Friday, June 28, 2019

Youth Sports Soapbox

There are a plethora of news-worthy happenings in sport lately. The NBA draft, Women's World Cup, announcement of the 2026 Olympic Games locations in Italy, and most importantly, the Sandlot-style adults and kiddo baseball game that's about to go down at Casa de Stoll tomorrow night with good friends, ribs, and, of course, s'mores.

But chances are, in the clutter of happenings, you may have also picked up this viral video that emerged last week from a little league game right here in Colorado:

As a sports nerd, this behavior is absolutely maddening. It runs in direct contrast to all the reasons sport is good. The work ethic, teamwork, sportsmanship, humility, perseverance, practice, dedication and so, so much more.

On the flip side of the less-than-shining Colorado video, you may have seen this clip from an interview with University of Michigan Head Baseball Coach, Erik Bakich, when asked about the makeup of his College World Series appearing team:
(I hope the NCAA is profusely thanking Bakich for providing the best video clip they've had in years.)

It's no secret I'm not a Xichigan fan. I'm a Buckeye kid through and through. But it's hard not to get behind this guy. Michigan lost the decisive Game 3 to Vandy on Wednesday, but this Bakich is a winner in my book, and to the National College Baseball Writers Association as well.

This is an example of sports transcending team affiliation or status quo. It's part of  how sport draws us in.

Congrats to Coach Bakich on his Coach of the Year award. Photo: NCBWA
You see, as Coach Bakich so succinctly noted, there are a massive amount of kids out there missing out on the opportunity to play sports, not for the college scholarship and potential of DI hardware, but for those important benefits that help shaped me, and so many others.

These benefits are not reserved for individuals who are the most athletic, have the financial resources to play for the triple platinum travel team, or whose parents are willing to throw down over the call of a 13 year old umpire at a little league game for 7-year olds. (Sidebar, see my post about serious issues facing officiating here.)

Yes, my expertise is sport tourism, and youth travel sports is a significant part of that industry. But I'm closely following participation numbers and statistics put out by our friends at the Sports Fitness Industry Association and others. It's not IF they will impact our industry. They already are.

I'm not suggesting there is no place for travel sport. Heck, I was an AAU basketball player from the ages of 10 to 17. I didn't get a scholarship. And that wasn't the point. My parents let me play because I enjoyed it. By the way, they were the first to support me when I started getting burned out my junior year and I picked up softball en lieu of summer bball, which I eventually played in college. (And I use the term "play" loosely, b/c I mostly warmed the up in the 4th inning, and pinch ran late in the game. Otherwise, I was one helluva stats-keeper and practical joker).

What I am suggesting is that if we focus solely on elite travel sport, we are doing a disservice to our youth (youth obesity rates among other metrics, hello?). And there are plenty of resources on this topic, such as this report by Samford University.

Another example. Photo: Time Magazine
I can only reflect on my own experiences to supplement the research and reporting out there. My regret? Not playing softball (and golf - which would have come in handy when I worked for the freakin' PGA, BTW!) all the way through high school.

Back then we didn't know. But now we do.

As sport leaders, community members, parents, fans and heck, good people, we have an obligation to kids. To create opportunities, to expose them to a variety of things that they might find of interest. To quit pressuring our kids to live the lives and find the success that we never did. Kansas City has it right with their sports commission's WIN for KC program. San Antonio is crushing it with their iPlay! Afterschool program. There are good, sustainable models out there.

By the way, that 13 year old umpire is likely making no more than $20 per game to umpire 7-year old little league. Think the parents would have behaved differently if the ump was a big brother/sister of a player on one of those teams? I do. Let's not allow our selfish pride to get in the way of fostering an environment where coaches - like Michigan's Bakich - can help a kid's unlikely dream come to reality...enabling all of those good benefits of sport participation.

As Albert Einstein eloquently noted, "Only a life lived in the service to others is worth living." This is Stoll on Sports.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Bucket List 12 for 12

Do you have a "Bucket List"? If so, what's on it? I have a relatively informal one, but one item that has been on my list as long as I can remember is attending the NCAA Division I Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. This past week, thanks to the graciousness of a dear friend, I got to check that dream off my bucket list.

If you followed the WCWS, you know that UCLA won their program's 12th National Championship in impressive fashion last night. In honor of the their 12th time taking home the coveted hardware, this edition of Stoll on Sports features my 12 Lessons Learned from the 2019 WCWS.
Pretty close to heaven for the mountain-dwelling tomboy!
Here we go...

12. There is nothing better than being at a ballpark on a beautiful summer evening. 

Bama v. OU...2 powerhouse programs

11. Softball is continuing to grow and 2020 is going to be awesome! 

The history of the growth of collegiate softball would be a wonderful case-study (I should research that!). From the long-time Pac-12 domination, to the rise of the SEC, to Minnesota's inaugural showing in the WCWS, the sport continues to grow. The NCAA tournament saw more than 500 hours of televised broadcasting. Seeing it back in the Olympic Games for 2020 in Tokyo will be epic!

10. Everyone should take a 26 hour road trip with their significant other. 

Stan happily joined me on this trip and although we were crazy enough to drive the 13+ hours each way, we really enjoyed the (kid-free) time together. We listened to books and podcasts, talked about them, plotted out our goals for the next five years and enjoyed one another's company. Nothing like a good ol' fashioned road trip!
On our road trip we realized it was 15 years to the day from our first date. So of course we got some Braum's to celebrate.

