Illustration by Bob Scott
The Winning Formula
How do you measure success with your child's sports experience?
If you are the parent of a restlessly ambitious young athlete, perhaps you have Richmond’s local sports heroes to blame, shining examples like Olympic bronze-medalist Kellie Wells, Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander and 2014 NFL Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson. Having superstardom so close to home may make it seem more possible, inevitable even. And maybe it is — for the lucky few.
The plain statistical truth, though, is that most young athletes will never make the big leagues, forcing a critical reality check: For all the practices and games you must shuttle them to and from, the scrapes and bruises they’re likely to endure, the sting of disappointment they’ll surely feel, what does your child stand to gain from playing a sport?
Primarily, youth sports organizers focus on the physical and social benefits your child can expect.
“The more activity they can get to burn some of that [energy] off and be healthier, the better. That’s what we want,” says Drew Klammer, director of operations for the YMCA’s Tuckahoe branch.
The YMCA of Greater Richmond annually works with about 30,000 children and teenagers ages 3 to 18 across a range of sports.
The experience can teach children how to function on a team, build personal confidence, help them make friends and learn from new adult role models, Klammer says.
Reaping the social benefits of youth sports participation can depend heavily on those role models, says Carrie LeCrom, executive director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Sports Leadership. Participation alone doesn’t produce life-changing results for children, she says.
“Sport isn’t the magic bullet,” she says. “You can’t just put people on a field and expect them to learn things. There needs to be a conscious, deliberate effort to teach the lessons you want them to take away.”
Klammer agrees. “Having another grown adult who can instill caring, honesty, respect and integrity in them, it helps set the child up for success in their life.”
LeCrom started playing soccer in second grade. As a teenager, she was a multisport athlete who played field hockey and basketball and ran track. After high school, she played soccer for Lynchburg College, was voted an All-American and led the team to the Elite 8 of the 2001 Division III NCAA Women’s Soccer National Championship.
She says sports provided structure and discipline that positively affected her life off the field. Now a mother, she plans to sign her 3- and 4-year-olds up when they’re old enough, as long as they enjoy themselves.
Following the fun is the key for the McSorleys of Henrico County, who could be a poster-family for the best-case scenario of youth sports involvement.
Catherine McSorley notes that her two children — Jack, 16, and Caitlin, 14 — were given some autonomy to chase their own athletic interests years ago, after she and husband John first signed the kids up for swimming lessons at early ages. The siblings have tried other sports along the way, such as gymnastics and soccer, but today focus heavily on competitive swimming. Jack is ranked high among the state’s junior swimmers, and Caitlin also is a qualifier for state meets. She is an avid rock climber, too.
In the McSorley family, though, physical activity is not always about the scoreboard or finish line. They strike a balance with hiking, biking, kayaking and snorkeling.
Catherine McSorley says her kids’ commitment to their own competitive pursuits has helped them develop their independence. They take responsibility for their time management and academics, she says. For example, Jack wakes himself for practice sessions at 4:30 a.m. each day, spending hours in the pool equal to a part-time job.
Also, they understand how to stay focused on a goal and dig deeper. “I think it’s important for kids to try different things,” Catherine says, “and to see if they make a connection with something or find a passion.”
Bert Wilson has refereed local high school sports for 40 years.
Drama on the Sidelines
Referees say bad behavior off the field spills into the game.
In 40 years as a basketball official, Bert Wilson has only spoken to a spectator during a game once.
He was working a girls basketball game between rival schools, one of several that week. From the stands, a fan was hounding the officials on call after call. Finally, in the third quarter, she shouted at him, “Do you even know what three-seconds is?” Wilson recalls, referring to a rule that prohibits a defender from staying under the backboard for more than three seconds.
“And I turned and said, ‘Yes ma’am. It’s the amount of peace and quiet your husband gets when you’re at home,’ ” he says, laughing.
It’s not always fun and games, though, for the men and women responsible for officiating youth league matchups with rising stakes and testy parents.
