The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 15, 2002


Kids Sports are off-base Former Celtics player says "Get rid of elite teams"

"Youth sports must be about meeting the age-appropriate needs of all kids who participate." This is the philosophy of Bob Bigelow, former Celtics first-round draft pick, youth basketball coach, and author, along with journalists Tom Moroney and Linda Hall, of the book Just Let the Kids Play. He gave a talk sponsored by the Concord Bookshop and the Center for Parents and Teachers on February 7 at the Alcott School in Concord.

Bigelow is a compelling speaker. He's tall, of course - but equally striking is his animation and enthusiasm for his subject. This is a guy who has found his niche, channeling his considerable energy into an almost evangelical commitment to reforming youth sports.

Seeing the light

Calling himself "a crusader and an activist," Bigelow described his own path to enlightenment. As a coach for youth basketball, he met with considerable frustration attempting to teach the "pick and roll" tactic to his team of eight-year olds. Later, when he watched then-coach Chris Ford teaching the same play to Boston Celtics players, he thought, "How idiotic was I to try to teach this to eight-year-olds!"

A second seminal moment came when he visited a sports camp where the philosophy was to give the kids control. Bigelow recalled that he himself had had no formal basketball training until high school, and he began to question the value of structured, coach-led sports teaching.

Research explodes sacred cows

"Kids need competition if they're going to be successful in sports."

"Winning is important to kids."

"Kids benefit from strategy-training and instruction from the sidelines."

Over the next years Bigelow conducted extensive research into the literature of child psychology, physiology and education. This research led him to reject the above "sacred cows" of youth sports. Instead, he found the opposites to be true.

Early competition irrelevant

to long-term success

There is little correlation between sports success before age thirteen and later success in high school, college, or the pros. "So why have we developed this elitist, talent-mongering system that sifts kids at way too early an age?" Bigelow notes great athletes who were late bloomers: Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity team, and Bill Russell, "the greatest athlete in history" barely made his high school JV team. "In every pro sport there are many, many similar stories."

Kids don't care that

much about winning

In a nation-wide survey, over 26,000 kids ages five to twelve ranked their reasons for playing sports. Top ranks went to "have fun," "make friends," "get better," and "exercise." Winning? That came in twelfth. When asked whether they would rather join a winning team with little playing time, or a losing team with much playing time, kids almost universally picked the losing team.

Kids don't "get" strategy or tactics

"A child under the age of twelve cannot understand his or her role in a team sport. When you talk about strategy, tactics, or positioning, you are talking over their heads." Bigelow notes "the double play from second base" and (of course) "the pick and roll" as examples of tactics requiring serial skills a youngster is not developmentally capable of processing and executing effectively.

Kids can't respond to sidelines coaching

Making decisions on the field completely occupies a child, and coaching from the sidelines is confusing. Bigelow asks that we imagine 11-year old "Michelle," who gets the basketball and is descended on by opponents, screamed at by teammates, and yelled instructions (often conflicting) by parents and coaches. According to Bigelow, "Kids need to learn by relying on their own judgment."

Change needed

Bigelow believes a system developed for athletes in high school and college has been applied inappropriately to much younger kids. He points to "soccer creep" - elite teams at younger and younger ages - as a pernicious trend, and ridicules a Texas town that recently instituted travel T-ball for 5-year olds.

"Get rid of classification and ranking - 'travel,' 'elite,' 'all-star' 'division one,'" says Bigelow. He asks, "Where would Bob Bigelow have been?" if competition for basketball slots began in sixth grade, as it currently does in his hometown of Winchester. "My sixth grade talent was nothing," he adds, and wonders how many potential professional players are permanently discouraged by early cutting and tracking. He is also concerned that early-bloomers get a vaulted sense of their capabilities, leading to disappointment and a high sports dropout rate around the age of thirteen.

Bigelow says coaches must be evaluated and, occasionally, fired. His checklist for evaluation includes patience, kid-orientation, and humility. He warns against "self-obsessed vein-busters" and recommends coaches be assigned to teams randomly to eliminate team-stacking and dynasty-building. He also recommends the "90% smile index" for both coaches and parents; "If you just can't watch with a smile, go to the mall and leave your kids to play."

Creative solutions proposed

From the audience, Nick Miller, Director of Concord Carlisle Youth Soccer, asked how a program can implement change when it's part of a league set up divisionally. Bigelow pointed to the example of Bedford and Burlington which play each others' in-town teams as an alternative to league play. Another audience member wondered how to avoid cutting kids in middle-school sports when fields are limited. Bigelow suggested all kids could be accommodated by playing intramurally against each other, and, if necessary, splitting a field in half.

Several representatives of local youth sports organizations attended the talk, and one audience member observed, "You've caused some red faces tonight." Shaking up complacency is clearly Bigelow's intent. A few days afterward I spoke to Bob Simonton, Concord-Carlisle Youth Soccer coach and U10 age director for his reaction. "Concord-Carlisle is very conscious of making sure we're inclusive and offering the best soccer experience for kids," said Simonton. Still, he admitted, "(Bigelow) has a point - we don't need to be travelling far and wide to have a great program in which kids can have fun and learn." Reforming youth sports may be a monumental task, but Bigelow has some parents, coaches, and sports directors listening, and that's the first step.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito