Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘lacrosse’

The Expense of Early Sport Specialization

My role in the horse world to date has been little more than loyal supporter. This includes my posts as head cheerleader, financier, and klutzy outsider comic relief (for example, I always seem to be over- or under-dressed). My ROI is measured in the smiles on my girls’ faces over the years. They have seemed to truly enjoy the process, the journey, sometimes with little regard to the outcome or the score.

Everything about the horse world is expensive. Really expensive, actually. There are lots of expensive sports out there to be sure. Golf, tennis, and hockey come quickly to mind. All have in common expensive equipment, coaching, and venues, even at the lowest levels of participation. Most other sports only become expensive when you add in the effects of higher level competition with the new burdens of professional coaching and travel. Think AAU anything, gymnastics or swimming.

One thing that sets the horse world apart is the Sugar Daddy or Sugar Momma, a usually over-monied individual whose sole role is to write checks. Big checks. Lots and lots of checks. Most whom I’ve met don’t really seem to enjoy hanging around horses, actually. Kinda like someone who owns a big boat but gets seasick in the bathtub. The other essential difference between a Sugar Daddy/Momma and a “Little League Parent” is that the Sugar Daddy/Momma doesn’t care a lick about the outcome of the event.

In a funny, very roundabout way this makes me think about youth sports, high school sports, and the behavior of parents in that world. Unlike the Sugar Daddy/Momma the youth sports parent is highly invested in outcomes, not only game by game but also in terms of reaching the next level. As in that level to which the ridiculously large percentage of participants never get. You probably think this is about going pro, about making a living at your sport. Nope. That number is so tiny and has been parsed so many times and so many ways that it’s not worth spending the electrons thinking about how few college athletes or minor leaguers make it to The Show. I’m not even talking about getting a scholarship to play a D1 sport.

What I’m thinking about is some fascinating facts about how few high school athletes go on to play a sport at any level in college.

Seriously, the numbers are comically low. Cut and past this for a look: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-college-athletics. For boys, only lacrosse and hockey are above 10%. More boys go on to swim in college (7.1%) than play football (6.8%). The statistics are similar for girls led by Ice hockey (24%), lacrosse (12.9%), and field hockey (10.1%); all other sports are in the low to mid-single digits. I don’t know about you, but with all of the teams sponsored by Division 3 colleges out there, along with the dearth of multi-sport athletes taking up more than one slot, these figures are really shockingly low.

How, then, can we justify the expense of early sport specialization, both in real financial terms, and in terms of the epidemic of injuries suffered through over-use and under-preparation?

On my most recent foray into the horse world I met a  youngster who plays on a volleyball team that uses CrossFit to enhance their fitness.  She no longer does her first-love sport, tumbling, because of a repetitive use stress fracture in her back suffered before she started to play other sports. All tumbling all the time wrecked her. How many young arms must we scar with a Tommy John “autograph” prior to obtaining a driver’s license before we suggest adding in a little winter reprieve from pitching? Isn’t it just a bit disheartening to think that the ACL tear rate in young female soccer players is higher than the overall NCAA participation rate for girls who played that sport in high school? Mind you, these are TOTAL participation rates, not the percentages of kids who got a scholarship to play D1. The list goes on and on.

Says here that the kids would be far better off playing more sports with their buddies in their hometown schools, both physically and mentally, than they are now joining elite travel programs and chasing after such a small number of slots at the next level. Probably have a better relationship with Mom and Dad, too. For sure Mom and Dad are likely to be better behaved. Throw in a little bit of fitness training that emphasizes proper mechanics in functional movements and maybe we can start a trend.

No Sugar Daddies or Mommas necessary, either.

The Role Of Adults In Youth Sports II: Teach

At the news conference following a heartbreaking overtime loss, the head coach of Boise State had this to say: “one player can’t lose a football game all by himself. A player can WIN the game, but no one can lose it by themselves.” How good is that?! Seriously, after losing the opportunity to represent every underdog in the history of forever, in a football championship game for the ages, what does the coach do? He sees the situation for what it is, what it always is when you are an adult involved in youth sports; he sees this as just another “teachable moment.”

It’s gone so far beyond the cliché that they are life lessons to be learned by children playing sports that many of the adults who are involved in youth sports seem to have taken this for granted and just assumed that it will happen automatically. BZZZZZZT. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. Never did. The second most important role that adults play in youth sports is to foster and facilitate learning among the children playing sports.

It’s pretty easy in the beginning. Heck, if you are coaching very little kids you actually have to teach them the rules of the game! I once tried to teach a bunch of kids in England play baseball. Piece of cake, you say. They play a game called “rounders” which is very similar to baseball, with a little bit of  Cricket mixed in.  Rounders doesn’t have foul lines, though, and English kids have no concept of what a foul ball is. I spent pretty much the entire game trying to explain why a perfectly good hit just to the right of first base didn’t count. In the beginning being an adult in youth sports is ALL about learning, ALL about teaching.

