Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What pro athletes can teach us about youth sports

In the 1980s, I was a reporter for a newspaper in Baltimore assigned to cover the Baltimore Orioles. For eight months each year, I traveled with the team around the country, writing about what I witnessed at the ballpark and occasionally outside the ballpark. This is one of those outside-the-ballpark stories that has stuck with me.

Each season, the Orioles visited New York twice for series against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. The players, manager, coaches - and us writers - stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown. Some of the traveling party commuted to Yankee Stadium by chartered bus. Occasionally, I hopped on.

As we got close to Yankee Stadium, we got a view of a bunch of athletic fields. Always - in my memory, at least - they were crowded with kids, playing pick-up sports, running, jumping, batting, kicking. Mostly, having fun.

I remember something unexpected. As we approached the fields, heads turned. Conversations ended. Players suddenly (and shockingly, for me) were very interested spectators. I'm not sure what they were thinking. To me it felt like longing. Maybe even envy. (Ironic because the kids on those fields would have been feeling exactly the same things about the big-leaguers.)

What I took from this scene is pretty simple. Pro athletes, more than most of us, understand that sports can provide some of the most carefree moments in a child's life. They also understand that there's no rush about turning sports into a job. I haven't met too many professional athletes who thought travel teams for eight-year-olds was a brilliant idea.

For the past year, I've been keeping a tally of those who have been quoted about keeping sports fun for kids (and managing the ambitions of the coaches and parents). Here’s my list (including one mom): Billy Andrade and Brad Faxon (golf,), Mike Richter, Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky (hockey), Joe Dumars and Phil Jackson (basketball), Debbie Phelps, mother of Michael (swimming), Tommy John and Jim Poole (baseball).

If you know of others, fill me in.

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