In the space of just six days, just six days after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., Chico Averbuck received four voice mails and seven emails from Sonoma County parents, telling him their kid was seriously unhappy playing basketball and wanted to know what they could do about it. Averbuck, director of International Scouting for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, didn't think it was a coincidence.
"The shooting, for a lot of parents across America, was a trigger, for them to look at their kids a little closer to see what was going on with them," said the Santa Rosa resident and 1985 El Molino graduate. "I was curious to see if this was the norm."
Averbuck went online and found a study posted on the National Alliance For Youth Sports (NAFYS) website. It was from a 1991 research project conducted at Michigan State. It stated 35 million to 40 million student-athletes sign up every year to play organized sports and that 70 percent of them quit by age 13. They quit all sports, not just the one bringing them dissatisfaction. Even though the study is 22 years old Greg Bach of NAFYS believes it is as pertinent today as it was in 1991.
"If anything, that percentage has probably gone up," said Bach, director of communications for the Florida-based organization. "The focus is all about winning, more than it's ever been. And many times the kids are gone before they even reach 13."
Averbuck's reaction to the high percentage of abandonment?
"I was floored," he said. "I had no idea that many would never play sports again. I mean, never play any sport!"
Since those 11 voice mails and e-mails — involving nine boys and two girls — Averbuck has meet alone with each kid twice, if not three times. At various Sonoma County locations, sometimes inside a gym, sometimes on an outdoor court, Averbuck would work out each player. He also would engage in conversation.
"Don't let one selfish individual ruin it for you," Averbuck told each player.
Averbuck is referring to what he views as the core of the problem — coaches. Youth coaches have enormous influence in developing confidence, teaching fundamentals, controlling emotions. The best youth coaches are the rocks of stability and security for a vulnerable child. The best youth coaches understand a 9-year old's first priority is to have fun; the NBA won't be knocking on the door tomorrow, in other words.
"The issue with a lot of these kids wasn't playing time," said Averbuck, 46. "Some of them were even starters. They just weren't having fun. And what struck me further was this was happening during the Christmas holidays, which should be the happiest time of the year."
How to coach? Averbuck said the answer is "simple." His advice comes from a man who is his mentor, Tates Locke. Locke is a former college coach, a former NBA scout, coach and assistant general manager. Averbuck got to know Locke when both worked for the Portland Trail Blazers.
"You believe in the greatness of every one of your players," said Averbuck, repeating Locke. "You put each player in the best position each day to be successful, both mentally and physically. If you do that, you have done your job.