Category Archives: climate of youth sport

Sociological Perspectives on Sport Concussion

To read my, and other sport sociologists’ evocative Roundtable perspectives on “Concussions & Consequences” via The Society Pages, click here.

Also check out the new book on concussions and youth sport by Mary Hyman, titled Concussions and Our Kids.

If you haven’t watched the University of Minnesota, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport Emmy nominated documentary on Concussion and Female Athletes: the Untold Story, you can watch it here for free.

Broken Systems: Sport, Education & Health Care

The health care debate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has got me thinking about systems. Like many Americans I didn’t know much about the ACA, only that it is hotly contested. Unlike many Americans I have recently taken some time to get educated about the complex facets of the new law so I can be informed. I encourage everyone to do the same as health care affects EVERYONE…including you.

Two other systems that affect a majority of Americans are education and sports.

What do all these important social institutions have in common? They are all broken and dysfunctional. At the heart of dysfunction is how those in positions of power are rewarded and how the “client”(i.e., student, athlete, patient) is treated.

Currently, in our health care system doctors are paid/rewarded by treating sick patients (i.e.,  visit clinic, have tests run, buy drugs), not for how healthy their patients are, preventative care or keeping patients well. The quality of patient care is not at the heart of our current health care system, money is. The ACA is trying to change that by rewarding doctors for keeping health care costs LOW and patients healthy.

In the American education system, teachers are paid/rewarded regardless if their students learn, earn degrees, or receive a quality education. In some states (like MN) middle and high school teachers receive tenure, so even if their teaching is of poor quality, firing them is difficult. The same is true of colleges and universities. If students fail to achieve the standardized testing metrics of No Child Left Behind, a school is punished but not the teachers directly (to my knowledge). I teach at a university, and I get paid regardless if my students learn or earn degrees. The quality of student education is not at the heart of our education system, because there isn’t enough money allocated to fund public education.

However I know one person who will get a very LARGE bonus (a bonus larger than most faculty members earn in three years!!) if the students in his care do perform well in the classroom, and he isn’t a professor. New Ohio State Head Football Coach Urban Meyer will get “Bonuses of up to $300,000 a year if players meet certain academic progress and graduation standards.” The subtext reads: You should care about and keep your players academically eligible to play, so you are more likely to win, which brings in money to the university (i.e. TV revenue, conference revenue sharing, bowl appearances). I’m not saying Meyer shouldn’t care about his athlete’s academic performance, he should, but that is not his job. His job is to win football games. The quality of athlete experience and education is not the focus of the current “big time” (what Murray Sperber calls ‘Beer & Circus’) college sport system, money is.

If the primary structure and goal of college sports is to win, and coaches are rewarded for winning (i.e., bonuses, bigger salaries, better jobs, job security) the system is ultimately broken and in need of reform.

Winning is important and I’m not saying it isn’t or that teams/athletes/coaches shouldn’t strive to win. The point I’m making is when the primary structure of sport is set up around winning (and winning = money), exploitation of athletes, corruption, cheating the system, and scandal becomes more likely.

The problem in all three systems? The WRONG people are being rewarded with money in the wrong ways and the quality of athletic/education/medical experiences of the “client” is often secondary.

The proof? You don’t have to search very hard for recent headlines involving scandals in sports, education or medicine.

Push-ups for Punishment in Youth Sport = Bad Idea

At an American Development Model USA Hockey Symposium I recently attended, Bob Mancini (ADM Regional Manager) said:

“Push-ups for missing the net is the worst thing we’ve ever done for hockey”

I have written previously on why punishment in youth sport is a terrible idea based on sport psychology evidence. Two of the reasons included were punishing kids for not completing a skill correctly can make them fear failure and the punishment doesn’t help them learn improve the skill they are being punished for misexecution.

Making mistakes is how we learn. No one executes a skill perfectly every time. We make attempts, hopefully get constructive feedback, learn from errors, make adjustments and try again.

When Bob made his statement, I agreed with him. I asked him why he felt that way and he replied because kids today don’t know how to shoot because many coaches use the “push-ups for punishment” for not shooting on net. Instead of aiming for  holes or upper corners (more difficult and likely to result in a shot high or wide and not putting the puck on net, but more likely to result in a goal!), kids will shoot the puck safely  “on net” right at the goalie to avoid push-ups.  The result is “successful” shots on net but no long term shooting skill development….and probably  less goal scoring during competition.

