Letting Kids Run Practices Increases Fun, Builds Team Spirit

Girls playing lacrosseOn Saturday, March 27, the world observed the fourth annual Earth Hour, a global event started by the World Wildlife Fund. During Earth Hour, cities, towns and individual families from around the world were encouraged to turn off all non-essential lights from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.  People in more than 92 countries participated in a global call to action for, and to demonstrate the urgency of, climate change. It was amazing to watch coverage on the Sunday Today show of all the cities that powered down their lights, from Paris to Prague.

Sitting quietly in a room lit only by candles I had a chance to ponder the impact on world energy consumption that all of us, acting as individuals, accomplished together.  It got me thinking about thinking outside the box to create change and how I could do the same thing to change youth sports, as MomsTeam have been doing since 2000. What could I suggest that individuals could do at the team level that might have an impact across the country?

The first idea that popped into my mind was my suggestion that coaches step out of the coaching box and let the kids themselves run a part of every sports practice.  In other words, just let them play.  I have been suggesting that coaches let kids run practices on a regular basis for a long time, both in my book Home Team Advantage and on MomsTeam.  Here's what I said:

Some of the best practices my teams ever had were those where I followed a "games-based" teaching approach-where I stepped off the field and told the players to take over the practice and do what they wanted, to organize the practice themselves, so long as they had fun. They would usually decide to play a skill game, one of about twenty-five that I use to develop skills without drilling. The only time I stepped in was when I saw that a certain skill could be taught in order to help the play.

As I was thinking about the importance of unstructured play, it just so happened that in my email inbox was a note from a friend in New York who heard about a group at the State University of New York (SUNY) called Youth Sports New York which is organizing an event they are calling SANDLOT DAY 2010TM. According to the group's website, the "goal of Sandlot Day 2010 is to give young ballplayers in organized leagues the gift of pickup baseball that their coaches and parents experienced. From this one day they'll get personal memories that last a lifetime, a sense of ownership of the game, an ability to organize themselves, and so much more."

I think Sandlot Day is an excellent idea, but why just one day? Why not allow the kids to run a part of every practice?

If you coach youth sports, I know what you were thinking: turning over a part of every practice to the kids is simply unworkable. You can't teach the kids what they need to learn unless you micromanage every second of the hour to hour and a half the practice runs, filling every nook and cranny with teaching tips and drills.

But just ask the kids who played on my soccer teams, especially the players who were told by the town travel soccer club that they weren't good enough to play travel soccer but who, after playing on one my teams, went on to play high school varsity soccer. I bet they would say one of the reasons they continued playing was because letting the kids run practices and engage in  free play builds team spirit, gives them a chance to experiment without fear of being corrected by the coach, to be creative, to take chances and try new moves, and ultimately to do what kids everywhere have been doing for fun since the beginning of time: play.

As Mother Teresa said, "We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love." Turning over a portion of every sports practice to the kids may sound like a small thing.  But given the fact that one of the principal reasons kids drop out of sports is that they aren't having fun, I bet it could go a long way to making practices more fun.  If enough coaches made it a regular part of their practice routine, maybe, just maybe, it would catch on across the country.  As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his best-selling book, The Grassfire Effect, this is how to ignite change.

So, my question to youth sports coaches out there is, Have you ever let your players run a practice? And to parents, I am wondering whether your child been on a team where the coach let the kids run the practice? How did it work out? Let me know at delench@momsteam.com.

Average: 5 (1 vote)

NHL Ban on Blindside Hits Deserves Ringing of Cow Bell

If you have been following ice hockey, as I have been this year, you probably know that the sport has a concussion problem, more specifically a head-hunting problem.

You may have seen the cheap blindside hit by Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins on the Boston Bruins' Marc Savard back on March 7th.  Savard was taken off the ice on a stretcher, suffering a concussion so severe that he will likely be sidelined for rest of the regular season.  Sadly, it was, as Yogi Berra so famously remarked, "deja vu all over again" for my hometown Bruins, reminiscent of the cheap shot to the head of star forward, Patrice Bergeron, a couple of seasons ago which kept him off the ice for months with post-concussion syndrome.  After watching the sickening video of the hit a couple of times, I hope Savard will return to the game of hockey but I am not so sure.

Many say the Cooke hit was the final straw, forcing the NHL to finally act to put an end the head-hunting that has injured players and given the sport such a black eye.  The day after the Cooke incident, the NHL general managers proposed a ban on "lateral, back-pressure or blindside hits" targeting the head.  The NHL Board of Governors approved the ban on March 23rd, and yesterday, the Executive Board of the National Hockey League players' union voted to accept a new temporary rule that bans those ugly blindside hits to the head through the end of the current season.  TThe rule is likely to be made permanent this summer, with added on-ice penalties.

"We believe this is the right thing to do for the game and for the safety of our players," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement reported by the Associated Press. "The elimination of these types of hits should significantly reduce the number of injuries, including concussions, without adversely affecting the level of physicality in the game."

I have been a hockey fan all my life.  As a little girl my dad, a hockey player in his youth, took me to all the home Bruins games. He had box seats for many years and we brought cow bells. It was my job to ring the cow bell when our goalie made a great save or the team scored a goal.

The NHL did something yesterday that deserves the ringing of a cow bell.   If only I had one to ring.


Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games: A Tale of Two Brothers

Last Friday, close to 5000 spectators were in attendance to welcome athletes from 44 countries during the Opening Ceremonies at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympic Games. As the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) flag was raised, the Games were declared open by Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean. The Games run from March 12 to 21st.

During the ceremonies, IPC President Sir Philip Craven said, "let us now turn to why we are all here this evening - the athletes. It is you who redefine the possible. You succeed by focusing your minds, driving your bodies and achieving what many would consider the impossible."

On Monday, Brian McKeever of Canada became the first athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralymic Games, turning in an outstanding performance in the men's 20-kilometre freestyle visually impaired cross-country skiing event to give the host country its first gold medal of the Games.

I was fortunate enough to have met Brian and his brother Robin while I was at the Olympics last month and learn about the inspiring tale of these two brothers.

Brian began cross-country skiing with his family when he was 3, and started competing by the age of thirteen. In 1998, he reached the international level at the World Junior Championships for able-bodied skiers in Pontresina, Switzerland, where he solidified his standing as one of Canada's best cross-country skiers.

Unfortunately, not soon after, at the age of 19, Brian began losing his vision due to a rare genetic condition, Stargardt's disease. Despite the challenges he faced as a physically-challended athlete, Brian began competing in para-nordic skiing with his brother, Robin, acting as his guide. While Robin was not allowed to ski the course with Brian during the paralympic event on Monday, his brother's victory was no doubt due in no small measure to his help.

Brian's gold medal brought to eight his medal haul at the Paralympic Winter Games, on top of the silver and two gold medals he won at Salt Lake City in 2002, and the two gold, one silver and one bronze he took home from Torino in 2006.

For a video about Brian and more about the Paralympics visit their website.

Do you have a story about a paralympic athlete to share, or a person we can interview about what it is like to participate in paralympic events? Please contact me at delench@momsteam.com.


High School Congratulated For Hiring Woman as Head Football Coach

"I can do it," she said. "I'm qualified. I played the game. I know the kids. I love the kids."

Those were the words Natalie Randolph spoke as she was introduced as Coolidge High School football coach this weekend in Washington, D.C.

While not the first female to coach high school level football, Randolph deserves to be congratulated for tossing her name in the hat this past January when the school was looking for a football coach.

According to the Washington Post, Natalie was well qualified to coach the team: she had played five seasons for the D.C. Divas of the Independent Women's Professional League and had also served two seasons as an assistant coach at another D.C. high school.

Randolph's confident words were pretty much exactly what I said to the age director of the local soccer club when I volunteered to coach a boy's U-14 team no one else seemed willing to coach. Unlike Randolph, I had not played the game growing up (field hockey and basketball were the sports I played in high school). But I had taken a course and obtained a license from the state soccer association, and, as a mom of triplet sons, I knew a thing or two about communicating with boys.Brooke de Lench and U-14 Boys' Soccer Team

As I wrote in my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and in numerous articles for this site, I am convinced that there are lots of reasons why women and mothers make great youth sports coaches, and that more should be coaching.

Has your son ever had a female coach? If he has, we would love for you to share your story!


Lindsey Vonn's World Cup Win at Garmisch-Partenkirchen Brings Back Memories

Lindsey Vonn Kissing World Cup trophyLindsey Vonn won the women's Super-G this past Friday to be crowned alpine skiing's overall World Cup champion for the third consecutive year.

It was amazing to me that Vonn, after suffering a painful shin injury and a couple of falls during the Vancouver Olympics, was able to do as well as she did in the World Cup races last week in Germany.  It is a testament to how strong a skier she is. We are truly watching the career unfold of one of the greatest female skiers of all time.

In becoming the first woman to win three straight World Cup overall titles since Petra Kronberger of Austria in 1990 to 1992, the 25-year-old Vonn is in exclusive company, one of only four women to have won that many overall titles, along with Kronberger, Vreni Schneider of Switzerland and Janica Kostelic of Croatia.

Vonn will be 29 when the XXII Olympic Winter Games are held in Sochi, Russia in 2014,  and 34 for the Winter Olympics after that.  It is a possiblity that we will be witness to her participating in two more Winter Olympic Games plus eight more World Cups.

The 2018 Winter Olympic venue has not been selected but I am pulling for Munich/Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  Once two separate towns in Bavaria, Germany, Garmisch-Partenkirchen were made a single town by Adolf Hitler in 1935 before the 1936 Winter Olympic Games were held there. The beautiful resort towns lie at the base of the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain, a town in the region of Oberbayern in Bavaria, not far from the border with Austria.

I had the chance to hike up the Zugspitze in the summer of 1973 during a backpacking trip across Europe with a high school friend between our sophomore and junior years of college.  It was one of the most breath taking moments of my life when I reached the top of the mountain. We hiked all the way back down the old bobsled track dating back to the 1936 Olympics and, at the end of our visit, I remember promising myself to one day return to ski the mountain. Eight years is a long way off for a skier to stay strong but I am rooting for Lindsey and will be the first to buy my tickets if Munich wins the bid.

In the meantime, I hope Lindsey takes a long break somewhere in the sun!


Seventh Heaven: Canadian Fans Made The Difference

I am in a bit of a rut this week. Call it for what it is: Olympic withdrawal.  Last week I spent a glorious week in Vancouver as a spectator at the Winter Olympics. The week before I left for the games I watched as much of the coverage as I could every night. I was very fortunate to be able to have tickets to some of my favorite events but one event will stick out as truly remarkable-it was the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal Game.

I had no say in my seating choice (my tickets were obtained by a team member) and had no idea what a treat I was in for as I climbed to the third level and found my seat on the end of the rink. I am a huge fan of the USA team and have been following four time medal winner Angela Ruggiero ever since she was a student at Harvard. My seats were always on what I call the 50-yard line just behind the team bench. I always thought they were the best place to watch from and to be able to see Angela. I was in for a treat but had a much different vantage point than ever before.

As I climbed the stairs to my seat I realized I was distinctly in the minority. Not that I was a lone female-no I think there were equal numbers of men and women, which was a delightful realization, but that I was one of only a handful of USA fans. It seemed that every Canadian fan was wearing a red jacket. All I could see was a sea of red. 

Canada Hockey Place Vancouver Olympics


At the end of the first period, with the U.S. down 2-0, I ventured over to another part of the stadium to meet up with friends who, it turned out, also had seats in the midst of the red sea. I asked around to find out if there was a designated spot for Americans. I started at the courtesy booth. "Sir, just out of curiosity," I asked, "Can you point me to the USA side -the visitor's side?" "Gee, I am sorry," he said, " I can't help you." (if you watched the Closing Ceremonies, it included a whole segment of self-deprecating humor about the tendency of Canadians to always say they were "sorry").  "There don't seem to be many visitors here tonight; mostly Canadian fans," he replied. I continued to wander around the stadium and at one point was actually offered a seat in my regular-preferred section of the rink-just behind TEAM USA bench.

I had never been at such a loud sports event in my life (and that includes being among 70,000 fans for the opening of the 1999 Women's World Cup at Giants Stadium). The Canadian fans never sat down, never stopped cheering, and the cow-bells ... the cow bells must have been made especially for this event: they were decibels louder than any cow bell I had ever heard at a Bruins game.

Good sportsmanship

The Canadian fans were spectacular; everything fans should be. Polite, gracious and good sports. When a USA, USA chant started among the few Americans in the stands as the U.S. women lined up to receive their silver medals, the Canadians all joined in to salute their achievement.  The red-shirted fans on either side of me actually locked arms with me as they chanted in support of our team.

I am sure I am not alone in feeling that Team Canada fed off the energy of its fans. It is a cliché to say that a home crowd is the proverbial "seventh player on the ice" but in this case, I truly believe it gave the Canadians at Canada Hockey Place the edge it needed to win gold in what was a very evenly matched game among the two best women's hockey teams in the world.  The energy of the place was palpable. It was real. A home team advantage that was the difference between the gold and silver.  (same for men on Sunday).

Lessons learned

What lessons did I take away from the game for sports parents? First, that cheering for your child at their games can help them play their best.  But, second, that cheering for every player, on both teams, as the Canadian fans did in chanting "USA! USA!", is just as important.

I have seen what a surprising difference it can make on the sidelines and in the stands when parents make an effort to applaud a good effort or a fine play - no matter who makes it.  If you focus obsessively on your own child at a sports event you are giving a clear signal that you don't really care about the team or the event - you just care about your son or daughter. By contrast, parents who shout and cheer for all the children set a great example for the kids, by sending the message that youth sports are about giving one's best effort and enjoying the game, not about winning and losing.

So, sports parents, how about borrowing a page (or should I say maple leaf) from the playbook of our good friends north of the border? Cheer for everyone!


Vancouver Olympics Next Stop For U.S. Women's Hockey Team

Four Time Olympian Angela RuggieroIn their last game in the Qwest tour before heading to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the U.S. Women's Hockey Team turned a close game against Finland going into the third period with three goals en route to a satisfying  5-1 rout.

It  was great to see Angela Ruggiero, MomsTeam's hockey expert, score a goal. Hard to believe that she will now be participating in her fourth Olympics!

I first met Angela before the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City and was on hand to  see her and Team USA take silver.  She now has medals of every color (having won gold in Nagano in 1998 and bronze in Turino in 2006). 

In the run-up to the Vancouver Games, I traveled to Durham, New Hampshire on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to see Angela and Team USA beat the Hockey East All Stars 4-0, and then had the thrill of watching them practice at Fenway Park in January.  

Now its on to the Olympics for Team USA.  I will be in the stands with Angela's mom, Karen, for the medal round games. Here's hoping she can add another gold to her medal haul.

Stay tuned for more posts from Vancouver!



Ice Hockey at Fenway: 2010 U.S. Women's Olympic Hockey Team Practices In Shadow of Green Monster

Brooke de Lench and Angela Ruggiero at Fenway ParkWhen Angela Ruggiero invited me to come watch her practice with the rest of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Women's Ice Hockey team at Fenway Park in Boston this morning, I could not resist. It was truly a great way to begin what I know is going to be a very special year for me and the Youth Sports Parents team.

