MY 12-YEAR-OLD SON recently was umpire for his 9-year-old brother's baseball game as a favor to his father (my husband is the coach). The opposing coach has a history of talking to the umpire during the game, questioning calls and sitting close enough to the umpire to make noises or comments under his breath. My son initially did not want to ump, but the other coach promised my husband he would not say anything. Well, he couldn't help himself. I expressed my disappointment to the other coach. He stated that it is perfectly acceptable for him to have a running dialogue with the ump during the game. What are your thoughts?
Kris Burns, Portland, Ore.
DEAR KRIS / / Baseball games, even youth baseball games, are competitive. Because of that, we sometimes forget that the ultimate goal at the youngest ages should be to make sure that every kid plays and has a good time. While keeping a "running dialogue" with an umpire isn't necessary for a coach of 9-year-olds, I don't have a problem with a coach monitoring an umpire's performance and occasionally choosing an appropriate time to discuss a situation professionally and courteously with a game official. After all, the umpire should be aware that the kids are trying to learn the game and do his or her best to promote that.
Berating, cursing or otherwise verbally abusing an umpire is never acceptable. Unfortunately, television has almost glorified the coaches who "work the officials" in professional and college sports by continually bringing attention to their sideline and dugout antics. Many volunteers are not experienced coaches and never have been trained, so they often take their cues from what they see on television. That is not an excuse for a coach to mistreat an official, however.
Certainly when it comes to nine-year-old baseball, the majority of a coach's focus should be on helping his players improve. The time spent having a "running dialogue" with the umpire would be better used jotting down notes about situations that need to be discussed in the next practice and pulling kids aside between innings to discuss events that have transpired on the field.
How old should a youngster be before throwing a curve? Can curveballs actually cause harm to one's arm?
Ron Wallace, Jacobus, Pa.
DEAR RON / / There is no one blanket answer to this question. Kids develop mentally and physically at very different rates. What might be acceptable for your 10-year-old might not be appropriate for my 10-year-old.
A young player should never begin throwing a curveball until he or she has developed the arm strength to throw it properly. That player also needs to be mature enough emotionally to understand that throwing too many curveballs at a young age can hinder his or her development and possibly lead to injury.
There are many 10- and 11-year-olds who can learn to put spin on a pitch and make the ball move. Because their opponents have not seen many breaking pitches, these kids tend to enjoy pretty good success doing this. However, because they have not developed the arm strength to throw the curveball properly -- or have not been taught the proper way -- they tend to throw breaking pitches with improper mechanics, which can lead to arm problems later in life. In addition, an over-reliance on breaking pitches means that the pitcher is not throwing enough fastballs to continue developing the arm strength necessary to pitch successfully into his or her teen years and beyond.
I would recommend reading the pitching section of our book, Play Baseball the Ripken Way, which discusses the proper way to throw breaking pitches. Have young players experiment with the grips and mechanics from shortened distances in practice while building arm strength by throwing fastballs in game situations. If one of your players has developed enough physically and mentally to throw a curveball properly and understand its dangers, you may want to allow him or her to throw a few in games. There should be a strict limit on the number of breaking pitches that can be thrown and coaches should make sure to evaluate the player's mechanics when throwing curveballs.
Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.