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Aaron Locks, man on a youth sports mission

Aaron Locks is 6 years old. He is trying to play baseball. He?s not doing a very good job of it. He strikes out. He starts bawling. He throws the bat down, the helmet down. He is ready to chuck the whole thing.

?Who?s your favorite baseball player?? his coach asks.

?Willie Mays,? Locks responds.

?Well, Willie Mays made an out seven of every 10 times he went to bat,? the coach says. ?And half of those times he made an out, he struck out. You?re 6 years old. What makes you think you?re better than Willie Mays??

Thirty-nine years later, Aaron Locks still remembers that conversation. It has become a cornerstone on who Locks has become and what he does for a living. That coach, Marty Islas of Mill Valley, now in Petaluma, gave Locks one of the most essential values necessary to handle the inevitable peaks and valleys of sport.

?Perspective,? said Locks, who lives in Santa Rosa, owns a health club in Rohnert Park and operates sports youth camps in Northern California.

That perspective gained some depth after Locks graduated from Southern Oregon State in 1985. He worked one year with UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, helping Wooden run his sports camps at California Lutheran University. It was advanced further when he worked for the Los Angeles Lakers for three seasons, running youth sports camps for Pat Riley and Magic Johnson. It gained permanent traction when Locks worked in the same capacity with the Golden State Warriors for three years during the era of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin.

?With Coach Wooden I learned the value of discipline and hard work as the necessary foundation for success,? Locks said. ?With the Lakers, I learned it was OK to have fun playing basketball. With the Warriors I learned that kids became more enamored with getting the autographs of famous basketball players than actually listening to what the athlete had to say.?

Having those associations, fueled by the perspective gained at 6, Locks has run youth sports camps in Rohnert Park since 1991. Able to attract former NBA stars such as Rick Barry and Al Attles, Locks was determined to strike the happy balance for kids by juggling fun, learning and winning. Locks is the first to admit he is taking on a boatload of a tasks, for if there is one thing anyone knows about Americans and sports, we love, prize and covet winning above everything else.

?I heard this coach say before his basketball team played a game: ?If we win tonight, I?m taking you guys out for an ice cream!? Locks said. ?But what if the team loses? What does the coach do then??

Punish them for losing by depriving the kids ice cream? That?s an imbalance because kids are kids, not professionals.

?I watched a kid play in a basketball game,? said Locks, who is a paid basketball referee observer of the West Coast Conference, ?who would take a shot, miss it, and immediately look at his dad in the stands, who was wagging his finger at him.?

That?s an imbalance because sports, at its very core, should be fun, not a day job.

To strike a balance, that?s the tricky part, but Locks has a clue on how to go about it. In January, Locks will host a 10-week Junior NFL Flag Football League for kids in grades 3 through 7. Honor Jackson, a defensive back for the New York Giants and the New England Patriots back in the ?70s, will run the camp.

?Kids will learn the basic skills and fundamentals of football without the fear of contact,? Locks said. ?Kids will get a chance to play all the positions.?

Kids, in other words, will get a chance to be kids, have fun, without ominous overtones such as adult expectations.

?In my experience,? said Locks, a father of two, ?the kids in youth sports today are over-coached and under-taught. I hear it all the time from coaches who have been around: Athletes are better today than they ever were but they don?t understand the fundamentals of the game.?

The tipping point, Locks believes, is when team play at the professional level became subservient to individual play. The NBA actually was the start of it, promoting players instead of teams, and now has mushroomed to where most pro athletes as millionaires have become individual corporations.

?It began when someone said, ?I am not a role Model,? Locks said.

That someone of course was NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley.

?It created a disconnect for kids,? Locks said.

It created pro athletes as islands, stand-alone and stand-apart rich islands. How they got there became not as important as their celebrity, their wealth, their iconic status. The focus, therefore, was and is on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The journey of dedication and commitment was bypassed, almost as if it was irrelevant. A $90 million shoe contract to LeBron James, before he ever played a NBA game, doesn?t imply hard work for a 10-year old. Rather, it feels like James won the Lotto.

So the fun is imagining the money. The fun, instead, should be in the kid playing the game because 99 percent of the kids who play basketball at 10 will still be playing amateur basketball at the age of 40 ? if their zest for the game hasn?t been compromised by the pressure to win.

?I try to take 1950s values and combine them with 2010 technology,? Locks said. ?The work ethic, the discipline, the family values, the loyalty, the necessity of teammates, shuffle all that together with the technology of today, and you have the perfect combination. We tell the kids: We don?t promise to make you a star. We promise to teach the skills to shine on your own.

?It?s teaching kids how to handle failure. It?s teaching kids how important it is to work through things, not to give up just because you didn?t succeed the first time. These are lessons applicable not only to sports but to life itself. That?s the terrific thing about sports. You learn how to handle adversity. You learn the value of effort. Nothing transfers so well into life as sports.?

Take a breath, Locks is asking kids and parents alike. Take a breath, look around, see things realistically. Lower the competitive thermostat and remember why your kid is out there.

?Why did we ever play sports to begin with?? Locks said. ?Somewhere, in the beginning, we did it because it was fun. Don?t get me wrong. There?s nothing wrong with winning. But there has to be a balance.?

Otherwise you are throwing down your bat and helmet and bawling and if you don?t stop, you?ll wonder why you were out there at all. And you?re only 6 years old. What a waste, of a childhood, of an opportunity. In his little corner of the world, Aaron Locks is trying his best to keep that from happening because, after all, he?s been there, done that. And it certainly wasn?t any fun.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky?s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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