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Family and Sports

Like many, recently I was intrigued with the story about Adam LaRoche and his son Drake. LaRoche was the first basemen for the Chicago White Sox and had been a long time major league ballplayer. His 14 year old son has been his constant companion at the ball park for years. When he signed his contract with the White Sox, he worked out an arrangement to be able to bring Drake with him to the park daily. Drake even had his own locker and uniform. Apparently, Drake had been accompanying his father to the ballpark most of his life and was well mannered and respected by his father’s teammates. However, this spring, the White Sox general manager, Kenny Williams, decided Drake was at the ballpark too much and asked Adam to cut back on the amount of time Drake was with him. Adam didn’t agree with this request because it went against his original agreement with the White Sox. Rather, than going along with this request, he abruptly retired, giving up a $13 million salary. It has been well documented that he has made over $70 million in his baseball career, so financial concerns were not an issue for him. His statements have emphasized that his son is his best friend and that he wants to be around him as much as possible, and that this was more important to him than playing this year for the White Sox.

One of the issues that this has come to mind for me with this situation has been the relationship between family and sports. Over the years I have spoken with numerous people who have had conflicts with their child’s sport participation when it conflicted with a family activity. As Mother’s Day is approaching, it brought to mind a situation that occurred several years ago. When my sons played premier soccer, their teams played in tournaments on Mother’s Day. Several parents complained about this when the coach discussed the schedule, emphasizing that this should be a day about family, but the team played in the tournament anyway. Several years ago a mother called my radio show discussing her 8th grade daughter’s conflict after she tried out and made the high school cheer squad. The coach had a meeting for the parents and stated that practices were mandatory accept for severe illness or hospitalization. The mother told the coach that they were going on a cruise for her parents 50th wedding anniversary over the winter break. The coach told them that they would be having practice over the break (even though school was not in session for two weeks) and that it was mandatory to be there with no exceptions. The mother explained the situation and that this trip had been planned for several years. The coach made it very clear either she came to practice and was part of the team, or would be kicked off the team if she went on the cruise. Even though her family had a long history at the school, her daughter transferred to another school, and made the cheer squad there. Her mother explained the cruise situation to the coach at this school. The coach told her family activities like this were more important and that her daughter should go on the cruise and would have her spot on the team when she returned. They had voluntary practice over the winter break, and weren’t penalized if they didn’t attend.

As school is about to end, and the summer break begins, the conflicts about practices, games and family activities will occur. Obviously, if your child is on a team, it is important to have that pre-season meeting and discuss with the coaches what the schedule will be and what the attendance requirements are regarding practices and games. Once you know the team schedule, you should communicate with the coaches about any conflicts you may have, especially if it is a family activity. Most coaches are going to want all their athletes at practices and competitions, but I believe it is your responsibility as a parent to bring up the potential conflicts before the season starts and decide what the priority should be. As a parent of two adult children, this was an issue we discussed numerous times and in the end, my sons and I decided that family should always come first,
but we made sure that any conflicts were always discussed with the coach at the beginning of the season. As always, your thoughts…

Just Let Em Play: Guiding Parents, Coaches and Athletes Through Youth Sports

For the past several years, I have been encouraged by many to write a book about my experiences as a sport psychologist. As I contemplated the possibility of putting a manuscript together, I surveyed the literature to see what types of books were written about sport psychology, winning and losing, sportsmanship and how sport has changed over my past 35 years in sport psychology. However, the one area that kept pulling me was the topic of youth sports. If you have been getting my newsletters, you know that this has been one of my passions because I see the tremendous damage so many young athletes are experiencing. Pushy parents, untrained coaches and an increasing demand to start signing kids up to play on a team at younger and younger ages led me to decide to write a book about youth sports.

Once I decided that this is what I wanted to do, I knew it needed to have not only my input, but the opinions of a successful coach and athlete. Consequently, I asked three time Major League All-Star pitcher and Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer Jeff Montgomery, and Olympic Hall of Fame swim coach, Peter Malone to join me on this project. I asked them for three reasons. First, they are both extremely successful in their respective sports. Second, I have known both of them on a professional basis and have tremendous respect for them. Third, Jeff coached my oldest son on his youth baseball team and Pete coached my youngest son through his college career as a swimmer. We joined forces with established writer, Matt Fulks and are proud to announce that our book, “Just Let Em Play: Guiding Parents, Coaches and Athletes through Youth Sports” is now available. The book was published by Ascend Publishers.

