Sunday, July 05, 2009


Dear Editor:

The essay "Not Just for Kids" by Mark Hyman makes some excellent points about adults abusing children's organized sports. But any organized activity is subject to abuse, and Little League baseball and Pop Warner football aren't intrinsically evil or inevitably devastating to the children who sign up to play. My experiences in 50 years as a player and as a coach in youth sports have taught me that the key in allowing the participants in organized sports to have positive experiences is in having program administrators who understand what's important and who clearly communicate that to coaches and parents.

I first coached an organized team 45 years ago, when I was a 12 year old Little League player (we won the championship that year, and the baseball signed by my teammates after that game still sits on display in my office), and I was asked to coach 10 year olds in a lower division when the league couldn't find a coach for their team (we won that championship, too, so I had a rare double at an early age). But my peers and I also played pick up baseball or whiffle ball every day during the summer when I didn't have a game scheduled, and the experiences were vastly different. There is simply no comparison between the emotional involvement in a pick up game in a neighbor's backyard and pitching in a ball park for a team in uniform with a championship on the line. The pressures that existed came not from our parents, but from ourselves, and the characters that were forged- or, in some cases, revealed- in the crucible of competition could not have been replicated if my only athletic experiences growing up had been unorganized.

As an adult I've coached youth sports on and off for over 24 years, starting when my son was six years old and the local YMCA needed a coach for his soccer team. That was my one and only year coaching soccer- a sport I barely understood- and later on I coached youth sports in baseball and basketball, two sports with which I was much more familiar, one of which (basketball) I still play. At the beginning of every season, at the first team practice, I tell the kids that we have three goals: to have fun, to improve their skills regardless of what ability they had at the start of the season, and to learn to play together with teammates. The YMCA leagues in which I have coached have made it very clear in the rule sheets that participation trumps winning, and coaches must play every player at least half of the game. At the end of every game, the kids line up and shake hands with every member and coach of the opposing team. Parents and spectators are actively discouraged from injecting themselves into the competition, and verbal abuse is not tolerated. As a coach during and after games I've always made it a point never to criticize a child's performance, but instead to focus on giving praise when they do well and mentally noting the areas they need to practice when they falter. And win or lose, I have also made a point of congratulating officials after the game while refraining from complaining about calls in the heat of competition.

Of course there are abuses in organized youth sports, and every week the local paper has an anonymous complaint or three from parents about favoritism in local baseball leagues (basketball, not so much) where parent-coaches favor their sons or their friends' sons. Other abuses have occurred nationally with the rise of travel teams, expensive sports based summer camps, and over the top college recruiting permeating and affecting the lives of impressionable youths down to middle school (a recent news report disclosed a 13 year old who has already committed to University of Tennessee football, where his older brother plays).

But even while unorganized casual pick up games have declined in every sport except basketball, there are now far more opportunities to participate in organized sports than existed when I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania. Soccer leagues didn't exist anywhere I knew of in the '60's, high school girls basketball was still shackled by the old Iowa rules (6 girls, only 2 of whom could roam full court), girls softball didn't exist, and outside of a few church leagues for high schoolers, organized basketball didn't exist outside of interscholastic competition. I agree that taking competition outside the local level- all star teams, Little League World Series on ESPN, travel teams- is a bad idea for children, and the focus instead should be on participation, acquisition of skills, and fun. And I'll never forget the words of wisdom I imparted to my 11 and 12 year olds during a time out with the game tied and 1 minute to play in a YMCA playoff game a few years ago: "Are you having fun yet?" Then I sent them back on the court to enjoy the moment.

James Finkelstein, College 1973

P. S. I earned a letter at Penn on the Golf Team, which won the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship (ECAC) at Cooperstown, New York in 1972. We beat Harvard by a stroke.


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