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Spy Factory Cover

Hello fellow secret agents,

(If you are not a secret agent, please stop reading and pretend you never saw this. Really. Please.)

After much anticipation and a lot of work at HQ, I finally have a cover for the first book in my Spy Factory series, My School is a Spy Factory. I’ll be rolling out a description in a few days because, well, those folks at HQ need to look it over and make sure I do not compromise national security by posting it (but again, if you are not a secret agent then you really shouldn’t still be reading this, so I think it’ll be okay).

Now, as some of you may know, the way these things usually work is that an author reveals a cover on his blog and then, maybe 6 months later (or more) the book becomes available for actual readers to see. Not this author. Nope. Not even close. There’s no long range book launch strategy anywhere to be found around this series. Trust me, I have looked. I have nothing against folks who plan things out that way, but I am not nearly organized enough to do that.

So you should expect to see this book available very soon. In a matter of weeks, and not very many of them. Precise details TBA when those folks at HQ let me reveal them. For now, here’s the cover.

Image

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Coming Attractions

I have been on a long hiatus from the blog. Yes, “hiatus” in this case just means that I have been procrastinating or slacking off or just plain too busy to get to it. The good news is that I have been hard at work on a few projects and I am happy to report the following:

A sequel to the first Auggie Spinoza book will be released this spring under a new imprint. More about that last bit in a future post. All you secret agents out there probably know that this was originally scheduled for late 2012. Sorry about that. I wish I could say there was some sort of cloak and dagger element involved in the delay but I don’t own a cloak and I am afraid of daggers. There were some delays in working out the publication details but everything is on track now and you can look forward to a shiny new cover preview in the near future. 

Also, the first book in my new series, Spy Factory, is nearly complete and will also be released this spring. Get ready for more code-breaking.

On a separate note: I am not one to check the bestseller lists very often but as I sit here at 1:00 p.m. P.S.T on January 25, 2013 I see Auggie Spinoza is among the top 20 bestselling books in Amazon’s Children’s Mystery and Spy Stories category. Also hanging in the top 100 in the Action/Adventure category. Pretty cool. I am trying not to blink.

 

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Hiding Out

I have been hiding out at an undisclosed location for most of the summer. Spy stuff. Very top secret. Every spy needs to hide out every so often. It’s the nature of the job, really.

However, I did get a chance to sit down for an interview with Alison at The Cheap Reader. What a great time we had! I’m a big fan of her blog. If you enjoy middle grade fiction, you should be, too.

Let me warn you: do not try to pry information about my secret location from Alison. She is every bit as clever and crafty as you are. She will not give in to pressure. I suspect she was raised by secret agents. Either that, or she is one. Either way, things will not end well for you if you attempt to find me through her. Seriously.

Best to just relax, sit back, and enjoy all the wonderful content she has on her blog. Trust me, it’s for your own good.

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4 Great Things About Youth Sports Today

In my last post, 4 bad things about youth sports today, I detailed a few troubling trends in the world of youth sports. It was a depressing post to write. I needed a few weeks to recover.

Now it is time for the good news: those trends are real and they are troubling, but they have not diminished the many wonderful things about youth sports today. Like a slightly bruised apple, youth sports have a few dark characteristics that require mentioning. In spite of those minor bruises, however, the majority of youth sports programs today are delivering just the sort of fun play and character development we should celebrate.

Here, then, are a few of the lessons and values that properly run youth sports programs can teach our kids:

  • The importance of teamwork. This might be the single most important benefit for kids playing team sports: being part of a team with a larger purpose. Most young teams are formed through some combination of skill, planning, and chance. Because of this, almost no kid playing a sport today gets to choose her teammates and no team is composed of players with the same strengths and interests. I have certainly never witnessed a team that starts off the season as a group of close friends. Life is like that: we don’t choose our classmates, our coworkers, or our neighbors. What youth sports teach is that we need to find a way to succeed despite these differences. It is great preparation for life.
  • The value of effort. All sports require effort. The myth of the “natural” who steps into a sport and does not need to work to improve is just that: a myth. Learning that improvement requires effort in practice and that victory requires effort in games is an invaluable antidote to the impression kids sometimes have that one is either “good” at something or “bad” at something. What we learn when we participate in sports is that what matters is improvement, and improvement requires effort. Just as important is this simple fact: a lot of things happen in life that we can’t control, but effort is not one of them; if we always try our best, good things will usually happen. This is an attitude that translates to all areas of life, but sports are an area where kids can witness it firsthand.
  • The need for respect. I do not spend my time involved with youth sports because I think it is important that kids can run faster, throw better, or kick harder. I believe it is one of many important ways that we can help kids develop character. One of the areas where it is most helpful is in establishing the centrality of respecting others. There are, in sports, many opportunities to show disrespect toward teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials. It is natural to feel emotional and competitive, and sometimes it is tempting to lash out. Participating in a properly run youth sports program helps us learn to avoid such temptation. On my own team, we show respect by listening to the coaches when they are talking, by encouraging and supporting our teammates with positive words and actions, by showing good sportsmanship toward our opponents during and after games, and by politely accepting whatever calls the referee makes (even if we think she/he is wrong).
  • The power of persistence. Most things in life worth pursuing require persistence to achieve mastery. It is true of piano-playing, algebra, and even, in some cases, relationships. Sports are no different. Athletes young and old must stick with it through good times and setbacks if they expect to truly improve. In youth sports the payoff from such persistence often comes over the course of a single season, when a team can come together to perfect a difficult play or an individual can become successful at performing a move that was initially difficult. That visible and fairly quick payoff makes kids realize that persistence pays off. It doesn’t require much for them to see that it works in other areas of life also.
These are only a few of the lessons that make youth sports worthwhile. The fun, the physical fitness, and the parental involvement that go along with these sports are other obvious characteristics worth mentioning. Fun is worth mentioning twice. That, after all, is why most kids participate. And that is what we should always be seeking when we lace up the shoes and head to the court or field.
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4 Bad Things About Youth Sports Today

