Why I’m a fan of Sam Darnold’s parents

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I’m so impressed with the parents of Sam Darnold, who is rumored to be the first pick tonight in the NFL draft. They were parents who let their phenom athletically-gifted kid, be just that. A kid. Tonight we’ll find out if Sam is the first pick, or not. We can learn so much from Sam’s parents regardless of the level of talent our kids have, or what their passions are. I wrote this about USC’s quarterback eight months ago:

My husband asked me to read a story from the Bleacher Report about USC Quarterback Sam Darnold. I put him off for a day because frankly, I wasn’t that interested. I finally read it to appease him and found Sam’s story to be fascinating—mainly because of the parenting style of Mike and Chris Darnold.

From childhood through high school, Sam played basketball, football, and baseball. I think he played volleyball, too. His parents let him try and decide what sports he participated in. They didn’t make him specialize or get him private lessons or coaches. In fact, Sam believes his success in football is from playing all different sports and learning a variety of skills. In a refreshing story written by Jeff Perlman, you find out about a dying breed of parents—ones who believe in fun and no pressure. Parents who let their child lead his own life.

“USC’s star quarterback and his parents do not live by the LaVar Ball theory of the universe. They let a multisport supernova grow up into his own man. And that’s why this 20-year-old might be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft.”

Yet the story of Sam Darnold isn’t the story of the modern quarterback, loud and sparkly and created to own the internet’s 24-hour hype machine. Nope, it’s the story of a young man on the verge of superstardom because, not long ago, he was allowed to diversify.

He was allowed to be a kid.

The Darnolds’ Capistrano Beach household is in the heart of south Orange County, where there are youth sports leagues atop leagues atop leagues, and private coaches atop private coaches atop private coaches.

In Orange County, it’s not uncommon for a nine-year-old pitcher to throw sliders and curveballs nine or 10 months of the year—with a father behind the backstop holding a radar gun. It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to play Pop Warner, then a season of flag and then spend the summer under the watchful eye of a $200-an-hour passing guru.

This was not going to happen to Sam.

“My parents,” the quarterback says, “wouldn’t have allowed it.”

On paper, this might come as a surprise. One would be hard-pressed to find a more sports-centric family than the Darnolds. Mike (Sam’s dad) was an offensive lineman at the University of Redlands, Chris (Sam’s mom) a volleyball player at Long Beach City College. Sam’s older sister Franki starred in volleyball at the University of Rhode Island and three of his cousins—Allie, Michele and A.J.—also participated in collegiate volleyball. Sam’s late grandfather, Dick Hammer, played basketball at USC and was on the 1954 team that went to the Final Four. He was also a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team.

Put simply, organized athletics are a big deal in the Darnold world and have been for decades.

“But,” says Chris, “they’re not everything. We’ve always tried to keep things in perspective. Yes, our children have always loved playing sports. But around here, in this part of California, it too often becomes live and die. That’s a big mistake in my opinion. It has to be fun.”

“One day you open your eyes and it’s, ‘Holy cow, your son is in this position,’” Mike says. “I mean, it’s crazy, right? Crazy, crazy, crazy—one in a million.”

He pauses. Though Chris is acknowledged by family members as the emotional one, the father has been showing his soft side of late. He insists he never cared whether his children played sports or an instrument or worked a job—as long as they were involved and happy and tried different things. But to have a son as USC’s starting quarterback; to have a son who is a Heisman Trophy front-runner; to have a son who is humble and decent and respectful?

“Say what you want,” Mike says. “Sam’s not flashy, he’s not a yeller, he’s not a trophy collector, a bragger. But I feel like we worked hard to raise our kids the right way. And it’s paid off.”

I believe the Darnolds have lessons for many sports parents, myself included. Of course, they had an exceptionally athletic son who could have been recruited in basketball, baseball or football. But more than that, they raised a humble, balanced kid. They are proud of him as a person, not just as a star athlete. Their attitude and parenting style helped develop Sam into the man he is and will become.

