At the Mira Mesa Recreation Center, playing for my fifth-grade youth basketball team, I watched as my coach threw a chair onto the court in anger. On another occasion, the referee threw my coach out of the gym during an argument. The following year, with a different coach, my grandmother was in town from Los Angeles, watching me play for the first time. I stole the ball, dribbled up-court, and missed a layup. My coach was furious. He put his hands around his neck and yelled, “Choker! You’re a choker! You missed an easy layup!” He threw his hands up in disgust. I lowered my head. I didn’t even want to look over to where my family was sitting. A teammate put his arm around me. “Did Coach even see the last three baskets you scored?” I glanced at the scoreboard and wondered if the coach realized we were up by 16 points.
I look back on the memory and wonder: Why are coaches — adults — so hard on children? At the youth level, between ages 4 and 16, children should be taught the fundamentals of the game, sportsmanship, and fun.
When you get into high school sports, that’s when you get cut from the team if you aren’t good. Or benched if you miss easy layups. You may have to run laps at practice if you forget a play.
On the news this year, we saw video of a youth wrestling match. An angry father jumped out of the stands and tackled a 14-year-old getting the better of his son. He claimed the child was doing an illegal move but failed to address why he didn’t let the ref handle it (that father is being charged with injuring a minor).
Competitive parents can be tough. I coached youth basketball for a few years. In Poway, Padres Tony Gwynn and Garry Templeton were always mellow while their sons played. But in La Costa, I coached a tall, skinny kid on the fifth- and sixth-grade team who wasn’t aggressive at rebounding or scoring. And he was really quiet. His dad, however, was a screamer. Not only did he yell at referees, he’d yell instructions to his son. One play was designed for his son to set a pick underneath, then run and post up at the free-throw line. The ball would come to him, and he’d pass to either of the two guards that were cutting to the basket. Well, Dad yelled for his son to shoot the ball. His son heard and forced a shot that was an air ball. When the play was called again later, there were more disastrous results. The shot was blocked by a defender. I called a time-out and instructed my player to listen to me, not his dad. When halftime came, I walked into the stands and approached a 6’3” balding guy. As a 22-year-old, and in front of the other parents, I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. “Sir,” I said, “I need you to stop yelling things from the stands. It’s distracting to the kids. I have plays designed for them. If you want to coach your son, that’s great. But do that on your own time.” To my surprise, he apologized. And for the rest of the season, I never heard a peep from him.
We did have a mother a few weeks later that came out to half-court in high heels to scream at the 16-year-old volunteer referee. She insisted her son hadn’t traveled with the ball. Her five-minute shouting match didn’t change the call. It only embarrassed her 10-year-old son.
HOT-HEADED PARENTS ON ICE
I went to the ice rink in UTC and talked to Tijana Martinovic, the hockey and figure-skating director. I asked her about parents who are a little extreme. She said, “Oh yeah, we see a lot of that. We had an incident one time that got really bad. Child Protective Services got involved. It was a Ukrainian woman. She yelled at her kids and forced them to skate when they didn’t want to. They would always come off the ice crying. Other parents would complain about her. After a woman from Child Protective Services filed a report, we didn’t see her again. With parents, whether it’s ice-skating practices or hockey, we have a rule that while a coach is on the ice with the kids, the parents have to be quiet.”
Aside from the shouting and yelling, what about moms who start their little girls’ training sessions so early in the morning? What about the tendency to begin training at such a young age, hoping to get the next Nancy Kerrigan?
“When kids first start ice skating, the sessions are not that early. But that’s the only time the ice is available for practice. College hockey teams practice at night, and during the day, people are using the ice. If the kids enjoy it, they get used to waking up early to practice before going to school.”
Matt Smith works with Tijana. He’s got bushy red hair and a thick Swedish accent. He’s worked at the UTC rink for a year and a half. He adds, “I’ve never seen anything like I have here in Southern California. The parents are so competitive. All they want to do is win. They want their kids to get to the NHL or win a gold medal in the Olympics. These are five-, six-, seven-year-olds. Parents are yelling at me in my office, complaining that their kids are not getting enough ice time. And we give them all the same amount of time. One game, one kid might get 30 seconds more. I don’t sit there with a stopwatch. But it evens out in the next game. I’m trying to teach the sport and have fun. But they [the parents] get furious. I had a team of nine-year-olds. They were the youngest team in the league. They lost 30 games. When they finally won a game, the parents of the other team were so upset. They cornered this young referee. It was only his second game officiating. I felt so bad for him.”
Why do you think it’s different here than in Sweden?
“I think Sweden is more modest; maybe, also, more realistic. We don’t think we’ll go to the NHL or NBA.”
Their boss walks in. Tijana says, “Do you have any angry-parent stories for this guy?” He looks at me and says, “Are you kidding? I have over 500 kids; each with two parents. I have a few stories each week. I have nightmares about it!”