L. Ray Bullock Sr.’s 31 years of experience patrolling the hardwood has taught him as much. The worst incident faced by the commissioner of the Mid South Sports Officials Association of Virginia occurred in a junior varsity basketball game played in Powhatan. In a lopsided matchup, one of his assisting referees called a technical foul on a player whose team had been warned about delaying the game. The call had no effect on the outcome (it was a 40-point rout), but that didn’t stop the child’s parent from charging the referee after the whistle and accosting him. The police had to be called.
As extreme as it seems, Bullock says parental outbursts are not uncommon in the AAU and recreational leagues in which he works. “I’ve seen parents fight in the stands,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”
“The focus for parents should be to let their kids have fun and learn some fundamentals,” Bullock says. “The challenge with youth is to keep them from getting discouraged.”
The refs note that coaches and parents who preach good sportsmanship without practicing it themselves ultimately send the message that it’s OK for an athlete to act out against teammates, coaches or referees.
“At the younger ages, these kids are impressionable,” Wilson says. “If the coaches go a little crazy on the sideline, or the parents are too passionate about what’s [happening] on the floor, then the kids get the impression its OK [to act like that].”
Brian Smith, president of the Central Virginia Soccer Referee Association, says he has noticed a shift in behavior on the field. “You’re seeing a lot more young players talking back to referees. A lot more of the demonstrative arms flailing and yelling across the field because they think it’s fine and they see their favorite players doing it on TV.”
In his experience, coaches at the recreational level have done a good job setting positive examples for young players.
Both Wilson and Smith credit the Virginia High School League for emphasizing sportsmanship in the face of rising ejections in football, basketball, wrestling and other sports.
In roughly the first six months of the 2011-12 school year, into mid-February, 218 student athletes were ejected from a VHSL competition. In that same period the following year, it rose to 286. To the same point in the 2014-15 school year, 335 students have been ejected from a game or match.
“We’ve got people in the games and in the stands who have totally lost what athletics is supposed to be about,” says Tom Dolan, VHSL’s assistant director for compliance.
The organization’s sportsmanship committee is working to address the increase of ejections, Dolan says, but more can be done in youth sports leagues to head off problems down the road for athletes and parents alike. “It’s at the youth level where you can get parents and say, ‘If you haven’t officiated, you don’t know what it’s like.’ Especially at the youth level, it’s about learning the game,” he says. “For parents, it should be about learning to be an appropriate spectator. I think we’ve lost that.”
Photo by Jay Paul
Kevin Ford of Rehab Plus physical therapy in Midlothian guides son Bryan, 9, through the ProCare Kids functional movement screen.
Bumps, Bruises and Burnout
Overuse injuries reflect young athletes in hyper-drive
Tragic headlines about football-related head injuries in recent years have intensified scrutiny of the sport and exposed a legion of pro athletes suffering the long-term effects of brain trauma. This partly explains why participation in youth football programs dropped 28.6 percent in the United States between 2008 and 2013, according to the Aspen Institute, reflecting parents’ concerns for their children.
But another category of injury is plaguing more young athletes these days. The overuse injury is not just for professional athletes anymore.
“Indoors, outdoors, school sports, club sports: It’s just really common today to find athletes competing in the same sport all year round,” notes Kevin Ford, facility director of Rehab Plus in Midlothian, a ProCare Physical Therapy clinic.
Ford, a physical therapist, says he sees young patients who have ignored injury pain so they won’t interrupt practice or game schedules. Often, they seek care only after an injury interrupts basic daily tasks.
The scenario is familiar to Dr. Robert Tuten, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Tuckahoe Orthopedics.
“With my baseball players, they will commonly get what we call ‘Little Leaguer’s elbow’ or ‘Little Leaguer’s shoulder,’ where they get almost a stress fracture of the growth plate. That basically is just from throwing too much,” Tuten says. “Gymnasts we see will commonly get stress fractures of their lower back from doing backward bends and hyper-extension-type maneuvers.”
