Editorial: Reforming Palo Alto's high school sports | May 21, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 21, 2010

Editorial: Reforming Palo Alto's high school sports

Lacking leadership and clear policies from the school district, Paly and Gunn have been left to deal with challenging coaching problems on their own

With 1,600 high school students (44 percent) participating on 95 athletic teams in 17 sports, the sports programs at Gunn and Paly are huge and the expectations high.

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Posted by Former high school coach
a resident of another community
on May 21, 2010 at 4:27 pm

I used to coach a high-profile team at one of Palo Alto's high schools. I had quite a bit of experience, was (still am) a member of a national association dedicated to the sport, and am also certified as an official in the same sport. I attend 3-5 clinics every year dedicated to coaching. I was one of the very early proponents of the Positive Coaching Alliance. I completely turned a losing program around and made it my goal to keep every player apprised of their role in the program, scheduling meetings with each one at least every other week.

In spite of all that, a couple of parents poisoned the entire program with their negativity. They complained that I was "inexperienced" ... "didn't know the rules" ... "favored certain players over others," etc. One parent accused me of racism, claiming that the child in question was a member of a particular race that was not immediately obvious. (The funny thing about that was that the team MVP was more obviously of the race that this parent claimed I was prejudiced against.)

Most of these complaints had to do with their childrens' playing time. We had very clear rules about playing time, including penalties for unexcused absences from practices. I benched one player for missing the last practice before our last game of the season. The player claimed to have been sick, but another coach told me that this player had actually gone to an open gym for another sport *at the same school*. I was given a copy of the sign-in sheet for the open gym; the player denied attending that open gym and made a huge stink about our program's policies.

It got to the point where the AD didn't want to deal with the complaining parents any more, so the coaches were all dismissed. I took some time off coaching and then was hired by a college team. (That's been working out great -- no parents to deal with!)

At this college, my in-depth knowledge of the game is rewarded and I'm having a terrific time. Though all of this happened many years ago, it still stings.

I've been in pretty much every role a person can have in this particular sport -- player (high school, club, college, adult/open), parent, coach, referee -- and the worst offenders in terms of sportsmanship and attitude are not coaches. It's parents. (As a referee, I've ejected many more parents than coaches for unsportsmanlike conduct.)

In Palo Alto, I sensed an aura of entitlement. There always seemed to be a handful of players who weren't willing to do the work that's needed to play at a high level. They wanted playing time without working for it. And when they didn't get the playing time, rather than have a conversation with the coach, they would complain to their parents -- who would only reinforce the negativity.

I worked hard to create a positive atmosphere for learning and continuing improvement, and modeled this myself by attending many clinics and workshops. That would work with 80% or so of the teams I coached over the years, but all it took was one or two who were unwilling to take personal responsibility to spoil the atmosphere.

I came to the PAUSD enthusiastic, experienced, and hoping to make a difference. After a number of years, I was driven out by parents of mediocre, negative players. I've ended up in a much better place for me personally, but I doubt the kids learned how to manage their issues during that entire debacle.

I'd love to see a series about parents who abuse coaches, and the ADs who give in rather than deal with the offending parents. I saw an AD who was willing to go to the mat for coaches he wanted to protect, but who would shrug his shoulders and walk away when it got to be too much.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I am just a Paly parent without kids involved in sports, but I do know many sport parents. They are nice people, but when it comes to their kids' sports, they seem to change character completely.

Firstly, they want to relive their school/college experience through their kids. As long as that is what the kids want to do, then that seems fine, but if they don't come up to the parents' standard (real or imaginery) then I feel sorry for the kid.

Secondly, their goal is to get their kid into college on a sports scholarship. This may or may not be a realistic goal, but it explains a lot.

Sports scholarships into college is important for those who are unable to fund college educations. Whether the kids go on to become professional in their sport doesn't seem to be the point, just the scholarship itself.

Perhaps the problem with high school sports has nothing to do with high school sports, but more to do with what happens afterwards.

Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Is there a Positive Coaching Alliance class for student-athletes and their parents? Many teams get messed up with one or two kids and/or parents with 'attitude'. Shouldn't it be made clear that competitive high school sports demand a team concept?

