In July, 2000 during a youth hockey game in Reading, Mass., two fathers started brawling after arguing over rough play. One of them ended up dead, and the other, a man named Thomas Junta, ended up being sentenced to six to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Less dramatic, but still horrifying, a father from San Fernando was given 45 days for beating and berating a coach for taking his son, a pitcher, out of a baseball game. According to police, the man was heard screaming, “How dare you make my son a three-inning player?”
These and many other incidents started a huge debate about the troubles of youth sports.
“Good sportsmanship seems to be falling out of fashion as over-aggressive adults prowl the sideline and grandstands screaming at officials, coaches and players,” youth sports officials said in an ABC news report produced at that time.
While some involved in youth sports believe that to be an over-simplification, there is some truth to it in almost every community. What perhaps is not heard enough is the positive benefits that sports have for kids, the steps that are taken to keep the environment safe and positive, and the tremendous amount of work that some parents put in to make that happen.
Ventura County is a great example. If a region’s youth sports programs were to be judged by the number of pro and collegiate division I athletes who came up, the county would score high. Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson is a product of Thousand Oaks. New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita was born in Ventura and attended Rio Mesa High. Erika Hanson, also from Thousand Oaks, helped the University of Arizona Wildcats win an NCAA National Championship in softball a few years back. Thousand Oaks Little League won a Little League World Series in 1994 and was runner-up in 2004, losing the championship to a team from Curacao. The same year the El Rio Little League near Oxnard made it to the championship game of the Senior League Baseball World Series.
This could mean a couple of things. Either there are lots of great sports programs with supportive parents, administrators and communities, or to look at it more cynically, some of the programs are fine-tuned machines producing robo-athletes supported by wild-eyed parents obsessed with getting their kid the Division I scholarship or the pro contract. While there are certainly examples of the former, based on the conversations I had with local administrators, coaches, and parents, the latter seems more true, and interestingly enough, of the people I spoke to, almost entirely parents of young athletes, seemed to be at least as interested in the character building and teamwork aspect of the sports.
“I’m not going to judge our success or failure by whether we win or lose.” said Rob Hall, a Moorpark-based coach and parent who has at one time or another coached all of his kids in baseball, football, basketball and soccer, spent many years coaching boy’s Basketball at Oak Park High School, and currently coaches the Moorpark 12 and younger girl’s softball Green Team. He instead is happy when his teams are “controlling the things they can control” and “playing to the best of our abilities and supporting each other.” At a recent game where his team suffered a tough loss, one of the main things Hall talked about with his team was their failure to “pick each other up” when they made mistakes.
He looks at sports in the bigger picture.
“Sports are a lot like life,” he said. “Some people are going to get all the glory, but the stars won’t shine unless the worker bees do their job.” He went on to say he believed that was true about any organization, whether a sports team or a large corporation.
What do youth sports have to offer besides a long-shot chance at a scholarship, a contract or a national title? Besides the physical benefits, studies say well-run sports programs provide many necessary things to help kids grow into happy, well-rounded and productive adults. In their book The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor’s Complete Guide for Parents, Jordan D. Metzi M.D. and Carol Shookhoff M.D. discuss the physical, personal and social benefits of sports for kids.
For physical benefits they list fitness, stress relief mastery and healthy habits.
“[Sports] give kids a satisfying, enjoyable way to develop their own talents, through personal effort they get good at something they’re interested in,” Metzi and Shookhoff said. “Doing something well makes them feel good about themselves.”
One needs to look no further than the statistics put out by the Centers for Disease Control, which estimates that the obesity rate for kids from ages 6-11 has “more than doubled” in the last 20 years, while it has tripled for adolescents.
Of equal importance is the personal benefits kids get from sports. Metzi and Shookhoff list valuing preparation, resilience, attitude control, leadership opportunities, identity and balance, time management and long-term thinking as things kids get from well-run sports programs.
“Athletes learn the fundamental lesson of sacrificing immediate gratification for longterm term gain,” They said. “This is the basis for personal success, as well as civilization in general, and no lesson can be more valuable.”
The social benefits are also important. They list relationships with other kids, teamwork, diversity and relationships with adults.
I can relate from personal experience. My oldest daughter is blessed athletically, but after a tough move to our current East County home, she had a rough time making friends. We soon signed her up for softball and soccer, and she has since made some great friends and found her athletic niche. It also helped her self-confidence, improving her grades and test scores, and even helping her to join her school’s orchestra, something that would’ve been unthinkable two years ago.
The lynchpins are the parents. Parents cause most of the issues in youth sports, but parents also, on top of careers and other family obligations, spend hours and hours doing everything from running board meetings, to coaching teams, to working snack shacks, all the way to fetching soccer balls out of snake-filled ravines. Many of the parents I spoke to were passionate about the sports their kids were involved in but seemed much more enthused about the social and character building aspects of youth sports than getting Junior a scholarship to USC.
