No letdowns or losing, just picking up sports

NEIGHBORS

October 27, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

Janet Gilbert Mr. Jeff! My mom says I have to wear this stupid coat!" said Tristan Bond, 6.

"Well, your mom is the boss," said Jeff Weisfeld, coach of "Pick-up Sports," an informal program he and his wife, Ellie, have run for the past 10 years on the south fields at Centennial Park.

Every Monday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., home-schooled students from Howard and neighboring counties gather to play in Weisfeld's free sports program.

Weisfeld greeted more than 50 students this week and talked about the importance of dressing in layers. The 46-year-old Ellicott City resident called a student by name and had him show off the number of T-shirts he was wearing.

"Unless rain is actively falling from the sky at 1 o'clock, we will play," said parent Dot Rockstroh, whose 18-year-old daughter, Kathy, has attended the program for seven years.

Weisfeld concentrates on teaching the three sports he played as a youth -- football, basketball and softball. Though the year-round program has grown exponentially, its basic tenets have remained constant.

"The premise is pick-up sports. You come home from school, you change your clothes and you go out and play [a game] with your friends," said Weisfeld.

That philosophy is often difficult to find in this age of competitive sports leagues. But it's a good one to have, according to former Orioles player Cal Ripken Jr., whose book, Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way, was published last year.

"I believe it is healthy for kids to lose the structure that leagues provide from time to time and allow them to have fun, not worry about winning or losing and just be kids," Ripken said in an e-mail.

Said Weisfeld: "If you enjoy doing this [playing sports] now as a child, you will probably enjoy it when you are older, and the hope is, even when you have your own kids."

Kathy Rockstroh, a freshman at Howard Community College, enjoys Weisfeld's program so much that she arranged her class schedule around it.

"I just love it," she said. Rockstroh recalled that home-schooled students would often focus to get work done Monday mornings so they could play. "It's not so much that it [Pick-up Sports] was a reward, but a motivator," she said.

It is a scene you might see in a Norman Rockwell illustration -- kids of all ages and both genders, squaring off in separate games of flag football across verdant fields on a snappy fall day. And while the children play, some of the parents are doing their own thing.

Some are walking around the lake, pursuing higher fitness levels of their own. Some are at picnic tables, sharing curriculum ideas. Some are on lawn chairs, nestled under quilts against the raw winds, knitting.

"We know our kids are going to be treated with respect and kindness, as well as held to a high standard," said Columbia resident Rebecca Johnson, whose son, Nathan Destler, 16, has been home-schooled since he completed preschool.

"First of all," said Weisfeld, "when I'm playing with your kids, it's like I'm playing with my kids. I want them to learn teamwork, sportsmanship, respect for others."

Weisfeld said that if there is a lot of arguing over a play, he tells the kids, "Debate club is at 3 o'clock. Just play."

And everyone plays.

"One of the nice things about [Pick-up Sports] is that it pretty much doesn't matter how good at this stuff you are. There's a place for you here," Destler said.

Mindi Lawton of Sykesville agreed. "[Weisfeld] encourages even the most reluctant players and works hard to see that all children who want to play have the opportunity to do so. I think what struck me most about this man is his genuineness and kindness to everyone," Lawton said in an e-mail.

"You will see big, muscular high school boys smiling at short, skinny middle school boys and tossing them the ball," Amy Chai, 43, of Ellicott City said in an e-mail. "You will never see a screaming parent telling the coach to take a less talented child off of the playing field."

Weisfeld started Pick-up Sports with his wife when their daughter, Leah, now 20 and a junior at University of Maryland, College Park, was home-schooled and wanted to play team sports. "We had six kids -- three sets of siblings," said Leah, of the first Monday's session 10 years ago.

Asked why he still is committed to the program, Weisfeld said, "I get to play!"

He added: "Some of these kids -- I've watched them grow up, seeing them go from not being able to catch or throw to leading their team in a rally. That's really the reward."

And the participants get their own reward.

As the kids came off the field Monday for some water, Sanjay Lilly, 12, of Columbia, who just started in the program, found his mother at a picnic table.

"It's fun," he said, "and everyone's a winner."

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