(IN)FAMOUS SPORTS PARENTS
When you see a player like Tiger Woods, who becomes the best golfer ever, it reinforces all this negative, overachieving attitude parents are involved in. Tiger’s dad started him on golf before the age of one. He was on The Mike Douglas Show golfing with Bob Hope at age two, and there’s another clip of him on Carson golfing at a young age. Instead of a father thinking the odds of their son being the next Tiger are the same as winning the lottery, they think pushing them hard is just the ticket.
Another successful sports father is Richard Williams. His daughters Venus and Serena became the two best players in tennis. He’s told reporters he’d dreamed of a better future for his four daughters and that he would achieve that dream if at least one of them succeeded in sports. He got lucky with two, but from my point of view, it’s a strange dream to have. A career in professional sports, especially for women, is hard to attain. The Williams girls have said in interviews that they were on the tennis courts with their father hitting balls so hard, it was like dodging bullets.
Their former hitting coach, Dave Rineberg, disagrees. He was fired by Richard, but in his book Venus & Serena, My Seven Years as Hitting Coach for the Williams Sisters (Frederick Fell Publishers), he mentions Richard conceiving the dream of them becoming the best women’s tennis players when they were four and five years old. Richard talked about how he was smart to limit their competition during their junior years, and the ways he’d trained them for the pros, and that he’d even pull them from the courts for over a month at a time, to take them to Disney World, for instance, so they’d have a somewhat normal childhood and not burn out.
I think it’s great that Richard did those things, but I’d be willing to bet that if the girls had wanted to quit tennis at age ten, he wouldn’t have let them. I have a problem with that. And while the Williams sisters were winning tournaments, Richard was shouting from the stands and holding up signs. He and his daughters acted unprofessionally — the young women threw their rackets to the ground in anger, tended to withhold kudos for opponents who beat them, and wore clothing and jewelry many considered distracting to their opponents. They turned off many in the tennis world. Richard screamed racism. Someone should have told him that instead of training the girls so hard, he might’ve taught them good sportsmanship and professionalism.
I had a friend who I felt would become one of these Little League dads. He played sports himself and was competitive. When his kids were babies, he talked about getting them into Little League. I thought I’d test him. “What if they don’t want to play baseball?” I asked. “Just because you loved baseball, they might not.” He said, “I won’t make them. If they don’t want to play baseball, they won’t have to.” After a minute of silence, he added, “But they’ll have to play at least a year or two. To see if they don’t like it.”
I haven’t seen him in years but have been told by mutual friends that his kids love sports and excel. His brother says he’s a great coach. But he’s been thrown out of a few games, and he yells at referees. I’m not so sure you can be a great coach for youth if you’re yelling and a poor sport. A coach should lead by example.
A former Grossmont High School P.E. teacher told me, “Kids are competitive enough without having parents and coaches going overboard on top of that. Coaches at the youth level should be teaching the sport. I work in middle school P.E. now, and I stopped letting the kids pick their own teams. Aside from the last ones being picked feeling bad, it wouldn’t be any fun if all the good players were stacked on one team. It wouldn’t be competitive, and everyone would lose interest. But they’d still do it that way, if you let them pick teams themselves. It’s human nature, I guess.”
ADULTS SCREAM BLOODY MURDER…AT A T-BALL GAME FOR FOUR-YEAR-OLDS
I asked my friend Gerald if I could watch his son’s baseball game. “He’s only four,” Gerald said. “He’s playing T-ball. Nobody yells or fights.” I said, “I know parents and coaches. I’m sure I’ll see a fight. If not, I’ll still get a chance to see your kid take a few swings and take a few pictures.”
When I showed up at the fields in San Carlos, I was surprised by the number of SUVs and vans in the parking lot that had painted names and numbers on them and different messages about winning, an athletic extension of the bumper stickers that declare a child “student of the week.” When I was young, I was thrilled just having my parents in the stands every other game.
I arrived early and went to get a Coke. I overheard two guys talking. One said, “I emailed that parent about the kid and how they should move him to center field because he’s hurting the team.” The other parent talked about having lectured his son on how bad his hitting was.
I thought of the scene in the movie Parenthood when Clint Howard yells at Steve Martin because his son has dropped a routine fly ball: “He has no business being out there.”
Michael Running, who runs the “snack shack,” tells me, “The parents here aren’t that bad. The seven- and eight-year-olds, the ‘caps’…they don’t even keep score. It’s the kids that surprise me. The game will end, and one of them will say, ‘It was 12 to 8.’ And they are usually right. Even at those early ages, they want to keep score and see who actually wins.”
When Gerald’s son’s team (the Tigers) played, I couldn’t believe how cute they were. One kid in the outfield pulled a quarter out of his pocket and couldn’t stop talking about how he found it earlier in the day. Another child was in right field but talking to someone in the parking lot. Another kid was picking grass and sprinkling it like confetti. The shortstop, for a brief time, faced the opposite direction.
A ball hit to left field wasn’t thrown to the proper base. And when a coach told a kid to throw the ball to “second base,” the child took the instruction literally and threw the ball at the second-base bag. If not for the second baseman’s quick reflexes, he would’ve been hit in the foot.
