Bob Bigelow's message is needed more than ever.
The author of "Just Let the Kids Play" will be in Springfield on Aug. 30 to talk about a topic near and dear to both of our hearts: youth sports. Bigelow’s book outlines everything that is wrong with youth sports today, and most of it centers on one basic truth:
"I’ve been in this business for 15 years to do one thing," says Bigelow, "get adult egos out of youth sports."
Anybody who’s coached their kid, or other kids, or sat at a Little League game or a youth soccer game knows that Bigelow speaks the truth. Examples — even local ones — abound.
Just last month, dozens of local baseball players who gave their hearts and souls over the heat of summer to the game they love found themselves on the outside looking in come American Legion baseball playoff time. Call it a glitch, a paperwork error, or just adult madness, the reason doesn’t particularly matter to the members of Legion teams in Ozark, Branson, Bolivar, Marshfield and Springfield who were left out of the playoffs because adults in a city far away determined paperwork was inadequate.
Ozark coach Mike Essick echoed sentiments Bigelow has heard from coast to coast when adults get in the way of kids playing games.
"It’s about the kids," Essick told a group of parents after the ruling that left their children out of the playoffs. "They might be trying to teach somebody a lesson, but it isn’t going to be the kids that they are teaching. The kids don’t know any better, and they didn’t do anything."
Neither did the Legion baseball players in Washington state who were kicked out of the playoffs in their towns this summer because their uniforms contained silk-screened patches instead of the sewn-on variety.
Read Bigelow’s book and you’ll find that such ludicrous examples are rampant across the nation.
I first read it several years ago after lamenting the professionalization of youth sports in a column in Columbia. University of Missouri law school professor Doug Abrams, a hockey coach, recommended the book and I latched onto a national network of coaches, teachers, parents and journalists who, like Bigelow, want to bring some sanity to the madness surrounding youth sports.
The madness that has children being told at 8 and 9 that they are "elite" players. The madness that has club coaches demanding year-round commitment and causing high school coaches to lose some of their best players. The madness that has parents paying youth coaches and then expecting those accountants and lawyers and cabinet-makers to turn their little Johnnies into Division I scholarship athletes. The madness that has children burned out of the sports they love before they’ve even developed physically.
Bigelow isn’t some namby-pamby social scientist who doesn’t believe in winning. He’s a former member of the Boston Celtics, a professional athlete who competed at the highest levels. He has raised his own children and seen the madness for himself, and now he crisscrosses the nation trying to tell parents and coaches that there is a better way. Great athletes will rise to the top without adults making all the decisions for them and driving the fun, and learning, right out of the games.
All too often, Bigelow says, the culprit is playoffs. Even the best youth sports systems tend to lose their way come playoff time.
"Come the playoffs, adult egos are more important than the kids," he says.
Bigelow has given more than 650 speeches about the challenges in his book — which outlines ways in which parents and coaches can design recreation programs that are more kid-centric. He hopes he’s making a difference. "In my own little way, there have been some changes," he says.
It’s the kind of change that happens one parent at a time. More than a year ago, around the time adults were getting in the way of the success of Central High School athletes, I mentioned Bigelow’s book in a column. Jim Thomas of the Mighty Mites football program read it and recognized some of Bigelow’s ideas in the youth football program his father founded. Springfield Parks director Jodie Adams picked up a copy of the book, too. Count her a believer. Thomas and Adams got together and now Bigelow will be in Springfield at the end of the month.
Our city should pack the Cooper Tennis Complex at 7 p.m. Aug. 30 to listen to the man speak. Every parent of a Legion baseball player who didn’t get to play ball this summer should be there. Every parent of young children who hasn’t yet seen their child damaged by our youth sports culture should be there. Coaches, referees, umpires and league officials. All should be there and ask themselves:
Are we really putting kids first?
Tony Messenger is the editorial page editor of the News-Leader. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 836-1113.
Additional information can be found on our Age Appropriate page.