Good Sports Organized Games Can Build a Child's Self-Esteem, or They Can Generate Anxiety and Doubt. It All Depends on the Adults Involved
Miner, Lisa Friedman, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Lisa Friedman Miner Daily Herald Staff Writer
Let's just say Rick Wolff has run his share of bases.
He played two seasons as a second baseman for the Detroit Tigers' minor league system. He coached college baseball. He worked five years as a "roving psychological coach" for the Cleveland Indians, helping players with the mental aspects of their game.
And these days, he's devoting some of his energy to the littlest athletes - the pint-size batters and pitchers who fill parks and school yards each spring for the start of youth baseball.
Wolff is a believer in the power of sports, and he's quick to point out the positives of organized team play. But, he argues, some overzealous parents and coaches are spoiling America's pastime for its youngest players.
A father of three, Wolff is the author of "Good Sports: The Concerned Parent's Guide to Competitive Youth Sports."
In his book (Coaches Choice, $12.95), he highlights the best and worst of the youth sports experience. He offers examples of coaches stacking their teams with the best players and of a New Jersey attorney who makes a good living representing youth umpires and refs who've been attacked by angry parents.
Wolff also cites studies and statistics that should give parents and coaches pause:
- Thirty-seven percent of kids said they would rather no parents watched them play, according to a USA Today poll.
- Studies indicate that children would rather play for a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning one.
- Evidence suggests that children form lifelong attitudes about sports by the time they're 10.
- About 80 percent of kids drop out of sports by age 12.
"Sports today for kids is very intense," Wolff says. "I often wonder whether this is how it should be."
In a phone interview from his office in New York, Wolff talked about his concerns for youth sports in the '90s and how parents can help turn things around.
Here is an edited transcript.
Daily Herald: You state in the preface of your book that "worrisome" signals are coming out of the youth sports programs of the '90s. What do you mean by that?
Wolff: First of all, there seems to be sort of a contradiction of some in the goals that parents have for their kids in terms of youth sports. In other words, the last thing any mom or dad says to their child before they go out to a baseball game is, "Go out and have fun."
But it's very clear, no matter where you go in this country, that once the game is over and the child is back in the family station wagon, usually Mom or Dad begins what I call a post-game analysis and says, "How come you made that error in the third inning?" The kid starts getting cross-examined as though they're somebody on a professional level who's being interviewed by the media.
It becomes very clear to the child early on that this is more than just having fun. There are uniforms, there's a scoreboard, there's an umpire, there are parents cheering on the sidelines. By the time children get to be 9, 10, 11, 12, they get a sense that they're out there to live up to certain expectations. Sometimes the kids just say, "You know, I'd rather not do this anymore."
The reason why kids play sports is, of course, for physical fitness. But there is also a sense of feeling good about oneself. And if a child is always held to a little higher standard or a sense of expectations from their parents that they aren't doing well enough, after a while the child begins to have a lower sense of self-esteem. And that's where problems can really erupt.
DH: What has changed in that regard over the years?
Wolff: I'm in my 40s. When I was growing up playing ball as a kid, back in the '50s and '60s, it was rare that you had parental involvement. If my buddies and I played ball after school, we always just took the six or eight or 10 kids there, quickly divided into what we perceived as two equally strong teams and went about our business. …