Gary Kelman, a father of four and a financial services advisor, is also president of Moorpark Little League (MPLL). When I e-mailed him about participating in this story, he took awhile to get back to me, but then he explained why.
“I was at the fields with my kids, baseball game, coaching — then acting as a MPLL board member answering issues and concerns from coaches,” he said. “Then we get home to eat dinner and do homework (and projects) until 10 PM or so — last night, I was too exhausted!”
Kelman is not alone. Donald Kress, a coach and parent for El Rio Little League, admires the work the league president, Franco Amar, puts into running the league.
“It’s a thankless job requiring administrative, management, negotiation, consensus-building and motivational skills,” he said.
The men who run the leagues and serve on their boards do much more than sit in on meetings where teams are picked and deciding what colors the uniforms will be. Many of the boards are contentious. Money is scarce, and innovative ways must be thought of to raise funds. On top of this is the job of turning what can be a competitive and contentious environment into a positive experience for all. Like Kress says, it can be a thankless job. If you sit in the stands at a Little League baseball game in any town, you’ll hear parents complain about the fields, or the uniforms, or the money they have to pay, and they always end up blaming the board.
Why do they do it? Kelman — whose children have all played sports — has umpired, coached and run the snack shack for MPLL. He saw an opportunity where he could help run the league more efficiently.
“What motivated me was to be someone to better utilize the board (of supervisors),” he said.
Kelman didn’t think the league’s board communicated well, and he felt it had difficulty getting things accomplished. He feels that in his tenure the board has become “more democratic and more collaborative” and, when asked how he did it, he said, “communication was my big key.”
“Most guys think they can be a baseball coach,” he said of the portrayal of youth sports as violent, Darwinist, and win-at-all-costs. “I feel like a few people make a bad image for everybody.”
Parents have to play an intricate role to make sports fun, saf, and positive, he said.
“It’s not babysitting, but (instead) to encourage their kid from the sideline, but not get too involved,” he said. “Give them the freedom to do what they need to do, but be there for support.”
Coaches possibly play the most central role in youth sports. While the kids and the parents may rarely interact with board members or become intimately involved with the inner machinations of a little league or softball league, the coach becomes the center of the world, balancing the desire to win and compete with the larger goals of good sportsmanship and character building. Like the board members, the overwhelming majority of coaches are dads and moms volunteering, rushing to practices — often still in their business suits — dragging a bag of baseballs with them onto the field.
Parents in El Rio said they are fond of Steve Lopez, who coaches the 14 and younger all-star softball team.
“He is the ever present focal point of this team and serves as an inspiration to us all,” said Carlos Gutierrez, whose daughter Loren is a member of Lopez’s team. “Steve juggles his truck driving job and family life to maintain daily two-three-hour practice sessions. He is very often running on little or no sleep and yet manages to keep up with a group of teenage athletes.”
With Lopez, it is also a family affair. His wife serves as team mom, his son Jesse is scorekeeper, and his older daughters, who are also softball players, help out at practices and games.
Hall downplays the sacrifices he makes, despite running from practice to practice.
“I’m a teacher, and my wife [Gretchen, president of Moorpark Girls Softball] is a substitute teacher, and we’re out at 3:10 every day, so that makes it easier for us,” Hall said. One of his strengths is enlisting parents to help out. Many fathers attend his practices. Besides the assistant coaches, other dads can be seen hitting ground balls to the girls, throwing batting practice, or helping with scorekeeping.
Hall admits his goal as a coach is idealistic.
“I know it’s a pie-in the-sky ideal,” he said. “I want to help the player accept what’s given to them and maximize it. If they’re meant to pitch, help them to be the best pitchers they can be. If they’re left fielders, help them to be the best left fielders they can be.”
Most parents don’t have the time, skills or patience to serve as coaches or on the board of supervisors, but their contributions can make or break their kids and/or their teams and organizations.
Jon and Margaret Dutton have two boys who play in Thousand Oaks Little League. One plays in the tee-ball division, while the older boy is in the Acorn 1 division. Margaret is the league’s publicity director, while Jon is an assistant coach, and they believe that good sportsmanship and strong character, when taught at a young age, become firmly instilled as children get older.
“We’re always telling them that it’s not all about winning,” Jon Dutton said.
When kids don’t win or have a bad game, Jon says he tries to re-direct their focus from getting down about losing to trying to improve.
“We (the coaches) try to focus that energy into finding out why they didn’t win and what we could do to get better and improve concentration,” he said.
Very few will make it past even the high school level in sports, so coaches, parents and administrators try to focus on life skills as much as sports skills.
“I’m a big believer in sports experiences as metaphors for life experiences,” Kress said. “‘You can’t hit if you don’t swing,’ ‘stay in there,’ ‘focus,’ ‘prepare, practice, perfect,’ all of these metaphors serve children and adults well as we confront the challenges that life throws at us. Like life, the game has ups and downs — winners and losers.”