Commentary

A certain mindset

When did sports become all about winning and not about having fun?

Updated: July 31, 2012, 2:26 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Pee Wee FootballThinkstock.comA pee wee football player evades a defender. Did we forget how to have fun in sports?

What you're about to read is an email a very intense football coach recently sent to his players. Can you guess the level he coaches?

Wait!

A few hints first: This league sings the national anthem before every game. And it has cheerleaders. And training camps. And a draft, a combine, and two-hour practices. But it's not the NFL.

OK, guess away:

"My objectives are simple," the coach wrote. "We need to become better, tougher and more aggressive blockers, tacklers and runners. … Tackle football isn't for everybody. It takes a certain mindset, an aggressive or killer instinct if you will …"

SEC football? Nope.

More:

"Think of your team! The summer camp sessions will be short, but intense. Pre-season conditioning will be intense. In-season practices will be intense. … Mental and physical toughness are also requirements. We must get tougher and through hard work, we will. "

Small college? No.

"Players practice full throttle unless they are injured. … It's about team! If you don't love being a Bulldog and can't whole heartedly commit, you are in the wrong place. … You are either getting better or getting worse. We need to get better and it will take serious commitment. … This e-mail is meant to set expectations. No surprises, full steam ahead. Thanks and Go Bulldogs!"

Big-time high school football, at the very least? Wrong.

Give up?

This email was sent to 8-year-olds.

"In the whole email, he mentions the word 'fun' once," wrote one parent in an email to me. (He asked me not to print his name, for fear of repercussions.) "These are 8-year-olds! For a lot of them, it's their first time in pads! [Last season] games were on Saturdays; we practiced 100% live Friday nights from 6 p.m. to after 8. This includes sprints at the end of practice! Full pads! And he wondered why the kids were worn out at the end of games."

Of the 19 families who got the email, seven quit the team, including that one. Apparently, they realized they were in the wrong place.

The coach who sent it, Camron Miller, is an admittedly "overweight" 36-year-old geologist in Frisco, Texas, 30 minutes north of Dallas, where people take their football the way bishops take their Bible.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezEight-year-olds should be having fun with sports, not practicing like the Dallas Cowboys.

"I don't regret sending it," says Miller, who insists only two of the seven families who quit did it because of his gung-holier-than-thou fervor. "Intensity is not a bad thing. Some of the best coaches -- and teachers -- I've ever had, were intense. … That email was needed."

Needed? These kids are third-graders! Eight-year-olds don't need to go to a summer football training camp in the Texas heat. They don't need three two-hour practices a week. They don't need to be drilled like they're the Dallas Cowboys. Whatever happened to learning to love the game first?

"Look, this is a competitive football league," Miller says. "We were a flag football team at 5 and 6 [years old] and then last year, at 7, we didn't make the transition very well. We won two games. We needed to ramp it up."

Yes, by God, let's ramp it up. They can dig for worms later.

"I'm not a bad seed. I know some people are going to say I'm an ass out there on the sideline, but I'm not. I see some of these guys and I go, 'Golly, he shouldn't be doing that.'"

Frisco seems to be the home of coaches who shouldn't be doing that. Last year, one coach in the Frisco league was caught telling his 8-year-olds to "hit somebody in the face!"

People, what's become of us? Does anybody remember when THEY were 8 years old? Your basic 8-year-old doesn't need ramping up. Your basic 8-year-old just needs his buddies, a cool helmet, and a Dairy Queen Blizzard afterward, win or lose.

Instead, we get coaches like Miller, wanna-be Bill Belichicks who watch too much NFL Network and try to recreate their lost high school glories through kids who just want to go home and recreate their favorite Lego spaceships.

When I coached kids in baseball, I started every season with the same speech, "Boys, we are not here to win baseball games. We are not here to learn sportsmanship. We are here to learn how to chew sunflower seeds without using our hands." And we'd stand in a circle until every kid could show me a naked seed on his tongue. Full speed ahead.

We are amped up to ramp up in this country. We have ramped up the intensity in football from Pee Wees to pros. We have freshman high school quarterbacks who are considered "behind" if they don't have their own offseason skills coach. We had no less than six high school players die of heat exhaustion last season during summer training drills. We have NFL assistant coaches such as Gregg Williams of the New Orleans Saints ranting at his players to injure people in a playoff game.

Is it any wonder where Camron Miller gets these ideas?

To its credit, the Frisco league sent Miller an email telling him to back off the intensity knob a little. That caused Miller to do some "serious soul-searching." The search turned up empty.

"Do I think it was wrong?" he asks. "No, I don't."

And what of the son of our anonymous parent?

"He's going to spend the fall just being a kid," says the parent.

Uh-oh. Sounds like somebody doesn't have the killer instinct.

Maybe at 9.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com