I get lots of emails from listeners to my TeamSnap podcast, and I try to respond to every one. Most of the emails are "one and done" exchanges. But last week, I had a lengthy conversation with the mom of a 9-year-old baseball player who was in a textbook example of a toxic youth sports situation: The coach had recruited her son hard, promising lots of starts and tons of playing time, which never materialized. He forbade the players from participating on any other team. He created a 45-point list of rules for players and parents, with strict consequences for infractions. The result? A little boy who loves the game of baseball, never gets to play, and cries after every practice.
Here are five warning signs that you need to run -- not simply walk -- away from a youth sports team, like the mom above finally did:
- Your child is recruited hard by a coach who says that your child is his number one prospect and if she plays for his team, he guarantees she'll get a college scholarship.
First of all, no one can guarantee a college scholarship, especially not for an 8- or 9-year-old child. But more than that, when a coach uses that line, he is using an age-old tactic of playing to parental egos. I'd be willing to bet this coach has a team full of number one prospects.
"A coach told me that my 9-year-old daughter was his top prospect. I laughed at him and said, 'She's nine. She's nobody's prospect.' He was simply trying to sell me, not her. And when I told him that she was going to play lacrosse too, he got completely quiet and then said, 'I'm no longer interested.'" So much for top prospect, eh?
- You are asked to sign a document stating your child will not play any other sport or on any other team while participating on that team.
A big red flag went up when the baseball mom told me the travel coach doesn't allow players to play Little League. At the younger ages, kids get the most fun out of playing with their friends. There's plenty of time for travel ball and "driving six hours to play another team because the competition is better."
And as for playing other sports, studies show that early single-sports specialization is detrimental to development and leads to a greater risk of overuse injuries. Why are so many MLB pitchers succumbing to Tommy John surgery? These players were on the bleeding edge of year-round baseball and their arms were possibly overused too early.
What's more, if your child's goal really is a college athletic scholarship, there's no better validation of the value of multi-sport participation through high school than Urban Meyer's whiteboard sketch that recently went viral on Twitter:
If a coach tries to say your child isn't allowed to play on another team or any other sport, or worse, asks you sign to a form to that effect, that coach doesn't have your child's best interests at heart--only his own. And his ego. You are the only one who can protect your child. Exercise that right and find another team that values multi-sport participation. Not only will you be happier, so will your child.
- A "sugar daddy" on the team pays for all the tournaments, uniforms, equipment and other cool stuff out of his own pocket.
If a coach tells you his team is a better value because he (or another parent on the team) is sponsoring the team's activities, that simply means he expects to own you--and your child--and you have no recourse to complain or ask for changes. It means his kid will get the lion's share of playing time. And it means that he expects your child to behave like an employee, not a child. Guess what? This is when sport becomes work, not play.
Pull your child from any team that makes the sport feel like work before he or she loses the love of the game. Find another team that makes it fun for everyone. As the baseball mom wrote, "I quickly figured out free isn't always better! I told my son all the fancy [equipment] in the world can't make better talent."
- You are handed a list of team rules for both players and parents that goes beyond the realm of "Be on time for every practice" and "Respect your teammates."
Yes, team rules are important, and kids need to learn to respect their teammates without putting them down. They also need to learn how to receive instruction from coaches without talking back and being disrespectful. But when the rules go beyond the realm of sanity, it's time to pack your bags and run away.
Rules forbidding parents from communicating with the coach just tell me the coach is a bully and doesn't want to be questioned or challenged. For sure, there are good ways and bad ways to approach a coach, but saying that parents can't talk with the coach at all is a bad sign.
As the baseball mom told me, "We were given a long list of rules and we have a meeting every month to go over any that have been broken to make sure we understand that we will be asked to leave if the same people continue to break the rules." This doesn't sound like a youth sports team--it sounds like a dictatorship! Run away fast.
- Your child consistently sits on the bench and rarely plays but is told that she needs to work harder.
Of all the things that happen in youth sports, this is the one that makes my blood boil most. If the coach didn't think your child could play, why did he select her to begin with? And if he wants her to improve, how, exactly, is sitting on the bench going to do that? No one ever got better at anything simply by watching others do it.
If your child is spending most of her time on the bench, and the coach tells you that it's because she's not good enough to play, find another team where she will play. That is the ONLY way she will improve. And, it is also the only way she will have fun.
For at least one baseball mom, and her son, this story has a happy ending. In her last email to me, she said, "I sucked up my pride and confessed to his old team that the grass wasn't greener and they said they'd would be very happy to have us back and that they all missed us!"
And she didn't make this decision alone: "I did have [my son] write down the pros and cons for going back to his old team last night and, on his own, his list of pros far outweighed the cons."