Many coaches reproduce this practice without thinking about why.  In coach education workshops I ask coaches to think about “the why” in everything they do. Does this help my kids develop the skills they need to 1. optimally perform, 2. develop skills, or 3. have fun and enjoy their sport? If the answer is “NO” to all three things, then it shouldn’t be done.

When I suggest coaches not use physical activities for punishment I often get push-back (pun intended). The question is: What do I do instead? In the case we are talking about here, instead of push-ups for shots not on net I would simply pull the kid aside, give him/her constructive feedback to help them get the shot on net in the future, and let them get back in the drill to make another attempt.

Last point on physical activity as punishment: If we want kids to value and enjoy physical activity for a lifetime, we shouldn’t teach them that physical activity is a punishment.

Women’s Basketball Coaches By the Numbers

With March Madness and basketball on the minds of many, I thought I’d provide a “by the numbers” analysis of coaches of women’s basketball. In previous blogs I have outlined, in part, the many barriers female coaches face in entering and staying in coaching at all levels (to read click here and here). Two writers for espnW, Fagan and Cyphers, published an in depth story on this topic titled The Glass Wall: Women continue to shatter stereotypes as athletes. So how come they can’t catch a break as coaches?” that is worth a read.

The 20111 WNBA Champion Minnesota Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve in an article by Fox Sport North, discussed her desire to see more female head coaches in the league. When the WNBA formed in 1997, seven of the eight head coaches were women. Today, the league boasts two all-female staffs, in Indiana and Los Angeles, and six of the 12 head coaches (50%) are women. Of the 33 total coaches, 21 are women, and there are no all-male staffs. The writer of this article makes an interesting point–successful female coaches in the WNBA have primarily been mentored by NBA experienced male coaches. Now female coaches like Reeve can provide visible role models and mentor other females who desire to coach at the professional level.

At the collegiate level some interesting patterns also arise. According to Acosta & Carpenter’s 2012 Women in Intercollegiate Sport Report, basketball is the sport most commonly offered on college campuses and 6 of 10 (60%) of women’s basketball teams are coached by females. This is interesting because only 42.9% of female college athletes in all sports are coached by a female. At the most elite level, the percentage of female head basketball coaches is even higher.

In the Women’s NCAA I basketball tournament, in the Elite 6 of 8 (75%) teams were coached by a female head coach. In the Final Four 3 of 4 (75%) teams were coached by a female head coach. In the championship game both teams (100%) will be coached by a female head coach-Muffet McGraw of Notre Dame, and Kim Mulkey of Baylor.

Is this proof that females are ultimately more successful coaching females when given the opportunity? Is this a sign of the times that the percentage of female head coaches in women’s sport is on the rise? Or is it just a unusual year that makes it seem like the glass ceiling/wall is cracking when it really hasn’t?

Regardless of how you may answer these questions, having McGraw and Mulkey coaching against each other in the NCAA Championship game provides visible role models for young girls and women who aspire to coach, communicates that females can be successful at the highest levels of women’s sport, and helps change gender stereotypes that females are not as competent as their male counterparts.

NOTE: Read a NYT article about pay disparity between head coaches of men’s and women’s basketball. It statesFor Division I basketball, the median salary for coaches of a men’s team in 2010 was $329,300, nearly twice that of coaches for women’s teams, who had a median of $171,600. Over the past four years, the median pay of men’s head coaches increased by 40 percent compared with 28 percent for women’s coaches.” To read full story click here.

Why is unequal playing time the norm in youth sport?

I have written previously about my thoughts on playing time, click here to read them (scroll down to see them all).

When I tell coaches and parents that I believe all youth sports should have equal playing up until age 12, regardless of competitive level, it is not a popular idea. Especially when I say I really think the age should be 14! I thought  of a few more facets of this complex and contested idea in youth sports that are worth discussing.

As adults who play recreational, but competitive sports, equal playing time is almost always the norm. If playing time isn’t equal, problems, resentments, and hard feelings arise. For example, I play on a recreational women’s ice hockey team. We have 10 skaters, which means 2 lines. We all pay the same fee to play. Everyone plays equal ice  time. When one line takes a long shift and the other line gets shorted, people get upset because it is supposed to be equal. We don’t put special lines out on the power play or penaltly kill, whomever is up or feels like she has legs, they go. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, which we work with together. We try (and like to) to win, are competitive, and strive to win every game (which we don’t). We enjoy being active, doing something we love, battling to win, hanging with friends and enjoy camaraderie with other teams.

