Pickup games build skills, character

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2009 - 1:46 PM

More freedom and less structure would serve kids well, says a local coach/scholar who's writing a book on youth sports.

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John Tauer

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Picture the man who has this to say about youth sports:

"I still remember going to the park and putting together a game. You don't see that these days. ... In the 1980s the pendulum swung from discipline to where kids have to feel good. Kids see through that. ... At games, sometimes I think it would be best to put the parents on exercise bikes, so they're too tired and just shut up."

Some old coot, a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the comic-strip character Crankshaft, right? Actually, it's a fresh-faced, St. Paul-born and -bred coach/teacher/social psychologist whose memories of what it's like to be an active kid haven't been addled by the fog of age or a yearning for some halcyon "good old days."

John Tauer, 36, is around kids constantly -- from his psychology students and basketball players at the University of St. Thomas and the first- through ninth-graders at his popular summer camps to his own sons, ages 4 and 6 -- and knows what makes them tick. By the end of the year he hopes to put the finishing touches on a book about youth sports, kids and parents, with a strong focus on "intrinsic motivation."

Motivation has been Tauer's focus, and forte, at least since Jimmy Sioris started playing basketball for him at St. Thomas in 1999.

"He has incredible ability to motivate people and knows how to adjust that for each individual," said Sioris, now 28 and working in wealth management. "He just knows how to talk to people and understand them."

Part of that understanding stems from Tauer's childhood, which was filled with pickup games "where you figure out the rules by yourselves and settle disputes by yourselves." That helped him develop into an All-State player in baseball and basketball at Cretin-Derham Hall. Another Cretin grad had a similar experience.

"Part of the reason [Twins All-Star catcher] Joe Mauer is wired the way he is is that he was allowed to play at the nearby field as a kid," Tauer said. "He went down there and his brothers kicked his butt, and he picked himself up and got better."

Like Mauer, Tauer had a lot of support along the way. His father, also named John, was a successful businessman and part-time coach, but at a different school (Nativity Elementary, while young John attended Highland Catholic from kindergarten through eighth grade). It was off the field where big John and Michele Tauer imparted their influence.

"They taught me powerful lessons about trust, so that I could go out and if I fail, they'll still love me," he said. "They also taught me the most about teamwork, about putting others above yourself."

Today's parents want the same things for their kids, Tauer maintains, but often their involvement is counterproductive. "I want the book to get parents to recognize, 'Hey, that's me, I'm doing that. I have not become a bad parent, but I'm trying too hard to be a good parent.'" he said.

Tauer even has devised an acronym for such folks: WOSPs, for Well-intentioned, Overinvolved Sports Parents "and they do it to the point where the kid feels smothered."

Mixed or crossed signals can unfold before, during and after games. "The parents drop [their kids] off and say, 'Have fun.' Then when they pick them up the first thing is, 'Did you win?'" he said. "And during a game, there's nothing a parent can say that will help. And you want to see a confused kid, look at one whose parents are yelling for him to do one thing and his coach is telling him to do another.

"Parents also tend to look at it financially. They start their kids off in hockey at age 6 because they're afraid they'll be behind if they don't. They might spend tens of thousands of dollars to try to get that $10,000 scholarship. They'd be better off sending their kids to Math Camp."

Another solution: Let kids be kids, the old-fashioned way.

"I think that until age 14, kids should be playing at their schools, developing friendships, developing loyalties," Tauer said. "Our whole culture has become 'more is better.' But with kids, less can be better: less structure, less pressure, less parental control can help them be more intrinsically motivated."

Among those intrinsically motivated are Tauer's former students and players, who stay in touch in droves. "A whole lot of us still talk to him," said Sioris. "I'll drop by sometimes just to talk. And I always leave with a good snippet of advice."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

  • THE TAUER FILE

    The past: Born and raised in St. Paul. Earned GTE Academic All-America honors in basketball at the University of St. Thomas. Earned a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    The present: Psychology professor and assistant basketball coach at St. Thomas. Wife Julie; sons Adam, 4, and Jack, 6.

    The future: This summer marks the 15th year of the Johnny Tauer Basketball Camps. For info, call 651-962-5033.

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