I spend my spare time coaching a youth soccer team. There is nothing better than a sunny day, a freshly-mowed soccer field, and a bunch of kids kicking around soccer balls. It reminds me of everything that is great but fleeting about youth: the boundless energy, the effortless spontaneity, and the pure joy. All of that plus nifty shin guards equals a mighty good time.

For a soccer family, Saturday mornings mean soccer games. There’s a ritual: wake up, eat breakfast, drink coffee, load soccer gear into the car, drive to a local soccer field, and watch the kids (and parents) have fun. That’s exactly how this last weekend started for me: full of optimism and excitement about playing on what was a nearly perfect spring day. But the game itself turned into a stark reminder of a few of the elements of youth sports today that I don’t like. This became the inspiration for the topic of this blog post.

There are so many positive things about youth sports, and so much to say about the positive impacts that youth sports can have on kids, that it may seem rather pessimistic to start with a focus on the bad side of youth sports. Don’t worry; my next post will cover those. But I find that nothing more reminds me of why I do what I do than being exposed to those who do it wrong, or shouldn’t really be doing it at all. (I’m looking at you, bad/mean/yelling coaches!). Sometimes we need to see the bad in order to appreciate the good.

So here they are. Four bad things about youth sports today:

  • Specialization. There was a time when youth sports were attached to seasons. Just like you could expect certain kinds of produce at one time of the year and not another, you knew that every sport had a season, and every season a sport. Winter meant the squeak of basketball shoes against varnished wood, spring meant the sharp crack of bat against ball, and fall meant cleats churning away grass that just wanted to be left alone to prepare for winter dormancy. Things have changed. Sports are no longer connected to seasons. Due to competitive pressures from various sources, nearly every youth sport is being played year round. This is a powerful trend, encompassing more sports even as it reaches to lower ages. If a child wants to remain competitive in any sport, she must choose at a ridiculously early age–sometimes as early as the second grade–to focus all her energy and attention on a single sport 24/7/365. This additional training time allows for a relentless focus on the development of sport-specific technical skill and conditioning. It is not unusual for fifth graders these days to engage in sport-specific strength training with professional trainers. It is a recipe for the development of narrowly focused skills, for physical injury, and for mental burnout. It is not a recipe for fun.
  • Hyper-Competitive Spirit. As players become more focused on individual sports and parents begin spending greater and greater resources to improve skills and performance, it is perhaps natural that a hyper-competitive attitude would emerge. I am not opposed to competition or the desire to win in the context of youth sports. Competition can be healthy and good. It can focus the mind, encourage hard work, and improve both character and athletic skill. In far too many cases, though, the competitive drive that is a natural part of athletics has overflowed the banks of reason and has resulted in a hyper-competitive spirit that is ultimately corrosive. Far too many of the folks involved in youth sports today have lost sight of why we want kids to compete in the first place. It is not, I would argue, to make them better athletes and it is certainly not to win for the sake of winning. Competition and the winning and losing that it entails are the means to a far more noble end: character development. Once folks lose sight of that end and become fixated on the winning itself, the entire enterprise loses value.
  • Uptight Coaches. As long as there have been sports there have been bad coaches. We’ve all seen them: they scream, they stomp, they denigrate. They argue with officials, they berate their players, and they coach with winning in mind to the exclusion of everything else. They are jerks, and fortunately they are rare. But they still exist, and the trends toward specialization and hyper-competition stoke rather than dampen the flames of their bad-coaching behavior.
  • Booster Parents. Parents are the lifeblood of youth sports. None of it would happen without their active participation, their volunteer efforts, and their support on the sidelines. They are a necessary part of any successful youth sports program, and the first thing every successful coach will mention when asked what is important to her is a team full of supportive parents. Such parents help and cheer and holler at games, but always in a positive and supportive way. There’s another kind of parent; I call them “booster parents” because they act in almost every way like the boosters who are a part of nearly every college football team in the country. They assess the skills of players with an eye toward improving the team by replacing one kid with another. They chatter in the coach’s ear about playing time, coaching strategy, and substitution patterns. During games, they yell at the referees and their own players as if they are watching a televised sporting event. They are obnoxious. I am fortunate to have never had such a parent involved with my team. But they are out there, and they are LOUD.

These bad elements are not pervasive in youth sports, but they are present, and their effects are wholly negative.Fighting against such trends is not like fighting against the tides or the wind. These are cultural issues as much as anything, and they can be affected by actions as simple as parents standing up and saying what they want from youth sports.

If parents want recreational sports programs that allow kids to develop character, sportsmanship, and athletic skill (in that order) in a supportive environment, we need to say so. A simple supportive statement to a coach who is doing things right, an email to a sports program that is drifting in the wrong direction, or a phone call to other parents just to express appreciation for being positive fans can work wonders.

The pressures pushing these trends are powerful and vocal. They push hard. Parents need to push back.

 

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