9. Life - like softball - is full of emotional highs and lows. 

In Game 2 of the Championship Series, UCLA came out on top, then OU creeped back, then UCLA went up again, then "Big Play Shay" Knighten hit a 2-out homer in the top of the 7th to tie it up. Then UCLA got an epic walk-off base hit to win it all in the bottom of the 7th.

Enjoy the highs and lows, it's how we know we're really living. I loved the towels OU fans held up that read, "Joy in the journey". So, so true.

8. Embrace your unique path. 

Sitting there at the stadium it's easy to let your mind wander to say, "I wish I would have done ___," or "I wonder what would have happened if I ___." Over the course of the weekend, I wanted to be Jessica Mendoza (who doesn't?), Patty Gasso (again, duh), part of the USA Softball staff (heck yeah!), specifically the grounds crew (my dream job is actually to mow lawns like Forrest Gump --- ask my husband, it's true). But each and every one of us has our own unique path. The greatness lies in pursuing yours - one that is perfectly designed not to be the same as anyone else's. I'm meant to be on the path I'm on, and you're meant to be on the path you're on. It's a beautiful journey!

Some days I wonder if I missed my calling. Photo: Spotern

7. Sports is what we do; it's not who we are. 

Kelly Barnhill had a phenomenal pitching career at the University of Florida. She struggled at the WCWS. Florida wound up exiting after two straight loses. Here's a great ESPN article reflecting that sentiment. Kelly, hold your head up high. No one can take away your accomplishments and softball is merely what you do, not who you are. This is true no matter what you do.
ESPY Winner Kelly Barnhill is one of the best pitchers in history, despite the outcome of the WCWS. Photo: ESPN

6. Honor the legacy. 

UCLA did a great job honoring legacy throughout the WCWS and Head Coach Kelly Inouye-Perez spoke about the legacy of John Wooden on all of UCLA athletics.

As another example, Dot Richardson was sitting behind us for most of the series. People, DOT freakin' RICHARDSON! I idolized her as a young player. She charted the course for so many of us in the game. Many notable softball vets came by and spoke with her, but it was amazing that many more young players did not. The truth is, many probably have never heard of her. There is a legacy in sport that if we do not share, will not get passed on. Kudos to the USA Softball Hall of Fame Museum for preserving this legacy.
Dot Richardson. A legend. I met her once, I'm sure she remembers! Photo: Dr. Dot Richardson

5. Softball is a family sport. 

How many other championships do you attend where the game's best players are sitting with fans, taking pictures and signing autographs? Where ESPN talent sits with the crowd regularly? Not many. There is something about this sport, and our host, USA Softball President Craig Cress nailed it when he told me, "That's exactly what we want this event to be." And it certainly is.

As an aside, we ran into a friend of ours (who was in our wedding and we haven't seen in 12 years) sitting in the very seat in front of us! We bonded over softball, the glory days and caught up just like old times. It was awesome! It was family.
Karen and me taking in some softball, just like old times!

4. There is immeasurable beauty in game. 

I was struck by the diversity of ethnicity and even body-type of the accomplished athletes on the field. I love that softball is a place where differences are celebrated and there is no "stereotypical" player. This phenomenon seems like a rarity in sports.

3. Oklahoma Head Coach Patty Gasso (among many others in the sport) is a class act. 

Love this picture of Coach Gasso enjoying the ride with some players. Photo: Baptist Messenger of Oklahoma
My respect for OU's remarkable coach grew immensely this week. Particularly by watching her response - and by example, her team's response - to their uncharacteristic loss to UCLA in Game 1 of the Championship Series. No excuses. Clarity that the score, game or series does not define their team. Genuine care and love for her players. Acknowledgement of the quality of UCLA's program. Patty displayed a shining example of sportsmanship, humility, leadership and resilience. Most of you know I'm an avid Ohio State fan, but Coach Gasso made an OU Softball fan out of me.

2. OKC is the epicenter of softball around the world. 

USA Softball nailed it. OKC nailed it. The heartbeat of the sport of softball is unquestionably in OKC. And deservedly so. Everywhere we went we were greeted by exceptional hospitality, amazing food, fun-loving fans, and a community that knows how to roll out the red carpet. The value softball provides to the city - economically, socio-culturally and through exposure - and reciprocally, the way the city embraces the sport is second to none. Craig, Sue and teams, well done! Other organizations should take note.

Always stunning and heart-wrenching Oklahoma City National Memorial
And last but not least...

1. In case we forgot, life is about making memories. 

UCLA's victory celebration. Photo: Extra Innings Softball
For all involved, whether fans in the nosebleeds or players on the field, the WCWS displayed a microcosm of this truth. Just search #WCWS and look at the memories, stories, smiles, tears, and jubilation on the event's social media feeds. At the heart of the WCWS, it's about fostering an environment to make memories, contributing to the lives of each and every person touched by the event. The memories gained over this last week will be with me long after I forget which team won the championship.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked, "Life is a journey, not a destination." This is Stoll on Sports.

Photo: QuoteFancy