If anyone can write about youth sports, it’s Tommy Greenwald.
The Westport native captained Staples High School’s 1978 state championship soccer team. His son Joe followed in his footsteps, as a Wrecker soccer captain. Another son, Jack, captained the lacrosse squad and played football. A third son, Charlie, also played youth sports.
Plus, Greenwald is a writer.
He’s authored several young readers’ series: the “Charlie Joe Jackson” books (named for his kids), Crimebiters (think dogs), and sports stories aimed at 10-12-year-olds like “Game Changer” and “Dinged” (football) and “Rivals” (basketball).
Some of those books took on serious subjects, like injuries.
Now, with “The Ultimate Goal” — the first in a series called “The Good Sports League,” and published officially tomorrow — Greenwald aims at younger (7- to 10-year-old) readers.
He does it with a theme that should not be necessary for kids that age, but sadly is: Sports should be fun.
The quick synopsis: Ben loves soccer. He’s got a great team, with cool pre-game chants and halftime jokes. He and his friends invent dances after they score.
Ben is so good, he’s recruited away from his rec team by a more prestigious travel club. His new team plays well, but they take soccer super-seriously. No chants, no juice-box breaks, no dancing!
They win a lot. But, Ben wonders: Is that all that matters?
“This is very personal,” Greenwald says.
“Growing up, my team was a canary in a coal mine. We were one of the first to travel.” (Full disclosure: I coached that team for a couple of years, right after college.)
But, Greenwald adds, “I never remember pressure like kids feel today. They’re thinking about college from Day 1. A game turns into a job. There are premier teams, academy teams, showcase tournaments, identification camps …
“The ‘next prize’ is always in mind. And it starts at younger and younger ages.
“I just had a blast. That was enough.”
Greenwald saw the beginning stages with his own kids (now all out of college).
Now, he says, “the only way to have a carefree attitude is to play at the lowest level.”
“The Ultimate Goal” — a great title, working on several levels — is the first in a series of books about the joy of playing.
This fall, Greenwald will publish one about a softball player who loves to sing and dance. She’s just 10 years old, but already her coach is pressuring her to concentrate on her sport. And wouldn’t you know it: Opening night of the school play and the championship game are the same night! What will she do?
He hears stories all the time, most recently from a friend’s son who felt pressure to give up lacrosse to concentrate on football.
“People used to look up to 3-sport athletes,” he says. (His wife Cathy Utz’s brother was a 3-sport captain at Staples.) “Then it happened in high school. Now the demand to focus on only one thing happens at a comically young age.”
The lack of fun and pressure to specialize are not the only youth sports issues Greenwald addresses. The third book in his “Good Sports League” series will appear next spring.
It’s about a young baseball player, whose father attacks umpires.
“Sadly, there’s an endless trove of story ideas,” Greenwald notes.
Is there a solution?
“I don’t know,” the author and self-described “lapsed athlete” says.
“It starts with awareness. I fully admit, I was a parent who lost perspective. I got wound up. I was upset if my kid’s team lost.
“Now I’m embarrassed. That was ridiculous. Why was I so wrapped up in what my kid’s team did?
“It’s almost like an addiction, or a cult. That was me?”
However, he adds, “I don’t envy parents. In a town full of A-listers, if your kid has talent, you feel like you owe it to him or her to maximize it — even if they don’t want to do it, or do it on your timetable.”
His job, he concludes, “is not to tell readers (or their parents) what to think. It’s just to encourage them to think, have conversations, ask questions.”
Game on! Play ball!
(For more information, and to order “The Good Sports League: The Ultimate Goal,” click here.)
(“06880” sparks conversations on all aspects of Westport life. Please click here to support our work. Thank you!)
Tommy, two thumbs up! I am so glad you are getting kids and their parents to think about this.
Plus, I have never understood how playing a ton of games on travel teams against kids from other towns who are the same exact age is the ticket to becoming better in a given sport.
Thank you for writing these books. It’s a much needed topic that both the kids and parents need to think about and discuss with each other.
I remember when my kids were younger and we lived in two different towns in Fairfield county before we moved to westport, how many parents in one of those towns were out of control about their “not that talented” kids, playing time and blaming other players and coaches for their kids not shining like stars or loosing. The kids overall were nice kids, but the parents were awful and not only put lots of pressure on their “perfect” kids, but on the other kids too, who just wanted to play and have fun and do the best they could.
I remember one father yelling (screaming) at the coach, ref, and other player on the same team yelling get that kid off the court, he can’t play! He’s messing up every play by not passing it to my kid in a way he can catch it.” They were around 13 years old. It happened to be the best player or second best player on the team who had come from another town in Fairfield county that had been winning the division for the travel teams for the past 3-4 years and he wasn’t the best player on the other team. Probably the 5-6 best player on the other team. That parent also said quite a few curse words (yelling) them at the kid and the coach about the kid being “awful”. Truth was his kid didn’t really want to play and definitely didn’t want to “work” at it, warm up etc. He preferred warming the bench and goofing around with his friends.
I found that the truly best players, both girls and boys teams and sports were the kids who had a passion for the sport and competition. They also usually had more laid back parents who gave them opportunities to experiment as young kids to play different sports and other activities and let the kids decide what they wanted to focus on. The kid drove the activities/sports they were active in. They were natural leaders and usually quite happy people. They were kind and inclusive. Some of the kids were actually better role models than the parents. These were also usually smart kids who went on to do well in college and in life. Most of these kids are now in their early 30’s.
Crazy. I was just thinking about this the other day. I played soccer (and lots of other sports growing up) because I loved it. It was fun and gave me a release from other things going on e.g. school pressures. It was that joy that inspired me to play at higher levels, then into my late 30’s. I worry that today’s sports experiences are a reflection of society as a whole where excellence is expected, failure is not an option, criticism is rampant and performance is sought over pleasure. There has to be a mix in here somewhere that gets it right. Go Tommy G!
Thx for the article Dan! Coach Woog is too humble to mention that I’ve dedicated the book to him, along with three other coaches — Coach John Chacho, Coach Albie Loeffler and Coach Jeff Lea — who taught me everything I used to know about soccer, and did it the right way. -Tg
Thanks, Tommy. I am in great company — and stand on the shoulders of giants.
I don’t remember Tommy but based on the pictures, he and Dan could pass as brothers. Certainly they have lived parallel paths.
As a parent and an educator, these sound like wonderful books with an incredibly important and timely message. Thank you Mr. Greenwald — I’m hoping you might be able to come up with a companion which can become required reading for coaches, parents and spectators!
Mr. Greenwood is spot on. I played every sport in NYC , hockey on roller skates and all the other sports could be played in the park or the streets. I’m glad I’m old.
So proud to call you a “forever” teammate TG! Perspective is so key here and you have always been the best at making sense of complicated crap. Passing it on…and I love the books dedications, four coaches in my personal Hall of Fame with you!