September is not only the start of a new school year, but a youth sports year as well. For some of you, this will be the first time your little athlete will play a competitive sport; for others, it's adapting to a new team, a higher level, or a move from rec or town league to travel or club squad.
With that in mind, (201) Family wants to provide a "lesson planner" as you begin your first (or latest) round in the world of organized youth sports. To guide you along the journey, we enlisted the help of Andy Escala.
The River Edge resident is the Tenafly High School hockey coach (he was named coach of the year by The Record after leading the Tigers to the Public B state final), athletic director at The Elisabeth Morrow School, sports director at the Englewood Field Club, former college and minor league baseball player, and, most importantly, dad of two multi-sport athletes: Garrett (age 9 and a hockey, baseball, lacrosse and soccer player) and Hunter (7, soccer, hockey, lacrosse and tee-ball).
Lesson 1: The child is the athlete, not you
As much as you want to help them, as much as you want to see them succeed, it's up to them. Practice with them, teach them, but when it comes to game time (and team practice time as well), let go. "Support them," Escala says, but remember "you have to let them go out and play."
Lesson 2: Variety is the spice of life (and sports)
There are several reasons to avoid the temptation of having your child specialize in a single sport at a young age.
1. It will help avoid burnout in the long run.
2. They might find they like something else better.
3. "Especially if your kid is really good at something," Escala says. "Say they're a great soccer player. Having them play lacrosse where they might not be as good is a not a bad thing. They learn to see that not everything comes easy. They also see what their teammates go through."
4. It helps with conditioning for the primary sport. Different sports work different muscles and endurance.
5. It's a chance to play for different types of coaches and coaching styles.
Lesson 3: Success is built from failure
One of the truths about sports is that you will not be perfect.
"Everyone is going to fail," Escala says. It's how you work through it that matters. That's what makes us better. "Failure at this level is not a bad thing. Failure is part of life. In sports, failure is going to happen in every game at some level. Whether it's a strikeout, a missed layup or a turnover.
"If Johnny is going to be upset because he dropped a fly ball or struck out three times," he adds, "your job is to encourage him. Work with him so that he might succeed the next time."
Lesson 4: Letting go is never easy
An ump makes a bad call. The coach isn't playing your daughter at the "right position." Why isn't my son starting? He's better than the other goalie.
When you sense those feelings coming over you, step back, take a deep breath and let them go.
"Parents shouldn't be hovering," Escala says. "If I think my kid should be playing second base instead of outfield, then tell your kid to go to talk to the coach. That's what they're going to have to do later in life.
"Sometimes the coach will say, 'OK, I'll try you at second,'" he says. "Sometimes, for whatever reason, they won't. That's OK. If the answer is no, you should work with your child. Understand, they are disappointed, but turn it into a positive. Help them try to improve their skills at that position."
It's a great life lesson to help them deal with the ups and downs of sports – how to react when they strike out as well as when they succeed. "If they wear everything on their sleeves, it can be difficult to keep things in perspective," Escala says.
Lesson 5: It's supposed to be fun
Whether your child will be a professional athlete or get a college scholarship is not determined by winning or losing a 10-and-under youth soccer game. The purpose of that level is to instill a skill set and a love for the game.
"It's important that they like the sport and enjoy playing it," Escala says. "You don't want them saying 'yuck' when you're taking them to a game or practice." v
If at first you don't succeed
Andy Escala isn't just spouting coach-talk when he discusses learning from failure. He speaks from experience.
Escala was cut from the baseball team his first year at Jacksonville University. "At the time, I thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to me," he says.
But it made him realize how much he wanted to play and the hard work he needed to put in to succeed at that level. As a sophomore, he was the 25th man on the team. By his junior year, he led the team in batting average. As a senior, he was named to the Sun Belt All-Conference team and was invited to play in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League.
"I took what was a really bad experience, and it made me want to work harder and prove I belonged," Escala says.
Don't judge a pre-teen too early. It's important to remember, especially with boys, that puberty is the great equalizer when it comes to sports. The kid who might be dominant as a 9- and 10-year-old could be surpassed by late bloomers by the time they reach high school.
Escala points to the hockey goalie who helped lead this year's Tenafly High School team to the state championships.
"When he was a Pee Wee and just started, he was not very good," Escala says. People who watched the team would tell Escala that if he only had another goalie, the team might be really good.
But over the years, the boy worked hard, went to goalie camps, did whatever it took to improve. "He was the one who would ask, 'Coach, what do I need to do to get better?'" Escala says.
That's the type of kid Escala loves to coach.