Our book discusses the world of youth sports. We believe we have addressed the topics that can assist parents, coaches, athletes and officials. Some of the topics that are covered include the following: When and why should I sign my child up for a team? How can embracing failure lead to fun? What are the roles of coaches, parents and officials and how do they impact the athlete? Why is communication so important for all involved? What happens when my child either wants to quit or move up from a recreational to competitive team? How to deal with all of the negativity and pressure that is growing in youth sports. How can a coach make the sports a learning experience but one that is fun? Should I coach my child? What do we do about participation trophies? What are the harsh realities you have to deal with? How do we balance out sport, school and family? Why should sportsmanship be a priority? We also have a chapter by nationally renowned orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Steve Joyce, discussing youth sport injuries. And we have a chapter that is a summary of opinions from elite high school athletes about their views on sport.

The book is now available on my website,, and is on and I’d appreciate any feedback and comments should you purchase the book. Our goal in writing the manuscript was to assist everyone in the world of youth sports and make it a positive experience for all. As the title says, Just Let Em Play.

As A Parent, Coach or Athlete, What Would You Do?

I recently had an interesting conversation with the mother of a high school soccer player. Her son is a 16 year old high school junior who attends a private school and is having some issues with his coach that has put them in a dilemma. I am writing this newsletter to see what feedback you will have as a coach, parent or athlete. I have advised both the parent and athlete about my thoughts regarding what to do, but would like to hear feedback from you about your opinions. Once I receive feedback from several subscribers, I will publish them in an updated newsletter. Here is the situation.

This young man is one of the better players on the team and has been a starter. Last year as a sophomore, he was also starting until he suffered an injury. The background about this injury will lead us up to this year’s issue. This young man left town over last year’s winter break for two weeks on a family vacation. Prior to leaving for the holiday break, he was not informed that there would be any practices for the soccer team. Upon coming back to school on the Monday after the break, the team members were told that all of the athletes who did not attend any practices over the break would have to run 15 minutes of non-stop suicides. (Essentially this is running non-stop sprints). They were informed that if they didn’t do the drills, they would not play in the next game. Even though neither he nor his teammates knew anything about practices over the break, he ran the drills. That evening when he got home he complained about severe pain and in the following morning his mother took him to the Emergency Room where he was diagnosed with Rhabdomyolysis, a severe muscle injury that can lead to kidney failure. One of the causes of this is from excessive exertion and dehydration from over exercising that can result in muscle mass breakdown. He was hospitalized for a week and did not return to the soccer team for almost 3 weeks. The coach and the school did not feel they were at fault. Even though the mother spoke with them about the situation, they did not feel they had done anything wrong. Her son’s physician advised him to be extremely careful about over exertion and that he needed to be very aware of constantly hydrating while exercising. He finished out the season with the team, but never felt totally back to 100%.

This year he once again made the team. His mother went to the coach’s pre-season meeting. Nothing was stated about there being any practices over the winter break. Approximately a week before the break began, her son received an email from the team manager that stated there would be a training camp over the break for those players who were available to attend, but it was totally optional and not required. His family had plans to leave town over the break and after receiving the email, he wasn’t concerned about missing the training camp. However, when he came back to school the Monday after the break, the coach told the team that there would be consequences for the athletes who missed the training camp. If they missed one day of camp they would have to run two miles, two days run five miles, three or more days run 15 miles. These miles had to be run by Thursday (3 days later) or they would not be allowed to play in the game.
Needless to say, his mother was furious, but her son, angry as well, didn’t want his mother to speak to the coach because he wanted to play. He didn’t feel it was fair, but was also afraid to speak with the coach for fear of coming across as weak and being selfish. He also doesn’t want his mother to say anything to the school because he was afraid he would lose playing time if she complained about the coach. He began running at practice. The first day after running between two to three miles, he started walking because of a fear of overexertion. The coach informed him that walking didn’t count and he had to run to reach the 15 miles. This young man reminded the coach about his hospital stay from last years and that he needed to listen to his body about his limitations. The coach didn’t seem to care or be concerned about this. Even though he ran about eight miles, not the required 15, he ended up playing in half the game on Thursday, because the team “needed him”.

I have shared my opinions about the situation with the mother and her son. So my question to you is: What would you do as a parent in this situation? What would you have your son (or daughter) do in this situation? And what reasoning would you have for your answers? As a coach, how would you handle this situation? And finally as an athlete, what would you do?

As always, I am looking forward to your responses……

How Do You Handle Being a Role Player

As we enter the middle of winter, I am working with numerous team sport participants who are frustrated with their roles on their respective teams. Players on basketball, volleyball, football and soccer have all been consulting with me about they’re playing time, or lack of it. Whether it be on a club or high school team, many of these athletes have been upset because they are either not starting or not getting many minutes in their games. And several of them have been very vocal about how they believe they are better than the players ahead of them. As long as there are sport teams with more players than positions, there will always be frustrated athletes, parents and coaches as well.

