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Youth leagues' costs rise as bad coach, fan behavior contributes to umpire shortage

When Jeff Siegel was an 18-year-old baseball umpire in Morton Grove, a coach angry with a call he made started yelling at him. Then the coach grabbed Siegel by the arms and shoved him.

Police were called to the ballfield, and the coach was arrested. The charges ultimately were dropped, and Siegel continued working as an umpire.

"He had to go to court, and that was enough for me," Siegel said. "It made me stronger as an umpire."

Not every umpire shakes off something like that as easily as Siegel did. Actually, most don't. Bad behavior by coaches and parents at youth sporting events has contributed to an umpire shortage in the suburbs, which has increased officiating costs for most leagues, league officials say.

Many youth leagues now outsource umpire jobs to regional "assigner" companies or associations, which is far more expensive than having in-house umps recruited from within the community, a common practice in the past.

Umpire costs vary depending on the age and playing level, and whether the umpires are IHSA certified. While an in-house umpire might cost around $25 to $30 a game, an association or IHSA umpire is a minimum of $50 a game, says Adrian Steinberg, who managed the umpires in Lake Zurich's baseball and softball leagues for many years.

Working as an umpire once was a popular job for high school and college students. But teens now represent a small percentage of umpires, league managers say.

"It's a shame. These are perfect jobs for high school kids," said Kevin O'Donnell, youth athletic coordinator for Mount Prospect Park District's youth baseball leagues, which now use an assigner to provide umpires for the 683 kids signed up to play baseball this spring. "These are kids 16 and 17 years old who are just trying to make some money. Then you have these older gentlemen or women who really scream at them and make them feel bad about themselves. It deters them and terrifies them. How do you come back every weekend and want to do that job?"

The umpire shortage also can be attributed to higher startup costs to do the job, said Siegel, whose run-in with the coach was decades ago. Now he's an assignment supervisor at, which provides 375 umpires -- mostly adults -- to sports leagues across the Chicago area. For certain leagues, it's necessary to be an IHSA-certified umpire, invest $300 in your own equipment, have medical and liability insurance, and pay for training clinics, he said.

The upside of the umpire shortage is that training is improving and badly-behaved coaches are more likely to be disciplined in some way. Umpire and coaching associations are addressing the situation both from an education standpoint and by encouraging leagues to enforce rules for misbehavior.

"Historically, people sort of just let (bad behavior) go. But there is less tolerance for it now," said Tai Duncan, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance in Chicago, which partners with dozens of suburban leagues for coaches training, workshops and support. "There need to be stronger penalties, but it comes down to the education part of it."

PCA emphasizes "honoring the game" in its programs, teaching coaches how to respectfully disagree with a call and be a positive role model for the players.

Since poorly trained umps only worsen the problem, many leagues are improving their umpire training, including lessons on conflict resolution and game management. Bret Curlin, an umpire for 30 years who runs the Area Umpires Association in South Elgin, trained 45 umpires for this season. Six or seven one-hour sessions not only cover the rule book, but what to do when coaches or fans get unruly.

First, Curlin reminds them that they are the officials, they're in charge of the game, and the association will have their backs 100 percent.

Curlin tells them to start out by warning a coach to cool it, or use humor to diffuse the situation. If people yell, "You're blind!" -- a common umpire critique -- they might respond, "Oh I forgot my glasses. I'll bring them next time."

If the disrespect continues, or gets personal, an umpire can call a time out and have a quiet one-on-one discussion with the coach. If the problem is with a fan, the umpire can have the coach ask that person to quiet down or go sit farther down the sideline, Curlin said. An umpire has the option to eject a coach, which is automatically reported to the league.

Curlin, who was once belly-bumped by an angry coach, reminds new umpires that any type of physical assault is a crime.

"If a guy's giving you a hard time, you can put him back in line. And you can do it with a smile on your face and they don't even know what hit them," Curwin said. "You've gotta have thick skin."

While this is hard for new umpires, especially young ones, he said the payoff is big -- it's a job that will build tremendous confidence and self-esteem.

"The more experience (the umpire) gets, the better he becomes. Every situation you're going to handle early in life is going to make you better down the line."

