Sunday, September 20, 2015

At What Point Will We Wake Up In Regard To Youth Sports?

Back in the summer of 1970 I was commissioner, general manager, head coach, and player in my own baseball league in Ames, Iowa, more specifically in University Village north of the Iowa State campus where I lived with my parents and brother when my dad was in graduate school.  I have always wanted to run the show, and I did.  I gathered up the kids living in the apartments during those summer months and I put together a baseball league.  We had kids living in university housing from all over the world and most of them at least knew a little about playing baseball, though a few didn’t have a clue.  Didn’t matter.  They all played.  I drove moms nuts because I insisted that they all bring a white t-shirt (remember, back in 1970 there was no such thing as a colored t-shirt, let along screen printed ones!) over to our apartment and we went nuts with magic markers.  I knew all of the major league teams at the time and what their uniforms looked like and we took those markers and made our own.  I did run into resistance from moms when I decided we were going to have an all-star game and everyone needed new uniforms!  Apparently one white t-shirt marked up to look like a Dodger uniform was enough!  We played every day near the playground area and I kept stats.  By the way, I led the league in every positive category!  Hmmmm.  Perhaps the stat keeper was a little biased!

This is just one of my childhood memories of playing in the sandlot, backyard, or in the park with friends.  We changed sports with the seasons and wore out the knees of our Tuf-Skins.  Other than those homemade t-shirts that served as our jersey, no uniforms, no special shoes, no wristbands, no $300 bats, no private lessons for hitting, no private lessons for pitching.  None of that.  Just a group of kids from the neighborhood playing outside.  We loved it!  We laughed and we cried.  We argued and got really mad!  We called people names.  And once in a while we fought.  We also put an arm around a buddy that had a bad day.  Best of all, there were no adults around!

So how come when I drive around West Union on an incredibly nice summer day, I don’t see any kids anywhere outside?  Correction: one young man riding a bike across the highway.  Oh, there are a lot of reasons that can be listed.  Both parents working and no one to push the kids outside, video games, and the list can go on and on.  But another reason is that the kids don’t have to go outside and play with their friends because adults have taken over and organized their lives so much for them that they already do!  Confusing?  Because adults have become so busy with their lives, both work and personal, they have scheduled their children’s lives to the point where kids don’t know what it is like to gather up their friends and go outside and play ball.  And I would argue that the model we have created for youth sports in this country is broken.  We have imparted adult values on what should be kids games and the ramifications are very negative.

Let’s take a look at some numbers.  Three out of four American families with school-aged kids have at least one playing an organized sport.  However, by the time kids are 15-years old, according to Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 80% of those kids have quit playing.  Think about that.  Of those little kids that swim on swim team, play softball and baseball, play basketball, wrestle and play football, by the time they basically start high school, they quit playing sports.  Some kids are sick of playing, as today there seems to be a growing gap between the child’s desire to enjoy the sport and some adult views that youth sports are “mini-versions of win-at-all-costs adult sports.”  I have been involved with youth sports from small-town recreational programs to national elite levels and all one has to do is take a step back and look for a couple of things.  Take a look at the players and then look at the parents.  Who is more intense and engaged in the game emotionally?  Quite often it is the parents.  Where are the negative comments coming from, whether directed toward the officials, coaches, other team, or players?  Nearly every time, it comes from the parents, not the players.  It is almost sad to say, but I have seen parents hauling kids all over the country with the goal of getting their child in front of college coaches or scouts because they want so much for their child to get a college scholarship to play.  Maybe I am a bit callused, but I believe that for many parents it is for their own ego.  Watch the pride that comes across a parent’s face when they talk about the colleges that are “looking at their child.”  Parents love to brag on their kids and what greater level of accomplishment can they share than to say they got a scholarship offer.

What is scary is that for many of those kids that quit playing before they have a high school career, injuries have been a primary reason.  From a 2013 study of 1200 young athletes, those that concentrated on a single sport were 70-93% more likely to be injured than those who played multiple sports.  The single sport focus vs. multiple sport participation issue is one that can be addressed at length, but what these findings basically say is that kid’s bodies are getting worn out at a very young age.  Because we have organized youth sports into this model that works for adults, because some parents are doing everything possible for that elusive college scholarship, and because there are people out there that have recognized that there is a way to make a buck (actually millions) on this youth sports industry, the pawns, err, kids, are getting worn out and tired of playing games at a very young age.  For years our culture has loved the high school hero, but many of those potential heroes are on the sideline doing something different than playing sports.

There is no question America is a sports-obsessed society.  I love sports and am very interested in all aspects of the games we play.  But things are out of whack right now and while many things have improved over time, I am not so sure that this is the case.  Before I end my days on this planet, I hope that one day I will drive by a corner lot or a park and see a dozen kids out there playing ball.  Better yet, they will be arguing over whether one of them was out at first base, and figure out a way to resolve it on their own, without an adult in sight.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Kind of A Parent Are You?

I am going to let you in on a secret: teachers, principals, and other school employees talk about parents.  Shhhh!  It’s a secret!  However, since the cat it out of the bag I will let you know that a lot of generalizations are made, during times of frustration some pretty negative things are said, and yes, there are often a number of positive conversations about parents as well.  We recognize that parents never talk about teachers or principals so I thought it was important to come clean and let you folks know that we do talk about you.  

