A Broken Mindset

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I’ve written before about some of the negative things that go on in youth sports in America and how sad I am about that state of affairs. Until now, I haven’t coached either one of my kids, but I figured if I was going to rant and rave about the degradation of youth sports, I’d better try to be a part of the solution; so this year I’m coaching my 8-year-old in his youth basketball league. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, because last night we got the season started with a coaches’ meeting and a ‘draft,’ and what I witnessed during those two hours started to shed some light on why parents act the way they do at practices and games.

I’m not sure if you caught that last line…we had a DRAFT! I’ll point out that this is an 8 and under, Parks and Recreation League in suburban Charlotte, NC. There are 14 teams in the league and my assistant and I were two of about 25 guys in a room at Town Hall that were given a spreadsheet with every participant in the league, in SKILL RANK order. Over the last couple of weekends, the league has had ‘skills and drills’ days where the kids just come and do some drills and practice individual skills. During that time, they are apparently being evaluated in order to rank them for the draft. The list I received when I walked in the door had name, age, height, Ranking (1-5), and any notes that the parents might have included with their registration. Most of the notes were things like “teammate with Johnny Smith so we can carpool,” or “can’t practice on Monday nights because of piano lessons.” However, my first disturbing moment of the night was the note I saw on 5-6 kids on the list: “NOT on Jimmy Williams’ team.” That’s right, parents specifically requesting not to be on a certain child’s team. (I made up the name)

As disturbing as that was, it was just getting started. I found my seat just before the draft instructions started and I sat down behind the guy pictured above. I’m not sure the picture really does justice to the absurdity. This coach, who is the dad of a kid in the league, had attended both of the skills and drills days and taken copious notes on each player (they had numbers on at skills and drills). He then took the extra step of putting all of those kids into a spreadsheet and color coding them in some way to guide his draft day decisions. As I was busy throwing up in my mouth, I didn’t have time (or the stomach) to ask him his methodology, but as the draft went on, it was clear that he had this well planned. If it was just one outlier who went to the effort to take notes on kids and prepare to that extreme I might pass it off, but he wasn’t the only one. He was the only one who typed it up and color coded it, but almost every coach had a folder of some sort with their strategy clearly laid out. I was clearly out of my league, and my assistant coach could sense it.

As the draft went on (for 2 hours), some of the discussion about individual players was embarrassing. Throughout the course of the night I overheard “that kid is fat and slow, we don’t want him,” “no way we’re taking that guy, he’s a pain in the ass,” and “that kid is really an athlete, he’ll dominate, we’ve got to get him.” There were trades, trading of picks, negotiations not to take a kid because he lives in the neighborhood of some other kid, and all manner of back door deals.

Meanwhile, I took what was my intended strategy of just sort of picking kids at random and trying to get a couple of kids that my son knew on the team. My son’s final instructions before I left the house were “don’t get any guys who are going to be critical and take it too seriously.” My assistant had been through this before with our town’s youth baseball program, so he had more insight on the skills set and athleticism of many of the boys, so we may luck up and have a good team. But we might not. We might lose every game. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter to me. What matters, and matters even more after what I saw last night, is that every kid on our team has FUN, learns something about basketball they didn’t know before the start of the season, feels great about themselves because they know they improved, and starts to develop a love for the game of basketball, no matter how good of a player they are as they get older. You see, of the 140 kids in our league, most of them will end up going to the same high school. That means that less than 10% of the kids in the ENTIRE LEAGUE will ever play high school varsity basketball and even have the chance at a college scholarship. So to me, it is a lot more important for the health of the game that all of the kids on my team learn the game and learn to enjoy the game so that as they grow up it will always be a fun part of their lives regardless of whether they are a spectator, jv player, coach, or NBA superstar.

I don’t really know what else to do to fix what I view as an epidemic in youth sports where parents have taken everything, at every level, to the extreme. All I know to do is coach the 10 boys on my team to the best of my ability, teach them the game that I love, treat everyone at every practice and every game with respect, and make sure that we all have fun. Hopefully the result will be one other dad or mom that sees that example and decides to do the same thing when they coach.

The Parent Coach

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This post is courtesy of my good friend and former college teammate, Dr. Jason Pittser. Pitt and I have been on a path of mindfulness together for the last two years and I think it has made us both better men, fathers, and husbands. His thoughts about what is really important when we coach our kids were so impactful, I wanted to share them here. For any man who has ever coached or ever will coach his kids, pay attention!

The Parent Coach

I love sports.  Athletics have always played a large role in my life.  I believe there are many beneficial aspects to participation in sports, and I’ve been fortunate to experience several of them.  These days, my athletic participation consists of a few weekly workouts, and also playing with my two sons (ages 6 and 3) as they develop a love for sports. I still enjoy competition and helping my sons become better athletes.

This past winter, I was the head coach of my oldest son’s kindergarten basketball team.  Among the many challenges of coaching 5 and 6-year-olds was the issue of finding a balance between being a loving parent and demanding coach.  I’m certain that this is a difficult balance to find for a parent of any child at any age.  I recall my father saying that he had been a player, a coach and a sports parent, and that by far the most difficult thing to be was the parent.

My son Jace, although not a “basketball prodigy,” has shown potential and seems to have an excellent understanding of the game.  As a result of him being one of the better players on our team, I had expectations of how he should perform.  All season long, he had a bad habit of failing to come to a stop with his feet set before shooting the basketball.  In one particular practice, I decided to emphasize the importance of coming to a balanced jump stop before shooting or passing. We did drill after drill to get the point across.  At our next game, Jace’s first shot attempt was a running one-handed fling without a jump stop.  I corrected him on the court and emphasized the importance of doing it the correct way (he made the shot, which probably discredited my coaching to some extent).  Just before halftime of the same game, he did the same running shot without a jump stop.  On our way to the locker room, I pulled Jace aside and asked sternly, “Are you going to keep doing things your way, or are you going to listen to your coaches and do it the right way?”  He looked up at me, apologized, and then said, “Daddy, can I sit on your lap in the locker room at halftime?”  I stood there in a moment of clarity provided by a 6-year-old whose biggest concern was being able to sit on his daddy’s lap and feel loved.

I’ve heard many comments over the years from people who have coached their sons in sports.  Opinions and methods vary, but most dads mention how they are always cautious to not show any favoritism toward their child.  I can definitely see the wisdom in that.  I’ve even heard some say that their goal is for the other boys on the team to be glad they aren’t sons of the coach.  I fail to see the wisdom in that and worry about the message that sends to a son.  What I have tried to do is stay mindful of the fact that I am his father, and he needs to know that he is loved unconditionally at all times…whether I am coaching him or not, whether he is performing well or not, whether he is 6 or 60.  He needs to know that he can sit on my lap, literally or figuratively, anytime he wants to.  As long as I live, I need to be present enough to see him for what he is (not what I think he should be) and parent without concern of how it might look to anyone else.  Nothing takes precedence over the fact that I am his father, certainly not a sport.

I get the feeling that finding a balance between being a loving parent and results-focused coach/parent will be a lifelong search.  And I’m not sure that the two are mutually exclusive.  I’m fairly certain that they aren’t for our Heavenly Father.  He provides us with a blueprint for a blessed life, yet still allows for consequences when we fail to follow it; however, His grace trumps everything, and He is always available for us to sit on His lap and be loved.  So, I hope to model that same relationship to my son at all times, even as his coach.  If that means that Jace won’t be as good of a basketball player as he could be, then I guess the NBA will have to find a way to exist without him.