The source of the competitive drive, however, is not always the young athlete. “You’ve got to look at the parents’ part of it, too,” Tuten says. “Some of the parents are living vicariously through their kids. They want their kid to be the greatest player, and they’re encouraging them.”
In many cases, Tuten notes, the injured players “don’t need surgery. Most of them — this is going to sound silly — need some Vitamin D supplementation. They need some better nutrition. They need some physical therapy. Some of them just need a little bit of rest.”
Ford points out another common cause of injuries in young athletes: a lack of conditioning and preparation before jumping headlong into a sport. An emerging solution he embraces — one he’s using to guide his own active children — is a pre-participation screening to test their strength and flexibility.
Known as the “functional movement screening,” which must be administered by a certified health professional, it uses seven exercises or tests to gauge the physical liabilities that could put a person at risk of injury during a sport activity. “That’s a great screening tool that has some reliability now,” Ford says.
Larry Cooper, a spokesman for the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, suggests that parents encourage their children to play multiple sports to cross-train their bodies, working different muscles and developing skills that other sports may not use as readily.
He says parents also are on the front line of defense against their children’s injuries. Mom and Dad are the first to see when their child is worn down, overly tired or bored with a sport. “That’s going to put them at risk, too, when they’re not 100 percent into it,” says Cooper, also an athletic trainer at Penn-Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pennsylvania.
Tuten, Cooper and Ford all express a note of caution that has become more widely voiced in national discussions about the culture of youth sports in America: In the hyper-competitive modern landscape, parents introducing their kids to sports often forget one critical ingredient.
“Likely, way back, the motivation for sports was fun,” Ford says, with a bit of ironic laughter. “But how many of us would have enjoyed the merry-go-round on the playground if we had been told to do it for three sets of 15?”
Should the parent be a coach or support system?
It’s the bottom of the last inning, two outs, and your 10-year-old steps up to the plate. With high hopes, you watch from the bleachers as the first pitch whizzes over the bag. “Strike one!” the umpire bellows.
Your kid steps back to adjust his glove, then digs his cleats back in, only to watch a second pitch blow by without so much as a twitch of the bat. “Strike Two!”
You’re growing frustrated, and find yourself fighting the urge to shout from the stands: Swing! What is the coach doing in the dugout? What the hell did we practice?
The well-worn narrative of overbearing parents projecting their sporting-glory dreams onto their fledgling athletes has played out on the big screen and at diamonds, fields and courts season in and season out. Where is the line between critic and support system? And how do you know when to straddle it?
“You’re either a parent or a coach. You’re not both,” says Steven Danish, a professor emeritus in the Virginia Commonwealth University psychology department who has worked as a sports psychologist for 40 years.
“If you’re a parent, you remain a parent. You don’t yell something from the bleachers like ‘Do this, Joe!’ That’s the coach’s job. Basically, you don’t want to be saying, ‘Do this’ and the coach is saying, ‘Do that.’ ”
Pressuring your child to perform at a higher level when they’re pursuing a sport for fun or to spend time with their friends can discourage them, Danish says. Avoiding this pitfall may be as simple as asking your child what his or her goals are for the practice, game or season.
Establishing goals in positive terms — for example, setting an intention to pass the ball more accurately, rather than an emphasis on not throwing the ball away — gives the child something to work toward. For parents, Danish says, the child’s goals should dictate how and when they push and encourage them.
Barb DiArcangelo works as a goalkeeper coach for STORM Lacrosse, a girls travel team with middle- and high school-aged players. In 20 years on the sidelines, she says she hasn’t seen much of a change in players’ demeanor, but she has seen one in parents, who instead of dropping their daughters off at practice, stay to watch and chat with her afterward about performance or playing time.
“Mostly, it’s not that I don’t answer the parent, but I explain that the athlete understands what we’re working on, why she isn’t playing and what it will take for her to get in,” DiArcangelo says. “If it’s about playing time or performance, it’s between the athlete and myself.”