I hope you take the time to read the entire Bleacher Report article about Sam Darnold and his parents. There’s also another great article in the Los Angles Times called “As expectations swell, USC’s Sam Darnold finds comfort at home near the beach” by Zach Helfand.

I’m excited to watch him play football this year. Here’s a YouTube of his 2016 highlights.

Click here to watch a recent interview with Sam Darnold by CBS’s Allie LaForce.

What do you think about kids specializing in one sport at an early age?

 

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photo of Sam Darnold from the Bleacher Report

 

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When Should Children Specialize In Sports? Part II

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This is one of my earlier posts about sports specialization. I still agree with most of this, but I see one factor about earlier sports specialization that isn’t so great–repetitive use injuries. However, I don’t know if a swimmer’s shoulder would still be injured if they started at ages 9 to 11, versus age 5. That’s a tough question to answer.

 

“Do you ever get tired of trying and coming up short of your goal? You’re just not getting where you want to be and you’ve tried and tried again? For many people the capacity to push through obstacles to get where they want to go demonstrates a strength of character trait groomed and implanted in their early childhood. Changing one’s character later in life happens, but it’s usually difficult.” ***

Two common complaints against specializing in a sport at an early age are: it causes burnout, and there’s no clear advantage to it. (Last week I wrote about isolation and specialization.) 

I disagree with both based on my experience as a swim parent. What I find odd is how many athletes are going to burn out if they are achieving success? If they’re winning races and moving on to the next level, they will feel a sense of accomplishment.

I have a friend who was captain of his golf team at Harvard. He has a zero handicap. I asked him if he ever got bored playing golf.

He said, “I never get tired of hitting great shots.”

There appears to be a clear advantage of specialization in a single sport — at least sports like golf or swimming, where there are specific skills and techniques. If a child is jumping from sport to sport, rather than focusing one sport, that child probably won’t progress much — unless they are truly gifted athletes.

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When swimmers hit a plateau and don’t improve for more than a year — which is like multiple years to a person 11 or 12  years old — but they stick with it and eventually break through and improve — the life lessons learned are incredible! Talk about a reward!

Take my daughter who is turning 18 this week. She began swimming at age five. She had lots of improvement until about age 11 when she couldn’t break the one minute mark for the 100 free for more than a year and a half. I’ll never forget her frustration, but she also showed determination. She didn’t quit. She didn’t try another sport for a season here or there. She worked very hard and rarely missed swim practice.  At a Junior Olympic swim meet — she went 57 seconds in the 100 free.

Her coach asked her, “What happened to 59 and 58?”

She said with a smile, “They are highly over-rated!”

The lesson she learned was that with hard work, success will come eventually. In the meantime, perseverance was nothing to sneeze at. She’s still swimming, by the way, and earned a college scholarship.

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Regardless when a child starts a sport, they have to love it! They can’t be putting in the hours to please their parents or their coach. Also, when they are very young, it has to be fun. If they aren’t having fun, it’s tough to keep them in the sport.

Building character and strength in our children can be a part of their specialized sports experience!

***The quote is from SWIMSWAM: Jason Lezak & Seeds of Third Effort (worth reading!) by Chuck Warner, coach and author of And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence: This article is about Jason Lezak’s difficulties in college swimming and how it prepared him for the most amazing Olympic relay. Ever. 

More valuable info for parents about swimming can be found at USA SWIMMING.

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When do you think children should specialize in a single sport? What advantages and disadvantages do you see?

No Parents Allowed!


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This week, while I am recovering from surgery, I am reposting some of my earliest blog posts. Enjoy! I’ll try to make it back to work next week.

I was sitting outside a roped off area with a sign posted “No Parents Allowed” at a three-day swim meet in LA with close to 1,400 swimmers.