I had had a chance to watch them in action last month at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, New Hampshire as they beat the Hockey East All-Stars 4-0 during the Qwest Tour.  It was great to see them in action again.

But watching today's practice at Fenway Park was a unique and special experince, ranking right up there with watching the 2006 U.S. Olympic Women's Ice Hockey Team win a silver medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics during that magical two weeks four years ago.

As a born and bred New Englander and Red Sox and Bruins fan I enjoyed watching the National Hockey League's annual outdoor game on New Year's Day between the B's and the Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway Park in the 2010 Bridgestone/NHL Winter Classic. But it was not quite as exciting for me (watching on television from the comfort of my home) as it was for my friends whom actually attended the game in the freezing cold.

My earliest sports memories are of sitting on my dad's lap in Fenway Park as a three-year-old and, right around the same time, going to the old Boston Garden to watch the Bruins.  A huge fan, my dad had season tickets for both teams. Growing up around Boston was such a treat but to have regular seats was very special.

Fenway Park rink January 2010So, here I was this morning watching women play hockey on the field at Fenway.  It was an amazing, almost out of body, experience to be sitting there, my feet deep in snow, watching my favorite sports team practice smack in the middle of the infield on the most beautiful sheet of ice imaginable. It was almost surreal to see the Zambonies (Zambonies?!) putting down a new surface.

If only I had been able to add to the lists of "firsts" actually seeing this group of young women play a game at Fenway and for it to be televised so the entire country could get to appreciate and share in the experience. The enthusiasm, athleticism and character they all displayed was a breath of fresh air,

As the Olympics approach, I will have more to say about Angela, her team, her mom, Karen, and my memories of watching her play over the years.  Until then, Happy New Year and go U.S.!


Average: 5 (1 vote)

N.F.L. Concussion Message: Do As We Say, Not As We Do

Last week Arizona Cardinals wide receiver and Pro Bowl special teams player Sean Morey admitted that he covered up his concussion symptoms so he could play against the Chicago Bears the previous Sunday.

In one sense the news wasn't all that surprising. After all, N.F.L. players play hurt all the time. It's their job. It's part of the gladiator culture of the league and of the game of football.

What is surprising, and extremely disappointing to those of us in the youth sports community who have long asked that the N.F.L. take the lead on concussion education, is that Morey, recently named co-chair of the players' association concussion and traumatic brain injury committee, did exactly what he has been repeatedly telling college and high school players not to do: lie and downplay concussion symptoms.

To make matters worse, he refused to even say how many concussions he has had during his 10-year pro career (other than to tell the AP that it was "more than I'd like to admit"), which itself sends the wrong message: the most recent consensus of concussion experts is that providing a complete concussion history is critically important for proper concussion management.

Morey's pathetic and totally inadequate excuse for his hypocrisy? That as an N.F.L. player he was obligated to play, no matter what. "No player wants to take a day off or get a free lunch," he told the AP. He claimed players were "hard wired to do their job" out of "loyalty to their teammates and their owners." In other words, Morey claims he didn't really have a choice: he was being paid lots of money by the team  to play and so he had no choice but to play, whether injured or not, and he couldn't really help himself because the play with pain attitude was so ingrained in his very identity as a football player.

But the same cannot be said for high school and youth football players. They aren't being paid lots of money (college players are another matter; while they aren't paid a salary per se, what with the free boat they get in terms of scholarships and other perks in big time Division I football they might as well be). They don't have owners to whom they are accountable. They do have a choice: play with concussion symptoms and risk catastrophic injury or death, at worst, or, at the very least, risk long-term mental health problems like depression and impaired memory and thinking skills, or sit out until all symptoms have completely disappeared and a qualified health care professional has cleared them to return to play. Sadly, the longer they play football it seems the more the culture takes over and the more the instinct for self-preservation seems to take a back seat to the win-at-all-costs, don't let your teammates, coach and community down, attitude.