Source: Daily Herald (Illinois)


Belle Plaine School Board Sends Softball Complex Out for Bids

After adding up all of the expected costs of the proposed improvements to the Belle Plaine softball complex at Oak Crest Elementary School, school district staff realized the project had to go out for public bids.

The plans for the two-story concession stand/bathroom/storage building with a second-level observation area is expected to exceed the $100,000 threshold requiring public bidding. Last Monday (March 20), the school board unanimously agreed to send the plans out for public bidding.

The plans for new concrete block dugouts and a batting cage on the varsity field are not included in the project. The district is hoping contributions will help fund much of those improvements. The district and the project have already benefitted from contributions of time and resources from community members, said Superintendent Ryan Laager.

The project includes the two-story building and extension of sewer and water service from Schoolhouse Boulevard into the midst of the existing softball complex. Piping work in the project sent it over the $100,000 threshold requiring bids. The work on the complex should begin after the completion of the high school softball season, Laager told the board earlier this month.

The bidding process on the planned improvements will close April 21, 2 p.m. The project will be funded from the long-term facility maintenance fund budget, money the district can only use for facilities, health and safety and deferred maintenance type expenditures.

"The estimated cost of the project is $150,000 but we hope to receive some donations from various activity groups and individuals to help offset some of these costs," said Chuck Keller, the school district's business manager.

The school board discussed the proposal during a workshop March 13. With an eye to economic development, the district hopes improvements to the fields and the concession/bathroom/storage building will, along with improvements to the ball fields, attract more youth softball and baseball tournaments to Belle Plaine. The board noted nearby privately developed cricket fields, which can be used for soccer matches, will also draw people to Belle Plaine. The baseball, softball and cricket tournaments will hopefully draw more people to use restaurants and lodging establishments as part of an effort to make the community a more desirable venue and community.

Laager said the district and school board considered improvements to the facility to create a softball facility that's equal, or nearly equal, to the quality of the facility the BPHS varsity baseball team plays on at city-owned Tiger Park. Laager told the board a district resident raised concern regarding the inequality of facilities used by girls' softball and boys' baseball teams.

Source: Belle Plaine Herald


A cautionary tale of what can happen when a sports parent pushes too hard

The son suffered his first injury when he lost a tooth on a Brentwood basketball court. He picked it up, threw it to the sidelines, and kept playing as the father cheered the greatest athlete he had ever seen.

Aidan Cullen was 8.

"I should have said, 'Stop, are you OK?'" said Mark Cullen. "But I heard other parents saying, 'Whoa, that's such a tough kid.' So I did nothing."

The son once passed out at the end of a soccer game after suffering from exhaustion and dehydration. He was packed in ice and, a few hours later, played in another game while the father basked in the glory of his star.

Aidan Cullen was in middle school.

"I thought he had died, but then I was glad he kept playing," said Mark Cullen. "Everybody cheered him so much, I felt like they were cheering for me. I loved it. I loved the power of it."

Ten years later, that perception of stardom has fallen, the feeling of power is gone, and the only thing that Mark Cullen carries in his giant sports duffel bags is regret.

His son Aidan has been in almost constant pain for several years after being diagnosed with a disease partially caused by being pushed to play sports through injury and affliction. At one point he thought about suicide. Today he feels lucky if he can physically show up for high school baseball practice.

"I went from the best to the worst," Aidan said. "The pain was so bad, I didn't want to be alive."

Mark Cullen has been feeling a different sort of pain, from guilt over his son's condition. He's also separated from wife Rebecca after spending years being an absentee husband while shoving Aidan toward their combined dreams.

"I pushed too far, did too much, helped break up my family and actually put my son's life in jeopardy, all because I was seduced by his talent," said Mark. "As a parent, that is devastating, and I am so ashamed."

This is about how that shame, far from being singular to this well-meaning Santa Monica dad, is probably shared by many who don't possess the self awareness to admit it.

This is about the dangerous triumvirate that dominates neighborhood playing fields across this country, a three-headed demon that turns children's games into adult crusades and happy childhoods into ones filled with injury and insecurity.

This is about parents, youth sports, and ego.

This is about one Westside family, but also many families, strong and solid households that suddenly find themselves torn apart over their child's ability to kick a soccer ball or sink a basket. This is the story of one struggle, but also every struggle to balance the child's happiness in sports with the parents' desire to not only promote that glory, but share in it.