“But, I HAVE to get my son this bottle of water,” a mom begged the volunteer parent wearing a neon orange vest, who was in charge of guarding the entrance to the “swimmer’s only” area.

“ARE YOU PROMISING TO GET MY SALLY TO HER EVENT ON TIME? I’M HOLDING YOU ACCOUNTABLE!” another mother yelled with her finger wagging in the face of the orange-vested volunteer. The mom was shaking in frustration and anger.

I sat calmly by — watching, observing, and remembering  —  that was me. Not the yeller, but the one pleading. My daughter is 18 and going off to college next fall. She’s been a swimmer since age five.

Helicopter after helicopter mom argued and pleaded with the volunteers, who are swim parents themselves, on how they’d just be a second to find their child, bring them water, lunch, or make sure they made it to their event.

I wanted to tell them “RELAX!” If their swimmers had made it this far, to the season’s championship meet, they’re going to be okay. Calm down, let them hang out with their friends and teammates. They’ll be fine and will survive. After all, I had just made it through watching my daughter swim the mile. I didn’t get up once and scream, “GO!” which I have done at every flip turn for the past 15 years. If I can calm down and let go — you other moms can too!

And — if they don’t drink enough water, or miss their event — they might actually learn from it.

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Here are 10 great things to remember as a parent of children in any sport. It’s from USA Swimming.

10 COMMANDMENTS FOR SWIM PARENTS

I. Thou shall not impose thy ambitions on thy child.

II. Thou shall be supportive no matter what.

III. Thou shall not coach thy child.

IV. Thou shall only have positive things to say at a competition.

V. Thou shall acknowledge thy child’s fears.

VI. Thou shall not criticize the officials.

VII. Thou shall honor thy child’s coach.

VIII. Thou shall be loyal and supportive of thy team.

IX. Thy child shall have goals besides winning.

X. Thou shall not expect thy child to become an Olympian.

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More handy tips can be found at USA Swimming’s page for parents.

FYI, the top photo of my daughter’s relay team was taken by a 12-year-old teammate, who obviously can make it to her events, stay hydrated, swim fast, and take great pics! The second photo is my daughter 12 years ago. The last photo was taken from the “parents only” section of the East LA College pool.

Video of my daughter’s 400 free relay from TAKEITLIVETV from Feb. 17.

Emotions Running Amok During the Final Swim

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My two kids having fun at the PAC 12 Champs.

This past week, I experienced so many emotions, from numb to raw. It was the end of an era for us as our daughter experienced another milestone. I reflected on how much swimming has been a part of our lives. Since she was five and our son eight years old, swimming has been a common thread.

One of the biggest emotions I felt was pride. It’s amazing that through some tough times and disappointments, she stuck with it. Through illness and injury, she doesn’t feel she ever reached her full potential in terms of speed and success. In all honesty, she didn’t swim as fast as she potentially could have. But as far as success, she gained it in leadership, grit, friendships, and hard work. She learned that life doesn’t happen in a straight line upwards from one success to success, or joyous occasion to the next. There are tough times in between to make the good ones count.

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Swim moms at the PAC 12 Champs.

Our son was with us and he also felt so much pride in his little sister. He said watching the meet made him realize how much swimming meant to him and how much he’d like to be a part of a team once again. He decided to focus on music and academics and gave up on swimming before college. We were blown away by the races which included the greatest athletes in the world. We watched in awe as American and PAC 12 records dropped right and left at my daughter’s last meet. My son kept saying, “This is amazing that my little sister swims in the PAC 12.” He hadn’t been to a conference championship meet before to watch Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel or Abbey Weitzeil, to name a few of the amazing athletes competing. Having him stay with us in a hotel room for a few days brought back memories of the many meets we traveled to as a family. I’m proud of him and the kind and considerate person he’s become and felt comforted having him by my side.

 

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Getting ready for the final swim.

