Moroney is a TV commentator for WGBH-TV (Boston); co-host of a radio show on WRKO (Boston); and a columnist for the Metrowest Daily News (Framingham, MA).

Linda Hall is a former editor at the Providence (R.I.) Journal and a writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe.

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