I have never been very good with sarcasm, and as I have read and re-read the paragraph above I still wonder if I could have put it better.  However, what I want parents to know is that the relationship we have with you is very important.  Communication is the key, and when we have good communication things generally go much better with your child’s education at our school.  Just like every student is an individual with unique qualities and characteristics, you parents are the same.  There are times we forget that, especially when we make some of those broad-sweeping generalizations like I mentioned above.  We do know that parenting is tough.  Most of us have been through it.  And, we know that people parent differently.  Where we sometimes have difficulty is understanding why some parents deal with their children different than we did with our own.  It is for that reason that I have spent quite a bit of time learning about different parenting styles, trying to figure out how we work with students who have been raised differently than how I was raised, and how I raised my kids.  To that end, I have come across some interesting articles about parenting, and attended a very interesting session at this past year’s NASSP conference about the different ways parents are raising their kids today.  James Pedersen, an individual who has researched parenting styles and written a great deal about them, groups parents into three general categories: Hyper-Parents, Hypo-Parents, and Traditional/Neo-traditional Parents.  
Pedersen says that the biggest difference between parents today and those of days gone by is that today’s parents are “hyper-aware” and want to resolve all of their child’s problems for them.  According to him, this is based on previous generations of child rearing that focused on wanting to raise children to be more sensitive and caring.  That has come with a price because those more caring and compassionate people (us!) are parents now!  Compared to previous generations of parents, we are more aware of what is going on in our children’s lives, are more demanding, and more questioning.  Based on that, here a few types of parents, and perhaps you can identify what kind you are. 

The Hyper-Parents are those that over parent.  They are over-involved in their child’s lives and in many instances there tends to be blurred lines between their own goals for their child and their child’s goal.  They tend to have overly high expectations and attempt to remove obstacles to insure their kid’s success.  Included in this category of parent is the Helicopter Parent, who “hovers over their child, rarely letting them do anything by themselves.”  A more intense form of parent, The Blackhawk not only hovers, but also attempts to shoot down anyone who they believe is in the way of their child’s success.  Two other kinds of hyper-parents are the Curling and Snowplow.  The Curling parent “smooths the ice” for their child, while the Snowplow “blasts through” their child’s obstacles.  Also in this category is the Tiger Mom, where nothing their child does is ever good enough, nor is what anyone connected to their child does.  And, there is the Attachment Parent who refuses to let their child go. 

Hypo-Parents are those that under parent.  One that I found very interesting is the Free-range Parent, and since attending the conference, there has been quite a bit written about these kinds of parents.  In essence, they are the “anti-Helicopter,” “anti-Attachment” parent.  Like free-range chickens, they allow their kids to roam believing that they need to make their own way in life and learn for themselves.  Two examples in the news recently are the parents that were cited for neglect by letting their kids walk to a park by themselves about six blocks from home in an east coast city, and parents who live outside of New York City that allow their kids to visit the city on weekend evenings unaccompanied by adults.  Interesting that neglect is a term used here when these folks believe the best way for their child to grow and learn is out from under the wings of the parent.  We see a number of Best Friend or Karaoke parents, those that want to be the child’s pal or buddy rather than a parent.  And there is the Pussycat Parent that doesn’t want to upset their child and therefore do very little in terms of providing guidance or structure.
The last group is those referred to as the Traditional or Neo-traditional parents.  While the general assumption is that there is a parent at home keeping an eye on the kids as they grow up, there are a variety of different configurations.  The Backbone Parent is not afraid of saying “no” or making difficult decisions.  The Balance Parent insists on having balance in life and works to be sure that their child is not overextended.  The Faithful Parent uses their religious beliefs as a foundation for parenting.  There are a number of parents in our district that would fall under one of these categories, and they tend to be very supportive school and their children’s education.

John O’Sullivan provides a different perspective on parents that has merit as well.  According to him, kids today are pawns in an adult driven, hyper competitive race to the top.  This race takes place in academics and athletics that serves the needs of the adults, but rarely the kids.  According to O’Sullivan, we have a generation of kids that are being pushed to accomplish the dreams of their parents rather than their own, and some of them are actually sacrificing what most of us would consider a normal childhood.  He has a name for this kind of parent as well – The Avatar.  They have assumed the identity of their child and are trying to live out their unlived life through their kids.

As I have learned more about parenting, and looked at the different ways parents make decisions, and the motivation for those decisions, I can put faces on a lot of these different types.  But as I have dug in deeper, I have also done a great deal of self-reflection, and what I have determined in my own case is that I have characteristics of a handful of these types, or have passed through different phases of parenting.  Some of that has been good, and regretfully, some it has not.  The conclusion I have come to is that there needs to be balance and moderation, and perhaps the most damage that has been done to kids is with the extremes.  I look at some of the kids in our hallways and am really concerned about how they are going to make it through life without mom and dad right there with them.  I have wanted to ask a couple of moms if they plan to go to college with their child.  By the same token, we have had kids that have survived in spite of an absence of parenting, and it impresses me the resilience they have shown.  If you see bits of yourself in the short descriptions I have provided, perhaps spend a little bit of time thinking about what you can do better in order to help your child become an independent productive member of our society.  Isn’t that the goal we all have for our kids?