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Reforming Youth Sports: Community, Grass-Roots Parent Activism Needed

Establish noncompetitive programs like that set up by Jim Piatelli, the owner of The Pond, an indoor sports facility and ice hockey rink in Needham, Massachusetts, who developed a program of-no-check, no-scorekeeping, attitude-free hockey for all age groups and levels of play, from pee wee through adult, to provide fun for skaters and spectators alike. The Pond continues to offer competitive hockey, but the program provides parents with an opportunity to have their kids play and improve their basic skills in an atmosphere that emphasizes basic sportsmanship. Mothers at the Pond told me they now feel a "sense of calm while watching their sons focus on their skills instead of their physical strength."

Redefine winning at the pre-high school level. It should be based on on how much effort the participants put in, not the outcome. Borrow a feature from the pickup games of yesteryear when kids divvied up players in such a way as to achieve equally balanced sides; if one side got way ahead, the game was stopped and new teams picked or the game simply ended. By choosing the teams so that they are balanced, the games won't be lopsided affairs.

Seek to abolish tryouts that result in excluding or cutting children prior to sixth grade. One way to accomplish this goal is to deny the use of public facilities for any try-out based teams with children younger than sixth-graders, as was recently done in Scarsdale, New York, where eight out of ten parents overall and three out of four parents involved in tryout-based programs believed there should be no tryouts and cutting before fifth grade. Organize as many teams as there are children wanting to play. If there aren't rules to ensure equal, or at least significant, playing time, make them and enforce them (nine out of ten Scarsdale parents were strongly in favor of a policy requiring significant playing time for all kids; among the recommendations of its youth sports task force was the creation of a consistent and fair policy on playing time as a prerequisite for use of public facilities by an independent youth sports organization). Not only will this help develop all players, but it will prevent the benchwarmers, who might be terrific athletes when they grow up, from becoming so discouraged and bored that they quit.

Ask that teams be selected by independent evaluators, not parent coaches. Parents who responded to a survey in Scarsdale were nearly unanimous that tryouts run by parent coaches are unacceptable. As the authors of a 2004 Report on Youth Sports issued by a task force in Scarsdale noted, "very powerful concerns [were expressed] throughout the community about the fairness, politics and behavior associated with the selection of children for teams. ... reflect[ing] a deep cynicism about the fairness of the selection process."

Push for teams comprised of kids of the same age, from the same neighborhood, and of mixed abilities before fifth grade. All too often, a player whom the powers-that-be believe to be exceptionally precocious will be asked to "play up" on a team of older kids. All that this does is deny a roster spot to a player in the older age group, throw the younger child in with kids who he or she doesn't know and aren't his classmates in school, and feed not only the kids' ego, but his parents' as well. In response to those who say that the more "talented" players shouldn't be "forced" to play with players perceived as less talented, point out that there is no evidence that asking them to play with kids their own ages, of mixed abilities, will dilute the competition, hold them back, or prevent them from being a high school, college or pro star. Ask them what is more important: winning or ensuring that the kids have fun and have a chance to develop their skills, and exercise? Play teams from other towns that are equally committed as your program to including every kid who wants to play.

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