Late in the game, the kids all took three pitches. If they didn’t connect, then they were to hit off the T. When Gerald’s son was, for some reason, given an extra pitch, the other coach screamed, “We talked about this before the game!” The coaches yelled, and people walked briskly toward the dugout. I wondered how, with a bunch of kindergarten kids, anyone could care if an extra pitch was thrown. Yet the adults screamed bloody murder, face-to-face, in front of the children.
Tom Czarnecki is a coach for the Tigers. He works wonderfully with children. He makes jokes and explains things well, and when one kid doesn’t want to play in the outfield yet wants to go up to bat, he lets the child do so; he also tells how the other kids all played in the outfield and that maybe next time, he should do that as well. The kids call him “Coach Papa.” I asked him about the fight I’d witnessed. Why would coaches of five-year-olds argue?
“Well, the other team’s coach has been trying to get all the teams to throw pitches to the kids. I was against it from the beginning. They’re too young for pitches. This is a T-ball league. They’re still learning how to hold a bat, approach the plate, and all that. I had a heart attack in October. This was going to be my son-in-law’s team. I was just helping out, since my grandson is playing. They all decided they would throw three pitches to each kid in the last inning. Some of our kids weren’t making contact, and I told my son-in-law to go tell the other team’s coach that it wasn’t working out. And then one of our kids got an extra pitch thrown. And he started screaming about it.”
That day at the field, I had overheard a few parents talking about how competitive this manager was. One said, “I heard a player ask him once what the score was, and he angrily said, ‘It’s a tie. It’s always a tie!’ I think he’s mad they don’t keep score, and in his mind, if it’s zero to zero, what’s the point of even playing?”
I asked Tom why this other coach cares so much about the kids being rushed into taking pitches. He said, “Well, his son is on that team. He’s one of the best players; his kid can hit really well. He wants him to progress as fast as he can, I suppose. But there’s really no reason to rush. What he has to think about is the kid on the team that can’t hit the ball and put himself in that boy’s shoes. It’s about these kids having fun and learning the sport. If you don’t get that, you’re really missing it all. We have a retarded boy on our team. He’s beautiful. He’s the happiest kid in the world. The look in his eyes…that’s the reward you should get doing this.”
It reminded me of a story that happened last year — a 29-year-old coach with a response opposite of Tom’s. In Pennsylvania, this coach offered one of his 8-year-old players $25 to “hit” a teammate with autism — with pitches to the groin and head. The coach hoped it would injure the autistic player, and then he wouldn’t be forced to play the kid. He was convicted for corruption of minors and criminal solicitation to commit simple assault.
Tom told me: “I remember once when the coaches were drafting kids in the ‘majors’ and this 12-year-old wasn’t going to be drafted. They told him to go down a league. He really shouldn’t have had to go down a league. He was ready to play majors. He was so disappointed. I told him I’d take him. He was thrilled. These coaches would rather win than teach the kids or put a smile on their faces. I want to make it fun for them, so that the next year, they want to come back. I saw this kid working years later, and he yelled out my name with a smile on his face. It was great.”
I asked him how long he’d been coaching.
“I had my first team in 1957, in the Detroit area. My boss wanted to keep the kids off the street around his store. With my own kids, it was around 1973. I got to San Diego in 1959, in the Marine Corps, and I met my wife. When we went to the Philippines or Saigon, we gave the kids baseballs. They just wanted to learn. Children love playing. There isn’t that competitive winning aspect of it.”
Have you always just coached the five-year-olds?
“No, no. I did the whole thing. T-ball, majors, pony. I’ve seen it all. My son, son-in-law, they all got into it, too. One of them is in La Mesa. One is now working in Allied Gardens, coaching. And I made sure they were having fun when they were kids. What some parents don’t realize is, with four- and five-year-olds, they are still too young. So, you have fun with them. I had one kid show me a spider he found on the ground. During one practice, a player told me he was ready to go play on the swings, so I let him. That’s what you have to do. Like I said, you want them coming back the following year. And I think those coaches that are yelling at them this young might not get that. Maybe you can do a ‘good cop, bad cop.’ But when you do…I did 20 years of Pop Warner football. If you get on them about something, you should build them back up even more. So, if there’s discipline and finger-shaking, you make them feel even better when they do something right. And that, again, is for when the kids are older; certainly not at this level. With these kids, I’m having hamburgers after one game, ice cream after another. Fun stuff.”
What can you do about crazy parents who aren’t as understanding as you?
“Oh, there are a lot of them out there. You don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard, ‘Why isn’t my kid playing?’ I always say that everyone will get a chance. Other parents want to know why their kid isn’t playing a certain position. I tell them every boy plays every position. Every parent says their kid should be the pitcher [laughs]. I’d tell them they are putting too much pressure on the child. I’d show them they are wrong or that the child wasn’t ready.”
And that worked? It didn’t make them angrier?
“It always did, my philosophy — like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. Sometimes the kid might not be ready, but when they find the right place to fit in, it will work out.”