I steeled myself against getting too teary-eyed—that’s where the numbness feeling crept in. The only time I had to wipe my wet cheeks was during the last 50 of her 1,650. The final race. I was touched beyond belief at the extent the other team parents went to honor the seniors and the parents—especially the moms. One created the most original, personalized necklaces just for us senior moms which lit up with red hearts pulsing with our daughter’s names and photos included. The rawness came in when I’d have moments of being overwhelmed by trying to keep it all bottled in.

A truly special week, which I’ll never forget. Thank you swimming–for giving our family so many memories together as well as giving us amazing friends.

IMG_0279What recent milestones have you experienced with your family?

When Should Kids Specialize in Sports?

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Here’s an article I wrote several years ago about sports specialization. I still get asked at what age should kids do one sport exclusively. There’s no right or wrong answer, although research suggests that there’s no advantage to early sports specialization.

There’s been a few conversations on the pool deck about when and if kids should swim exclusively. It’s a fact that our country’s sports have changed dramatically since we were kids. Sports were mostly free and school-based. Plus, kids didn’t do just one sport, but many.

Today, there’s a trend around the world for kids to specialize at an early age in one sport. If you “google” sports specialization, you’ll find tons of articles with research telling you why this is such an awful thing.

The drawbacks, according to research, come down to several things:
social isolation, burn-out and repetitive use injuries. Also, the research cited states there’s no clear advantage to starting in a single sport, year-round at an early age.

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As the parent of two swimmers, I’ve sat on the pool deck for close to 15 years. My son started swimming at age 7, my daughter at 5. They began with a number of other activities, but loved swimming more. Their specialization was self-directed, not parent-coerced. They soon grew weary of rushing from practice to practice, or as I remember it, “If this is Tuesday it must be Karate.”
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I have an opinion on sports specialization that relies on mom-based research — observing, listening and talking to hundreds of kids, parents, and dozens of coaches for years — however, it’s limited to the sport of swimming.

First, I have to disagree with this statement: “Being on a select team often requires a year-round or near year-round commitment and extensive travel. If you allow your child to participate she can end up socially isolated from her family, peers, and the larger community.[3]” from momsteam.

Isolation? Not hardly.

The swim team for my kids was social. Friendships blossomed with kids they’d otherwise never meet. Vacations through the years meant jumping in as a visitor with local teams and meeting more kids. At first my children were wary and out of their comfort zone, but their self-confidence and world grew exponentially.

Swim meets meant playing cards, “Catchphrase” and charades for hours under the tent with teammates — and racing for a minute or two. My daughter didn’t have time to hang out at the mall, but she did travel to Puerto Vallarta with kids from throughout So Cal to meet up with kids from the Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Mexico and Canada.

The coaches from the Puerto Vallarta trip witnessed an eye-opening swim meet for our swimmers. Our kids experienced another culture, interacted with local kids, and learned to appreciate small things they took for granted in Southern California.

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I’d love to hear what you have to say about this topic, too! When did your kids begin organized sports? Did they participate in more than one? At what age did they specialize?

 

Who is the worst sports parent ever?

 

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College sports include cheering for teammates.

Have you been keeping up with the real-life drama of the Ball brothers and their outrageous dad LaVar? Noted to be one of the worst sports parents ever, LaVar Ball dad of basketball players has been in and out of the news. That’s probably his goal since he runs a reality show on his FaceBook page. But seriously, what is this guy teaching his kids? If you haven’t heard of LaVar Ball here’s the scoop: his kids are Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo; LiAngelo, who was enrolled at UCLA briefly with a basketball scholarship; and LaMelo, who he pulled out of Chino Hills High School recently.

I’m not a basketball fan, nor a fan of the NFL, but I can’t escape hearing about LaVar Ball. I ran across a snippet on Fox Sports 1 with Cris Carter who asked after hearing that LaVar was pulling his son out of UCLA because he isn’t being allowed to play. Carter, a former NFL star, commented that UCLA receives more applications than any other university in the country and why would he want to take away that opportunity from his son? He said, even if his middle son LiAngelo plays for the NBA, and starts at age 20, he’ll most likely be done with his career by 28 or 29. “What’s he supposed to do with the rest of his life?” Carter asked.

