In youth sports, remember kids are kids

Friday, February 21, 2003

Here's advice for parents of kids involved in sports from Harry Sheehy, longtime basketball coach and now athletic director at Williams College.

"Before you go to a game, go to a PTA meeting," he said. "Don't go to every game. If you skip a game and your skin is crawling, that tells you who the game is more important to."

Revolutionary stuff, huh?

Here's some more:

"When a youngster comes home from a game, we send the wrong message when we ask, 'Did you win?' What we ought to be saying is, 'Did you have fun?' That tells them what's important to you. That's a strong message for kids."

Sheehy makes these points in his new book "Raising a Team Player," a task that requires some insight into what really matters.

The first thing is to remember that kids are just that -- kids. They're out to have some fun, and that's their bottom line. Too often, that line can become blurred by parents or coaches.

"The way we coach can hurt kids," Sheehy said. "They're not miniature adults. They're kids. I heard a coach saying to a 9-year-old, 'You've got to focus.' By definition, a 9-year-old can't focus. You get a 9-year-old to focus for five minutes and you're the teacher of the year."

Three years later, that same 9-year-old could show up at the Little League World Series, being interviewed by broadcasters and reporters, who turn kids into celebrities. What kind of perspective or insight is he going to offer? What message does he get about his own importance?

"Where does a kid who's 12 go from that interview?" Sheehy wondered. "If that's the highlight at that age, what's next?"

Sheehy grew up in an era when kids grabbed a ball, met on the street, chose up sides and played. No uniforms. No parents. No coaches. No officials. Just a game and some fun. "We called our own fouls," he said.

He understands the need for organization, the good that Little League, Pop Warner Leagues and the rest provide. He also understands the need for letting youngsters enjoy themselves.

There is ample evidence that parents have an agenda that is more complicated than that.

A Pennsylvania father sued a 10th grade coach based on the loss of future NBA earnings for his son. A father in Canada sued because his son was deprived of a league MVP award. In Ohio, a father sued his son's baseball coach, alleging incompetence cost his winless team a trip to a tournament in Florida.

Then there was the ultimate example -- a Massachusetts father who killed another dad at hockey practice for their boys.

Sheehy shudders at that.

"The first thing we've got to do is take a step back and think about the youngsters and what we want them to get out of their games," he said. "That MVP example is interesting. That was based on a statistical argument. When we make value judgments based only on statistics, we miss the essence of the game. We've got to get a handle on the games and understand what they're doing and what we want them to do.

"We want them to generate teamwork, friendship, fun and skill development. I see kids playing on 10-year-old elite teams. Who's elite at 10? And what about the late bloomer? If he's not elite at 10, he gets lost in the shuffle.

"I see teams that spend 25 weekends a year on the road. There's something wrong with that."

Some parents see sports as an avenue to college scholarships or, more importantly, professional contracts. And that concept is only reinforced when a hotshot high school player like LeBron James surfaces and winds up with his games being shown on pay-per-view TV.

It used to be that high school players were shrouded in dark, dank gyms. No more.

"These are the numbers," Sheehy said. "There are 530,000 high school players, 13,000 NCAA players and 30 NBA rookies. That's the equation, so we'd better get something else out of the game."

It starts with adult separation, with coaches and parents not trying to live their lives through the kids. If a youngster scores a goal, that doesn't make his or her parent a better human being.

Enjoy the game for what it is, a game.

And let the kids do the same thing.

Hal Bock is a sports writer and columnist for The Associated Press.

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