Before I left, I told Coach Papa that I liked his philosophies on dealing with the young ones. “Watching your game,” I said, “I saw one kid that was running the bases decide to sit down on one. Another decided to leave the base, and when asked why, he said he was thirsty.” Tom said, “Oh yeah, they say funny things. I was teaching them how to hold a bat and the proper stance once. I said, ‘When you go home, have your dad help you with that.’ One kid said, ‘But my mom threw my dad out of the house!’ ”
WOULD I RATHER HAVE HAD A SPORTS-OBSESSED DAD?
A movie called Gracie came out this past spring. Actress Elizabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas, The Karate Kid) produced and stars in it; it’s semi-autobiographical. In the May 27 L.A. Times, Shue said, “Our dad wasn’t the Great Santini, but we did play sports nonstop. All day. Every day.”
I saw the movie, and in many ways Shue’s father was worse. He would make his kids practice in the rain. When his wife complained about all the soccer talk at the table and how she felt left out, it doesn’t change him. In the same interview with the Times, Shue said, “There is no footage of me playing soccer as the only girl. For four years. None.” A few paragraphs later, we learn that in the house the Shue kids lobbed head balls at one another in the living room and pitched baseballs against oven doors.
The movie left me wondering which was worse — the father neglecting the females in his family or going to such extremes to coach his kids. He’d made them come home to practice drills instead of playing with their friends. And he’d quit his job without telling his wife, so he could spend more time coaching the children.
The day after I saw Gracie, I got a phone call informing me that my dad had died. It made it tough to write a story like this. I hadn’t spoken to him in 6 years or seen him in 30. Would I have rather had a father screaming at me from the stands or making me shoot baskets in the rain…than a dad who left my mom when I was four and who chose not to be a part of my life?
SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY FOR PARENTS
I phoned a different friend, in a different part of town, to find out which of his three kids had a soccer game next, which led to my witnessing another adult who screamed in front of ten-year-olds.
One kid was trying to head the ball. The defender ducked beneath him. The referee deemed this dangerous and threw a red card. An assistant coach didn’t like the call and started screaming at the ref. The assistant coach was thrown out and had to leave the field. The problem with that? His son was in the game. When the boy saw his dad leaving, he started to cry. Can you imagine the many things the child could’ve been crying over? He might have wondered if his dad was going to jail. He might have wondered how he’d get home. Or, he might have simply been embarrassed. All ruining a pleasant Saturday afternoon.
I asked psychotherapist and certified thanatologist Ruth Schriebman, who is in private practice, to tell me her thoughts on these overly competitive adults.
“We live in a competitive society,” she said. “I remember when my daughter was seven. We had her signed up for soccer. We lived in a diverse area. There were often mothers and fathers, even at practice, yelling and screaming for their kids to score goals. The competition was intense. One time the coach, a local physician, took the kids back to his house. This was before cell phones. I showed up and my daughter wasn’t at the field and I panicked. When I finally found out where she was and picked her up, I went ballistic. All the coach said was ‘But…she scored a goal today.’ Right then I took her out of soccer. We live behind a grammar school, and I hear the coaches yelling at the kids. For some coaches, this is a big part of their life. The kids are the focal point. And many parents live vicariously through their children. Having an athletic superstar can be a way into a good college on scholarship. There are parents who are hoping athletics will pay for college. I know somebody who is in the sports industry. He played professionally and coached on all levels. The family knows the kids won’t get in on scholastic achievements, but the kids are great athletes. This is what they are depending on.”
Is there any type of counseling that can help aggressive coaches or parents realize the effects of constant yelling? How many sessions are necessary?
“You can’t say [whether] someone might need three sessions or eight,” Schriebman said. “Everyone is different. And, yes, it would be great if leagues had mandatory rules and meetings before the season started, stating that if a parent or coach acted inappropriately on the field, there would be ramifications.”
If they were shown videos of how insane they look, would that help?
“I suppose. But you can’t mandate people to go to anger management. Occasionally, someone will become a coach because they like the attention. And it’s not against the law for them to yell. I would suggest, though, not having the parent as the head coach. It becomes too personal. Maybe it works better if they are assistant coaches.”
Why don’t other parents say or do anything? It’s almost as if they accept this behavior.
“Sometimes, the yelling is encouraged. Sometimes, they are trying to distract an opponent so they goof. And, really, parents who act this way…well, it has to do with internal values. Many times their behavior is fear-based. The child is an extension of the parent. If the kid doesn’t perform, the parent feels humiliated. And that’s a bad feeling.
“Empathy develops at around six or seven years of age. You start to realize you can’t treat someone like that. But in some adults that awareness isn’t fully developed. In a competitive atmosphere, it shows. They haven’t matured, and it carries over.”
WERE PRO ATHLETES DRIVEN BY THEIR PARENTS?
San Diego Padre pitcher Chris Young had an autograph signing in UTC. I wanted to find out about some Padre players’ youth baseball experiences. I asked Young, “How old were you when you started playing baseball?”
