John Tauer was in Italy over the summer when he happened upon an unusual scene.

“Kids were on the shore of the sea, playing soccer,” said Tauer, head men’s basketball coach and a professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas.

Tauer was struck by how rarely he sees American kids grabbing a ball and playing strictly for fun.

Remember pickup games? (Hint: No refs. No uniforms. No trophies.) Tauer remembers. He’d like to see more of those games.

Tauer isn’t a foe of organized sports. Quite the contrary. He has run popular youth basketball camps for 21 years. He’s a lifelong athlete with two young sons who also play sports.

And now he’s the author of a helpful and honest book that reminds us, somewhat painfully, that too much of a good thing has tripped us up.

“Why Less Is More for WOSPs (Well-intentioned, Overinvolved Sports Parents)” is the book to read on the bleachers as the back-to-school sports tsunami returns.

“Youth sports,” Tauer writes unambiguously on Page 1, “have gone crazy.”

He sees proof of it everywhere. In the uber-organization of youth sports leagues, the 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls even in the summer, the mega miles schlepped to get young athletes across the region for matches, the family dinners and vacations structured around tournaments.

The everybody’s-a-winner mentality leading to shelves of trophies for just showing up.

“We all struggle with this,” said Tauer, who noted that he wrote the book as much for himself as for any other sports parent. “Parents want to do the right thing. We want to be involved.”

Striking the right balance is difficult, he said, and a constant challenge. His 250-page book, with funny illustrations by Twin Cities artist Kevin Cannon, offers examples of sports behaviors admirable and awful, plus tips at the end of each chapter, which we parents must practice, practice, practice.

Interestingly, Tauer is less concerned with that media darling — the verbally abusive parent threatening to ruin the life of an underpaid, overworked middle school referee — than about parents who insist on overprogramming their progeny.

“It’s not sexy to talk about the micromanaging parent,” Tauer said. But he insists on talking about it because the psychologist in him is concerned that we may be compromising our children’s healthy development.

It’s tough to feel fully invested and loyal to your teammates if you play on three teams. It’s hard knowing that getting to your 6 p.m. game is stressing out your parents and your siblings. It’s rough to strike out, or not get played, and see the disappointment in your parents’ eyes.

It’s especially hard when the train is moving and nobody is questioning the wisdom of putting on the brakes.

“Once a family has invested several years and thousands of dollars in Junior’s sports career, it’s easy to justify expensive personal trainers, costly traveling teams with even costlier trips out of state and expensive equipment,” Tauer said.

“Once we go down this road, it is very difficult to turn back. Hence, the importance of regularly evaluating the role youth sports is playing in any child’s, and family’s, life.”

It’s also important to understand how we got here.

Tauer harks back a hundred years to the creation of Police Athletic Leagues, designed wisely to keep kids out of trouble through organized activities and homework help.

“They’d give them a park, and a ball and a bat. Parents didn’t go to any of those things!”

Over the past few decades, two forces largely sidelined kids’ fitness fun as we knew it: fear and the promise of financial gain.

Of the former, media hysteria over rare child abductions caused parents to tighten the reins on their kids. “All of a sudden,” Tauer lamented, “playgrounds are empty.”

As playground numbers shrank, professional athletes’ salaries soared. Suddenly, parents were eyeing through a different lens that talented kicker, skater or tumbler eating Cheerios at the kitchen table. So what if the kid’s only 6?

“While parents may not want to admit it,” Tauer writes, “if professional sports returned to the days of blue-collar wages, I’m convinced that a good deal of sanity would be restored to youth sports.”

But, goodness, let’s not wait around for that. Tauer offers many good ideas to help redirect us right now.

As we study his list, let’s remember, too, to celebrate all that youth sports do provide for our kids:

Joy in physical movement. Discipline through repetition and practice. Humility. Sacrifice. Teamwork. The blast that winning is.

And the realization that you can lose and you’ll survive, which is likely a better lesson to take into adulthood than anything that winning teaches.

“The beauty of youth sports is seeing a kid take on a challenge, and say, ‘Wow! I was able to do something I couldn’t do two weeks ago because I practiced,’ ” Tauer said.

“Seeing kids run around with smiles on their faces — that, to me, is the hallmark of what sports are supposed to bring.”

 

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gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum

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