What ‘The Matheny Manifesto’ Gets Wrong About the Power Struggle Between Coaches and Parents in Youth Sports

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by Irvin Muchnick


Mike Matheny, manager of baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, has expanded his well-publicized airplane noodlings – which he had posted online under the title The Matheny Manifesto – into a book. Matheny has some good thoughts on the primacy of values and process in youth athletics (his only coaching experience, prior to leading the Cardinals to two league championship series and one World Series in his first three years, was for a little league team). But behind the good intentions is a dangerous principle: that Coach always knows best and parents must butt out.

While no one here is arguing that stage dads and moms are good for sports or for kids, someone needs to push back at The Matheny Manifesto and make the point that the coaches’ lobby’s campaign to stiff-arm oversight is not in anyone’s interest except the coaches’.

“When you ask kids who play sports at different levels, ‘What do you want your parents to do?’ The overwhelming majority say, ‘Nothing,’” Matheny told Parade magazine for a book promo interview headlined “Mike Matheny to Sports Parents: SHHHHH!” “Parents need to be a silent source of encouragement.”

Matheny ably raises the problem of adults who over-invest in their childrens’ extracurricular pursuits, but ignores the problem of adults who are under-vigilant about their coaches’ abuse.

The manifesto maker should have paused to ask the hundreds, probably thousands, of worldwide victims of coach molestation in swimming – a Catholic Church-scale scandal with which the American public and the federal government still have not come to grips – if they think things turned out so well as a result of their parents’ decisions to obey the laissez faire edicts of their rapists.

The complex truth is parents need to be both laid-back and not asleep at the switch. It’s easy for the authority figures to paint advocacy for kids as a power struggle between categories of adults. It’s harder to acknowledge the evidence that both sets of grown-ups can default on being responsible grown-ups.

I call this issue the difference between calling for more professional youth coaches and calling for a less professionalized youth sports culture. Matheny displayed a good grasp of the latter point when he told Parade, “Only 1 percent of kids will make it to the next level [college, pro sports]. Let’s focus on the 99 percent…”

I discussed the same problem a few years ago with my acquaintance Tom Farrey of ESPN and the Aspen Sports Institute, author of the book Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. See “Let Elite Athletes Destroy Their Own Brains – But Stop Turning High School Players Into Tackling Dummies,” May 11, 2012, https://concussioninc.net/?p=5631.

Earlier this year, under Farrey’s direction, the institute’s Project Play issued a report entitled “Sport for All, Play for Life,” which said many of the right things and was accordingly praised here. Unfortunately, Farrey didn’’t respond to requests for comment on my take on The Matheny Manifesto.

And you can understand why. If anyone at ESPN’s Outside the Lines gets seen consorting with Concussion Inc., why then, the next thing you know, the major media might find themselves forced into reporting substantively on the latest findings on USA Swimming: arguably the most heinous sex-abuse ring in the history of sports.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick