Let the kids play

Coaching for Life

In today’s competitive world, success is often synonymous with winning, be it on the playing field, in the classroom or in the workplace. In order to achieve a competitive edge, many are turning to fee-based professional coaching. And what was once a field limited to a handful of sports, now has a reach in all areas of personal and professional accomplishment. But is buying your way through a coach the best way to attain personal growth? This case study will examine the expansion of the coaching industry, its applications in a wide range of disciplines and its successes and pitfalls.

Parents hire skills coaches for budding stars, but can they teach leadership, fun, passion for sport?
In Washington, parents pay pro soccer players up to $150 an hour and non-pros $75 to instruct children in the sport.
In the San Francisco Bay area, baseball players as young as 8 are on waiting lists for $50-an-hour pitching lessons.
In Knoxville, Tenn., personal trainers can fetch up to $70 an hour working with pre-college athletes.

This is the latest twist in youth and high school team sports: private lessons for specialized skills or strength and conditioning.

Name a team sport in high school, and it’s easy to find personal instruction, especially in a metropolitan area. Can’t locate a nearby guru? Get on the Internet or browse through magazines. And it’s no problem to spend a few hundred dollars on relevant videos.

Eight-year-olds are videotaped in slow motion as they’re instructed in pitching mechanics. Elementary school kids play catch with two soccer balls simultaneously as part of goalkeeper drills. Pre-teens navigate balance boards and stability balls to increase strength and balance.

On a basketball court in a state-of-the-art health club in Herndon, Va., seven boys and girls ranging in age from 11 to 15 take instruction from Katie Smrcka-Duffy and a partner in Game-Time Skills. Smrcka-Duffy — an all-Big East player at Georgetown and a 2011 draft choice of the Sacramento Monarchs — sees her business flourishing without advertising.

Besides 50 individual clients, the 23-year-old works with youth teams and plans to expand her staff and health club sites.

“We keep getting calls every day. It’s all word of mouth,” says SmrckaDuffy, whose rates range from $45 an hour for an individual to $150 for 90 minutes with a team.

“We don’t guarantee anything, but it’s a pretty foolproof plan. If you’re working on individual skills, there’s no way you can’t get better.

“We encourage them to work on their own. It’s not like their parents are spending the money and just having them come to us once a week.”

This is a scene happening in various forms across the country.

“In gymnastics, figure skating, golf, and tennis, this has been going on forever,” says sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, a professor of kinesiology and health promotion at Cal State Fullerton.

“Where it’s new in the last several years is team sports. It’s a function of adult-organized sport. Parents want to do what’s best for their kids. They think, ‘I need expertise. Get the specialist. We can buy this.’ ”

But buyer beware: Check out the instructor.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous the amount of money floating around some of these sports,” says Steve Dawson, an associate professor of sports psychology and the men’s soccer coach at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.

“Parents are willing to splash out money to coaches that, to be honest, sometimes aren’t that qualified.”

Picking up the pieces

There are bigger picture questions, too, such as the diminished opportunity in sports for kids to be, well, kids.

“Kids don’t go to the playground anymore,” Ravizza says. “When they practice, there’s a coach telling them what to do and how to do it. What happens to the kids’ passion and heart in all this? The biggest thing with the young ones is enjoyment. If they’re not enjoying it, they’re going to burn out. We lose them.”

The kids who stay in sports and take extra lessons might have improved fundamentals and better mechanics as they advance.

But Ravizza, who does consulting with colleges, also cites a downside: “The biggest thing I’m hearing from college coaches is the lack of leadership. You don’t have kids that are leaders. Where do you become a leader in adult-organized sport?”

Pickup games — free of adult control — were breeding grounds for creative thinking and leadership. kids would adapt rules, switch players if games were lopsided, negotiate compromises in disputes.

“If too many activities are structured by adults, kids don’t learn on their own,” says Steve Burke of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “When kids don’t play pickup, they don’t get to develop their own governance procedures, rules enforcement, and degrees of fairness.

“The value of pickup games enables kids to pick up adaptive skills, which carry over in many ways. I’ve followed studies that say youth sports participation impacts later on in life. Some magazine said 95% of U.S. CEOs had played youth sports. That’s mindboggling.”

