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BY KATHRYN LEVY FELDMAN Photography by John Soares

Bob Bigelow C’75 is pumped. Maybe not in the same way he was when he pounded the Palestra boards as a member of the 1973, 1974, and 1975 Ivy League Championship basketball teams under Hall of Fame Coach Chuck Daly or during his four years in the NBA, but these days it is a different type of challenge that gets his adrenaline flowing. For the past 10 years, Bigelow has been on a mission to return youth sports to its rightful owners: the kids who play.

According to Bigelow, there are 30-35 million children between three and 14 years old playing organized youth sports in this country, approximately three million adults coaching them, and tens of millions of parents cheering from the sidelines (among other less welcome activities). These adults, he says, “are overly invested, overly zealous, overly stressed. When they set up structures and systems for their children, they looked at the only models they knew: varsity high school, college, and professional sports. With adults at the helm, youth sports teams and leagues grew exponentially.”

Today, the leagues have leagues: A Teams, B teams, travel teams, select teams. It doesn’t matter what sport or sports your child plays, chances are it will overtake your life. “Some parents need computer printouts to keep their weekend straight,” Bigelow says. “Husband and wife never see each other—they have to be at different fields at the same time. Working parents say getting back to the job on Monday is a relief.”

If parents weren’t so exhausted from shuttling their kids to practices, games, and faraway tournaments, maybe they’d have the energy to laugh at themselves. Instead, they’re too busy trying to outdo each other. “As one parent would spill his or her litany of weekend activities, a full run of stuff that would exhaust Alvin and all the chipmunks, another would start right in,” wrote Tom Moroney, a columnist for The MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass. and co-author, with Bigelow and Linda Hall, of the book Just Let the Kids Play [“Briefly Noted,” this issue], in a 1997 column. “If you listened closely, you would swear each parent was trying to one-up the parent who had just spoken. He who dies with the most miles on the odometer by Sunday night wins.

Is it any wonder that sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden, over-competitive spectators often take it out on the refs, their kids, and even each other? While the case of “hockey dad” Thomas Junta, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of another father and sentenced to six-10 years in prison in January, received a lot of media attention, according to Bigelow incidents of sports rage are nothing new. “Read any newspaper, watch any television newscast for a week, and most likely you’ll see at least one instance of over-the-top parents at a youth sports event,” he says. “It’s worse than you might think.”

Parents themselves have created the conditions that prompt such outbursts, Bigelow adds. “The ways in which many youth sports systems are organized and run—particularly the ways in which children are evaluated and ranked, selected for or excluded from teams, or subjected to politics among the adults—are often catalysts for explosive emotions.”

Bigelow knows parents don’t set out to sabotage their children’s athletic success. If anything, they believe that volunteering to coach or administer the league in which their child participates will let them participate more fully in his or her life. Which is fine until the notion of winning gets in the way.

According to Michael Sachs, a sports psychologist at Temple University and coauthor of The Total Sports Experience for Kids: A Parents’ Guide to Success in Youth Sports, the reasons children participate in organized youth sports include wanting to improve their skills, getting some exercise and/or staying in shape, and socializing with their friends. “Winning is way down on the list, ranking 10th,” he pointed out in a November 2000 article for USA Today Magazine.

Contrast that with what Bigelow describes as “adult coaches [who] show up at games—with all that Management 101 mind-set, all that desire to achieve,” whose “coaching is almost solely based on the outcome, which is the score,” and you begin to see the root of the problem.

“What adults want and need from youth sports is often not what children want and need,” Bigelow explains. He raises his two fists in the air, holding them about three feet apart, to illustrate his point. One hand, he says, represents the kids; the other, the parents. At the moment, the two participants in this drama are moving in opposite directions. “It’s as though the adults and the children live in different worlds and speak different languages,” he says.

Not only does Bigelow know how to bring his two fists together, he knows the importance of doing it quickly. “An estimated 70 percent of children who play a youth sport end up quitting that sport by the time they are 13,” he says. “It is perhaps in their name that we need to fight the hardest.”

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/02/02