STORRS — If you’ve been on Facebook this week, chances are you’ve seen someone share comments made by Geno Auriemma, coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. UConn hasn’t lost a game in more than two years and is in play for a fifth consecutive national title.
Even after more than 30 years as head coach at UConn, Auriemma said that recruiting “enthusiastic kids is harder than it’s ever been.”
In the video, he said that today’s kids are so influenced by professional athletes who they see as “just being really cool” — athletes they then try to imitate when they play.
“They haven’t even figured out which foot to use as a pivot foot, and they’re going to act like they’re really good players,” Auriemma said. Forget about playing for the love of the game or to support teammates, he said; too many players are focused on themselves.
“They’re allowed to get away with just whatever, and they’re always thinking about themselves,” he said. “Me, me, me, me, me. ‘I didn’t score, so why should I be happy?’ ‘I’m not getting enough minutes; why should I be happy?’ That’s the world we live in today, unfortunately. Kids check the scoreboard sometimes because they’re going to get yelled at by their parents if they don’t score enough points. Don’t get me started.”
Auriemma made the comments at a news conference during the NCAA women’s Final Four in 2016, but Matt Lisle, a professional hitting coach, shared them on Facebook on Monday. The video has been viewed more than 35 million times on Facebook.
Why did year-old comments strike such a chord?
I put that question to some prominent voices in the sports world and to my Facebook community. The response was quick and universal: There is too much of a “me” culture in youth sports, too much involvement by parents, too many coaches concerned only with winning and too little focus on just playing the game.
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‘Life is not a highlight film’
“What Coach Auriemma is addressing is accountability and responsibility for who you are and how you interact with others,” said Donna Orender, former president of the WNBA. “We hear so much and see so much of the coddled generation these days and especially in youth sports, where there is a focus on the ‘me’ culture in the scramble to be seen and earn a scholarship.”
Orender — founder of Generation W, an annual women’s leadership conference in Jacksonville, Florida — said Auriemma’s comments get to the heart of what it takes to excel today: to work really hard and really embrace the power of being a teammate.
“Life is not a highlight film,” said Orender, who played college and professional basketball.
John O’Sullivan is a former college and professional soccer player who started the Changing the Game Project. His organization aims to return youth sports to children and “put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’ ”
He said it makes him sad when he sees youth coaches allow the type of behavior described by Auriemma. “It is our responsibility as coaches to teach kids to be humble, to be hungry and to be a great teammates. It amazes me how many coaches ignore this responsibility because a player’s talent might lead to a win.”
What then happens, O’Sullivan said, is that the player’s talent takes them to a higher level where “character matters” — but they lack the character needed to sustain themselves.
“That’s when it all falls apart, and it didn’t start in college,” said O’Sullivan, who has coached on every level from children to college. “It started with parents and coaches at age 12 looking the other way because a kid happened to be a good player. That is our outcome-driven youth sports system in a nutshell.”
Auriemma said that when he and his fellow coaches watch game films, they’re checking what’s going on on the bench. “If somebody’s asleep over there, somebody doesn’t care, somebody’s not engaged in the game, they will never get in the game. Ever. And they know that. They know I’m not kidding,” he said.
Lisle, who shared Auriemma’s comments, works with professional and college baseball players and is the founder of TheHittingVault.com. A former collegiate hitting coach, Lisle believes that the video resonated with so many people because it speaks to coaches, players and parents.
“For parents, they want to hear that effort and attitude get rewarded at the highest levels, not just talent,” he said. “For coaches, they have a coach of the highest authority giving them permission to do the same and to remind them that coaching isn’t just about winning.”
A mother of two who didn’t want me to use her name said Auriemma’s comments reminded her of one of her daughter’s coaches. Her two daughters aren’t the greatest athletes, but they pour their hearts and souls into the game, she said. Last year, one of her daughters was pulled up from the junior varsity to the varsity team.
“To be honest, I was surprised, as there were other players who were better, and I could hear those other parents complaining,” the mother said. “The coach said to me that (my daughter) is what he is looking for in a player. She shows up for every practice on time. She is a team player on and off the field and will get the ball to the person in the best position to score versus going for the glory herself. And she is as excited, if not more so, when others score.”
Sharing coach’s wisdom with the kids
Lisle said Auriemma’s words should also motivate young athletes as they realize that some of the top coaches in sports are paying attention to their attitude, their effort and whether they are playing with passion and excitement, not just their talent.
“In my 17 years of coaching, I come across a lot of younger kids who are ‘too cool’ to show emotion and passion on the field, and hopefully, this video inspires the athletes who have been holding it in to let it shine,” he said.
Lisle’s post has been shared more 650,000 times, and more than 25,000 people have commented.
Said one commenter, “Best place to teach them is when they are young! Teaching them to love the sport and have respect for the sport and each other as teammates should be a coach’s number one priority.”
Plenty of people spoke about how parents are causing a lot of the problems in the game. “Parents living vicariously through their kids, pushing them too hard, too soon. Too many games, too much pressure and not enough fun,” one commenter on Facebook said. “The best athletes of prior generations didn’t specialize until high school or college. They didn’t play the same sport year round for half of their lives because their parents thought they’d ‘get left behind.’ ”
Larry Robin, a father of two in Westfield, New Jersey, said he watched the video on Facebook and immediately called his 9-year-old daughter to watch it with him.
“I thought his comments were amazing. I think it’s a great thing to teach your kids at an early age that attitude is everything and a good, willing-to-work, positive attitude means everything,” said Robin, who is chief financial officer for an apparel company.
Robin says he’s seen the same power of attitude in the workplace. “While I can’t ‘bench’ people at work, I can tell you that the people who move up in my world are almost always the people who are smart and have really good attitudes. Those are my all-stars as well!”