Professional athletes are few and far between


I LIVE IN A COUNTY WHERE many parents think their sons or daughters will receive an athletic scholarship or professional contract. These kids participate in their sports year-round, and if they don't, the coach tells them that they aren't going to be on the team next year. Is this bad for the kids, both emotionally and physically? What percentage of high school kids actually get scholarships?

Joe O'Ferrall, Ellicott City

DEAR JOE / / I'm going to take a stab at the last question first, because it really gets to the heart of the other questions. In 2001, according to one study, there were approximately 7.6 million athletes participating in high school athletics around the country. Surely that number has risen during the past five years. Recently, I saw that there are 360,000 athletes participating in NCAA intercollegiate athletics. In a fantasy world, if every one of those NCAA athletes received a full athletic scholarship, 4.7 percent of them would have received college scholarships. I would guess that at least half of those 360,000 participants were receiving no athletic-based aid -- and that's probably a low estimate. No matter how you slice it, the odds of a high school athlete receiving an athletic scholarship are very low. Of course, the odds of that same athlete playing a sport professionally are much, much lower.

While it's great for any young athlete to have goals to work toward and to develop a strong work ethic, we still are talking about kids. Very few kids are going to become collegiate or professional athletes, but from a standpoint of developing an active lifestyle and living a healthy life, developing an affinity for a variety of activities can be extremely beneficial.

Playing a variety of sports helps you become a better all-around athlete, promotes total body fitness and prevents burnout. At some point a young athlete might decide that he or she wants to set lofty goals and pursue one sport more seriously than others. That should be the athlete's choice, not a decision made by a parent or coach.

When someone is forced to do something, the fun begins to get lost. When an activity is no longer fun, chances are that the athlete will look toward other activities.

If parents feel they can't appeal to a coach to change his ways, and that their kids aren't having fun, they can seek alternatives -- either a different program or another organized activity.

In last year's World Series, Jermaine Dye of the White Sox was awarded first base for being hit by a pitch, when replays showed that the ball most likely had hit his bat. Paul Konerko then planted the next pitch in the left-field seats, and the White Sox went on to win the game and series. What responsibility should players have in influencing (or not influencing) an umpire's call on the field? I think the culture in baseball is to "sell" the umpire on a call even when a player knows better. Any insights on what to tell my 10-year-old?

Lee Boone, Bel Air

DEAR LEE / / For both coaches and parents, it is your responsibility to teach kids the difference between right and wrong. One of the invaluable lessons that baseball and other sports teach us is the importance of playing by the rules and practicing good sportsmanship. Coaches owe it to their sports to be good role models and to help instill character in their players. This is especially true for youth coaches.

Just as in everyday life, coaches of all levels have different concepts of what is right and what is wrong. There are plenty of people out there who think that whatever you can get away with is OK. I don't feel that way. When I played, I always thought it was important to approach the game with a sense of honor and fair play. Youth coaches have a responsibility to teach their players about all facets of the game. This includes skill development, the rules of the game, sportsmanship and fair play. At the highest levels, when you do something for a living, it seems as though the rules change a bit. But I always thought there was honor in playing by the rules.

I like to talk about "teachable moments." Watching a televised event with your child can present parents with numerous teachable moments. Discussing an incident such as the one you described allows parents to teach children about right and wrong and what it means to be a good sport.

The media tend to bring attention to facets of sports at the highest levels that may not translate well to the youth levels. Announcers will talk about "working an umpire," like Earl Weaver used to do, or "working a referee," like Coach K often does. These are acceptable practices at the highest levels of competitive sports. The problem is that television has a tremendous influence on people, and youth coaches may attempt to emulate what they have seen. This can be very confusing to young athletes.


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