There’s a really cool phase in youth sports, whether you are a coach, booster, or simply an interested spectator, when the kids get the rules, they know how to keep score, and you are simultaneously teaching them technique and nuance while at the same time trying to win. Junior high school, Junior varsity in high school, times like this. This can be the most satisfying time to be an adult involved in sports. Somewhere in high school the “win mode” kicks in so strongly that teaching and learning can go by the boards, all teaching and learning geared toward just one measure, the one lighting up the scoreboard.

It’s not just about the game though of course. This would be a pretty trivial post if it was, eh? No, playing sports, especially team sports, leaves open all kinds of possibilities for learning. Even if you are the absolute star of a football team or basketball team or any other type of team, being part of the team means learning how to depend on your teammates. It means learning how to have other people depend on you. You have certain responsibilities, and the success of the team depends on you and everyone else doing exactly what they’ve been taught to do at exactly the right time. I’m going to my office in a very short time where I will be a member of yet another team. All of the lessons I’ve learned from all of my teams over the years come into play every time I go to the office. Same thing in the operating room this morning. Good outcomes depend on impeccable teamwork, with each team member doing exactly what he or she should be doing. Some may get more credit than others, at least publicly, but playing team sports should teach each athlete that he or she succeeds only if the team succeeds. The adults who are involved in youth sports have an obligation to teach this lesson to both the stars and the grunts.

Winning and losing are important measures, but it really DOES matter how you play the game. Did you play within the rules, even when no one could see whether or not you did? Did you cheat, break a rule that gave you or your team and advantage? Some of the individual sports are the best opportunities to learn these lessons. Have you seen those PGA commercials about the First Tee program for youngsters playing golf? Integrity and fidelity to the rules are mentioned by everyone. Adults should not only teach this but should also model these behaviors and attributes. What is your athlete learning if you use the “foot wedge” in the rough?

It’s possible to learn some very valuable lessons about how one might meet adversity in life simply by playing youth sports. How do you handle winning? Success that just can’t be hidden? Conversely, how do you handle it when life throws you an enormous curveball, and you look at terrible on a swing and a miss? Humility in victory, and grace in defeat are lessons that are there to be learned by our children playing sports. Sometimes all it takes is a gentle reminder, maybe even just setting a quiet example. There are other times when the designated adult must demonstrate a firm hand in teaching the lesson. I have visions of golf clubs helicoptering across fairways, tennis rackets splintering during fits of rage, trash talking and posturing under the basket or in the end zone. Failing to intervene and teach the PROPER lesson is nothing short of inexcusable if you are the adult present at those times.

It doesn’t sound easy, does it? I mean, that’s a lot of responsibility. It kind of sounds like… WORK! And it is, if you get right down to it. The adults who are involved in youth sports have great responsibilities, and they really have no right to expect a pass when it comes to fulfilling these responsibilities. This goes for coaches on the sidelines, officials on the field, parents in the stands, and boosters and administrators behind the scene. The opportunity to teach our children about fair play, following the rules, and being a good teammate are there for the taking. Even when it becomes time to win, as we saw in the example above with Boise State was on the verge of making history, there but for a missed 26 yard field goal, the imperative to teach our children, to foster their learning through sports, is one that we simply must seize as the adults involved in youth sports. Just like that head coach at Boise State.

They may not know it now, but every one of those Boise State football players walked off that field with a win because their coach played his role.

The Role Of Adults In Youth Sports I: Safety

Among the many things that I have called over the course of my lifetime, none has been more meaningful than “Coach”. I spent time on the sidelines and on the bench for about 10 years coaching junior high school sports.  When my own children moved on to high school sports I retired to the committee rooms and the grandstands where adults who don’t coach play their role in youth sports.

There are three roles that adults can and should play in youth sports. First and foremost, all adults who are involved in youth sports should have as their primary goal the safety of the children playing the games. Secondly, kids who play sports should be guided by the adults around those games, taught by their elders not only about the games but also taught the life lessons that one can glean from playing sports. Finally, we ARE talking about kids here; the last important role that adults have in youth sports is to make them FUN!

Let’s start by talking about safety.

I suppose we should probably define youth, huh? There’s not much to debate the inclusion of grade school or junior high school kids. Sure, reasonable people can disagree about the importance of playing time and, when to start cutting kids and when to start playing to win, but through eighth grade there is simply no question that these kids would be considered in the “youth” category. In some quarters it might be a little more dicey with high school athletics, but when it comes to safety I don’t see how you can separate high school kids from their younger brothers and sisters. Protecting ALL of these kids is job number one for every adult involved in youth sports.

A quick word about college sports: the brightest, clearest dividing line between youth sports and sports as commerce, or job, is clearly the line that separates college and other athletic programs aimed at very young adults, and professional sports. But even here that line might be a little fuzzy. There are reasonable people who would say that Division I athletes on scholarship are the de facto professional athletes. I suppose I’d feel a little more comfortable with this if a larger percentage of these young men and women went on to earn a living from their sport after college. Certainly we can agree that divisions II and III in the NCAA would still constitute youth sports, don’t you think? For my mind only the most cynical among us would draw a line between divisions I and II when thinking about the safety of the athletes.

So, how do we ensure the safety of our children when they are playing sports? It starts at the very top with league commissioners and athletic directors. Every organization that sponsors athletic competition with youth participants, be it a league or a school or some other organization needs to be clear from the outset that job number one is keeping children safe. Commissioners need to set clear guidelines, rules that will be enforced that put safety first. No spearing in football. Elbows in on the basketball court. No head shots–not a SINGLE headshot–in hockey or lacrosse.

Each one of these directives needS to be clearly communicated to the athletic directors or program directors responsible for individual schools or teams. These men and women in turn need to hire or appoint coaches who will make it their primary mission to teach the children in their charge how to play the game safely. Not only must the coaches do this on the practice field, but as they roam the sidelines and pace in front of the bench they must bring this to the games as well. How many times have you been in the stands and cringed when a defensive coordinator screamed at his players, exhorting them to “take someone’s head off?” I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sick to my stomach watching a coach dance with glee as a long pole defenseman stands over the attackman he cross-checked in the back of the head. No amount of teaching in practice can withstand this type of “coaching”.

During games coaches need to look first to the well-being of their players; only after assuring that they are okay can winning and losing enter the equation. I’m certainly not proud to admit this, but I remember one clear instance where I probably should have kept a star athlete on the sidelines during a football game. I actually had my very favorite coaching job–I was the assistant to the assistant to the assistant backfield coach, responsible only for catching the kids doing something right and praising them for when they did. But I was the quasi-team doctor as well, and when our star halfback limped off the field with a sprained ankle, I really probably should have overruled the head coach, the offense coordinator, and the young man’s father and kept him on the sidelines, at least a little bit longer. Coaches need to allow themselves to be trumped by trainers and doctors.

The ultimate arbiters of safety, however, are the officials on the field. Whether it’s grade school, junior high school, high school, or even college sports, the officials who enforce the rules must make the safety of the participants their primary concern. Oh, I know, I know, the officials are supposed to be invisible, doing everything they can possibly do not to impose themselves on the game, not to affect the outcome of the game. The players should win or lose; the officials should not take a role. Blah, blah, balh. All well and good, until the retaliation for the retaliation for the initial hard tackle from behind results in a three ligament knee tear for that girl who was just about to get that shot off in soccer. All well and good, until they’re wheeling the center off on a stretcher, unconscious from the elbow he took to the jaw as he skated through mid-ice. All well and good, because the officials lost control of the game, allowing dangerous plays earlier for fear that they might “affect the outcome.”

Bullshit.

As far as I’m concerned the greatest responsibility for protecting our children on the various courts and fields of play lies with the officials. The referees and umpires who are right there in the middle of the game MUST protect the children playing the games. Dangerous play just cannot be allowed. Officials have lots of latitude, and every sport has rules, penalties for dangerous behavior. Blow the whistle! Throw the flag! Pull out that red card! Set the tone early and let it be known that dangerous play will not be tolerated.

My youngest child, in ways too many to count an athletic clone of his father, finished his high school lacrosse career sitting on a bucket on the sidelines, sobbing as he vomited. He was vomiting because he had just suffered a concussion, his third, this one the result of a vicious crosscheck to the back of his head. The play occurred just feet from the sidelines, yards from the referee looking directly at the play. Unbelievably, he hesitated. He HESITATED! He actually gave thought to not even pulling his flag. Eventually, out came the flag and the verdict was rendered: one minute for unnecessary roughness. Almost the smallest infraction in the game of lacrosse. One minute for a blatant headshot, right in front of the referee, right in front of Randy’s coach.

The trainer on duty, a lovely young woman, very empathetic… very concerned, hovered over him. Was he crying because his head hurt so much, she asked? No, he sobbed, he was crying because he knew he had a concussion, and he knew that that his role in youth sports was now over, his days as a lacrosse player now officially done because it was no longer safe for him to play. How many more, I asked.  How many more children would be hurt before that referee said enough? How many more ,I asked him out loud in a silent stadium, my voice the only sound, clearly heard by every ear in the stadium. Everyone turned to look at the father escorting his injured child off the field. Everyone, that is, save one.

Officials, indeed any adult, who will not protect the children who are playing have NO role in youth sports.