Mark Cullen, an established screenwriter, wanted to begin the new year by acknowledging the biggest villain in his most important story is himself.

"I ruined my son's HS sports career and almost his life -- a cautionary tale," read the subject line in an email he sent to this newspaper in January.

He detailed the familiar story of a parent pushing a child into athletic oblivion, causing long-term damage to the entire family. He agreed to expand on his remorse despite the embarrassment it might cause him across a landscape where obnoxious sports parents are rarely held accountable with more than a frown and a sigh.

"If I can help one parent not make the same mistakes I made, then it's been worth it," Cullen said.

If you know one of those parents, give this story to them.

If you're becoming one of those parents, read it now.

The dad was an athlete. Of course he was.

At age 52, Mark Cullen is a 6-foot-3 former basketball star who was invited to walk on at UCLA before breaking his ankle. He eventually gave up the idea of playing sports and wound up writing for television and movies. He and brother Robb have created several TV series including "Lucky" for FX but his shortened athletic career was always in the back of his mind.

When his son Aidan was born 17 years ago, he had that second chance.

"He was living out some of his excitement about sports through Aidan," said estranged wife Rebecca. "I wanted to support our son, so I kept my mouth shut, but I should have said something."

Aidan began playing basketball at age 6. He was as big as a 9-year-old, and tougher. He would chase down other kids and fight them for the ball while his father shouted with joy.

He was thrown out of two Westside youth leagues because of rough play. He was never disciplined by his coach because it was his father.

"I thought, I'm going to coach him because I'm not going to let anybody ruin him," said Mark. "Turns out, I ruined him myself."

Aidan eventually played three sports, all with his father on the sidelines or in the stands, which meant they could spend eight hours a day together on various fields throughout the Southland while Rebecca and Cullen's other son Beckett, now 14, stayed home. Aidan was becoming a neighborhood star, but the cost was slowly growing.

"There just wasn't effort or time put into connecting as a couple or a family," said Rebecca. "Sports became all encompassing and, really, sort of ridiculous."

As the stakes grew, so did Mark's involvement. He would scream at Aidan from the bench. He would pull him out of games for mistakes. He would scold that a double would have been a triple if only his son had worked harder in practice.

"It got so, I just wanted to play well to make him happy,'' said Aidan. "I would find myself looking at him on the sidelines after every play to see if he was smiling."

Once the game ended, the stress would worsen. Aidan's biggest dread was the car ride home.

"I'd been in the middle of the game thinking of the car ride home, how can I make it better, how can I keep him from yelling at me," said Aidan.

Several men who coached with Cullen agree that he was tough, but none described him as crazy.

"Mark is a super tough intense dad, but the scariest part for me is that there's so many worse parents than him," said Matt Steinhaus, former fellow youth league coach and current athletic director and baseball coach at New Roads School.

By the time Aidan had enrolled at Windward School in seventh grade, the injuries and over-exertion finally caught up with him. His body began to hurt and never stopped hurting. The pain struck his knees, then smothered his back, then finished his dreams.

"As a little guy, Aidan was a stud," said Tyrone Powell, Windward athletic director. "But by the eighth grade, it was all gone."

He was often too injured to practice. Some days he was in so much pain, he couldn't get out of bed.

"I thought, 'I'm going to feel like this for the rest of my life?'" Aidan said. "For a year straight, every day I wanted to kill myself."

By the spring of his junior year, he was finally diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Central Pain Syndrome, a condition in which damage to the central nervous system can cause constant pain. Doctors told Cullen that one of the causes was that Aidan constantly played hurt.

He quit sports for several months and began dealing with the disease with a combination of medicine and physical therapy. He eventually felt better, and his love of baseball led him to rejoin the Windward team this winter for his senior season. But the nagging injuries have returned, and his contributions will probably be limited.

"He's trying to play, but it's physically difficult for him," said Powell. "And we would never put a kid on the field if he wasn't physically ready."

Mark Cullen understands that now. He came forward with his story in hopes of sharing that understanding.

"The reason I'm doing this is because of how much I love my son, I adore him, I'm so very proud of him for enduring this brutal disease that I may have helped cause," he said. "I want parents to realize we're pushing our kids way too hard. Don't do travel leagues. Don't play year round. Kids will find their way."

