It is a sunny Saturday morning in May at Lawn Avenue Elementary School in Jamestown. A perfect day for baseball.
Lori Cirella and her husband, Steve, bring their team - a group of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds - into a huddle at the edge of the baseball diamond for some last-minute advice before the Tigers take the field to face the Mets.
"The main thing we're here to do is have fun,'' Lori Cirella says to the group of boys and girls that includes the Cirellas' son, Stephen Jr. "We're not worried about the score. We're here to have fun and learn. That's what it's all about.''
For the next 80 or so minutes, Lori Cirella won't stop chattering. Alternately teaching and cheering, she will constantly remind her players to think about each game situation and what they will do with the ball if it comes to them, then will encourage each of them when it's their turn to step to the plate.
"I love it,'' she says of the opportunity to coach her son and his teammates. "I get so much satisfaction when one of them makes a nice throw or gets a hit.''
Athletics have been a part of Cirella's life for as long as she can remember. A three-time All-State slow-pitch softball player on North Providence's talented teams of the 1980s, the former Lori DiFilippo also played basketball and volleyball for the Cougars.
So when her stepchildren, Rachael and Eric, became involved in organized sports, Cirella jumped at the chance to help coach their various youth teams in Jamestown and instill in them the same love of athletics that her parents instilled in her.
"Sports. That's all we do,'' said Cirella, who now co-coaches 9- year-old Stephen Jr.'s baseball, basketball and soccer teams with her husband. "I love coaching Stephen Jr. Whatever time I have to spend with him is important to me.''
It's the same story in the VanBemmelen household. Kerri VanBemmelen, an All-State and hall-of-fame softball player who was once a teammate of Cirella on those state-champion North Providence teams, and her husband, Jim, are also involved with their children Austin and Ashley's teams.
"I just love the atmosphere,'' says the former Kerri Rizzo, who is one of the coaches for Austin's major-league baseball team in North Providence. "I love the kids and the smiles on their faces. When they do something good, you tell them, 'Good job,' and when they do something that's not good, you help them learn from it.''
There are so many reasons why mothers like Cirella and VanBemmelen are well-suited for coaching youth sports, says Brooke de Lench, author of the new book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and creator of the Web site momsteam.com.
Many of the natural instincts and values that go into being a good mother also translate into being a good coach.
"As natural communicators and nurturers, as the natural guardians of children at play,'' de Lench says, "mothers can inspire coaches, other parents, athletic directors, school boards and local and national youth sports organizations to do more to keep our children safe, to balance competition with cooperation, and to think about sports not just as a place to showcase the gifted and talented but as a place where all children can begin a love affair with sports and physical exercise lasting a lifetime, instead of ending, as too often is the case, in early adolescence.''
"The kids like her being there,'' Steve Cirella, who also coaches the Salve Regina baseball team, says of his wife. "Our personalities are basically the same and we apply the same principles. And she brings a lot of enthusiasm. I'm glad that she's out there, not only a part of my life, but my son's life, too.''
Unfortunately, de Lench says, mothers like Cirella and VanBemmelen are also still very much in the minority. Of the 4.1 million youth sports coaches in the United States, less than 20 percent are women.
The absence of a female presence at the administrative level is even greater: Less than 2 percent of the 496 seats on boards of 20 leading national youth sports organizations are held by women.
De Lench feels strongly that the crisis in youth sports in the United States is because it is based largely on a "results- oriented'' male model and that the inclusion of the more "process- oriented'' female model can go a long way toward restoring balance and creating a youth sports culture that is "safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive.''
"Sports is still a male bastion,'' said de Lench, who travels the country speaking to youth sports organizations. "There are men who will come out and say they will never let their sons be coached by women. What has happened is that men have really put a stake in the ground and claimed sports as their own, and they're not letting go.
"I believe that it is time to challenge the status quo in a new and different way,'' de Lench continued. "If women, particularly mothers, were allowed to come down from the bleachers and out from behind the concession counters and into coaches boxes and on to boards of directors in far greater numbers, we would see a shift in the culture of American youth sports.
"If more mothers were coaches and administrators, I am convinced that just their mere presence would make youth sports less about winning games and sorting out the best from the rest, which not only turn off kids to sports but lead to so much of the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in youth sports we see or hear about every day in the media, and more about having fun.''
De Lench is in no way suggesting that men be removed from the youth sports equation, just that women need to be added to it. "This is not about alienation at all. It is about inclusion,'' she said. "Women have been the natural guardians of children since the beginning of time, and we need to realize that a woman's voice is missing [in youth sports.] We're not looking to alienate. We're looking to join.''
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