Monday, October 12, 2009

What We Teach Our Young Athletes

Do you mind if I vent a bit? I’m just being polite; the vent is going to happen whether you mind or not. This vent or rant or whatever you want to call it really doesn’t have anything to do with the things that might normally lead someone to read this blog. As a parent of two kids in school sports programs, I’ve got some things that I’ve just got to get off my chest.

Let’s start with high school football. My son is a freshman, and I’ll grant you that he’s not the greatest athlete in the world. I wasn’t either as a high school freshman. But the kid’s got lots of genetic potential that could blossom during his junior and senior year. The problem is that I don’t think the program is seriously interested in developing potential.

Our school has a small squad of freshman players. Some of the freshmen were called up to play at the varsity level, so after only two freshman games, the rest of the freshman schedule was cancelled. The varsity and junior varsity squads were recently decimated by a scandal that resulted in seven players being suspended for the remainder of the season. And so, on the most recent Saturday, the junior varsity game saw a total of 18 players suited up. One of those players had his arm in a cast, and another spent the entire second half of the game with ice on his leg. The quarterback was only playing on offense, leaving a total of 15 players available to play defense. You would expect, therefore, that all of the players would be rotated in, so that they could get some experience. After all, the JV game matters about as much as a varsity scrimmage. That is to say, the final score doesn’t matter at all, because there’s no conference JV trophy awarded at the end of the season. The whole purpose is to develop the younger players (unless I’m missing something). But there were two freshman players (my son being one), who got next to no playing time.

Playing time is not the root of my complaint, development is. During practice, the players will occasionally run drills in which they go head-to-head with another player. During those drills, my son is always paired with the other freshman tackle, who just happens to be the other freshman who gets next to no playing time. The other freshman tackle also happens to be the smallest player on the team and, until recently diagnosed with a pulled muscle, thought that he had a hernia. How are either of these two players supposed to improve their skills?

Another example? My player informs me that they never run the plays. The varsity squad runs the plays, and the JV players are expected to learn the plays by watching the varsity squad and studying the play book. I hope you’ll excuse me if I say that I think this is nuts! On the rare occasion that my son does get to play, he’s expected to execute plays that he’s never had the chance to practice! I can, to some extent, forgive him, therefore, when he has to concentrate on remembering what he’s supposed to do during a play. During one play on the one defensive series that he played on Saturday, the running back for the opposing team ran past him on the line. I asked him about that after the game. His response was that the back ran through “B” gap, and on that play, he is supposed to plug “A” gap. The center was responsible for “B” gap. I can tell him that he needs to react to the ball, but at the same time, I can forgive him for not wanting to mis-execute a play that he’s barely had time to practice.

Can I make one more football complaint? Before the home games, in the locker room, the players are force to listen to music by Taylor Swift. I have nothing against Taylor Swift; she seems like a sweet girl. But her music is not going to get football players pumped up for what is, inherently, a violent, full-contact contest. The junior high volleyball players get to listen to more aggressive music! But I also object to the obnoxious and vulgarity-laced rap by Ice Cube (with vocal assist by Snoop Dogg) that was played following the team’s sole win of the season. Team captains should be given some leeway in selecting the locker room music, but not free rein!

In spite of this, my freshman still looks at the pre-season poster, with the photos of the seniors around the edge, and expects to see his picture there three years from now. I hope that he still feels that way next year.

I can’t say the same thing regarding my eighth-grade daughter. The eighth grade volleyball team has nine players this year. With six on the court at a time, that leaves three subs. Two of those subs get next to no playing time. In one recent match, the eighth grade team lost both games (the first team to win two games wins the match, so all matches are either two or three games), and my daughter didn’t get to step foot on the court until the last three points of the second game. We complained after that, so in the next match, after not playing at all in the first game, our daughter played one full rotation in the second game, during which she made no mistakes that cost her team a point. When she left the game, the score was tied. The team went on to lose, with my daughter spending the rest of the game on the sideline. She gets to watch other girls make mistakes that cost the team points, while she doesn’t even get the chance to contribute either way. She’s frustrated, her mother is frustrated, and it is very unlikely that she’ll even be interested in trying to play at the high school level. Whatever flicker of potential there might have been has been effectively crushed.

This past summer, she played pony-league softball. Our village fields teams that compete against other villages with schools in the same athletic conference as our school. We didn’t quite have enough girls to field three teams, so we ended up with two teams with large rosters. During games, ten of the girls take to the field at a time, but all of the girls on the roster are included in the batting line-up. To make things a little bit manageable during the season, each girl on the team was asked to pick two games to sit out. This gave all of the girls on the team a chance to get a little more playing time in the field. I could understand this. But when it came time for the tournament, the coach asked certain girls not to show up, so that he wouldn’t have to include them in the lineup. Understandably, those asked not to show were a little miffed.

Sports are a wonderful thing, or at least they can be. I’ve been able to draw a lot of life-lessons from my own experience with running. The things I learned from my own participation in high school cross country and wrestling were that perseverance and hard work paid off, mostly through the principle of delayed gratification. Sometimes, however, I have to wonder just what it is that our children are supposed to be learning from all of this. My daughter is displaying an impressive amount of stoic poise, and my son is learning to accept defeat. Beyond that, the lesson seems to be that only the starters matter, and that is the wrong lesson, not least because it is short-sighted and ensures that any team success will last only as long as the current group of naturally-talented players.


Anonymous said...

I wish I could wave that majic wond and wish them little again so they wouldn't need to experience such stupidity in coaches!

I'm so agravated that I refuse to go to any more volleyball games!!!

Anonymous said...

Yep, it is definitely frustrating. Tell them to keep their heads up and don't give up, their talent and hard work with tear through the politics of living in a small town.

Kurt H said...

I am beginning to think that the daughter who has shown absolutely no interest in sports stands the best chance of escaping from our school system emotionally intact.