Anyone who’s had children or been a child in the last 50 years understands that youth sports in America have evolved from neighborhood pick-up games to highly organized systems of national competition. In the process, parental involvement went from little or none to way too much.
As a result, says Dan Doyle ’72, executive director and founder of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island, overmanagement is now “the big core problem of sports parenting.”
“How many well-adjusted people do you know,” asks Doyle asks rhetorically, “who are the children of micromanaging parents?”
He believes the solution is not to retreat to the laissez-faire past but, instead, to provide sports parents with better tools. Hence The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting (Hall of Fame Press, 2008), a 475-page guidebook co-authored by Doyle and classmate Deborah Doermann Burch ’72, who may well become the tandem Dr. Spocks of raising student-athletes. In fact, the authors are at work on a second volume, dealing with persistent contemporary sports problems as specialization, performance-enhancing drugs, bullying and hazing, and fan behavior.
This volume starts off by offering a values-based philosophy of sports parenting, then follows with an overview of coaching and medical issues and approaches to specific challenges — such as playing on two teams at once. The book covers youth sports from local recreation leagues to collegiate athletics, the final third being devoted to issues related to college recruiting.
“We both could have benefited from having this book 20 or 30 years ago,” says Burch, who, following a divorce nearly a decade ago, has raised two athletic sons on her own in Durham, N.C.
Dan Doyle and his wife, Katherine, raised six children in West Hartford, Conn., where he coached the Trinity College men’s basketball team before founding the Institute for International Sport in 1986. Under the institute’s umbrella, Doyle has created, among other programs, the World Scholar-Athlete Games (the 2008 iteration featuring Colin Powell as keynote speaker), National Sportsmanship Day, and the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. He also helped Bates establish its own Scholar-Athlete Society in 2005.
So busy was Doyle with his many sports initiatives that when he began to write The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting in the early 2000s he decided he needed a collaborator. He turned to classmate Burch, with whom he’d reconnected at their 25th Bates Reunion in 1997. “I’d say we were just acquaintances as students,” she says. “He was the jock, and I was the history major.” But at that Reunion they found common ground in their shared interest and experiences around sports parenting, as Burch’s two boys, 7 and 11 at the time, were ramping up their time commitment to sports.
The collaboration brought together complementary expertise. While Doyle enjoys a reputation as one of the country’s premier sports educators, Burch has been on the front lines of sports parenting for years. An example of their collaboration is seen in one of the final chapters, “The Extraordinary Time Commitment of the Amateur Athlete.”
Burch came at the topic after researching the incredible time demands her son would face if he pursued NCAA Division I baseball. Doyle came at it from a time-management perspective after talking with the nation’s top college basketball players and coaches at his summer basketball camp. He developed a time profile of a typical Division I basketball player’s life and found that basketball takes as much as 53 hours a week in season and as much as 30 hours a week the rest of the year. Burch and Doyle conclude the chapter with this statement: “A student’s most valuable commodity is time, and your athlete must make educational decisions to prepare for a lifetime, not just the short-term bragging rights from athletic success.”
Doyle credits his Bates basketball coach, George Wigton, with instilling a sense of sports as a life lesson in self-reliance and proper decision-making. At the same time, though, Wigton didn’t cop a sports über allesattitude to his players. “He kept things in the right place,” says Doyle of his mentor Wigton, who also coached tennis at Bates. “He understood that there are things beyond basketball that are more important.”
Other formative forces were at work, too, during Doyle’s playing days. As co-captain of the Bates basketball team under Wigton, Doyle was present as a student observer at the creation of the New England Small College Athletic Conference in 1971. His sports philosophy is deeply informed by his NESCAC experience.
“Everywhere you go, NESCAC is held out as a beacon,” says Doyle. “It’s as respected a conference in terms of the student-athlete ideal as there is the United States.”
The authors’ expert understanding of NESCAC and the differences among Division I, II, and III sports comes through in the section on college recruiting. There, Doyle, who had four of his six children play college sports, and Burch, with recent sports-recruiting experience, guide parents through a process that’s complex regardless of division. Their advice is both practical (what kind of DVD to send to the coach) and philosophical, such as reasons a high-aspiring athlete might be better off aiming for less than the Division I stars.
The latter answer has to do with the opportunity cost of a Division I sports experience — such as not getting the academic preparation necessary to pursue serious graduate study — as well as misconceptions about the competitiveness of Division III.
“Many parents and high school athletes underestimate the skill level required to compete effectively in Division III,” writes Doyle, adding that some high school coaches, too, are biased toward Division I sports. The net message from Doyle and Burch is that pursuing a lower-division college can be a more balanced and rewarding option for students pursuing athletics and academics.
While the authors encourage parents to form a partnership with their children during the recruitment process, they also advice parents when to back off. Bates tennis coach Paul Gastonguay ’86, quoted on the topic of recruiting tennis players, notes that “I sometime have to educate parents that I’m much more interested in talking with [their] son or daughter. They’re the ones who are going to play for me, the ones I need to get to know.”
Parental over-management of young athletes creates challenges for coaches in both the recruiting and instructing realms, the most common one being their athletes’ lack of self-reliance — the ability to advocate for themselves, assess and address their own performances, and make the best use of their time once they arrive on campus.
“The biggest thing a coach can teach a first-year player is time management,” says Gastonguay. “The biggest thing I have to teach on the court is self-reliance. Kids coming in who are overtaught and overcoached have a hard time figuring out some very obvious things [about the way they are playing]. The more self-reliant the players are, the better we do as a team.”
“It’s all about time-management and learning self-diagnosis,” agrees Bates softball coach Gwen Lexow.
In terms of how The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting might help in this regard, Lexow says, “we need to start the process early, to have athletes take responsibility for their athletic careers at a very young age.”
Just as Doyle and Burch advocate in Chapter 2: “Parents…must allow their athlete the freedom to learn how to deal with problems without constant parental intervention.” And in an admonition italicized for emphasis, the authors speak beyond sports parenting to all parents, “Intrusive parenting stifles a child’s growing self-reliance.”
“On matters of playing time and strategy, stay out of it,” says Doyle, distilling the message of the encyclopedia to its essence. “On matters of health and ethics, you’re certainly within your rights. Every season there are going to be issues that challenge parents. Your job is to counsel your child, not to ride in on a big white horse and take care of them.”
By Edgar Allen Beem
Freelance writer Edgar Allen Beem’s most recent contribution to Bates Magazine was the story “Of Clams, Climate, and Colleagues,” about the pioneering Arctic climate research by Professor of Biology Will Ambrose.