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Bob Bigelow and the Hijacking of Youth Sports

Fourth and final installment of a series.

This is the final installment of my four-part series on Youth Sports Advocate Bob Bigelow’s recent lecture in Farmington.                     

Bigelow is rightfully irritated with the system and politics that surround how we choose our travel teams. And on this night, in front of parents, coaches, and league officials from a variety of youth sports’ organizations, no one dared to argue. Not because he would not allow it, but because he made sense.

So with my antagonists in mind, I sat in my front row seat and smirked a smirk that would have probably been removed with a backhand slap in a society less civil and less tolerant than our own. And so far any chants or musings of me being a Bob Bigelow suck-up have yet to be presented in a public forum.

“In 1965, I would have been cut by a real estate agent. So guys, do you really like the system? Because I think it sucks. It’s awful. There is no way that any of you should be coaching — none of you know anything about this stuff — the four of you together have the basketball knowledge of the little knuckle on my little finger… and yet you’re cutting kids in 6th grade.”

With those words to a quartet of coaches in a gym in 1992, Bigelow changed the youth basketball system in his home town. They have 65 -70 sixth-graders coming out for travel opponents. Last year a neighboring town had eighty-five 8th-grade boys on travel teams.

In Farmington, Bigelow’s eyes scanned the crowd but spoke in general terms, “And you guys are cutting 5th-graders? You should be ashamed of yourselves. And 4th-graders — you should be ashamed of yourselves. None of them can play a lick. The best 6th grade basketball player in America sucks. Everybody else is worse. They stink — they’re awful. Anyone know the shooting percentage in a five-on-five game with 10-foot hoops? (Laughter from the audience.) They hit 8% of their shots. The good ones hit 11%. That’s one out of nine. And you are cutting kids. You should be freaking ashamed of yourselves… whoever is putting these policies together.”

The conversation shifts to soccer and what he describes as “the creep.” It can be best explained as the evolution of the specialization and separation of our children in their sport.

Bigelow: “It’s U-14 becoming U-12, which then becomes U-10 which becomes U-8 which becomes U-6. Folks, trust me, by the year 2015 somewhere in this country we will see our first prenatal soccer team.”

He cites an example, “Texas and Florida now have statewide, all-star, intergalactic tee ball tournaments. You think those kids in Houston really want to go play those kids in Dallas? I’m sure they do. ‘The creep’ — adults can’t stop themselves. Adult egos run amuck. It has nothing to do with the kids at all. It has everything to do with the adults. Guys who think it’s important for the Pensacola kids to go and beat the Orlando kids in tee-ball. And the kids could care less if they stayed on the playground and played tiddlywinks with their buddies. It wouldn’t matter. It’s far more important to the dads than it is for the kids because somewhere along the line the adults hijacked youth sports.”

Bigelow asks, “So what do we do? It’s a sobering assessment to be sure. What it’s going to take is some collective wisdom — and to be honest — some collective (guts) from people who live in these communities and have to buck the cultures that tend to run things.”

“Let them just enjoy the game. I think what they have to learn first at a young age is to just love the game. After that, the mental part will be easier. I really didn’t get any instruction in basketball until I was a junior in high school. First I loved the game and I let my skills develop. So I believe in playing early and learning late.”                                                                            

-Michael Jordan

Little League Baseball is next on Bigelow’s list, “At 12-years-old the size of the diamond is 3600 sq. ft. At 13-years-old the size of the diamond is 8100 sq. ft. So over one year you more than double the square footage of your diamond. One year. And we think that we can tell future baseball players based on what they do on a 3600-square-foot diamond. That makes no sense to me at all when the vast majority of their strength and coordination comes way past 12 years old. Little League and youth baseball is a terrific early blooming disaster.”

Question from the floor: If there are 80 kids and you have 12 on a travel team, why can’t the others go and form a huge Rec league.

Bigelow’s response: Let’s say you keep (a few travel teams) and the others go and play Rec. Who is going to make the decision between kids 12 and 13? The pure fact of the matter is any time you put any kid on a team in any grade group; you’ve got The Bell Curve. The Bell Curve in statistics is simple; you’ve got under the Bell and you have the two wings. And basically one wing is 10% and the other wing is 10%. One is less-worse, the other is worse-worse. And 80% is in the middle. So pick an arbitrary twelve (players). Out of eighty kids — twelve make it. The fact of the matter is that #9 is the same as #18. Number 17 is the same kid as #42. So who is going to make that arbitrary cut? YOU make the team – YOU don’t. You can’t do it. It’s absolutely, fundamentally impossible.”

I walked Mr. Bigelow out to his car. Snow was forecast for the next day and he wanted to beat it to his next engagement in Philly. I couldn’t help but think that in a society less obsessed with prematurely labeling and dividing our kids like manila folders in a filing cabinet, Bob Bigelow would be a headliner on any night in Anytown, USA.

The gym in Farmington, CT, should have been overflowing with concerned parents on that Monday night. We like to complain and hope that the establishment will work for the good of the whole. It doesn’t work like that in politics and it doesn’t always work like that in youth sports.

So as long as we keep complaining to the parent to our left or right, and not get a seat where it really matters, many children will continue to be discouraged by those who have little more than their own interests and egos to satisfy.

My invitation to you to get involved is always an open one. We have a platform. Now I’m waiting on you.

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