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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)
EVANSVILLE - Craig Shoobridge met with his players down the left-field line after a lopsided loss in a fall-league baseball game last year.
There wasn't much he could say. It was just one of those days. He recalled talking about how they've had better efforts, but also that they'd learn from it and turn the page next week at practice. Then, a father of one of the players walked on the field. He tapped Shoobridge on the shoulder and asked if he could have a word with the players.
Keep in mind they were only 9-year-olds.
"I wasn't expecting him to light them up one side to the other," Shoobridge said. "He wanted to know what was wrong with them. You know, this and that. I politely cut him off. Afterward, he asked me the same thing, 'Coach, what do you think was wrong with them tonight?' I said, 'I don't know. They're 9? It's also 9:30 on a Tuesday night and 92 degrees outside."
This type of example is far from unheard of in youth sports, an $8 billion industry. Nowadays, as kids grow older the stakes are raised.
Parents of children who play a sport have likely envisioned him or her earning a college scholarship. Some invest by spending thousands of dollars on pay-to-play travel teams, individualized lessons and brand-new equipment and gear. In turn, there is more pressure than ever placed on kids to make a return on that investment.
That is simply not right, said Shoobridge, who is also the varsity baseball head coach at Bosse High School.
"It's not all about winning," he said. "(With) some of the pressure we put on these kids I'd love to know what they're thinking sometimes. (The kids) are not really ready for it. I don't know that everyone understands that."
The blame doesn't just lie on a select few parents, either. It can also be placed on some administrators, coaches and media who promote a 'win-at-all-costs' mentality.
That is why the Indiana High School Athletic Association has decided to try and nip it in the bud by forming a partnership with the national nonprofit 'InSideOut Initiative'. Its aim is to "transform the youth sports culture" and will soon launch an educational directive in Indiana in collaboration with the National Football League Foundation and Indianapolis Colts.
Two weeks ago, athletic directors from across the state gathered at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to launch the initiative and discuss its strategy. The goal is to relay a call to action to administrators, coaches and student ambassadors that there is a specific plan if they wish to be a part of the culture change.
North High varsity girls' soccer coach John Heeger said it's hard to say if bad sportsmanship has become a problem across the board. However, he does believe the IHSAA is making a smart move in getting the message out.
"If everyone's being realistic, there is only going to be one state champ no matter what," said Heeger, who has coached high school soccer for 16 years. "At the end of the day, teaching kids the right lessons about being hard workers, learning to handle adversity and being a good teammate will help them in the long run."
One of the most glaring related issues is retaining licensed officials.
Heeger estimated that there are only about 40 referees in the area for varsity and junior varsity games. IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox told the IndyStar on Wednesday that the "No. 1 reason a lot of officials leave is their treatment" by coaches, fans and student-athletes.
For the past two years, Heeger has invited a local referee out to talk to parents and answer questions. His hope is that their relationship will go a long way toward setting an example for the kids.
"Ask any coach and they'll say, 'These parents are crazy'," he said. "Sports makes grown adults lose their minds. ... You kind of scratch your head over it."
Memorial High varsity football head coach John Hurley also alluded to the decrease in referees as evidence that a change is needed. He said the key is starting the educational process for parents at an early age.
"When (former coach Larry) Mattingly was still here (from 2002-07), the coaches refereed the feeder-league games to keep things under control," he said. "Because of that I think we've got a great environment when it comes to parents being involved and cheering for their kids and not against other teams. We figure if we start at an early age, hopefully we can carry it through."
On the coaching end, there is a fine line between instilling in players a competitive drive and winning at all costs.
"We want people to remember our kids for more than whether they're good football players or not," said Hurley, who played at the University of Evansville back when it had football. "You want them saying 'That guy went to Memorial and he really handles himself well'. ... It's high school sports. Only a few of these guys are going to play in college, but all of them are going to be members of a community someday."
As someone who played professional baseball, Shoobridge said he would never tell his players that winning is not important. His Bosse baseball team won just five of its 31 games last year, yet he'd "venture to say we had as much fun if not more than any other team" in the conference.
Shoobridge has an advanced perspective as his coaching career started when he was 15 years old. At 18, he coached Pike Central's legion team and at 22 the Jasper Reds semi-pro team. He also now has three children who are involved in multiple sports - from baseball, basketball, soccer and cheer leading.
"I don't think you get through that at 'winning-at-all-costs," he said. "You'd either have a nervous breakdown or a heart attack. I'm just fighting for our kids and I think that's what we have to do - fight for them, develop them character-wise and show up on a daily basis."
The issue at hand is clearly enough of a problem that the IHSAA is deciding to do something about it. But there are still plenty of good coaches who do right by kids and have their best interest at heart.
"Ninety-nine percent of my kids' coaches have been wonderful and stress teachable moments," Shoobridge said.
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