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Youth Sports Reformer Bob Bigelow Talks About Sideline Coaching

Part Two of a series on Bigelow and his message.

Last week I wrote about the first segment of a lecture by organized youth sports advocate and reformer Bob Bigelow. This is Part two.

Bigelow on coaching:

He tells a story regarding the 1992 Celtics and his friend, Coach Chris Ford, as an example of the difficulty in teaching the pick and roll to future Hall of Famers, let alone a group of 9-year-olds.

He is emphatic when telling the audience that we are teaching and coaching our young kids in ways that we should not be. We are throwing too many serial skills at them at once.

Next, Bob pulls out, and reads, what he refers to as the “ironic youth sports fable in America.”

A mother was making a breakfast of fried eggs for her teenage son. Suddenly her boy bursts into the kitchen, “MOM! CAREFUL, PUT MORE BUTTER IN – MY GOODNESS, MOM, YOU’RE COOKING WAY TOO MANY AT ONCE – TURN THEM, TURN THOSE EGGS NOW. MOM, WE NEED MORE BUTTER – WHERE ARE WE GOING TO GET MORE BUTTER? MOM THEY’RE GOING TO STICK – BE CAREFUL, MOM – YOU NEVER LISTEN TO ME WHEN YOU’RE COOKING EGGS! HURRY, TURN THEM - HURRY UP, MOM! ARE YOU CRAZY, MOM? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND? DON’T FORGET TO SALT THEM! USE THE SALT! GET THE SALT!

The mom says, “What is wrong with you? You don’t think I know how to fry a couple of eggs?” 

The son calmly replies, “I just wanted to show you what it feels like when I’m out on the field trying to play soccer.”

Bigelow smiles — hugely — and asks us, as parents and coaches, to think about what is happening in our kids' minds while on the field. What are they thinking about? What are they seeing while we are out there giving them advice and guidance?

“Ask yourself another question,” Bob challenges, “Can they hear you? Do they want to hear you? Can they process what you are saying? Do they wish you were somewhere else — not bugging them?”

“Coaches, how much do you think they can process and internalize while out there playing something that we call a sport?”

Bob notes that any athlete, regardless of age, makes at least two decisions per second on the playing field (a baseball batter has about a half of second to decide to swing). And parents and coaches are out there shouting instructions at the same time.

Bigelow suggests that by stepping back off the sidelines 15 to 20 feet “you’ll be less inclined to yell instructions.” He suggests that we look at our roles and ask ourselves if we are really contributing. “The more we speak, the less they listen,” he says. “Our voices should not be hoarse after a game. It becomes pitter-patter.”

“Make your points during practices," Bigelow says. “Trying to correct the canoe midstream is very, very difficult. Be very careful on the sidelines, the games are difficult to play as they are.”

While he expanded on his point, I thought about The Boy’s last freshman football game. I’d gone a few games in a row keeping my mouth shut and trying to enjoy the action on the field. But at that last game, my consecutive game streak ended. I’m guilty. I yelled, no, I screamed instructions to him while he was on the field. I pointed to him and told him to get his head into the game. I shouted, “Get the quarterback — split the double team — get low — don’t stop until the whistle.” I was literally blowing his mind to bits with instructions.

Bigelow then hits us hard with, “Can we really contribute? Think of ourselves on the sidelines. How much advice, no matter how well meaning, are you giving your children while they are out there struggling to make their two decisions per second? Run-stop-pass-shoot-pick-nose-whatever. And you’re out there trying to give them more advice. Be very, very careful what you’re saying and doing on the sidelines.”

Instead, Bigelow says we’d be better off talking to our buddies rather than trying to guide what is happening on the field. Everything else should be taught during practices or when the player is off the field rather than during play. Anything else, he insists, is worthless.

His mood and the subject shifts quickly to the weeding out of our young athletes. “Do you think anybody can tell the ability of a kid who is five-feet tall and 85 pounds? And how good or bad they are going to be 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 years down the road? There is not one person in the history of the world that has been able to do this and no one ever will.”

“Folks," he smirks, “they are 10 freaking years old. I can put most of them in my pocket. As I tell them all the time, you could have played 3,000 basketball games, hockey games; you’re still only 4’9” and 80 pounds. What does that mean? You’re just a shrimp that has played more hockey games. That’s what you are. You can’t tell and you never will be able to tell.”

Bigelow had nibbled around the edges of his biggest gripe for long enough. And from my front row chair, in a corner of a gymnasium in Farmington, CT, I was seconds away from watching him bite into his crusade’s villain with the force of a thousand pre-pubescent athletes.    

Next Week in Part 3: Bigelow goes off on “cuts” and “travel teams.”

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