If you have read my newsletters, you know that I like to say, “A good coach is a good psychologist and a bad coach needs a sport psychologist”. I believe one of the most difficult roles a coach has is making everyone on the team happy, because it rarely happens. There are always going to be frustrated athletes for a variety of reasons. Playing time is usually the most common problem most coaches have to deal with. Whether it is an unhappy athlete or a steaming parent, a coach needs to know how to communicate clearly about their decisions about who starts, who is first off the bench and why he/she has made these choices.

In my opinion, the key to dealing with this starts in the pre-season meeting.
Before the season begins, a coach should explain his/her coaching philosophy about who starts, who comes off the bench and how and why these choices are made. By doing this in the pre-season meeting, you are setting up the foundation for the choices you make during the season. I believe one of the keys to this is establishing a communication channel for athletes and parents who will inevitably get frustrated as the season progresses. I know many coaches, especially in high school, will not speak with parents about this issue after the season begins. I feel once an athlete enters high school, they should have the self-confidence to be able to ask questions to their respective coach. However, many athletes have told me that they are ignored by their coach and eventually ask their parents for help. Often times, when the parent gets involved it can get ugly and confrontational. Effective and successful coaches understand this and usually are good at explaining why certain athletes start and what others roles are. They usually set up a communication channel that can give the athlete an opportunity to speak with the coach, which can eliminate getting parents involved.

However, many athletes are still frustrated even when they can speak with their coach about their role. The word “fairness” is commonly brought up in the conversation, with many athletes complaining that it’s not fair that they are either not starting or not playing enough. In our sessions, we often discuss that to give themselves the best chance of playing, they need to first focus on what they have control over. They can’t force the coach to play them, but they can impress the coaching staff with their attitude and effort in practice. I commonly suggest that they need to make their practices, their games. Approach practice as if it is the actual game with a positive attitude, and putting out the effort that can impress the coaches. In their discussions with the coaches, don’t complain about why they aren’t playing enough, instead ask the coaches what areas of their performance they need to improve on and set goals to work on these areas. Even though they may not change the coach’s decisions, they will eventually set themselves up for success. In the long run by doing this, they will not only improve their chances to play, but improve their skills as well. Many athletes are told that their role is to come off the bench and be ready when their name is called. By accepting this is their role and understanding this is how the coach feels they can help the team, they give themselves the best chance to impress the coach with their attitude and eventually have the opportunity for more playing time.

As always, your thoughts….

The Power of Believing

On November 1, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series. That’s right, they won the World Series! For years the Royals have been one of the doormats in the American League. I should know. I have lived in Kansas City most of my life and have twice been the team psychologist for the team. The Royals have been the target of comedians for years as their record has been one of the worst in the American League. But…. things have changed. Last year the Royals lost in Game 7 of the World Series with the tying run on third base in the bottom of the ninth. This year, from spring training on, they had a vision, a commitment , a goal of being the victors in the World Series, and they did it.

There are obviously a wide variety of reasons why the Royals were victorious. They have a number of tremendously talented young players mixed with several veterans who understand the ups and downs of professional baseball. The general manager of the Royals, Dayton Moore, had a vision when he was hired in June 2006. He said it would take several years of developing young players who understood not only how to physically play the game, but the mental side as well. His patience has paid off with a team in the World Series the past two years.

How did this team win it this year? First, they had the best record in the American League’s regular season. But, more impressively, they had seven come from behind victories in their 16 playoff games. Several times it appeared that they would lose the game they were playing, including their victory to clinch the World Series, but each time they were able to find a way to win each game. So what is their secret? I believe a great deal of it had to do with attitude. And when I say attitude, I mean a positive, confident mindset that has no room for negativity. How often have you behind in a game or athletic event in the late stages of the contest and essentially given up because you were so far behind? Most people give up because their thought process has been conditioned to think negatively. When you are behind in the tennis or golf match, the race or the game, you probably start thinking about how bad you are, why you are terrible and begin to feel sorry for yourself. That is exactly the opposite of what the Royals players were doing. It didn’t matter if it was the first inning or the last inning, they truly believed that they could win the game. And most of the time they did. Why? It wasn’t just because their confidence was very strong, it was because they had conditioned themselves collectively to believe that no matter what the circumstance they still had a chance.

During the past 35 years working as a sport psychologist, I have had the privilege to have worked with so many great individuals. Many had tremendous physical talents, but many did not. However, what the less physically talented athletes who reached success had, was an incredible mental will, ability, belief that they would accomplish their goals. I believe one of the main reasons they had this ability was that they had learned at a younger level what failure was about. They learned not to fear it, but to embrace the moment when things weren’t going their way and to attack it. For so many athletes, fear of failure and the taste of failing is scary, difficult to deal with and overwhelmingly negative. When this negative thinking takes over it is extremely difficult to overcome it. Research has shown that for the average person it takes 12 positive statements to overcome one negative. Thats correct, 12 positive statements!! I think for superior athletes it takes about six or seven, not 12, because they know they can do it.

The Kansas City Royals collectively have been a great example of this mindset. Despite being down so many times in the playoffs, they had the collective belief that they could and would come back to win their games and almost always they did. I feel they are a great example of how not just having a positive mental attitude is important, but not allowing negativity to become a factor in they’re thinking. If you read quotes from the players, they consistently said that they always felt they would and could come back no matter how far behind they might have been, and they almost always did.

If you have read my newsletters, you know one of my favorite beliefs is:
“You can two athletes or teams who are physically the same, but the one with the stronger mind will come out on top”.

As always, your thoughts….

The Dilemma of Playing Time

If you have had children playing sports at the youth or high school level, you have probably encountered this issue, ”Playing time”. Whether at the rec or elite level in youth sports, or on a high school team, the issue of who gets to play, who gets to start and what happens when you don’t get equal playing time as others (especially the coach’s child) can become a major topic for parents, coaches and athletes alike. Throughout my 34 years practicing as a sport psychologist, this has been an issue for many. And it is not just a topic for younger athletes, I have had to handle this situation with collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes as well.

No matter what level of sport you are competing at, you are going to want to play. I have never met a competitive athlete who enjoys sitting on the bench. Obviously, as you advance and age up in your sport, the competition for playing time gets more intense, as the less talented athletes will drop out and the athletes left playing will have goals and dreams of advancing as far as they can, whether that is at the high school, college or professional level. Being on a team and not playing can be extremely frustrating, especially if you have started most of your career in sports. I believe that many of the issues related to this topic can be addressed by the coach in the pre-season meeting.
In this meeting, the coach should describe his philosophy about the upcoming season, goals for the season, rules for attending practices and games and the issue of playing time. Perhaps the most important component of the pre-season meeting should be the topic of communication between coach and athlete and between coach and parent. I think an effective coach will lay out the rules for playing time during this meeting. If it is a rec team where equal playing time takes priority or an elite level team where playing the best players occurs, I believe this is the opportunity for the coach to explain his philosophy. This is also an opportunity for parents and athletes to ask questions about their concerns and establish a constructive dialogue where this issue can be addressed during the season, if necessary. Most coaches don’t like and don’t want to have to discuss playing time once the season begins. They typically want to have the freedom to play whomever they want, whenever they want, without questions from parents or athletes about who is and isn’t starting or playing.

However, the one constant in sports is change. No team stays the same year after year. And, coaches have the right to change their minds. But, the issue that occurs related to playing time that bothers most is the fact that many coaches don’t follow thru on their pre-season meeting objectives. Why? I think the main reason has to do with the topic of Winning. Even though many coaches will state in their pre-season meeting that the goals for the season are to have fun, play, learn skills and fundamentals and enjoy the experience, at some point for many, Winning/Losing come into play. And, when Winning and Losing become important to the coach and the team, usually the best players will start and have the most playing time, while the other players and their parents can get frustrated and angry at the coach, as well as at the other players and their parents. I have seen this happen first hand when my sons (now 24 and 25 years old) played on their youth teams, as well as having dozens of clients who have had this as their presenting problem, when coming into my office.

Another frustration that can happen for many at higher levels of competition, relates to the athlete who comes to all of the practices on time, does everything the coach requests and still gets minimal playing time or rarely gets to start. Instead, others get more playing time and start more often because the coach believes they are better and give the team a better chance to win, even if they frequently don’t come to practice or show up late. I have found this to be a cause of many frustrations and angst for athletes and parents alike.

So how do we solve this? As I have emphasized in previous newsletters, so much of this comes back to communication. If you or your child gets frustrated because of a lack of playing time as the season progresses, it is imperative to set up a meeting with the coach or coaching staff. In my opinion, there is a constructive way to do this and a destructive way to do this. Obviously, if your child isn’t getting the playing time they feel they deserve, the negative feelings about this will be very strong. So the worst thing to do is to go up to the coach after a game or practice and tell the coach you are angry and upset at him about your child’s lack of playing time. This will almost always put the coach on the defensive because he will feel he is being attacked, and consequently, will not give you an answer you want. I feel the constructive method is to tell the coach that you and your child are having an issue that you’d like to share with him. Tell him that it is your personal issue and you need to get some advice and clarity about how to deal with it. Then you can get into your child’s frustrations and discuss what you can do to help your child overcome this. I would also emphasize that you come into the meeting with a list of issues written out, so you don’t forget something, and to remind you to be relaxed. Understand that you may not get the answer you are looking for, but know that at least you made an attempt to solve this problem. I have found that in many situations, the coach was not even aware of the young athletes frustrations. If you make this effort with the coach and nothing changes, it can always be a valid reason to move to another team the following season. As always, your thoughts…..