 

You can watch the video from FS1 here on ‘Cris Carter responds to LaVar Ball pulling LiAngelo out of UCLA: ‘What kind of parenting is this?’

In case you haven’t heard, the reason the middle Ball son was suspended by the Bruins basketball team was because he shoplifted in China and wound up in a China jail along with two of his teammates. It took the POTUS to get him out of jail and returned to the United States. LaVar didn’t think shoplifting was any big deal and didn’t condemn his son’s actions. Now LaVar isn’t letting him take the punishment that UCLA decided on, but instead will take LiAngelo away from facing consequences and completing his college education at UCLA. Why was he shoplifting in the first place? Was it a game? Was it for thrills? I have heard this adult-aged kid drives a Ferrari, so it certainly wasn’t because he didn’t have the money.

“Tipsheet: LaVar Ball is the worst basketball dad ever” written by Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has some quotes from LaVar Ball that show his arrogance and inability to acknowledge the wrongdoing by his son.

“We learned today of LiAngelo Ball’s intention to withdraw from UCLA,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We respect the decision he and his family have made, and we wish him all the best in the future.”

(And the unstated P.S. was “Good riddance!”)

As Donald Trump correctly noted, shoplifting in China can be a really big problem. The President had the back of Ball and teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill and helped get them home after their arrest.

But LaVar has steadfastly downplayed his son’s crime and whined about his punishment. “I’m not sitting back and waiting,” he told ESPN. “He wasn’t punished this bad in China.”

And . . .

“We get back over here and the consequences were even stiffer than China. So basically they’re in jail here.”

And . . .

“I’m going to make him way better for the draft than UCLA ever could have. He’s not transferring to another school. The plan is now to get Gelo ready for the NBA draft.”

That will be a heavy lift. “He’s not on any of our scouting lists — even the extended lists,” one NBA general manager told ESPN.

So this withdrawal is no great loss for UCLA.

Younger brother LaMelo could become a NBA player like big brother Lonzo. But his personal sneaker deal and his dad’s antics make it unlikely LaMelo will play at UCLA or anywhere else on his way to the pros.

Here are more details about the crazy Ball family in an article called “UCLA basketball got exactly what it wanted out of the Ball family” by Mike Rutherford for SB Nation.

 

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LaVar Ball in a photo from SB Nation.

 

“The relationship between the Ball family and UCLA basketball appears to have reached a premature end. One side came out as the clear winner.
After one exhibition game appearance and one international incident, it appears the LiAngelo Ball era at UCLA has come to an abrupt close.

In various interviews with a number of national outlets Monday, LaVar Ball revealed he was pulling his middle son off the UCLA basketball team and withdrawing him from the university. LiAngelo Ball had been indefinitely suspended since he and two freshman teammates were caught shoplifting during UCLA’s trip to China last month. The incident made international headlines and resulted in a public war of words between the patriarch of the Ball family and the President of the United States.

This marked the second time in 2017 that LaVar Ball has abruptly pulled one of his sons out of school.

In October, LaVar announced that his youngest son, 16-year-old LaMelo Ball, was being pulled out of Chino Hills High School and would be home-schooled. LaVar reportedly had issues with first-year Chino Hills boys basketball coach Dennis Latimore, who had yet to coach his first official practice at the school. It was also revealed that LaMelo, one of the top players in the class of 2019, was being given his own signature shoe via LaVar’s “Big Baller Brand,” making him the first 16-year-old ever to own such a distinction.

On Monday night, Yahoo reported options were being explored to send both LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball overseas to begin their professional careers. Essentially, the turbulent relationship between the Ball family and UCLA has come to an end years before the pair had originally intended.

