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Archive for January 12, 2023

Jan. 12, 2023 — The January get-togethers

Over the next two weeks, there are three major get-togethers involving sports and youth sports. The United Soccer Coaches’ Convention in Philadelphia, the U.S. Lacrosse Convention in Baltimore, and the National Field Hockey Coaches’ Association Convention in Lake Mary, Fla. allow major figures in the game, vendors, sponsors, and others to meet, mingle, and share ideas.

Many of these ideas revolve around the mental health of athletes, something which I feel is long overdue in youth sports. All three of these conventions have some sort of seminar or panel on this topic, and address them in various ways.

As youth sports transitions out of pandemic-era controls on the participants, coaches, spectators, and the sport itself, coaching and scholastic administration look like they are playing a game of catch-up. I’m seeing, in many spaces, a different relationship between coach and player from what I saw three decades ago.

I’ve seen first-hand a pool of potential walkons walk right back off again; the pool of 64 wound up being somewhere between six and eight to add to the varsity program which was coached by a Hall-of-Famer. But this wasn’t a group which was verbally brow-beaten, or made to work past physical exhaustion, or thrown into mid-July heat. As a coach once told me of hometown walk-ons, “Often, they’ll self-select themselves out of the team.”

I’ll always remember a couple of players who were on my list of published all-stars who went to a local college in order to try to make the team. One never made it to campus because of a family situation which kept her out of university, even though she was a multi-tooled player with great speed. Another player I remember had a horrific hip socket injury of the same kind that ended the football career of Bo Jackson.

I’ve gotten some pushback from some folks who suggest that putting the needs of the athlete first, rather than the team, means that the culture of sport has somehow gotten “soft.”

But I can’t help but think that the story of Kory Stringer, the professional football player who died of heatstroke in August 2001, was an enormous rallying cry when it came to how far a coach can push an athlete. Sure, the lore of coaching over the years is full of stories of hard and physical training camps which are meant to whittle down the potential varsity player pool.

Many folks who endure these camps and make the team, and find success on their chosen field of endeavor, look back over the years and wouldn’t change a thing.

Yeah, I get it: it’s only human nature to posit that a team culture based upon hard work will lead to success, even if the training is of such intensity that the mental or physical health of players is imperiled.

It’s a fine balance, one which only a precious few coaches have ever found.