This winter, Aidan received an important letter, but not the kind you put on a sweater. It was a notice from New York University that he had been accepted into the Tisch School of the Arts to study his new passion of photography.

Upon hearing the news, Mark briefly reverted to old habits by saying, "That's great. . . how's their baseball team?"

Aidan, newly empowered, responded, "I don't know if I'm going to play."

Mark took a deep breath and, having reached a new acceptance, finally smiled.

"That's fine," he said.

Source: LA Times


'Wild girls should be allowed to be wild'

Kate T. Parker's daughters like to bike, swim and get muddy. Parker wanted them to know that their love of what they do and their strength makes them beautiful.

Traveling the country, she discovered even more versions of strength: girls fighting cancer and standing up to bullies in the lunchroom; female football players and ballet dancers whose powers could rival a superhero's.

"Strong, to me, is facing something that scares you and doing it anyway. Courage isn't the absence of fear. It is being afraid and doing it anyway," Parker said.

All those strong girls fiercely going for whatever they want, gender stereotypes be damned, are part of "Strong is the New Pretty," Parker's first book, releasing March 7.

CNN asked Parker about her new project. Her answers have been edited for space.

CNN: Why did you start posting images to social media?

Kate T. Parker: I was photographing my daughters, Ella (now 11) and Alice (now 8), every day. I noticed that the images that were strongest and most meaningful to me were the ones where the girls were being themselves, whatever that was at the moment: dirty, feisty, silly, sassy, angry, funny, loud and louder. They didn't need to pose a certain way or smile for the camera or brush their hair to be beautiful.

I wanted my girls to know that those images that captured their true personalities showed their beauty. The images turned into a tool I could use to combat the messages the media often sends to girls and women: that beauty is a particular hairstyle, size or outfit.

Wild girls should be allowed to be wild. Introspective girls should be allowed to be quiet. Funny girls should be allowed to be funny. Girls who are all these things should be all these things and should be allowed to find out who and what they are without boundaries.

Giving girls the space and time and support to find out just who they are, what they like and, ultimately, what they love is a key job as a parent or mentor.

CNN: What did you learn from photographing girls all over the country?

Parker: As the project grew, I learned that strength doesn't always come in one package, and it doesn't always manifest itself the way it does in my girls.

Strength isn't always loud and feisty. Strength can be in the face of a musician creating music because it is inside of her. Strength can be changing tables in the lunchroom because your "friends" weren't actually your friends. Strength can be meeting a cancer diagnosis with unrelenting positivity.

I continue to be so inspired by the girls and young women who are featured between this book's covers. These girls are the faces of a new generation of women who don't need someone to tell them that "it is what is inside that counts." They already know it.

CNN: What is beautiful about the girls in your book?

Parker: The girls in this book are all amazing and strong and beautiful, and they're not alone. There's something unique, powerful and worthy in everyone. My job as a photographer is to find this "thing" and capture it, but I'd encourage everyone to try to do this for themselves and for others. You don't need to be a photographer to recognize beauty in yourself and others.

CNN: What stereotypes are you fighting?

Parker: Even today, girls are told that they should be quiet and sit down to allow space for the boys to take charge. That makes me so angry. I want our girls to know that who they are, just as they are, is enough.

Too often, our strength is taught or discouraged out of us as we grow up, but it's like a muscle that needs exercise. The more you use it, the easier and more natural it becomes -- even if you have to start by pretending. While on the journey -- you can do this even as an adult -- start small by trying things you normally wouldn't and go from there.

I hope that this message grows. I hope girls and women believe -- and retain that belief -- that they are amazing and strong and powerful. I hope our government hears this, and I hope my daughters and their daughters don't have to keep fighting this same fight.

CNN: How do you parent knowing that bias exists?

Parker: We stress the importance of being a good person: Being kind, being honest, keeping your word. We remind them that your value is determined by how you treat others rather than how you look or what you're wearing.

Our girls are under so much pressure -- pressure to look, feel and be happy and perfect all the time. Social media encourages an unrealistic level of perfection that is unhealthy.

Women and girls are strong. That's not new. But convincing them that their strength has value and is worth expressing is something that can take some work.

