Don’t let your star athlete be taken for a ride

10 ways to keep sports in perspective


Jay Copp


Brian Mullen’s passion is baseball. The 14-year-old Forest Park resident has taken his love of the game to a new level. Nearly every day, Brian suits up for the Chicago Roos, a traveling baseball team based on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

The Roos begin conditioning drills in December and play 80 games between April and August. Last year, the Roos made five long-distance road trips, including a tournament in Omaha, Neb.

Joining the Roos was Brian’s dream. He saw the Roos play, researched the team on the Internet and pleaded with his parents to join. After eight years of Little League and park district baseball, his parents agreed he was ready for a step up in competition.

Despite the demanding schedule, Brian’s mom, Georgine, says his baseball commitments do not take priority over school or family. “There are other things in life besides baseball,” insists Georgine, although Brian gives her a look that suggests baseball is his life.

Like other parents, the Mullens are negotiating the brave new world of youth sports in which children such as Brian are pushing their own boundaries. And it’s the seasons for sports as many families are heading into the baseball and spring soccer seasons. Some are dedicated to one sport year-round and others are joining traveling teams. The challenge for parents is to set limits and decide what is best for their children.

The pitfalls of youth sports are well known: The joy and spontaneity of play can be lost amid the hyper-competition of organized leagues. But the benefits are also great. Studies show adolescent athletes are less likely to drink, smoke or use drugs, and these young athletes also perform better in the classroom.

“Despite the problems with sports today, I’d still want my child to play sports,” says Dennis Sprague, a sports psychologist in Louisville, Ky. “Sports teach so many good qualities. It’s the responsibility of the parent to make sure it’s a good experience for their child.”

For all the controversy, the popularity of youth teams is growing. There are about 22 million children from ages 6 to 18 who are in youth sports programs such as Little League baseball and Pop Warner football—a dramatic increase in the past 20 years, according to a publication of the National Institute for Sports Reform.

So if you can’t beat ’em and you plan to join ’em, here are 10 tips for parents on how to navigate the field and make sure that your child is not played by sports.

1 Forget about the pros. Your son or daughter will not become a professional sports star. Repeat that 10 times. The odds of a high school basketball player landing a spot on an NBA roster are 10,000-to-1. The odds of a professional baseball career are 1,300-to-1. Think your son will be the one? Think again. Starting early in sports doesn’t translate to your child getting a jump on the competition.

“There is no connection whatsoever between the athletic ability of a pre-pubescent and a post-pubescent,” says Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player and author of Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports.

2 It’s just a game. If your child tells a good joke, you don’t immediately think he or she will be the next Chris Rock. So, why do we get overly worked up if he or she can wallop a ball? You have a great kid who has multiple talents. “Parents who tie their self-esteem to their child’s athletic performance will harm their child, even if he or she is mostly successful. Too many trophies, too many external rewards sends the wrong message,” says Sprague. “What they learn is to become a professional athlete at a young age. They need to learn how to embrace team play.”

Also, while it’s important to reward children for their accomplishments, remember even a top pitcher needs to know that he or she has chores to do. “Be careful about giving a child special privileges as a person because they’re good at sports. It’s not a good idea to let them not do the dishes because they had a good game,” says Gloria Balague, a sports psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

3 It’s their game. Children should play sports because they want to, not because you want them to. “If parents are making the decision, they’ll leave sports at an early age,” cautions Sprague.

And it’s important to remember that children who once loved a sport can sour on it by the time they become teenagers if it is pushed too hard. Still, Balague says, it’s OK to require a child to play a sport. We force our children to play the piano, even if they dislike it. Hopefully, your children will learn to like it or at least gain self-discipline from the experience. “You can tell your child to play a sport,” says Balague. “But let them pick the sport. Make sure they attend practice. Stick with it for a year. That will teach them commitment and responsibility. At the end of the year, let them pick another sport if they like.”

4 It’s about the true value. “Sports are not about winning or losing,” says Paul Zientarski, a longtime coach and physical education instructor at Naperville Central High School. Rather, playing sports teaches commitment, teamwork, loyalty, discipline and the benefits of exercise.

“The bottom line is that everybody has to hang up their spikes one day,” Balague says. “What gets you ahead from then on are social skills. You have to be able to adapt to different environments.” And, she adds, if the sport is run correctly, the athletes learn self-discipline—they have to compete even if they’re tired and they have to go to practice even if they don’t feel like it.

5 Honor the game. Sports is not just a test of a child’s athletic ability. It’s also a test of a parent’s self-control. Your child will learn much more from how you handle winning and losing than he or she will learn by actually playing the game. The goal is to create a positive sports culture.

So refrain from yelling instructions to your child during the game, according to the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit group founded at Stanford University. Doing so makes it hard for children to concentrate and have fun. And your directions may conflict with the coach’s, forcing your child to choose.

Above all, never criticize the officials, even when they’re obviously wrong. Life is not fair. Neither are sports. A blown call is a good lesson, not an occasion for anguish. And remember to cheer good plays by both teams.

6 Honor the coaches. Brian’s father, Joe, plays on two baseball teams in the summer. He knows baseball—often better than the volunteer coaches of Brian’s teams. But he’s careful not to second-guess those coaches.