Was it naive of us to think that the Morey would practice what he preached when it came down to crunch time, when he had to actually follow his own advice?


It seems increasingly obvious that professional football players and the owners for whom they butt heads every Sunday and Monday (and occasional Thursdays and Saturdays) for money simply can't be counted on to set the right example for the tens of thousands of youth and high school football players who suffer concussions every season, far too many of which, like Morey's, never get reported to the coach, the athletic trainer (if there is one), or even their teammates, friends or parents.

All we can expect, I'm afraid, from the N.F.L. and its players are, at best, the same mixed, muddled and contradictory "Do as I say, not as I do" messages that Morey tried to sell us this week along with a subtle and often not-so-subtle reinforcement of exactly the kind of play through pain, take it like a man, macho culture that is such an integral part of the N.F.L.'s culture and, frankly, for its mass appeal.

Want more proof of the mixed messages that continue to come from the N.F.L. and its players? How about the statements, just this week, from another pro player, Washington Redskin running back Clinton Portis, made after he suffered a concussion that knocked him unconscious in the first quarter of a game against the Atlanta Falcons; a concussion that kept him sidelined for yesterday's game against his former team, the Denver Broncos.

On the one hand, Portis seemed to have no problem sitting out the game. "I'm not going to go out just because it's the Broncos and put myself at risk and not give myself the proper recovery time," he told ESPN Radio. But in the same breath, Portis non-sensically dismissed the mounting scientific evidence that concussions (and even repeated sub-concussive blows) can lead to severe long term health problems for former N.F.L. players because the findings were somehow suspect because they came  "from people who never touched a football field." Injuries, even of the long-term variety, he said, are part of the game: "In football, it's rare that you are going to come out unscathed."

The lifeblood of the N.F.L., of course, is players like Morey and Portis willing to put everything on the line (even their long term health) for fleeting fame and fortune. Where would the league be if its players didn't play hurt, if they were honest about their injuries, if they didn't try to cover them up? What would a bunch of sissies who reported every injury and, god forbid, took themselves out of games voluntarily do to the league's brand, its product? Where would they be if they weren;'t constantly sending that same message to players at every level, from youth through college: that if you want to make it in the pros you have to have that same mindset, that, by the time you get to the pros, as Sean Morey put it, you have to be "hard wired" to do your job no matter what?

Where do we go from here? Expecting the N.F.L. to educate the million plus kids who play football about the risks of concussion is like expecting tobacco companies to warn teenagers about the dangers of smoking. It's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

As long as the N.F.L.'s attitude - and that of its players - is, "Do as I say, not as I do", the answer, I'm afraid, is "Nowhere, man."


Concussions in the News

Concussions have been in the news a lot lately.

First was the concussion suffered by "Tonight" star, Conan O'Brien, when he slipped and hit the back of his head during a fake triathlon with "Desperate Housewives" star, Teri Hatcher.

According to news reports, O'Brien "saw stars," couldn't stand and had slurred speech. After trying to continue the taping, O'Brien ended up going to the hospital.

Next up: Tim Tebow, the star quarterback for the Florida Gators, and favorite for the Heisman Trophy. During a game against Kentucky on September 26th, Tebow took a vicious hit and was knocked unconscious. Helped to his feet, he started vomiting on the sideline, was carted off the field and admitted to a nearby hospital for observation. He has since undergone a battery of standard concussion tests, been held out of practice and told not to watch television or read, but is reportedly still experiencing headaches. No timetable has been set for his return to the practice field.

Finally, on September 30th, the New York Times reported on a telephone survey of over 1,000 former NFL players conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and commissioned by league which found, alarmingly, that former players were being diagnosed with Alzheimer's or similar memory-related diseases at a rate 19 times higher than the normal rate for men aged 30 through 49.

No laughing matter

Yet what struck me most about these stories was the degree to which the seriousness of concussions was actually downplayed.

For more of my thoughts on the recent concussion news, click here

Created October 8, 2009