Beauty and power and strength come from being confident in your own worth, but it's a message that bears repeating. While every generation of girls is dealing with similar stereotypes, this generation of young girls are facing new pressures from the internet and social media to look, act and be perfect. No one is happy all the time, that no one's life is perfect, and we are all just in this together trying to figure it all out.

I wanted this book and its message to be a little oasis for girls. They can look at it and read it and see that they don't need to change, add a filter or be someone or something else to be beautiful. They already are.

Source: RGV Proud


For the Love of Kids -- by Christopher M. Meuse

The purpose of the following article is to express my beliefs related to the importance and value of promoting the development of positive self-esteem in children at home, in schools, through sports and in every walk of life. I will attempt to show the significance of positive coaching and parenting in developing happy, confident, successful and fulfilled individuals who are capable of reaching higher levels of human potential.

I recently published the book, "Hockey, Kids & Positive Coaching", an inspiring story about a young boy whose love for the game of hockey is affected by the pressures placed on him by the adults in his life. It demonstrates the value of love and how a child's growth and development are enhanced when guided by people who are more concerned about feelings of self-worth than numbers on a scoreboard. The story illustrates that the journey to true peak performance in life is eased through guidance and education that go beyond skills. A quality education which is focused on issues of self-worth will help to create the healthy conditions necessary for children to reach their greatest potential.

There are many theories and techniques that can be used to teach, coach and educate children. Some include strict discipline, tough love, the promotion of aggressive behaviour, acceptance and love, or a combination of all of these methods. The value of developing a strong sense of self-worth, or self-esteem, in a child cannot be over- emphasized. The application of principled behaviours supported by empathic listening, understanding and compassion can help parents achieve greater positive results when guiding their children on their journey through life is emphasised in this article through excerpts from the book.

I was motivated to write "Hockey, Kids & Positive Coaching" by negative behavior that I witnessed being displayed in arenas where children play hockey - behavior which adults probably used with a positive intent, but which often negatively resulted in diminished peak performance. The joy of playing the game was also greatly decreased for all involved. Negative comments and criticisms children experience - not only in sports, but in their lifetime - can be extremely disempowering and often lead to the formation of blocks or barriers to learning and performance.

It has been scientifically proven that negative thoughts and comments result in decreased strength and performance. I have witnessed very talented players become totally confused and disorientated on the ice after being yelled at by adults. The players were then further criticized after the game for their poor performance, the adults not realizing how their conduct actually contributed to the players' poor performance. We cannot empower children to do their best through negativity, whether in sports, at home, in school, or society in general. This belief is demonstrated through the story and experiences of the book's central character, Michael.

Several years ago I was listening to an interview with the renowned basketball coach, John Wooden. He exhibited many great character qualities as a coach, but also as a father, husband, and educator. The host introduced him as "a coach of love" who cared more about his players as individuals than he did about them as basketball players.

Apparently, at the time of the interview, Wooden's teams won more consecutive games and conferences than any other team in U.S. basketball history -- an amazing result from a coach of love, who apparently never used the word "win" in the dressing room. Why? His explanation seemed to suggest that on a mind/brain (or neurological & psychological) level, a player can only perform at the highest level when focusing all of his/her energy on his/her own performance. He believed that any percentage of energy that is used to focus on the thought of winning, or on scoreboards, or referees, etc. is energy removed from one's ability to play at one's best. Therefore, Wooden emphasized intrinsic motivation focused on one's desire to play his\her best.

Yes, his players practiced hard and played hard, but the enjoyment aspect of the game was always emphasized. He never wanted playing basketball to be a chore. The players' challenge was with themselves. If they played their best than they were winners, despite what the scoreboard indicated. Obviously, Wooden's record is a valid indication that his players usually played their best.

When young children are expected to play like pros, and are criticized for making mistakes, the results are seldom positive. The game becomes work and the "play" and fun aspects are lost far too early. As Joseph Chilton Pearce writes in his excellent book, "Magical Child":    "through the function of play, the work takes place, and creativity unfolds ... play is the only way the highest intelligence of mankind can unfold."

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of being sincere in conversation with our children; positive reinforcement must be more than idle words. There is great value in not merely using positive words in an attempt to manipulate children so that they will perform in a way that adults believe they should. It is important to be positive and compassionate simply because this is what children need and deserve. In the end, children and adults will have greater respect for each other while achieving greater levels of excellence.

