How Bad Is the Situation with Parents Fighting?

By now you’ve probably seen it – the latest video gone viral of parents fighting at a youth sports game. This latest brawl occurred in Georgia. I won’t offer a link to the video, which I confess to having done for several other videos on the subject this summer. My goal then had been to keep you in the loop, to let you know what youth sports parents and coaches are talking about.

But my feelings on the subject are changing due to the attention these fights are getting. The video of the Georgia brawl drew more than 50 thousand views in just a couple of days. Today I received through Google Alerts a link to a CNN page that includes several of the most recent videos of youth baseball battles. All of them feature newscasters using that achingly phony, morally outraged voice, even as they entice viewers to click the “play” arrow.

They poke the audience’s ribs like sideshow barkers, promising “chilling” and “disturbing” footage of bad behavior, appealing to our primal voyeuristic pleasure in watching such behavior. After indulging ourselves, we can trek up to the moral high ground and decry these parents – until the next video of a ball-field clash comes to our attention.

Well, humans will be humans so I’m not launching a campaign to raise our collective consciousness above secretly enjoying the visceral engagement of watching enraged people flail away on each other.

But I’m wondering if the attention these videos get is skewing our perception of how parents are acting at youth sports events. Is violence among parents truly on the rise, or are we simply hearing more about it from the media, which can’t resist the viewership bump they obviously receive by showing these stories? Before killing the messenger, I’m going to do some research and talk to some folks to try to get a firmer handle on the reality.

These fights, of course, are terrible for kids to see, and via You Tube they can watch as many as they want. The fights shouldn’t happen. Ever. The parents involved are bringing their personal issues into an arena where they don’t belong. The fights also raise important questions.

Is there a heightened level of rage in our society today that is manifesting itself at youth sports events? Or are people feeling less obliged than in the past to follow the basic rules of civilized behavior? And just as an aside – why are the parents who fight usually morbidly obese dads? I’m waiting for the brawl that ends when at least one of them drops dead from a heart attack. (No doubt that one would set a record for views.) The portly papas typically look like walruses battling for territory in nature documentaries.

A more important question: Is this behavior a social phenomenon worth investigating, or are we merely seeing more of it than ever before because the internet delivers it with such ubiquity? We’re playing more sports games than ever, and surely these video fights represent a miniscule percentage. Without the videos, most of us could attend a thousand games without ever seeing a single punch thrown. I’m not suggesting that we ban the videos – not at all. I’m just trying to get a clearer sense of the issue, if there is one.

What do you think? I honestly don’t know the answer. I do know that I won’t be linking to any more of these videos and will avoid watching them. If there is a genuine rise in violence at kids games, then we need to take action to stop it. If we’re merely being treated to bad behavior because many of us can’t resist watching it and the nearly countless media outlets today can’t resist pandering to our lack of resistance, then that’s a different issue entirely that also could use some examination.

Protecting Your Pitcher

Youth baseball coaches are responsible for keeping their players safe. It’s our most important job. Of course, we can’t prevent the injuries that occur in any physical competition, but we can teach our kids ways to protect themselves, and we can learn how to keep them, as much as possible, out of harm’s way.

One of our biggest concerns in baseball is overuse injuries, particularly to pitchers. We need to be aware of pitch counts and need to teach our pitchers proper mechanics. Given that some kids play on multiple teams, the pitch counts can be tricky. We need to rely on the pitcher or his/her parents to keep us informed of counts amassed on the other teams.

That challenge aside, we can do quite a bit to help keep our pitchers safe. This article from theultimatepitcher.com offers great tips for doing exactly that. Here’s a quick introduction of the tips you’ll find:

1. Warm up correctly.

2. Develop strength.

3. Limit pitches.

4. Avoid curveballs.

5. Stretch after throwing.

6. Develop proper mechanics.

Check out the article for the insightful explanations of each tip. Orthopedic surgeons are complaining about having to operate on younger and younger kids who hurt their arms while pitching. As coaches, it’s our job to make sure our players don’t suffer that fate.

Parents Behaving Badly

As you might know, I have been a strong supporter of youth sports parents, an admittedly strident defender against the facile attacks by people who know the stereotype, not the real people who give so much time and effort and money to the teams and organizations.

But this week a couple of stories came to my attention that involve moms and dads who might really deserve the derision they receive.

In Indiana, a couple is suing Henryville Youth Sports Inc in hopes of denying a Henryville all-star team from playing – because their son was not selected for the roster. Now, I don’t know if the boy deserved inclusion or not, if the coaches picked their own kids and those of their friends, or if the boy really wasn’t as good as the players who made the team. But bringing national attention to the conflict doesn’t seem wise. It perpetuates the Crazy Sports Parent stereotype and, in the end, their son will wish he never tried out for the team.

A mom in New Jersey has filed an even more outlandish suit – against a 13-year-old boy who, a couple of years ago, was warming up a pitcher in a bullpen area during a game. Apparently not possessing an accurate arm, the boy sailed the ball over the pitcher’s head, over a fence and into a nearby picnic area, where the mom’s daughter was sitting. The ball hit the girl in the face, and mom wants $150K in damages.

I hope that boy gets a BIG weekly allowance.

These parents are doing what parents instinctively do: protecting their children. But certain boundaries need to be maintained. Again, in these cases I know only what has been reported in the media. Maybe that New Jersey boy really was trying to hit the girl. Maybe the Indiana boy deserved to be on the team.

But that’s not the point. Parents need to pick their battles more wisely and must summon the strength to let their kids learn the realities of life. Circumstances won’t always be fair to either of the kids involved or to your kids or mine.

Rather than always rushing to their “rescue” with our parental guns a’ blazin’, we need to step back, take a deep breath and consider what’s best in the long run for our kids. Letting them learn to accept situations and move on is far better than teaching them that a lawyer is just a phone call away, ready to settle our every grievance, eager to defend us in every circumstance in which we feel even vaguely mistreated. Sometimes helping our kids grow up requires that we do it too.

4 Great Youth Sports Fields in America

From talking to coaches and parents on travel teams I hear a lot about which fields they like and which ones disappoint. So I thought I’d mention some of the best in the country, but I’m depending on you to let me know your favorites. Here are few to get started, ones that have gotten great reviews from folks around the country.

The El Pomar Youth Sports Complex in Colorado Springs, CO, is an eye-popper. It includes 18 fields spread across 58 acres – 9 baseball/softball fields, 8 soccer/lacrosse fields, a championship-size artificial turf field and even an in-line hockey rink. The top-shelf facilities are surrounded by beautiful mountains, and there is a lot to do in Colorado Springs when the games aren’t being played. A major trailhead to the Pike’s Peak Greenway Trail, for example, is located right next to the complex. If you’re looking for a beautiful place to play your next tournament, keep El Pomar Youth Sports Complex in mind.

If you’re in the Northwest – or are interested in traveling there – check out the field complex at US Cellular Community Park in Medford, OR. The 132-acre park offers 11 lighted fields for baseball, softball, soccer, football, lacrosse and other youth sports. The picnic and play areas can keep the family busy before and after the games, as will the Nature Center. For other family activities in Medford, including Crater Lake National Park, check out this link. US Cellular Community Park provides the breath-taking natural beauty as well as the conveniences and amenities to showcase youth sports.

The Midwest offers a number of great places to play ball, but for this post let’s look at one of the best – Mid-America Sports Complex in Johnson County, KS, which is located in suburban Kansas City. Ten lighted softball/baseball fields and two multipurpose fields are spread across 70 acres of park land, along with 10 batting cages, concessions, a restaurant, a clubhouse and a pro shop. A popular tournament spot, Mid-America Sports Complex hosts thousands of players every year. Though the complex features a bucolic setting ideal for youth sports, nearby Kansas City offers the many activities you’d expect from a metropolitan area.

For those east of the Mississippi, check out the Ripken Experience Complex in Myrtle Beach, SC. Run by former MLB brothers Cal and Billy Ripken, the Myrtle Beach complex is a young baseball player’s dream world. From the impressive Welcome Center to the fountains and ponds throughout the complex, to the synthetic turf on all the fields, which are designed to look like historic ballparks, the place is nothing but first class. Details about how to turn the trip into a family vacation shouldn’t be necessary, given the renown of Myrtle Beach, but here are some to get you started. This is baseball tournament heaven.

Watch for more Coach Hub recommendations for youth sports tournament sites. And please let us know your favorites so we can spread the word.

Defining Sportsmanship

In the previous post I talked about the issue of sportsmanship and didn’t plan to revisit it so soon, but the sports news lately continues to put it front and center. Turn on sports radio and you’re overwhelmed by talk of cheating – from Lance Armstrong being accused of doping to Jose Valverde’s apparently being caught on national TV spitting on the ball.

This week brings more incidents. Reds’ pitcher Mat Latos accused the Indians of stealing signs, not an uncommon practice and a hazy ethical area that falls under the “unwritten rules” rubric. During a discussion of the Latos complaint, a talk-show caller told of coaching a youth team in a travel tournament and how right before the game he learned from the mother of one of his players that she’d overheard the opposing coaches discussing their sign system while at the concession stand. Asked by the show’s host if he used the information during the game, the caller laughed and said, “You better believe it!”

Most of us probably would have done the same – right or wrong. Such is the nature of competition. But the situation does raise an ethical question. Is using the information teaching the kids the wrong lesson? Isn’t playing the games largely about teaching kids valuable life lessons and about the importance of good sportsmanship? Or does competition mean that all’s fair?

This week in the major leagues another story emerged that brought up the “unwritten rules.” In a game against the Rays, Nationals manager Davey Johnson accused Rays’ reliever Joel Peralta of doctoring the ball with pine tar, a banned substance that helps the pitcher get a better grip on sweltering summer nights. The ump checked Peralta’s glove, found the pine tar, and thumbed him off the field. He’ll likely be suspended.

How did Johnson know? Well, in 2010 Peralta was a member of the Nationals, while Johnson was in the team’s front office. Apparently the organization knew about its reliever’s habit of using pine tar but weren’t going to accuse their own player of cheating.

After the game, the Rays were outraged by Johnson, saying he had betrayed the player and even “The Game” by using what Rays manager Joe Maddon called “insider trading.” Others called it “poor sportsmanship.” It seems that if Johnson simply had noticed the substance and pointed it out, he’d have been within the “unwritten rules.” The fact that he knew from Peralta’s earlier time with the Nationals made him an unethical traitor, a whistle-blower.

Really? Has cheating become so pervasive that we’ve lost a sense of what ‘sportsmanship’ means? Is the moral dilemma about snitching on a cheater or about the cheating itself?Seems sort of obvious that the latter is the real issue.

As for the lesson learned by young fans who are playing the game themselves at the youth level, it should be that cheating shouldn’t be done and that being in a competitive contest doesn’t absolve or even mitigate the ethical implications.

After the game, which was won by the Rays, Maddon called Johnson “cowardly” for pointing out the pine tar. His objection: doctoring the ball is a “common practice.” In kidspeak: it’s not fair that you’re accusing me – lots of other kids do it too.”

That argument doesn’t wash for the kids, and it doesn’t wash for Maddon either. Yes, I hear his point – some things should remain in the clubhouse. Another of those “unwritten rules.” Maybe MLB and other sports leagues will post those rules on their websites so kids playing the game at the youth level will know them and be better able to make the appropriate ethical choices.

Or maybe certain kinds of cheating just really shouldn’t be considered acceptable.

 

How to Explain to the Kids When Pros Cheat

I should have put a question mark at the end of the title of this post. Because, truth is, I’m really not sure. But a situation arose during the Sunday night ESPN baseball game that required an answer.

Late in the game, up by only a run on the Reds, the Tigers brought in their closer, Jose Valverde, to seal the win. As he prepared to pitch, the camera zoomed in for a tight shot of Valverde, who brought his glove up close to his face and clearly worked up some saliva in his mouth, which he appeared to then spit on the ball in his glove.

The announcers didn’t comment, but sports blogs have been buzzing about it ever since, several people commenting that their kids mentioned the incident to them. I don’t like to accuse someone of cheating without more evidence, but, well, watch the slow-motion videos online, including in the link above, and draw your own conclusion. In the interest of fairness, let’s say he ‘appeared’ to throw it.

And it seemed he had a routine down pat. As he readies to pitch, he raises his other arm high in the air – a move to distract from what he’s doing with his glove hand? Then he bends as if to grab some dirt to dry his hand, though he really just pats it.

Now, adult sports fans wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Papa Grande was shining up the ball. At 34, he’s not in his prime, and so far this year he’s struggled. Pro players, particularly those of a certain age, will do what it takes to keep their jobs. Last year’s American League Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the year, Valverde, even at his best, tends to make the 9th inning an adventure for Tigers’ fans, often giving up a few hits before slamming the door. As one of the announcer’s notes in the linked video, in little Great American Ballpark a hard hit fly ball can easily sail over the fence. Valverde needed a strikeout.

My own interest in the incident is not so much about whether or not Valverde cheated as that it’s been covered so widely in the media, where kids will hear about it. How do you respond when your young player wonders aloud if it’s okay to cheat, given that the pros do it? MLB seemingly has put the steroid scandal in the past so we no longer have to explain why the little second baseman suddenly looks like a linebacker and is cranking homers for the first time in his career.

At the youth sports level, it’s much more important for kids to learn lessons in sportsmanship than to focus on winning. In fact, sportsmanship and teamwork and building character are the most important aspects of youth sports. If winning becomes the ultimate goal, then anything that gives you an advantage – even if it involves cheating – is fair game.

