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Emphasis on kids, not wins and losses

| Sunday, Feb. 25, 2001

A message for these athletic times was delivered Saturday at Latrobe Elementary School, on an auditorium stage whose permanent inscription in massive gold block letters, 'The Truth Shall Make You Free,' seemed appropriate for this occasion.

Former Steelers Tunch Ilkin and John Banaszak, educator Dr. Mary Margaret Kerr, and others familiar with varying aspects of the sporting life took turns telling those on hand for a youth sports leadership conference to lighten up. Affirm and support the child, and the wins and losses take care of themselves. Understand, they stressed, that as a coach of young people, you bear great responsibility. Your rewards will come in the form of a sense of contribution to the child and, by extension, the community.

Approximately 175 people had signed up for this conference, which was sponsored by the McFeely-Rogers Foundation, and it seemed most had followed through by attending. They willingly gave up the better part of a Saturday in order to learn, suggesting they are people who already understand the magnitude and responsibilities of their role.

The youth coaches who perhaps most needed this session, likely were out recruiting, running conditioning drills, or otherwise looking to improve their chances of winning.

In that sense, it could be argued that the featured speakers were preaching to the choir.

'If politicians only met with the people who aren't going to vote for them, they'd never get in office,' countered Dr. Kerr. 'You start small, you gather your thought leaders, and then you get a groundswell of enthusiasm for concepts and ideas.'

If some of the attendees spread the word to coaching counterparts who sometimes forget that their charges might still sleep with stuffed animals, then the day was a success.

Similarly, if someone passes on the need for moderation to parents who treat their kids like walking, talking, tax-deductible tickets in the athletic lottery, then progress will have been made in a battle that seems to be going badly.

'There is a lot of craziness out there,' Ilkin said. 'It's taken way too seriously. We're taught to win at all costs at way too early an age. Too many expectations are put on the kids. Let's teach them. Affirm them. Role model them.'

Parents see athletes signing multi-million dollar contracts and dream of their children someday cashing in, too.

'If someone thinks their son is going to be the next Michael Jordan or Ken Griffey Jr., that isn't going to happen, pal,' Banaszak said. 'They ought to post statistics. It's about a gazillion-to-one against it.'

Beyond the dreams of eventual riches, there is the pressure of the moment to win.

Banaszak, currently the head football coach at Washington & Jefferson College, recalled the perspective unintentionally offered by the players he once coached in Little League Baseball.

'Yeah, we played hard and we had fun and we wanted to win,' he said. 'But, if we lost, by the time we got to Dairy Queen, the kids had forgotten all about it. And the parents were still standing there arguing about calls. Kids are doing it for the right reasons.'

It's up the adults not to screw up the process.

It occurred to brainstorming members of the Greater Latrobe Asset Developers (GLAD) that the youth coaches of an area represent an underdeveloped conduit to the children.

'Our bottom line is how can we make this a better place to live?' said William Stavisky, GLAD member and Greater Latrobe School District Superintendent.

The conference yesterday was an attempt at addressing that goal on a grass-roots basis. Hopefully, it will prove to have been a productive one.

Sam Ross Jr. is a columnist for the Tribune-Review.

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