“I was five,” he said. I asked if his parents were hard-core Little League types that pushed him and screamed from the stands. “Oh no,” he said. “They were great. They never pushed me to play, and they never screamed the way some parents can.”
I tried to ask another question but was drowned out by autograph-seekers.
I also talked to Padre first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who grew up and played in leagues in Chula Vista. The two major leaguers had similar answers to my questions, but I doubt that that will dissuade parents from pushing their kids hard to get them into the big leagues.
Gonzalez was the number-one pick of the 2000 baseball draft. When I saw him in a cell phone store in Chula Vista I asked, “At what age did you start playing baseball?”
“I was four years old.”
Was your dad one of those hard-core parents yelling from the stands?
“No. He played it. And in Little League, when he coached it, he coached me only one year. He was laid-back, really mellow.”
What do you think about parents that aren’t laid-back and are yelling from the bleachers?
“Oh, there’s no need for it. Let the kids play, and if they like it, they are going to enjoy it.”
I talked to local legend and Hall of Fame basketball great Bill Walton. He said, “Some of these parents are more concerned with their kid becoming the Next Big Thing, and they lose sight of what’s really important. I think this is the most important thing in the world right now and should be for any parent. I just wrote the foreword to a book on this very subject [Revolution in the Bleachers]. Sports should be a positive aspect for a youngster. The impetus for fun and good health. A coach, or a parent, should provide leadership. They should make it fun. I don’t care if you’re a politician, community leader, or boss. You don’t have to yell and bully people. If I’d had coaches like that growing up, I wouldn’t have had a career. I would’ve just said, ‘This isn’t fun’ and left. And my dad, he was the most unathletic person around. I never shot a single basket with him. The one time I saw him run at a church picnic, he almost fell down. I died laughing. But he was always up there in the stands cheering me on, with that big baritone voice.”
Maybe the fact that your dad wasn’t athletic and didn’t know a lot about basketball helped — he couldn’t yell when you did things wrong.
“My dad was always supportive, no matter what. He taught me about love, life, friendship, education, and so much more. Parents can lead by example. Knowing about the sport has little to do with it. A UCLA guard and former pro named Greg Lee, who now lives in San Diego, is a great friend. His dad was a high school coach. He was always positive and great around kids. It’s the idiots out there and egomaniacs like Bobby Knight. They think it’s about them. When Knight was mercilessly fired from Indiana, Time called me up to write an essay comparing him to Coach Wooden [UCLA]. I was up to a thousand words and they said, ‘Uh, let’s pare this down a bit.’ Wooden taught me so much, and without the brow-beating and intimidation. Coaches like Bobby Knight…they are out of control. It would be great if coaches like that were weeded out along the way.”
I agreed that Knight is out of control. But on the college level, and even for high school, I don’t have a problem with coaches yelling. I played high school ball at Mira Mesa, and our coach had to yell at us and make us run laps if we screwed up. We knew the deal. It’s what coaches do.
Walton said, “Why do they have to do that at any level? I don’t care how old they are! Even college or NBA coaches. Look at what Don Nelson accomplished last year. He’s not like that. When I played in the NBA, I was lucky enough to be coached by people like Red Aurebach, Jack Ramsey, Lenny Wilkens, Paul Silas [with the San Diego Clippers], Chaney. They were all positive. At Helix High, coach Gordon Nash was fantastic. And my first coach in El Cajon — Rocky. He made everything fun. Even going to practice, you looked forward to. He was such a humble human being. It was an honor, a thrill, to be on a team for a coach that was so selfless. I think every level I played, it was made fun.”
When I played summer league at Muni Gym in Balboa Park, I often saw Walton up there with his two sons. He was great with them. I’d also see him at the three-on-three tournaments I played in 17 years ago. I asked him to tell me about coaching those.
“First off, I have four kids, not just two. They’re all two years apart. There’s Adam, Nathan, Chris [who played basketball at SDSU and is an assistant coach at USD High], and Luke [who’s playing with the Lakers]. Lori and I always encouraged them to play for health and the fun group dynamic. The choice to continue on was theirs. Or even if basketball was the sport they wanted to play, and how much time they wanted to dedicate to it. It’s their lives. As parents, your job is to help them achieve their goals. Parents sometimes try to live their dreams through their children. I never coached mine. I wanted to be a dad first. And I could be a tough coach.”
Couldn’t you do both? They would have respected and understood your toughness.
“Sometimes you can’t do that. What if something isn’t in the best interest of the team? Are you going to tell your son he isn’t getting it done? I would rather be there in the stands to give them a hug after the game and tell them I love them and cheer them on.”
When you watched your kids play and saw other parents yelling, did you ever approach them? I’d have to think a 6’11” former NBA player would garner respect if you told them they didn’t have the right approach with their kids.