Maybe the silver lining of this latest episode is that it creates a context for talking to your kids about the value of fair play, of the need for an ethical approach to sports and to life. You’re likely to make more of a lasting impression by asking questions rather than by lecturing. Ask the kids how they feel about cheaters. Ask them what they would do if they saw someone cheating, even a teammate.

You might mention that a victory gained by breaking the rules is not a win at all, that it wouldn’t feel as good because you’d know that you hadn’t really earned it. Victories like that leave a bad taste and can never truly be savored. A professional wants to keep his job and isn’t all that concerned about cherished memories. But for kids it’s a different matter. Those memories are the true currency of youth sports, as is learning to lead a honest life, win or lose.

How to Coach the Struggling Hitter

One year I coached a team with a big athletic kid who could clobber a ball farther than anyone else his age. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do it often. In fact, he struggled to make much contact at all. The other coach and I tried to figure out why he swung and missed so often.

We tried to tighten up his swing, though for his size he didn’t have a particularly long stride or swing. He stayed pretty compact. His bat speed wasn’t great but certainly quick enough to make more frequent contact. We looked at how he was moving the bat through the strike zone, watched his head and his feet. We suggested various adjustments to his stance and his swing. We gave all the standard advice and more. I consulted a few other coaches as well as some websites. Nothing worked.

I remember a time during practice when the other coach, standing behind the pitcher, watched the big kid miss again and again, until he looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted with a shrug. “I’m out of ideas.”

We were both frustrated, feeling that we were letting down the kid. Since then there have been many hitters who I wasn’t able to help in a significant way. As this article from qcbaseball.com states so well: “It’s said that hitting a baseball is the most difficult skill in all sports; not surprisingly, giving hitting instruction is also one of the most difficult skills a coach has to learn.”

The article offers much good advice, particularly in terms of the coach’s overall approach. The writer suggests trying different things, experimenting with various techniques, making small changes. A big must: Avoid big changes until you understand the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses. Most of all, be patient. As the writer mentions, fixing the problem always takes longer than you expect it to take.

Then he offers this advice, which is very true and took me years to realize: “Assume that what you perceive as the problem isn’t the problem. What else is the player doing that could cause the problem?”

I wish I’d known that when I was struggling to help the big kid make better contact. Unfortunately, I didn’t. He played baseball for another year or two before specializing in football, where he proved to be a beast. He was much more gifted at making contact with an opposing quarterback than he was at making contact with a baseball.

Check out the article. You’ll find a savvy mindset for helping your struggling hitters.

Should You Be a Coach?

If you are a youth sports coach, how did you get started? Is it something you wanted to do since before your first child came home from the hospital? For some parents, it is that way.

For others, and I’m among them, it was a choice made to help a son or daughter. My older boy was six years old and had signed up for a YMCA basketball league. He was put on a team with a coach who had to bow out before the first practice. A parent needed to step up, and it wasn’t at all hard to beat the rush. In that first season, the only other parent actually was a grandparent, who had to quit after a few games for health reasons. I was on my own.

But I had no regrets. I had played and watched sports all my life so it wasn’t difficult from a knowledge perspective. Keeping 10 six-year-old boys focused all by myself at practice was bit more problematic. Things turned out fine, though, and I never looked back, moving on to other sports as my son grew and soon was joined by his younger brother.

It’s a rewarding role to play, if not always an easy one. If you’ve never done it, consider starting as an assistant coach before stepping up to the head job in whatever sports need you. If you decide after the season you’d rather watch from the bleachers, at least you’ll have a new appreciation for the challenges of the job.

I will say that it’s not just a matter of filling out a batting order or scribbling Xs and Os on a white board. One of the biggest issues is coaching your own child among a lot of other kids. It requires striking a delicate emotional balance. You don’t want to short-change your son or daughter in an effort to appear objective, for example, and you definitely want to leave the game on the field rather than taking it home for further discussion. It can be a great bonding experience that, when the practice or game begins, you have to try to forget about.

Somewhat ironically, it seems that parents who haven’t played the game much or who don’t particularly relish competition do better than those of us whose instincts are more jugular-centric. I have no evidence to support that claim – just an anecdotal observation from personal experience. A dispassionate, kid-focused approach tends to work better, especially when they’re little.

Here’s a thoughtful article that offers some questions to ask yourself before deciding to become a coach. And if you’re already a coach, you will benefit from the points the writer raises. A few hit close to home for me.

Despite the time pressure the responsibility of the job brings to your life, coaching is a very rewarding experience that provides plenty of wonderful memories. After you’ve weighed the issues presented in this article and done a bit of self-reflection, you might want to give it a try.

