Remembering When Youth Sports Were Child's Play

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Today's guest post is by Ethan J. Skolnick. Ethan is a sports columnist, a host on The Ticket Miami (104.3FM and 790AM), and the co-author of "Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports." www.raisingyourgamebook.com (a book I highly recommend!). As one of the most prominent voices in South Florida sports, I am truly humbled that he would guest post for me. Take it away Ethan! 

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Over the course of 18 years as a sportswriter in South Florida, I have had the opportunity to interview countless prominent athletes, and in my current capacity as a columnist covering the Miami Heat, I have had the chance to interview two in particular--LeBron James and Dwyane Wade--countless interviews.

One interview was more enjoyable than all of the others, even if it didn’t last all that long.

It was enjoyable because it was so relatable, and it made me realize how every adult, if just for a moment, should take time to remember what it was like to be a child.

The interview occurred inside the Amway Center in Orlando, following a shootaround early the Miami Heat’s 2011-12 season. I was in the closing stages of my research for a book project, and I had been waiting for an opening to chat with James alone, in a relaxed setting. I stuck around through his 5-minute general media availability, briefed James about my project and asked when he would have a few minutes to talk about youth sports. Then, not to overstay my welcome, I started to walk away.

“We can do it now,” he said, tapping me on the leg.

So I started, speeding through the list of questions in my head, since I knew our time was limited by the Heat’s schedule, with the buses waiting to take players back to the hotel. I got through just three before he had to stand, because Wade had finished his own media session, and had come over to grab his friend and stroll out of the arena.

A couple of James’ answers – focusing on the importance of mentors – would make the final cut of “Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports,” which was co-authored by Dr. Andrea Corn and is now available at www.raisingyourgamebook.com and on Amazon.

The informal interaction between James and Wade, during their 100-foot walk, would take a more prominent place. It would become the book’s introduction.

That interaction came in response to a question I posed in the presence of both:

What did they play as children?

The two international icons suddenly dropped their guards, ditched their adult worries, and transported back to a much more innocent time. As kids of broken homes, they had escaped their challenging environments on their playgrounds. And, now as scrutinized superstars, they escaped the pressures of that status by returning to those playgrounds.

James started, by speaking of free-frog and kickball.

“That was the best game, because you didn’t need much,” James said, eyes beaming. “All you need is a dirt field, and you can find anything to make as bases, and you just go for it. Because for us underprivileged kids, we didn’t have basketballs all the time; we didn’t have courts; we didn’t have footballs all the time. So you find a little kickball. You can make a kickball anything.”

Wade broke in, to recall one of his Chicago favorites, VBB, which described as a combination of volleyball, baseball and basketball that was “so much fun!”

They appeared as interested in the other’s childhood memories as the reporter with the recorder, still sharing stories about the subject until they boarded the bus.

After I’d gotten them talking, it got me thinking:

Wade and James were describing what sports should be, for today’s kids. They should be free. They should be fun or, as Wade put it, “so much fun!” That fit perfectly with one of the major premises of our book--that, too often, too many parents and coaches were forgetting that fact. It’s not an accident that 70 percent of children quit youth sports by age 13. It’s often because the adults in their lives don’t act like adults. Too many of those would-be mentors do too much pushing, and too little listening. Too many of them are living vicariously through children, while limiting their horizons. Too many of them are limiting children to one sport or activity, because they incorrectly assume that such single-minded dedication will result in long-term success--not realizing that it’s more likely to turn off a young athlete than to turn him into the next James or Wade or Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter.

In the third section of our book (“Why Limits Matter”) we focus on those parents and coaches, to illustrate the pitfalls of youth sports when priorities are out of order. We focus on them through the eyes of elite athletes who are now parents--and, in some cases, youth coaches--themselves.

Many expressed alarm by what they have witnessed, and encountered, in youth sports settings: adults yelling at kids, umpires, coaches; forcing their kids to specialize at a tender age; focusing on outcomes over process, winning over development. There isn’t time or space to share all of their anecdotes and advice, but former Miami Dolphins defensive standout Jason Taylor – who has two school-aged sons and recently served as a flag football coach – had a message that bore repeating in the book, and bears repeating here.

“I think the same thing goes for parents and coaches—to an extent,” Taylor said. “Shut up and clap. Just shut up and clap. Let them have fun. They are not going to be pros. They are not going to make every play. Heck, we are paid to do it and we don’t do it.”

As a major league pitcher, most notably with the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s and 2000s, John Smoltz did it as well as just about anyone. Still, when he attended his four children's sporting events, he kept quiet. Other parents would ask why. “Because everybody else is doing things that are so embarrassing,” Smoltz said. “And I know the kids are trying their best. But you’re yelling encouragements that are just discouragements to kids. You go to a Little League game, and you hear, ‘Keep your eye on the ball! Get the ball down!’ You know if the kid could do it, the kid would do it.’”

But that’s the problem.

Too many adults don’t seem to know, any longer, what it was like to be a kid.

From time to time, they should think back to those days.

As LeBron James and Dwyane Wade demonstrated back on that 2011 day, during a casual and lively conversation, doing so can be fun. So much fun.                                                 

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For more stories like this don't forget to check out Ethan's book on www.raisingyourgamebook.com  or Amazon and be sure to follow him on Twitter

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Tayo Rockson

Tayo Rockson is an avid lover of sports, marketing and non profit who loves helping and meeting new people. This blog is a refection of all he has learned. You can reach him at tayorockson@yahoo.co.uk or on Twitter at @TayoRockson.

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