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Reflecting on the competitive ideals of youth sports

By: Brad Kearns Guest Columnist
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Now that Remi Barry has exhausted his legal options to our collective detriment, it’s time to reflect on the bigger picture of our culture’s philosophical approach to youth sports. A hyper-competitive, winning-obsessed mentality seems to be the norm today: high-cost travel teams, college scholarship obsessions, Little League parents, hypercritical coaches, frequent overuse injuries, psychological burnout and an emphasis on survival of the fittest instead of nurturing a broader population of passionate athletes. Contrary to the blathering acronyms found in the best-selling books from celebrity coaches, athletes and business “winners,” a results-obsessed mentality serves no positive purpose and breeds plenty of negativity, especially when youth are involved. Don’t get me wrong: the pursuit of victory is compelling and wonderful, but it should be all about the process instead of the end-all. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden captured the ideal competitive mentality brilliantly when he said, “Worrying about the scoreboard is a big mistake. Focus on the perfect execution of every possession.” Fortunately, we have some shining local examples of youth leaders and coaches who express an evolved philosophy: E.V. Cain principal Randy Ittner and staff facilitate the entire student body’s participation in athletics and fitness. Placer track coach Rick Foley presides over a dynasty, but devotes just as much focus and passion to the also-rans as to the section champions. Youth Basketball Academy (Rocklin) coaches Ken Gee and David Garcia operate a highly competitive club, but take even kids below the cut line under their wings for tireless one on one instruction. Back to Barry. He has become a victim of this cultural obsession with winning — targeted by the powers-that-be as representing an unfair advantage, instead of a welcome gift to help elevate the local level of basketball as a national-caliber performer. It’s a safe bet that if Barry transferred to Del Oro to become the No. 7 man on the JV cross country team (albeit a pretty tall one), no fuss would have been made. Instead, CIF Sac-Joaquin section director Pete Saco (you may recognize the name; he also tried to shaft Dalton Dyer and Placer last year before courts judiciously intervened) and his cronies bent over backwards in the name of “fair play” to deny Remi an opportunity that he rightfully earned by relocating across the country last August, enrolling in Del Oro (incurring a drastic tuition as an exchange student), and earning the requisite grades to become eligible.  Those who preside over prep sports inform us that Barry couldn’t play because he was “recruited” and that his transfer was “athletically motivated.” While the allegations are extremely dubious in this case (“recruited” to little ‘ol Del Oro from the No. 12-rated prep program in the USA?), what’s the big deal anyway?  Oh, I hear the dissenting voices…What if a dozen more Remi Barrys magically arrived at Del Oro to light up the scoreboard in coming years? What if Thomas Schroeder’s Germany connection at Placer High results in droves of exchange students who happen to be able to run circles around Placer County’s finest on the soccer fields or through the slalom gates? Is this really wrong or unfair? Search deep into your heart and ask yourself, “Why?” Why should we make it difficult for young student-athletes and local families to engage in cultural exchange, healthy competition, and yes, maybe win some titles too? Even if my own child or neighbor is relegated to the bench accordingly, I welcome more opportunities and more competition as a fundamental value about youth development. Any local basketball team or player who contends he is better off because Barry sat on the bench all season might want to re-evaluate his athletic and character-development priorities, period. Americans across the political spectrum proudly celebrate living in the land of freedom and opportunity. It’s urgent that we spread these ideals to youth sports by welcoming everyone, from the equal-opportunity recreational leagues all the way up to “high stakes” prep sports.