The excerpts contained in this article are explained in much greater detail in my book: "Hockey, Kids & Positive Coaching".

Detailed information and reviews related to the book can be found on the following Blog & Website:


Students can't bully; coaches shouldn't either

What would you do if a teacher called your child names so offensive and degrading that the Reno Gazette-Journal won't publish them? What if your boss called you those names? Now what if a coach calls an athlete those names? Why is it coaches have a different set of standards and rules they get to go by? Why do coaches get a free pass to humiliate and bully our children?

In January, a lawsuit was filed by three high school boys claiming that they were bullied by their football coach, whose behavior in turn was supported by the school principal.

This coach's behavior is nothing new. We see it in sports everywhere.

We justify it by saying things like "It's just football talk." "It builds character." "It toughens them up for the real world." "All coaches talk like that." Sports psychologists have long known and studies have proven that yelling at athletes doesn't improve their performance, yet the bullying and abuse continues. We've become immune to it. We shrug it off.

Why do we accept this?

Fans at sporting events are expected to demonstrate good sportsmanship. The athletes themselves get disciplined or thrown out of the game if they exhibit poor sportsmanship. Yet the coaches continue to get free reign to treat the players however they want.

These boys have stood up for themselves and complained about a coach's abusive tactics. As a result, they suffered repercussions by being removed from the team. After filing the lawsuit, they have been called "p-----s," "snowflakes," and "pampered babies." People have sarcastically stated that they need "mommy and daddy to protect them" and are "lawsuit happy." People have insinuated they didn't ever learn that there are consequences for their actions; when do bullying coaches learn that there are consequences for their actions?

Unless people start standing up and saying we've had enough, it's not going to change. From the sounds of it, these boys did try to handle the situation themselves by addressing it with their coach. Then their parents attempted to address it. Only then did they resort to an attorney.

As a society, we change and evolve. Coaching needs to catch up with the times. No more of this "that's the way we've always done it." Teachers used to paddle or cane students for misbehavior. Fraternities used to initiate new members with hazing rituals such as physical abuse or severe alcohol intoxication. Oh sure, the old adage, "I lived through that and I turned out just fine." But that doesn't make these practices OK or right.

The bullying has to stop. Stop. Bullying tactics in coaching should be a thing of the past. These are our children. They deserve better.

Source: Reno Gazette-Journal


FastSports Scheduled to Discontinue Service in 2018

FastSports has been operational since 1994 -- twenty-three years of providing information about clinics, tournaments, news, and commentary about fastpitch softball and youth sports in Minnesota and the surrounding States.

In early January 2017, FastSports suffered its worst outage and loss of data. A few years ago, it would have caused me to panic. I'm a "technology guy" and outages are not acceptable. This year... I cared that I had lost a small amount of data, but the downtime was just an annoyance. My wife noticed the difference in my attitude and asked, "What do you get out of running FastSports?"

That was a good question.

It's what I do. It's a job I do for the fastpitch community. It's appreciated. It's an expense. It's work. It's sometimes frustrating.

There has been growth in web sites and many sites offer tournament listings. Some offer a clearinghouse function for players looking for teams or teams looking for players. There are a lot of places to find the news about youth sports and fastpitch. FastSports has been unique, because it doesn't belong to a softball organization. It's been independent. I'm not aware of another site like it, but that doesn't mean that it's the best way to run a site either.

I've talked about shutting down FastSports in the past. I've been given suggestions to make it easier to run, which were appreciated. In turn, I've kept the site up.

My interest in keeping the site running continues to diminish. If you're a long time reader, you've seen it happening, with less innovation, fewer updates to the news, less discussion in the forum, etc. I still adore the kids that play the game, but my interest in keeping the site running as it is today, is about gone. So instead of being something I love doing, it's become a chore.

If you try to enter a tournament listing, you'll see that it's only accepting tournament dates through December 31, 2017. That's the end date. In a little less than a year, the site will change. The domain is not for sale, lease or rent. I'm keeping the domain. I don't know what it will become, but it's likely that it will not be dedicated to fastpitch information, like it is today. No looking back. I'm not turning FastSports down without a lot of contemplation and thought. It's the right time. 

Say "Hi" if you see me out wandering around at a tournament!