Do we think this is different for kids?

So why is it that as adults in our own sport endeavors we structure equal playing time, but when adults run and control youth sport recreational, competitive programs….we justify unequal playing time. (NOTE: recreational teams are just as competitive and want to win just as much as travel teams, the skill level is just different). As adults we don’t like sitting on the bench, we want to play, think unequal time is unfair, unjust and annoying, makes us feel poorly about ourselves, and is not fun or enjoyable.

Do we think this is different for kids? What is the rational for unequal playing time in youth sports before age 12? I’d like to hear it…seriously…I want to hear from you. I think this conversation is worth having.

I say equal playing time at ALL competitive levels because if you have a kid on a team where he/she doesn’t play much, if at all, then he/she shouldn’t be ON that team. Move that kid down a team so they DO play and have the opportunity to play, learn, and develop skills in competitive contexts. No kid should be on an elite travel team, pay high fees to play and then not play equally…that seems wrong. As adults we’d NEVER put up with that policy would we? (I understand parents and kids “choose” to be on that team, I also understand that some kids want to play with their friends even if it means not playing, but those are different blogs on the broken system of youth sports).

If equal playing time is what we prefer and what we like and enjoy as adults why should it be different for kids?

Ban Checking in Male Hockey

It is time to ban checking in boy’s and men’s hockey, not just raise the checking age, but get rid of it altogether.

I know this won’t be a popular idea. Raising the checking age in boys’ hockey hasn’t been popular either, but it is the right thing to do. Adversaries argue checking is fundamental to the game (read: the game, meaning men’s hockey which is the real hockey anyway). Big hits are exciting. Hockey isn’t hockey without checking. Taking checking out of hockey or raising the checking age makes it”wimpy”–code for: it will resemble women’s hockey, and feminizes males. (Read the USA Hockey column titled “Changing The Checking Age Does Not Soften Our Sport.” ). Males won’t want to play. It will put the USA at a competitive disadvantage. Nobody will pay for or watch hockey without checking… the counterarguments are many.

I play hockey. I am a hockey player in the largest women’s hockey league in the world (WHAM). I live in the State of Hockey (that is Minnesota for those who don’t know what I’m talking about). I am a hockey fan. I give hockey coach and sport parent workshops. I have researched psychosocial variables in hockey. I spent a good part of 2011 being part of discussions about concussions, and making a documentary on sport-related concussions. I get and understand the game of hockey.

If you know hockey, you know that checking is not allowed in women’s hockey. I favor that rule, even though I know many women want to have the opportunity to check, and at elite levels checking, er…I mean heavy body contact, does occur so why not make it legal. I have long thought checking should not be a part of any level or hockey, regardless of gender. If you make the argument that females shouldn’t check because it is dangerous, then why do we allow it in male hockey? Rather than argue that not letting females check is an outdated paternalistic rule, I’d rather argue another point. ( I will add however, that getting rid of checking for males, eliminates the idea that women’s hockey is “less than” or “not real hockey” because there is no checking, which could be a different blog).

KEY POINT: Are we less concerned with the health and well being of males? Do we feel it is OK to have males increase the likelihood of injury for our entertainment? Is putting males at increased risk for injury part of what it means to “be a man”?

I decided to write this blog because within a one week span here in Minnesota, two high school athletes have been severely injured as a result of checking. St. Croix Lutheran senior Jenna Privette suffered a serious spinal cord injury when she was checked from behind after taking shot and crashed into the boards. Jack Jablonski of Benilde-St. Margaret’s was paralyzed after he was legally checked into the boards. Would either of these injuries be prevented with a no checking rule or a much stronger stance on illegal checking from behind? I don’t know. What I do know is that FAR FEWER injuries would occur if checking were eliminated from male hockey, and through widespread educational efforts checking would be strongly discouraged and penalized in female hockey, and hockey in general.

Having the discussion is a worthy endeavor, regardless of if you agree with my premise or not.

Sport Parent Education: Creating a Tipping Point

As part of my work, I do quite a few sport parent workshops (read my previous blogs about sport parents here). The purpose of the workshops is to share evidence-based information with sport parents, so a positive climate for youth athletes is more likely to be created.

I also conduct research on the topic of sport parents. One of our lines of research is examining the causes of what makes sports parents angry, and how the toxic climate and background anger created on youth sport sidelines affects children.

Almost a year ago in early 2010, I wrote and was interviewed about and  a local Minnesota sport parent who  assaulted a youth basketball commissioner following an in-house game played by sixth graders.

Unfortunately less than a year later, two more episodes of egregious sport parent behavior have again occurred in Minnesota. In the first, a father of a middle school boy punched his son after poor play in a basketball game. In the second, another father made terroristic threats and put a youth hockey coach in a choke hold after a disagreement with the coach following his 12 year old son’s hockey practice. (allegedly his son got into a fight with an opposing player, and used his hockey stick as a baseball bat, so the coach broke the fight up and scolded both players, of which the father took offense). Interestingly and related to this story is based on research, when children witness or hear their parents being violent or abusive, the children are more likely to act in similar ways.

In a series of studies I did with colleagues while at Notre Dame working in the Center for Sport and Character, we found that kids who perceived a high rate of background anger (parents yelling and screaming frequently at refs, coaches, other parents, and players), were more likely to report acting in unsportsmanlike ways on the field. Tree…Apple.  We can do better.

If we want youth sports to be a place where all kids can have the opportunity to have fun, learn skills, develop, make friends and learn life lessons while striving to win, the adults have to get it right. Sport parent education is a great step in creating a tipping point, and making positive change happen. It may not prevent the three egregious type events reported above, but it might. Educational efforts will certainly help a critical mass of sport parents, most of who want to do the right thing but have no clue what that looks like and why it matters for their children, get closer to getting it right. Once parents see youth sport from the perspective of their kids coupled with evidence, rather than their own lens…change is possible, and evidence-based educational programs accomplish this goal.

Youth athletic associations, clubs, school systems have to commit the time and resources to educational efforts or else real change will not occur. The tipping point will not occur without it. No Code of Conduct, banner, sign, Public Service Announcement, parent meeting, rule or policy will affect real change until the culture of youth sport and norms of sport parent behavior changes…and that does not happen without education.

What is more important, investing in: a) educational programming that helps create a positive climate for kids while striving to win, and gets parents on the same page in that goal, or b) doing damage control, prosecuting or defending lawsuits as a result of bad parent behavior? If your answer is “B” you will also have to invest and deal with the traumatic aftermath of children who are targets of, or are witness to, egregious sport parent behavior.

Investment of time and money reflects personal and organizational values. What does your organization value? Can you do better? Do you feel responsible for making it better for all kids?

How to Change to Culture of Youth Sport?

This week I talked with a local writer, Meagan Frank, who is writing a book about youth sport. She asked some great questions and as a sport parent she sees the toxic climate that permeates some youth sport contexts, and wants to do something about it. She read my blog about my thoughts on how the professionalized model of youth sport won’t change unless college sport is reformed. I think that until athletic scholarships aren’t the means to an end for sport participation for some (most?) kids and their parents, that the professionalization of youth sport will continue (i.e., year round training, early sport specialization, travel teams that cut kids at younger and younger ages).

What would youth sport look like if millions of families weren’t pursuing a college athletic scholarship? Would more athletes play only for the love of the game? Would they have more fun? Would they enjoy their experience more? Would they worry less about what team and at what level they play? Would the parents yell and scream less on the sidelines? Would fewer kids get burned out or chronically injured? Would fewer kids drop out of sport?

Meagan asked me one question that has stuck in my mind: If you could pick one thing to change about youth sports that would make a difference, what would it be? I had to pause a moment because there are so MANY things to change. I wanted to pick the the least common denominator, the one policy that I think would effect the greatest change.

My answer: Mandate equal playing time for all kids up until the age of 14.

In a previous blog post on playing time in youth sport I specified a model of “Playing Time Considerations” which included the many factors that go into making decisions about playing time. In that blog I included a quote by a colleague, “playing time is not a reward for displaying virtue, it is a means for developing virtue.”   Playing time is also a means for developing skill and mental toughness. You cannot improve if you sit on the bench. You also don’t develop if you quit because you never play, or you are cut because the coach doesn’t think you are good enough to play…and you haven’t hit puberty yet. Equal playing time is crucial up until puberty so that early and late developers get an equal chance to DEVELOP, play and have fun.