The sons of Kathy and Richard Verlander, Justin and Ben, grew up in Goochland County and both went on to careers as major league baseball players. In their book Rocks on the Pond, the couple pondered the question of when it’s appropriate to push a child. “We’ve always felt like the time to push is when they’re doing well, and the time to be encouraging is when they aren’t doing so well,” Richard Verlander says.
“Unfortunately, it seems like so many parents get caught up in the pursuit of a scholarship or professional career that they don’t realize how special that time is with their kids and families,” he says. “We’re always reminding parents to not lose sight of that.”
Verlander advises parents to encourage their kids to be good teammates, attend every scheduled practice and game, and to play out a season, even if they’re unhappy, to honor the commitment they made.
Lastly, don’t give your child the impression that in-game performance is the be-all and end-all. Keeping your child’s focus on preparation will lead to better performance before harping on poor play will, says Steven Noles, a Richmond-based sports psychologist who works with middle school and high school athletes from across the region.
Failure and disappointment are as much a part of any sport as they are a part of life, he adds. Instead of trying to shield your child from either, or looking to place blame on a coach or referee, talk to your child about what they could have prepared better or executed better in the game.
“The problem for most of the athletes I work with is they are focused on the score solely,” he says. “ You have to get the kids to focus on what they control. For swimmers, they can only control themselves. For soccer players, they can defend to a point, but sometimes you get to the point where you can’t do anything when you’re against someone who is flat-out better or more skilled.”
Staying in the Game
It’s a parent’s rite of passage: Standing your son or daughter up for the keepsake photo of them in their first team jersey. Could it be the first of many such photos tracing their rise to the big leagues? Even these elite athletes will tell you that the point of the game isn’t always fame and glory.
Four-time member of Junior Olympic National Gymnastics Team
Daily four- and five- hour practices taught McMurtry the value of time management and self-motivation before she graduated from high school. “Your coaches or parents can only motivate you to a point; from there, it’s on you,” the 18-year-old from Midlothian says. “You have to know what you can say to yourself and how to attain the skills you need.” McMurtry is a freshman studying pre-med at the University of Florida, where she is also a member of the Gators’ gymnastics team that has won back-to-back collegiate national titles.
VCU men’s basketball player
The Benedictine graduate and starting guard for the Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball team got serious about basketball in seventh grade. His hard work on the court paid off, and Burgess earned a scholarship to join the fast-rising Rams ahead of the 2012-13 season, following a path blazed by his brother, Bradford. “Any sport you play, you can apply it to anything you do,” he says. “In sports, there are going to be a lot of adverse situations, and you have to respond the right way to get through it.”
Olympic bronze medalist hurdler
The James River High School graduate followed in the footsteps of her sister, mother and father when she joined her first track team as a 7-year-old. By middle school, she was running with the high school track team and developing the discipline that led her to an Olympic medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2012 games. “I’m a firm believer that the body follows the mind. If you want to join the track team but you’re not the strongest or the fastest, join it. You’ll get where you want to go,” she says.
Retired NFL player
From the last kid in his cul-de-sac picked for street ball to NFL Super Bowl champion, Michael Robinson is a testament to one of sports’ oldest, but truest, clichés. “The lesson I’ve learned is that hard work truly does pay off. Usually, it’s hard for young people to believe that,” says Robinson, who attended Varina High School, played for the Penn State Nittany Lions and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. He played eight pro seasons before retiring as a Seattle Seahawk in 2014. It wouldn’t have happened without the support of his older brother.
Member of 2012 U.S. Women’s Olympic field hockey team
A Midlothian field hockey standout at James River High School, Taylor walked on at the University of Richmond program and earned a spot on the U.S. women’s field hockey team at the 2012 London Summer Olympics. As a teenager, she was not confined to the hockey pitch, though. Taylor also swam competitively, ran track, played soccer and softball. Her parents supported her athletic exploration, she says. “They always told me ‘If you want to do it, go do it.”