After a 15-year career in the majors and the last nine spent in the Yankee dugout, Joe Girardi knows plenty about baseball. He’s also a dad to three young athletes, so that expertise extends to the realm of youth sports as well.
The owner of four World Series rings as a player and coach believes young athletes should diversify rather than specialize.
“I think people specialize at an early age and I’m personally not a big fan of that,” he said. “I have preached to my children that I think you need to play different sports because it develops your brain. I think it develops different parts of your body and your muscles.”
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Girardi, of course, has a vested interest in that development. He and his wife, Kim, are residents of Purchase and parents to three children – 17-year-old Serena, 14-year-old Dante and 10-year-old Lena. He has encouraged all of them to participate in multiple sports just like he did growing up.
Long before Girardi arrived in the Bronx he was a baseball and football star from East Peoria, Illinois. He went on to earn all-conference and Academic All-America honors on the baseball diamond while studying engineering at Northwestern University.
During his tenure with the Yankees, Girardi has watched the athletic development of his children and others in the community. He and his family have been regulars at Harrison High School sporting events, such as Rye-Harrison football games. Girardi has even been known to give pregame pep talks to Harrison athletes. His daughters have been involved in competitive athletics and his son, a high school freshman, has blossomed into one of the area’s most talented athletes in his age group.
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One afternoon this July, Girardi gave his perspective on the explosion of youth sports from the perspective of a pro who is also a father deeply invested in that world.
Q: What type of training has, for example, your son had compared to what you had at the same age?
A: “He’s had a lot more. Our speed and skill training was in the sport and with the coaches. Kids today, they go out and they specialize and they get footwork coaches and they get strength coaches. My son has done most of it at home. He has done some with a trainer. But he’s so busy playing sports, that’s really his training.”
Q: How did your training at the same age compare?
A: “When I was in high school, I would go with the coaches there, whether it was the football coach or the baseball coach, and do our strength training and our conditioning. With sports today, it’s different. They have personalized coaches. My son goes to a strength coach now and he’s 14 years old and he’s going to be a freshman. My youngest daughter, she’s 9, she’s been with the lacrosse coach on the side. She’s been with the soccer coach on the side. Fortunately, I don’t have to pay for a baseball coach because I can throw the BP and help her pitch, but we do that because our kids want to compete and compete at a high level.”
Q: What is your opinion on the commitment made by young athletes today?
A: “What I get most concerned about is a child who plays a sport 11 months — the same sport 11 months in a year. I think, physically, their body needs a rest from that sport and, mentally, their body needs a rest from that sport. I tell people, I was a grown man in the best shape of my life at 25 years old and I didn’t pick up a baseball for two or three months out of the year because I knew my body needed a rest. And I see kids throwing 11 months out of the year and it concerns me because they’re not fully physically developed. Their growth plates aren’t closed, and that concerns me.”
Q: How can parents prevent children from being burnt out?
A: “I think kids need a rest from all sports, and a substantial rest. I know for my son — and I lived this sport — he doesn’t pick up a baseball until we go to spring training; and he puts it down about October 1st and there’s no more. He’s going to play football so, really, it’s September 1st (when he stops baseball) because, once football gets started, it’s hard to do it. Then he plays football for three months and then it’s basketball. He’s busy all the time and he loves to compete, but he’s doing different sports and training different parts of his body.”
Q: What advice would you give to a parent who wants to get his or her child involved in sports?
A: “Part of it is I look if my child’s having joy. If they’re enjoying themselves and want to go back, to me that’s a pretty good sign. To be weight training at 14, it’s going to get a lot more serious as time goes on. So just the introduction to it and the fact that he wants to go back and feels that he’s getting something out of it, that means something to me. That means he has a relationship with the coach. He trusts the coach. It’s when they don’t want to go, or say, ‘I don’t feel like going today.’ That’s a concern of mine because kids have to be all in. If you’re not all in, you’re not going to get anything out of it and it’s going to be a waste of everyone’s time and their finances.”
ABOUT THE PROJECT: Journal News/lohud sports writers Josh Thomson and Mike Dougherty, along with photojournalist John Meore, fanned out this past spring and summer to investigate the growing world of youth sports in the Lower Hudson Valley for this series, Pay to Play.