Fixing Kids' Sports
Rescuing children's games from crazed coaches and parents
Thompson's manuscript made its way to Phil Jackson, then the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Jackson, recalling his own trying years in youth sports, was struck: "It fused a lot of my thinking," he said. He decided to test Thompson's theory at the pro level. At the time, Jackson was riding one of his players, Horace Grant, pretty hard, and their relationship had fallen apart. Jackson tried the positive approach, and things turned around. Jackson, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, became the PCA's national spokesman.
Its influence has been sizable. The PCA's 65 trainers have run workshops for 400 youth sports organizations, training an estimated 60,000 coaches and parents. "I can tell you the first year we ran PCA programs the number of coaches being ejected from games was cut drastically," says Tim Casey, former vice president of Chicagoland Pop Warner football conference. The Dallas Parochial League, with 3,500 fifth to eighth graders enrolled in 11 sports, began offering PCA workshops to all coaches. In basketball, "our most volatile sport," says athletic director B. J. Antes, technical fouls dropped from over 100 to 26 in three years. This year, PCA workshops will no longer be optional, Antes says. "It's too darned important not to make it mandatory." Coaches say they like the PCA's "dual goal" approach: striving to win, but using sports to teach life lessons. PCA workshops stress "honoring the game," mastering sports skills, and shrugging off mistakes. "The way I see the world of youth sports," Thompson says, "is that the win-at-all-costs mentality is the root of all evil."
Studies confirm this. A survey last summer at the National PTA Convention in Charlotte, N.C., found 44 percent of parents saying that their child had dropped out of a sport because it made him or her unhappy. These parents were not wimps. In fact, 92 percent of the respondents said sports were either important or very important to the overall development of their children. But 56 percent said that youth sports were too competitive, nearly half said that organized youth sports need to be completely revamped, and half said if they could change one thing, they would want their coach to be less focused on winning. Many surveys support this conclusion: Most kids would prefer to play a lot on a team that loses than sit on the bench of a team that wins.
For all the progress that the Fred Enghs and Jim Thompsons have made, however, they have yet to address a development of the '80s and '90s that has swept up many families. Known as travel teams, they are formed of the best players in a league or a community, may be coached by a volunteer parent or a well-paid coach, and travel to other towns--and sometimes even other states--to play teams of their own caliber. Also known as elite, select, or club teams, they're found in virtually every town in the nation.
At their best, travel teams provide young players with professional-level coaching, better competition, and even family bonding. "The clubs get very tight. They like each other; they travel with each other; they go on trips. It becomes much more of a long-term social thing as well as a competitive thing," says Craig Ciandella, California director of United States Specialty Sports Association baseball, which has 1,300 teams. Many young athletes believe their clubs give them the accelerated development they need to make the high school varsity or go beyond. "It's no longer a myth: If your kid wants to make a high school team, he has to play club ball," says Jim Tuyay, a tournament director with the California Beach Volleyball Association. "They're getting the training and the attention that the normal rec leagues are not providing."