Here’s to the Team Moms

On every team I ever coached, there was at least one. She knew the name of every kid on the team and gave each one loud and equal support. She organized the post-game snacks schedule and usually took more than one game herself. She made sure the kids looked right for the team picture. She looked up and printed out (or emailed) directions to distant games in time for everyone to have them. She could keep score and knew which players weren’t at the game and the reason why.

She’s the Team Mom. And more than any coach I’ve ever known, she makes the youth sports world keep on turning. She comes in all shapes and sizes. On a couple of my teams she actually was a grandma. But she’s always a can-do gal with seemingly limitless energy, an infectiously positive outlook and a penchant for organization. She makes the trains run on time, and everyone enjoys the ride a lot more because she’s at the helm.

Sometimes she gets a bad rap, portrayed as overzealous, a helicopter mom who is too involved in the lives of her kids. I’ve never found that to be true. The moms in my experience who are always quick to complain don’t actually do much except complain.

Team Mom, on the other hand, is always supportive – of the coach, of the players and of the other parents. She doesn’t call attention to herself, but when something needs to be done you find out she’s already got it covered. At the end of the season, she buys the thank-you card for the coach and makes sure everyone signs it.

For all of this effort, she doesn’t get much thanks. Instead, everyone tends to let her handle all the details because they know she’ll handle them. So let’s take a few minutes this weekend to thank Team Mom. She makes a coach’s life so much easier. The coach doesn’t have to think about these other tasks and can focus on coaching.

Here’s a link to another homage to Team Mom that I found timely and touching, and I think you will too. Unlike this writer, my own mom was never Team Mom, though she was always quietly supportive, and for that I want to send out some personal thanks.

Hitting the Batter

There’s a terrific scene in the old movie “Bad News Bears” (in fact, there are a lot of them) in which the pitcher for the hated Yankees team, coached by Roy Turner (played by the late Vic Morrow), throws at one of the Bears batters. Turner, a complex character, hustles to the mound and yells at the pitcher, his son Joey, played by Brandon Cruz.

The movie takes a bleak (and sometimes hilarious) look at what the makers saw as an over-emphasis on competition in youth sports. Made in 1976, it now looks almost quaint, a fond gaze at a simpler time. But even in the competitive setting, Turner, who will do almost anything to win, can’t abide intentionally throwing at a batter.

In professional ball, things are different. Pitchers are expected to throw at batters now and again, especially as quid pro quo when one of their teammates has been plunked. Some pitchers gain a reputation for their willingness to throw at a batter. If the umps suspect their intention, however, the pitcher is thrown out of the game. MLB in no way condones the behavior.

Which is why it sounded so strange when Philadelphia pitcher Cole Hamels admitted after a weekend game that he hit Washington Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper on purpose. Hamels said the ‘welcome to the big leagues’ gesture – drilling him in the back – was a way of honoring an “old school” baseball tradition.

A surprising number of sports-talk folk have sided with Hamels, who was hit by a pitch later in the game – the inevitable payback. Hamels’ blustery supporters give the “it’s part of the game” argument, as if poor sportsmanship is okay as long as it’s gone on for a long time. That opinion never has made a lot of sense to me, but in a game played by millionaires they’re free to do what they want, I suppose.

My deeper concern is the example it sets for players at the youth sports level. Does it grant them carte blanche to break the rules and risk injuring another kid? Could they defend their actions by pointing to how the big leaguers behave?

It would be worth a coach’s time to take a few minutes and explain that, no, what Hamels did wasn’t right and that excuses like being “old school” are stupid and wrong. One of our most important jobs as coaches is to teach the basics of good sportsmanship to the kids, values that will serve them well long after they’ve hung up their cleats and moved along with their lives.

Firing a fastball at a batter could have serious consequences, especially at the youth level, where few pitchers can control where the ball goes after its thrown. Whether thrown in anger, as retribution, or to honor some bogus tradition that never really existed, the pitch is a very poor choice and a potentially a dangerous one.

The Hamels-Harper story is getting a lot of attention in the media, meaning that even kids who don’t follow the major leagues on a daily basis will hear about it. Coaches and parents need to explain the situation to their kids and let them know how they’re expected to act on the field.

They can add that Hamels knew exactly where his pitch was heading and that other than a bruise on his back Harper will be just fine. They also might add that Hamels has been a bit quirky since he came into the league – even for a left-handed pitcher. And oddball left-handed pitchers definitely are a long-standing tradition in the National Pastime.

Photo credit: Rick Seeney / Shutterstock.com