Quite a bit of the problems with coaches, which are real, could be avoided if there was a clear understanding that the teams are not a democracy, and that a coach making reasonable demands must be obeyed.

Posted by Nancy
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Former high-school coach wrote: " In Palo Alto, I sensed an aura of entitlement. There always seemed to be a handful of players who weren't willing to do the work that's needed to play at a high level. They wanted playing time without working for it. And when they didn't get the playing time, rather than have a conversation with the coach, they would complain to their parents -- who would only reinforce the negativity."

That may be true and I'm sure some parents in PA are annoying. But since this was an article about coaches being abusive, here is my experience: As the parent of an athletically gifted child, I saw her get away with 8 years of being lazy, late, uncommitted throughout her stellar middle school and high school sports career. The worst of her coaches (she and her team-mates had the misfortunate of having the same coach in club and high school play for 2 of those years) made it a practice to yell at insult his players, individually and as a group. He was almost 100% negative. Yet he almost never yelled at my daughter, and never benched her. Why? He wanted too much to win.

I ended up with zero, none, nil, nada respect for that guy. All he taught those girls was to ignore people who are yelling at you. Which is a bad lesson because it's never ok to let yourself be yelled at. Instead of ignoring it you should respond back with "That is not ok". And furthermore, he taught them not to listen to advice coming from someone who knows the game (or other activity) better than you do. This guy was a loser all the way around. Eventually they all dumped him, but not before (I'm afraid) learning some unfortunate life lessons.

Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2010 at 6:38 pm

"Former High School coach" --

As a somewhat reluctant sports parent, I was dragged into a lot of this by my kids. One of the problems I have with sports at the high school level is the inconsistency with respect to "win at all costs", "playing time", etc. In some sports, with some coaches, effort is rewarded with playing time. In other sports, or with other coaches, the coach wants to win every game, and may give a player with a bad attitude a lot of playing time just because the coach thinks it will give the best chance of winning a particular game-- but, when this goes on week after week, year after year, it hurts the team and sends the wrong message. I wish the coaches had rewarded effort, good attitude, and good sportsmanship more, and emphasized winning less.

I also wish many of the other parents were not so hyper-competitive. After all those years in the stands, I have to say that bad sportsmanship begins at home.

I'm not talking about turning everything into "feel good" games-- sports are appropriately more competitive in high school. But, I applaud the Positive Coaching Alliance and efforts to create a more ethical approach to sports. I also with that the ground rules with regard to playing time, winning at all cost, etc, were announced at the beginning of the season and applied consistently throughout.

Posted by Paly Coach
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2010 at 8:32 am

The problem is twofold - incredibly low pay for coaches and parents who are hypercompetitive. My sons are in three sports, and the problems always revolve around parents whose kids are not getting adequate 'playing time'.

The kids generally understand who is better and who is worse on a team, and 'get it' when playing time is assigned. There are some judgement calls, and some situations where coaches 'feel' more comfortable with certain players than others. That is life, not sports.

I think the Weekly went to great trouble to make much more out of this than is really necessary. Yes, it would be great if an AD did not have to teach PE - but where would the money come from? It would be even better to pay coaches more - on average, East Coast coaches in my sport are paid 2-3x more by public high schools back East than in California. By public high schools!

At Paly, you can complain all you want about Earl - and he could spend all day every day meeting with unhappy parents. But, he runs a very good public school program, and his motivation is solely the kids. In his sport, football, he does his best to give the boys a fair shot and equal opportunities. That does not mean equal playing time, just the opportunity to get playing time. As a football parent, I could provide constructive criticism of some of his approaches - but, in the end, it is his job and he wins and his players seem very happy.

Some of these recommendations are useful - PCA training, always worthwhile. But, bottom line is parents will go non-linear if they think their son/daughter is being slighted. And parents are far less objective about their own children than any coach is about his or her team.

This issue of sports, coaches and funding in California High Schools has no perfect answers. The Weekly spent too much time posturing this as a 'he said/she said' series. And, as anyone could see, must all of the heat from this series came from parent comments online. That tells you almost everything you need to know....

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