That’s probably just fine with everyone in Westwood.
The relationship between the Balls and UCLA, which officially took effect in January 2014, was always primarily about Lonzo Ball. The five-star virtuoso point guard was bound for greatness regardless of where he played in college and regardless of how preposterously one of his legal guardians chose to behave. He was the type of player who could transform UCLA basketball, even if he was only a Bruin for one season.

LaVar Ball was always going to be a distraction, but he was a manageable one for UCLA when Lonzo was the son in question. With LiAngelo, things were bound to be more difficult. Play the kid too much, and it might cost you team chemistry or even a couple of wins. Don’t play him enough, and get ready to see his dad’s criticism as the top story on your ESPN scream-at-each-other show of choice the next morning. It would be hard to blame Alford, and anyone else caught up in the situation, for looking to find a way out.

Now they don’t have to.

As a sports parent myself, I am sorry for these young men and that their dad isn’t allowing them to learn the life lessons that sports can teach. I guess the family’s goal wasn’t to be the best they could be, learning good sportsmanship, time management, perseverance and the ability to pick themselves up after defeat. No, I think the lessons LaVar Ball is teaching his sons include that they are better than everyone else and the rules don’t apply to them. Also, that money is their almighty savior.

 

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My daughter learning about being part of a team.

 

What lessons do you think LaVar Ball is teaching his kids and those who may look up to them?

 

 

 

How not to raise quitters

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Piano duet at a yearly recital.

In an article called “My mom’s one sports rule? No quitting,” by Samantha K. Smith on espnW.com, I remembered the t-shirts one of my all-time favorite swim dads came up with for the Piranha Swim Team, “Winners never quit, Quitters never win.” We wore those shirts with pride for years.

From the article:

 

“When it came to giving her children unsolicited sports advice, our mother got a lot of flack from her five kids who knew her experience was limited. The one and only story she told of her high school cheerleading days was about how the front of her skirt was longer than the back because the girl who’d previously worn it was pregnant. So we often went to Dad for help with our free throw or pitching form; we went to Mom for rides to practice, trips to the mall for new sneakers, and to locate the water bottle stash. Our mother worked late nights at the YMCA for our discounted memberships and paid our uniform and league fees without question each season. But she had one strict, abiding rule when it came to signing up for a new sport: There was no quitting.

“This was why I had new, never-worn softball gear hanging in my closet for the duration of high school. I’d ordered the uniform but remembered Mom’s tenet: If I was unsure whether I could make the full commitment, I shouldn’t officially sign on to the team.

“Now I walk into the basketball gymnasiums of my childhood and see parents storming off with their children after a bad referee call, or children quitting teams midseason because of playing time. In an age of helicopter parenting and participation trophies, my mother set out to teach us one of her most valuable lessons about commitment. If you make one, you see it through even if, and especially when, it’s not playing out favorably for you.”

I did let my son quit a few sports, but only because we had him overbooked with “if this is Tuesday it must be tennis” running from one end of the valley and back to get from piano lessons to the court. During a stressful rushing afternoon, I hit a curb, got a flat tire and realized that enough was enough. Eventually, we settled on a single sport and music. Our routine and life went swimmingly well from then on.

I interviewed the Anderson family for an article in SwimSwam magazine. The Andersons have three daughters, two are Olympic medalists and the youngest currently swims for a D1 university. The mom also had the same rule as the writer above. She said that each year she’d sign the girls up for swimming with the understanding that they were committing for the year. When the weather was no longer perfect sunny and warm and one of them asked to quit, she’d remind them that they had agreed for the year. When the new season started, it was once again warm and beautiful outside and her daughters would commit again.

There’s something to be said for sticking through it all—so long as the situation isn’t abusive or dangerous. A lot of life lessons can be learned when things aren’t perfect.

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Once we settled on one sport, things began to go swimmingly.

What is your rule for your kids and activities? Do you make them stick with it through the season? Did your parents have a “never quit” rule?