By creating an equal playing time policy in all sports, at all levels of play (i.e., developmental leagues, rec, in house, elite travel teams), it would change the culture of youth sport. The culture would be more about developing skill for ALL kids. Even on elite travel teams where all the kids are highly skilled and talented, some kids still play more than others (although they pay the same very high fees to play on the team). This does not seem right or fair or good for psychological, social, physical or moral development. All teams would strive to win, but at least all the kids would have an equal role in the outcome.

What do you think?

Sport Scandals, Sexy Babes & Social Responsibility

As I posted previously, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a host of stimulating conferences and conversations in the past eight weeks related to girls and women in sport. I’m still musing about many things, but here are three I’m ready to share.

1. As a wrote about in my last blog post, the current model of “sport” (i.e., meaning the male model of win at all costs, big business, professionalization) is broken. If you believe this statement to be true and you also believe in a “growing sense of crisis in college sports“, then who is responsible for changing the current model or changing the course of big time, revenue pursuant, entertainment style college sport? Why hasn’t the The Knight Commission, whose mission is to advocate for a “reform agenda that emphasizes academic values in an arena where commercialization of college sports often overshadowed the underlying goals of higher education” and The Drake Group whose mission is to “is to help faculty and staff defend academic integrity in the face of the burgeoning college sport industry” been more vocal or got more traction lately in the wake of some major scandals?

Relatedly, given the historically abysmal patterns of media coverage for female athletes, who is responsible for creating socially responsible images of college female athletes? (Colleagues Sally Ross at Memphis and Vikki Krane at Bowling Green are thinking & writing about this concept). Shouldn’t athletic departments be held to a higher standard of marketing female athletes? Why does a “sex sells” narrative and images still persist (see image) in college athletics where the purpose is about education, not highlighting the physical appearance or making female athletic bodies into “sexy babe” objects? Doesn’t a university have an obligation and responsibility to ensure the health, well-being, integrity and respect of female athletes, just as it also has an obligation and responsibility to put the well-being of children ahead of potential scandal and shaming high profile men’s programs and their coaches?

2. Head Coach for the WNBA Championship Minnesota Lynx, Cheryl Reeve, stated in her keynote at the Alliance of Women’s Coaches workshop held at Macalester College, that sometimes a team gains, by subtracting players in what she calls “addition by subtraction”. I think this is what college athletics needs…take football and men’s basketball out of D-I and II college athletics altogether and a great deal can be gained. However, despite recent dialogue by NCAA President Mark Emmert that radical reform is needed, yet some argue real reform for  football and men’s basketball is not possible. Think of many of the issues currently facing college athletics administrators and university presidents would go away, be diminished, or never occur if football and men’s basketball were removed from institutions of higher education. The Arms Race, rule violations, academic fraud, eligibility problems, booster and recruitment violations, pay for play, the $2K stipend, discussions of athlete unions and revenue sharing with athletes, athlete exploitation, and cover-ups of egregious coach and player behavior might be reduced. Those sports could be affiliated with a school, but athletes would not be required to attend class, but given the opportunity to earn their degree for free once the player retired from sports or desired to focus on academics. To hear colleague and Professor Allen Sack discuss these issues in depth, click here. I’m not sure college sport can or ever will be truly reformed…

Given that much of my work focuses on the youth level, where I feel I might be able to make a real difference somehow, I have come to believe the problems in college sport are related to problems at the youth sport level.

3. The current youth sport model emulates Big Time College Sport and Pro Sport…specialization, year round training, pay to play, transferring based on playing time and winning, athletes as commodities to help a franchise win, children training away from their families at elite sport academies, kids viewed as “return on investments”, development and experience are downplayed as winning and performance are center stage, team loyalty and playing with friends are sacrificed to play on elite travel teams focused on securing college scholarships, a great deal of money is spent on ensuring the right equipment and experiences, highly specialized training (e.g., strength and conditioning, agility, sport psychology) to increase the likelihood of optimal performance, and the growing number of chronic and acute injuries due to overuse and over training. The youth sport model is never going to change unless college sport is reformed. If athletics were taken out of institutions of higher education and full ride scholarships were not the “end all, be all” goal of athletes and their parents, youth sport would look a LOT different. Youth sport might just start to resemble something better…where athlete development, fun, enjoyment, positive relationships, learning, skill development, and being active and competing are fun in and of itself, rather than being a means to an end. Imagine it.

While reform in college sports may be unlikely, don’t we have a social responsibility to help ensure youth sport retains some semblance of being athlete-centered?