But that was then. The contemporary realities can appall even those adults involved in youth sports.

“The competitive nature of sports right now at the youth level is so overdone,” says former pro pitcher Dick Mills, 57, who quit a sales job six years ago to market his pitching videotapes. “Traveling teams for 9- year-olds? Give me a break,” he says.

Dawson also coaches youth teams: “Parents become intrusive. They try to find every angle possible to succeed. We basically have set up a rigid structure that kids follow like robots. As a result, they don’t think for themselves. They show little initiative.

“There’s a significant correlation between children in parent-controlled sports and the amount of time watching TV. They become passive recipients. They watch TV and say, ‘Mom, are you ready to take me to the game?’ After the game, someone carries their bag to the van. Everything is done for them.”

At the Rush soccer club, which includes 4,500 children, 2,000 adults and 40 soccer fields in Denver, director of coaching Tim Schulz discourages individual or small-group sessions.

“I don’t think you have to spend a penny for better training,” he says. “Hang out at the soccer field, ask the coach if you can kick it around. There are fences and walls to kick at. There are small-sided games going on.

“Our culture is fast and quick, and we want it done now. Unfortunately, buying your way through a tutor might not be the best way to develop.

Wanting best, parents risk turning play into work with tutors

It needs to come from a child’s desire and passion that they want to go play and excel. It has to be in their DNA, their blood.”

Haves and have-nots

At the Worldgate Athletic Club in Herndon, Va., during Smrcka-Duffy’s group session, Thomas Gadson says basketball is in the blood of his son, Rashad, 11. He might be undersized at 4-4 but is dazzlingly skilled as a ballhandler and shooter.

“When it comes to skills, there are the haves and have-nots,” says Gadson, a project manager with the U.S. Defense Department.

Rashad is a have. He has been coming to gyms since he was in diapers, shooting since he was 2 and attending Game-Time Skills sessions for a year.

His father estimates Rashad plays 60 hours of basketball a week, with 40 hours structured in tutoring sessions, games, and practices with his 48-2 AAU team that’s about to go to the 11- and-under nationals.

Gadson recently tried to enforce a week-and-a-half break from the game, confiscating his son’s balls and sneakers. “I got bored and stuff,” Rashad says. “I told my dad I just wanted to go back to the gym and work on my game.”

During a drill, Smrcka-Duffy stops Rashad, repositions his hands on the ball for greater control and demonstrates how an upward look sells a shot fake, how a lateral glance enhances a jab step. Rashad then executes the shot fake, a jab step to the right and one crisp crossover dribble to the left before nailing a 15- footer.

“That is why he comes here: to learn the nuances of the game,” Gadson says. “Those are little things that mean something. You’re not going to learn that on the playground. You’re not going to get that kind of individual attention at a camp.”

Rashad’s goal: “To play in college.”

Joe Zito had the goal of a college baseball scholarship for his son, Oakland Athletics pitcher Barry Zito, who began getting lessons at 10 from pros and former pros.

“He sure wasn’t getting to college on the family income,” says Zito, a musician-composer.

His son got that scholarship, to the University of Southern California, then earned a $1.6 million signing bonus with Oakland. The left-hander is 14-3 this season and considered one of the top young pitchers in baseball.

“Everybody talks about the odds in baseball, only one in so many make it,” Joe Zito says. “If you put a kid in school at 6 and expect him to graduate at 18 but don’t train him in English, he won’t make it. Same with baseball. You’ve got to be trained. Kids pitching get no training from 6 through junior high and high school. It’s all guesswork. You’ve got to seek informed help.”

Keys to success

In the gym in Herndon, when Rachel Dall dribbles between her legs and works on left-handed layups, she doesn’t have dollar signs in her eyes.

The rising eighth-grader’s goal is to eventually make the varsity at Westfield High, where her father, Francis, is athletics director.

After her 8-11 a.m. session, she’ll attend a shooting camp in the afternoon and play for her summer team in the evening.

“An extreme day,” her dad says. “We’re careful about not pushing her. She has the motivation. You want the best for your kids. If she was a piano player, you’d want her to have good instruction.”