“Sometimes a coach will make a decision that I don’t get. It leaves me scratching my head. But the coach is in charge. They’re volunteers. They deserve respect,” he says. “I don’t always agree with everything that happens in a game. But I tell Brian that stuff happens in my game. It happens in yours. You have to take it in stride.”

Parents who undermine the authority of the coach are telling their kids that rules only apply to them when it’s convenient. Lori Trippi-Payne, who coaches volleyball for both Batavia High School and a travel team, advises parents to strictly avoid telling their child what the child’s role is on the team. And never complain to a coach about playing time. That’s up to the coach, Trippi-Payne says, because he (or she) has the team’s interests at heart. She also reminds parents that sports are supposed to teach kids to put the team’s interests above personal ones.

On the other hand, it’s OK to offer additional instruction at home. “Coaches are volunteers who might not have the skill level you want,” says Sprague. “It’s OK to give your child pointers on fielding and hitting in the backyard. You just want to be careful about taking away the power of the coach.”

7 Hold your tongue. Some parents can’t wait to get in the car after a game and tell their child what he or she did right and wrong. That’s a major mistake. After a game, parents need to listen to their child, according to advice from the Positive Coaching Alliance. Save your tips on how to do it better for another day. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What did you like about the game?” or “What do you want to work on?” Be sure to talk to your child as a supporter, not a coach. For everything you say that is even marginally critical, say four positive things, suggests the Positive Coaching Alliance.

Competition and failure on the field can be tough on children. Again, it’s how parents handle winning and losing that’s ultimately more important than how a child reacts to the outcome. “Winning is easy. Congratulate them. Get a pizza,” says Sprague. “When you lose, be a good listener. They’ll be upset. Listen to what they say. Offer support.”

8 Support their aspirations. Terry O’Donnell remembers driving by his local park district field in Chicago and seeing a sign announcing baseball registration. Discouraged by the ragged play and slipshod coaching of the previous year, O’Donnell turned to his son, Billy, and, said, “Do you really want to play this year?” Billy, then 14 and a 10-year veteran player, shot back: “Dad, I love baseball.”

O’Donnell’s solution was to form the Chicago Roos. You probably don’t have the time to start your own team, but don’t give up on sports because of a bad experience. And don’t waste time pining for the impromptu sandlot games of your youth. Those days are gone.

The key is to find a team to help your child blossom rather than wither under the stress. “Is it taking away from their energy level? Are they so tired they have trouble waking up in the morning? Is it interfering with school? Are they less happy? It can become a job instead of something they enjoy,” says Balague. Even if the child seems to be thriving, too much too soon is a bad idea. Children should not specialize in one sport until at least age 12, say sports psychologists. Before that, specialization can lead to burnout and hinder athletic development.

“In general, all athletes do better later on if they play different sports when they’re young,” says Balague. “It has to do with developing their motor skills and movement patterns. That makes them better athletes later.”

9 Find the right coach and team. Travel teams play to win, and some play to win the national championship. O’Donnell’s Roos played a team from the northwest suburbs that plays 130 games year and treats every game as if it were the World Series. “They want to win the national championship,” he says. “You can put this in a headline: The Roos will not win the national championship.”

Choice abounds in youth sports. It’s more convenient for a parent to choose the closest travel team and probably better for their child to play with peers from school or the neighborhood. But parents need to make sure the philosophy of that coach is agreeable to them. If not, find another one.

10 Get disorganized. Youth sports today are a reverse Lord of the Flies. Adults are in charge. “There is less free play today. That’s a problem,” says Balague. “Kids don’t learn as much if adults are organizing everything. They need to learn to manage their own time. They need to learn to regulate difficulties.” Kids’ lives today are regulated and overscheduled, and youth sports can contribute to that. “Kids need unstructured time,” says Anne Morrill-Ploum of Homewood, a psychotherapist and play therapist. “They need to learn how to entertain themselves. Kids need to learn how to deal with boredom. If they can’t do that, they tend to get in trouble.” 

Jay Copp lives in LaGrange Park with his wife, Laura, and their three sons, Kevin, 9, Andrew, 7, and Brendan, 5.

Adults have taken over youth sports, and now corporate money is creeping in as well. Consider the case of Rust-Oleum Field, the football stadium at Vernon Hills High School.

Rust-Oleum bought the naming rights with a $100,000 contribution in 2002 to help build the $1.8 million facility at the north suburban school. The company, which is headquartered four blocks from the school, also got two plaques outside the stadium and a third on the press box.

The donation allowed the school to complete the stadium without asking taxpayers for more money. But it also earned school officials a black eye from critics alarmed by the encroachment of commercial interests at schools.

 “This is just one more aspect of our children’s lives being compromised by commercialization,” says Susan Linn of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, a coalition headquartered in Boston. “The message to kids is everything can be bought. Everything is for sale.”

Vernon Hills High School officials say such comments are overly dramatic. “Our kids are not walking around wearing Rust-Oleum T-shirts,” says Al Janulis, athletic director. “Whether they sell an extra can of paint [because of the field naming] is irrelevant to the benefit we received.”

 Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert in Portland, Ore., says the school is “selling the attention of the children to Rust-Oleum. Some things shouldn’t be for sale. Schools should be used for educational purposes.”

Linn adds: “They missed a good opportunity to name the field after one of the heroes of our society, the way we used to.” —Jay Copp


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