“No. You can’t really do that. I just tried to lead by example, by cheering my kids on and being positive. Sports has that dark side, and bullies seem to come in and think it’s their world. But the kids are smart. You can’t fool them. They know what’s real out there. They know the people that are out of control, and they want to get away from those people, and they say, ‘Let’s get out of here. This is not for us.’ ”
I still can’t get past the fact that you don’t think a college coach should ever yell. Don’t you think there are the occasional times a player needs to be yelled at? I think of Vince Lombardi yelling at Bart Starr. Or even Burgess Meredith yelling at Rocky in the movies. I think sometimes coaches need to yell at players, and when they’re teenagers, the players understand that. The player might not be concentrating, and a good yell helps them focus.
“No! Never. It’s not necessary. It isn’t. Listen…a situation isn’t going to change with one speech or one play being called. But with lessons and values, and reinforcements of these things, the players will get it, without the overbearing bullying that some coaches want to continue with. Coaches impact lives and should show compassion and unconditional love. Coaches that are bullies care only about themselves.”
The Jr. NBA and WNBA have Ray Allen of the Bucks and coach Doc Rivers, you, and a few others involved. Is your passion for teaching and influencing kids one of the reasons you got involved?
“Yes. We constantly work with children. We’re there to coach them, mentor them, and council them when they need us. There’s over 20 million kids playing basketball in the U.S. And the program has been hugely successful on a global scale since its inception four years ago. I impart the same values that I did to my sons on a daily basis, along with the fundamentals, hustle, and everything else; learning to both win and lose with class and dignity and compete like a true sportsman. I get to coach a team during the All-Star weekend. There’s nothing like seeing a smile on a person’s face. When I see a smile on my own child’s face, I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
I read once that your dad wasn’t into sports but was a piano player. Would he have liked it more to see you in a piano recital instead of on a basketball court?
“My dad would’ve supported me in whatever I wanted to do. Like I said, I’m very lucky. My parents realized sports were part of a bigger world, and they supported my basketball and my dreams. And that bigger world included education, literature, art, social awareness, and music. My dad led by example. And hard work. He had to work three jobs to put food on the table. He was always supportive. He was more into the arts and not athletics. He sang in the church choir and played Mozart on the piano. But, 15 years ago, I told him my legs didn’t work anymore and that I wanted him to teach me piano. He said, ‘Bill, I’m a very proud dad.’ I told him I was a very lucky, old son. He passed away 3 years ago…”
A few days later I got a phone call and email from Walton. He sends me pages and pages of research on the subject.
I talked to another former San Diego athlete.
Brian Sipe was the SDSU quarterback who led the NCAA in passing in 1971. He went on to become the Cleveland Browns’ all-time leading passer and was the league MVP in 1980. Since he’s been coaching the football team at Santa Fe Christian High in Solana Beach for a few years now, I thought his opinions on how parents and coaches relate to kids would be enlightening.
I told him first about my disagreement with Bill Walton over the issue of coaches yelling. He also disagreed with Walton. “Coaches can be successful no matter what their temperament,” Sipe said. “When I became a coach, I had no experience. I was playing catch-up. I had this book by Lou Holtz I was skimming through, and it said a player should look for the three things in a coach: is it someone who can be trusted, someone committed to excellence, and does this person care about me? If you can answer yes to those three questions, it doesn’t matter the temperament, or if the coach yells. The player understands the goals of the coach and respects that. They realize that the person is engaging them and is someone who cares about them. If a child is too young to ask those questions, then I think they’re too young to play organized sports.”
What about youth sports, when the children are ten? Obviously, the kids gain something from that experience, and a coach doesn’t need to yell.
Sipe said, “I think parents get their kids into organized sports too young. They should have free play and organize it themselves. When I was in La Mesa, at around 11 or 12 years old, my team won the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania. That was the highest level of youth players, arguably, in the world. When I was coaching my son’s Little League team in Del Mar, the same age range, I couldn’t get them to understand things I thought were basic. If there was a runner on second base and a ball is hit to them, where the ball should be thrown. They were unprepared. I got so frustrated, I told them not to bring their gloves to the next practice, and we played ‘work up’ with a Wiffle ball. Growing up, we always played that. You could play it with just a few kids in a garage or a whole bunch out in the park. They weren’t even familiar with that game. It’s because kids don’t even seem to go out on their own and play the sports anymore without it being organized by adults.”
Do you think that has to do with computer games, TV, and other interests kids have?
“It could be a ‘which came first/chicken or the egg’ scenario. If you were a six-year-old wearing an old uniform, with adults telling you what to do and where to go, would you enjoy it? Or would you quit playing and have more fun in front of the computer? When I was a kid, we rode our bikes to the fields for games, and usually our parents weren’t there. We were surprised if they were. Now the parents are there, and sometimes that’s when problems arise. And in some of the youth games, they don’t keep score. Well, if you aren’t going to keep score, why have umpires and adults even involved? Let the kids just sign up, pick teams, and play. They can make their own rules.”
Well, that might be a little too unorganized. You might get bullies, and…
“So what,” said Sipe. “That’s all part of growing up. They’ll learn to deal with the bullies. Hey, I’m 59 and I still have bullies in my life [laughs]. It’s the same thing with players all getting trophies. I don’t think that’s necessary. Sometimes kids need to learn, that’s a part of life, that you don’t always win or receive an award. And if the kids want to keep score, let them keep score.”
