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How not to screw up your little-leaguer

If every Little League parent paid attention to what is in his new book, Jack Llewellyn would be out of a job. The Braves' sports psychology consultant does not appear to be worried about this. Apparently there is no shortage of parents who would call him pleading for an emergency house call because a seven-year-old daughter has lost her killer instinct at swim meets. Not that that kind of parent would be a candidate to purchase anything titled Let 'em Play: What Parents, Coaches & Kids Need to Know about Youth Baseball.

Let 'em Play is not written for parents like that, really. Principally because parents like that would pay less attention to it than they are paying to the children they are pushing to excel on the field. But anyone who becomes the coach of any children's team, or anyone who is a parent of a sports-playing child, might want to flip through Llewellyn's little book.

It is a little book because it has a short message: Children should play sports for fun. Period.

"I don't think sports is the savior of mankind," Llewellyn says, obviously forgetting himself for a moment. "But I think kids can learn a lot of things they can't learn in a classroom. They might not become better athletes but it'll help them be better students."

Before 1991, when he became known as the shrink who sat in the stands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium wearing a red polo shirt — so John Smoltz could focus on it and remember to channel his considerable emotions — Llewellyn spent his leisure time coaching kids teams and speaking to groups of youth soccer parents. Paul O'Neill was the first big-leaguer with whom he worked, starting the week after O'Neill was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the New York Yankees. (You think O'Neill has a temper now?)

Once the Braves saw how effective sports psychology could be, they retained Llewellyn's services. He can be found strolling through the clubhouse every day, available to any player. But he is more likely to be called on by parents who want more for their kids than their kids want for themselves. And not in a good way.

There have always been pushy parents, even before pro sports contracts reached their current mind-boggling heights. And baseball is hardly the only sport where pushy parents cause problems for their own children. (And everyone else's, for that matter.) Come to think of it, professional tennis is infested with problem adults.

Probably because most fathers played Little League baseball, however, and want their sons to be better than they were, baseball seems to churn out news reports of umpires and coaches and kids and other parents being shot or kicked or punched. Verbal abuse, though, is the thing that drives most kids away from sports.

Funny, talk to any major league ball player and he will most likely tell you that he played every sport as a kid. Most continued to play two or three sports through high school, never thinking about playing baseball professionally. The only reason it crossed Greg Maddux's mind that he might be drafted by a major league club was that his older brother Mike had been. And then he was not sure whether to play ball or go to school.

Maddux isn't the only one. Between Let 'em Play's short chapters are even shorter tips from such current and former Braves as Brian Jordan, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Terry Mulholland, all of whom say essentially the same thing. That they played all sports as kids, usually with brothers. That their parents played with them or coached them but never pushed them. That they did not begin to think about baseball as a career until they were seniors in high school.

Glavine — who was drafted by the NHL's Los Angeles Kings as well as by the Braves — remembers playing baseball as a kid with some very good players who gave up the game because their parents ruined it for them. The tragedy is not that those kids might have become major league ballplayers — heaven knows expansion has given us dozens upon dozens of guys who are major-leaguers in salary only — but that they missed the fun of playing a team sport.

Not such a loss in the grand scheme of things. Unless you were one of them.??

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