In the ultra-competitive world of growing up today, there is perhaps no fiercer arena of competition than youth sports. “The culture of winning and being the best starting at a very early age has created a system of youth sports that often serves the adults more than it does the children,” says Bob Bigelow, former NBA basketball player and one of the country’s foremost speakers on youth sports.
Bigelow sees that culture resulting in increased stress, burnout, and injuries and advocates giving the game back to the children. He will speak on Thursday, November 4, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapin School in Princeton, as the first speaker in this year’s lecture series sponsored by CommonGround, a collaborative effort of the Parent Associations of 13 Princeton area independent schools. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Bigelow wrote the highly acclaimed book “Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports.” He also played professionally with the Boston Celtics, San Diego Clippers, and the Kansas City Kings, but he is convinced that were he growing up in today’s youth sports machine, he never would have been a pro player, much less recruited for college. “Coaches would have seen me when I was probably in fifth or sixth grade when I was tall but angular and awkward and would have made the decision that I really wasn’t a good basketball player. I didn’t start playing basketball until I was 14 years old, and seven years later I was a first round draft pick for the NBA. The good news for me is that back then we didn’t have a system where we had amateur adults making decisions that could have lifelong effects on children who maybe hadn’t yet revealed their potential.”
Bigelow believes that one of the biggest weaknesses of today’s system is that it pigeonholes kids and places limitations on them at too early an age. “The biggest crock is that more, more, more at younger younger, younger is better, better, better, when in fact, there is no indication of future athletic ability until you go through puberty,” he says. “At the age of 10, when the average kid is four foot seven, do you really think you’re going to be able to measure the future athletic ability of that kid? There is so much more size, strength, coordination, and passion yet to come, until their bodies become more adult-like.”
He also puts the kaibash on the idea that once a kid gets behind his peers, he’ll never catch up. “A 10-year-old is only 10, so even if they’ve been playing a sport for five years, other children can catch up within two or three years. And when you have kids competing so hard at so early an age, traveling with multiple teams, there is a great danger of the burnout factor. Think about yourself. If you were to play a sport 300 days a year, after 10 years, don’t you think you might be a little stale?”
Bigelow says the biggest indictment he has is that too many adults want to compete through their children. “Often youth athletic events become adult competitions with kids as the pawns. In some cases it’s unrequited athletic desire, the idea that ‘I wasn’t something but my kid’s going to be.’ But as adults our primary duty is to serve all the children. Very far down the list is serving our own needs. If you feel the need to compete, don’t coach youth sports. Find yourself an over-35 league and compete. Better yet, bring your kids along and let them yell at you for once while you play.”
When he’s not traveling to lecture or coach basketball, Bigelow lives in Winchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, with his wife, Nancy, who has coached the women’s varsity team at Tufts University for the last 29 years. They met at Tufts in his first year coaching there after leaving the NBA in 1980. Shortly after that, in 1983, Bigelow earned a business degree from Babson.
Their son, Stephen, now 18, is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he made the track team as a high hurdler and high jumper.
Bigelow says he coached his sons in multiple sports and remembers one day when Stephen, then 12, challenged him, asking his NBA father, “Hey, dad, what do you know about basketball?” Kids will always be harder on their parents if they are coaching, Bigelow says, so if you don’t want that, step aside and let someone else take over the coaching reins.
Bigelow was born in Boston. His dad was educated at both Harvard College and Harvard Law School and was a lifelong attorney. His mom went to Brown University but left school to marry his dad at age 22 and had four children by the age of 27. “I was number two out of four, with one older sister and two younger brothers, and my mom was June Cleaver,” he says. “All of us played high school sports, though I was the only one to take it much farther than that. While my parents were encouraging, they were far more concerned about our grades than athletic exploits.”
In fact, it wasn’t until he was a freshman at Winchester High School that he tried out for the basketball team and made it, putting him on an athletic trajectory that, after his graduation in 1971, would take him to the University of Pennsylvania as a recruited athlete. There he majored in history and played varsity basketball for three years as a guard and forward before going on to the NBA. “I grew up in the ’60s, when we had relatively little if any organized youth sports, so 98 percent of my play was with other kids on playgrounds and backgrounds without adults.” He says his athletic abilities were honed through free play, rather than the highly organized, highly structured formats being used in almost every school district in every part of the country today.
“My favorite sports of childhood were baseball and football and all their derivatives. From the time I was 3 years old to 14, I probably caught over one million balls that were thrown to me — in the backyard, in the empty lot, wherever. So that by the time I started playing basketball I had very good hands and very good hand-eye coordination, but that wasn’t because of organized sports.”
He acknowledges that youth sports are way too organized today, but there’s no way to go back and put that genie back in the bottle. So what’s his advice on how to allow your kids to thrive as athletes even in that atmosphere?
If you want your kids to do sports, save time in their lives to do it on their own with free play. “Don’t coach. Just give them a ball, a safe playing area, and let them figure it out for themselves. It’s the elementary school recess approach: organize the time, unorganize the process. Kids today have lost the ability to make decisions on their own, and they don’t have any conflict resolution skills. When kids play, everything revolves around actions; when adults get involved, it’s based around rules.”
Variety is the spice of a young athlete’s life, so have them play multiple sports, both individual and team. Bigelow calls it the cookie shop approach. “No one up to age 16 should be playing one sport. That can lead to all sorts of injuries. There are 13-year-olds with foot problems like plantar fasciitis and high school baseball players suffering from Tommy John shoulder and having surgeries. That’s ridiculous. Participating in different sports helps prevent injuries like that because you are less likely to overuse certain muscles.”
For busy families with working parents, multiple sports and activities, it’s important to have open and honest discussions. “Ask yourselves how much time can you put into this. How much time do you want to factor into this when you also have to include school, sleep and eating? For elementary school, K-5, I recommend one sport season and practice once a week is fine, as long as you make plenty of time for free play. In middle school, practicing three or five times a week is fine. Always have a dialogue with your children, especially after every season. What do you want to do? What did you like? What didn’t you like? Ask how you can improve instead of simply focusing on the win-loss record.”
Bigelow says one huge mistake we make today is trying to define talent at 10 years old when there’s so much more to come. “Look at athletes like rowers, who are like opera singers and don’t mature until they are in their 20s. Football is another example of a sport where you can’t tell how a kid is going to play when they are only 12 or 13. Football takes speed and mass and that doesn’t develop until later. Basketball is another late-blooming sport, and I’m a prime example. I’m trying to tweak things in communities, and get people to start thinking differently.”
Lecture Series for Parents, Common Ground, Chapin School. Thursday, November 4, 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. “Youth Sports . . . Fun or Work?” presented by Bob Bigelow, the author of “Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports.” Register. Free. 609-924-6700 or www.princetoncommonground.org.