As a former player at the highest level of the game, do you expect more from kids?
“Probably. I coached youth soccer for three years when my daughter played. And since I’m a former player, people were quick to offer me coaching jobs. But playing and coaching are different assignments. Success can sometimes disqualify you from being a good coach. Bill Cowher [former Steelers’ coach, now CBS commentator on NFL Today] was a teammate of mine in Cleveland. He was always just barely making the team. But he survived by exploring every aspect of the game. He was learning to become a coach back then.”
I’ve seen Cowher do some yelling, but he’s yelling at other adult NFL players. You don’t see a problem with that style, obviously.
“I’ve played for a few gnarly coaches. I’m dating myself with that adjective. Don Coryell at SDSU, he was soft. But, Forrest Gregg in the NFL was intimidating. A rough guy. But I knew what their commitments were, and I didn’t mind going into battle with them.”
How do you handle crazy parents?
“My mom said she remembers some hassles in the stands when I was a kid, but I don’t remember any back then. Parents need to learn their kids aren’t perfect, and the kids need to learn for themselves. In the beginning of the season, I let people know how things are going to be. I tell them the reason their kids come out is to win a championship and I’m going to try to help them do that. I think certain standards are important. Sometimes a kid might not play as much as someone else or be recognized the same way. This is a time when life collides with sports, and it’s the peak of their athletic experience. Most will have none after high school. None will be paid to play professionally. And if that rare player does make it to that level, it won’t be as enjoyable a time as it was in high school.”
Do you think crazy parents get that way because professional sports is their ultimate goal?
“Some parents think that. I tell them that 20 or fewer get scholarships in Division I out of the San Diego Section. That’s everything south of Riverside — over three million kids. It’s amazing how early in a child’s life the parent is considering athletic scholarships. And, them wanting their child to be a professional athlete — there’s not a more dysfunctional group of people around.”
Quarterback Todd Marinovich, who played briefly for the Raiders, had a dad pushing him to play quarterback at an early age, making him throw passes and do weight training strenuously before the age of 12. He ended up doing heroin and being arrested for a variety of things.
I asked Sipe if it’s easier for him, as former NFL player, to talk to these parents.
“Yes. I get cut slack because of my playing career.”
You teach at a Christian high school. How has your religion affected your coaching?
“My religion has completely [affected it]. If it weren’t for my belief in God…I thought I was done with football. But God gave me talents, and I wanted to teach these kids and give something back.”
YOUTH COACH HAS A MILLION STORIES
Driving back from my interview with Sipe, I tuned in disc jockey Dave Palet, who does the morning sports show for XTRA 1360 AM (co-hosted with Jeff Dotseth). He told a story on the air that shocked me. Since he coaches the EastLake High School freshman baseball team, as well as a few Little League teams, I gave him a call.
Palet said, “I’ve always told people, with these reality shows now, if they just filmed these Little League parents and made a show out of it, it would be the best 30 minutes of TV. The parents are crazy. And so are some of the coaches.”
What happened with your high school football team when you played?
“When I was 15 years old, I got in a fight in the locker room. I was defending myself and broke the shin of the best player on our team. He ended up becoming the best player in the city. The coach was mad and set me up in practices. I was the quarterback, but he started playing me at running back and telling everyone to hit me as hard as they could. One player refused. Everyone else did what the coach said. For a week, I was going home with blood coming out of my head. The coach then called me into the showers, with no one around. He told me I wasn’t wanted and that I should quit. I told him I wasn’t a quitter, and he put his fist in front of my face. He told me my sister was a whore, and so was my mom. He told me he wanted to fight, and I said, ‘I don’t fight teachers.’ My mom wanted to go to the police, but my dad wouldn’t let her. I was bleeding so much from my head and body…basically, because of this incident, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my grandmother. The only other option was changing schools, but the one was an all-boys’ school, which I didn’t want to attend. The others were too far away.”
One fight involving an adult and a player, Palet did witness.
“I was watching a Little League playoff game. These were 14-year-olds, and the shortstop missed a fast line drive. Craig Nettles wouldn’t have been able to get the ball, it was hit that hard. But his dad thought he should’ve, and he jumped over the fence and punched his son right in the face. Coaches and umpires grabbed him and called the cops. Other times, I see parents in the stands watching practices. I would’ve been mortified if my dad did that. But, they do things like compile their kids’ stats and send the info to coaches. It’s crazy.”
As a coach, what do you do to help keep parents in check?
“At the beginning of the season, I tell everyone to be positive. If a player makes a mistake, they have to persevere. If the options are yelling and wanting to kick ass, or patting someone on the back, I’m going to pat a kid on the back. If I hear a kid tell another kid, ‘You suck,’ I bench them. I only yell at one player. That’s my son, and it’s not extreme comments. It might be things like, ‘Don’t worry about it, move on.’ Or maybe I’ll tell him to focus. You have to be careful with other people’s kids. There was a time my son ran into home, and he didn’t know how to slide. He slowed down but ran into the catcher. The other coach grabbed my son, and I jumped over and grabbed the coach. I was ready to knock him out. He’s a friend of mine now, but he put his hands on my kid. Another guy I’m friends with got in my face, arguing over the rules. He wouldn’t back down, and we almost fought.”
Palet told me he had a million stories. There was a time a coach told a pitcher to hit his son with a pitch. Palet laughed. “Coaches are as bad as parents. Every year I would be voted to be the all-star coach. I think it’s because the kids liked the fact that I was positive and not negative. When I hear parents in the stands being negative, sometimes to shut them up, the umpires or coaches say, ‘We can use more volunteers, if you think you can do better.’ That usually shuts them up. One time, I couldn’t shut this lady up. Her son was pitching, and she was yelling out stuff like ‘He’s afraid of you. He’s overrated and he sucks.’ She was going on like that, and the batter could hear this. I went up to her and said, ‘That boy’s parents are probably sitting ten feet from you.’ She looked at me like I was crazy and continued yelling and ripping this kid.”
I asked why coaches that do crazy things aren’t thrown out of the league. Palet said, “They don’t have enough coaches sometimes. They are volunteering. Sure, they do background checks to make sure they are safe to be around kids. But they should be stricter and let the coaches know it’s a privilege. You can always coach up and be positive, instead of giving a kid the minimum amount of playing time and making it a bad experience.”
KEEP QUIET AND PLAY
I decided to ask one of the lawyers I play basketball with if he’s ever had any cases involving parents or coaches in youth sports. He said, “My firm never has, but I’ve heard of those cases. I’ll tell ya, soccer moms are the absolute worst. When my daughter was going to a Catholic school, there were girls on the soccer team that played on a traveling team. That, I thought was stupid. Do 12-year-olds need to go to Phoenix or Los Angeles to play games? They can’t find enough 12-year-olds here? But they took a handful of the best girls and separated them into different teams. When the team my daughter was on played, the girls from the traveling team were yelling at their own teammates about how they were doing everything wrong. I told my daughter to knock it off. She said, ‘It’s not me.’ I told her I knew that but that she should end it. The next time her teammate said something negative to another player, my daughter told her to keep quiet and just play. The team lost, and all the mothers were standing around angry and saying, ‘I knew we shouldn’t have split up the girls from the traveling team. Now look what happened.’ It’s just a game, but they would rather have the team winning than have a variety of players.”
ANOTHER WALTON WEIGHS IN
I wanted to contact one last high school coach. Since Bill Walton’s son Chris coaches at USD, I gave him a call. I said, “Your dad mentions in a piece he wrote that the greatest thrill for a parent in the stands is when your kid looks up at you and thanks you for coming to the game. Did he ever surprise you by showing up for a game when he was supposed to be out of town working?”
“Actually, no. He traveled so much. That was hard. The NBA schedule usually coincided with our basketball games, and he spent two thirds of his time on the road. Every chance he could, though, he’d be at our games. That was always cool for us. Our mom was really a saint. She was the foundation for us for so long. And she would take us to games and tournaments, often driving up to L.A.”
Did your mom scream from the stands?
“No. She was mild-mannered and always supported us. Our parents didn’t push us to play basketball. School and education was the most important thing to them. My dad, having been injured for so much of his career, knew that it could all end. So he stressed the importance of an education. And even though they didn’t push basketball, when you’re 6’4” in seventh grade, you kind of weed out the other sports and gravitate toward basketball.”
Did you ever play for a coach with a temper?
“No. I never did. I was blessed that I always played for great coaches — from when I was a child, up to playing for Steve Fischer at San Diego State. We went to private schools, and the coaches there were good teachers and never over the top.”
As a kid, what did you think when you saw another coach yelling?
“If I saw a coach cursing or stomping their feet, I really just felt sorry for those players. And some parents were always going up to the coach to ask why their kid didn’t get more playing time. Often, those coaches had a son that played on that team. And, my dad played for coaches like K.C. Jones and Jack Ramsey. They didn’t yell. They just knew what kind of basketball they wanted to see and then let you play. Basketball should be fun, whether you are 10 or 25 years old and in the NBA.”
How has all this influenced you as a coach?
“I take a little from here and there and from many of the coaches I’ve seen over the years. I learned a lot from my dad, too. I think sometimes there is a time and place when you need to be a little stern and tell the players to focus. But I also feel that the players should be having fun and be competitive, without being scared. If a coach yells and scares the player, the players are more worried about making a mistake. They are looking over at the bench all the time, instead of just playing. That can hurt their confidence level.”
Recently, I saw my fifth-grade coach at Alliant International University on Pomerado Road. He was in the bleachers watching his son play. He wasn’t yelling, throwing chairs, or causing a commotion. He had a big smile on his face. He applauded when the team scored and never once yelled. Maybe he’s matured.
Of course, it helped that his son was the best player on the court.