Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Parents Who Cheer to Win, Lose Spirit of Youth Sports by Dr. Alan Singer

With the school year in full swing, youth sports are also in high gear. But are our children really having as much fun in sports and getting the exercise that they should? If your children participate in sports, you'll want to read this column which the Home News Tribune printed on 11/7/07

Isn't the main goal of children participating in sports competitions that they get exercise and have fun? Yes, but the reality is quite different.

Of the 3,300 parents who responded to a February 2003 survey in Sporting Kid Magazine, 84 percent have witnessed violent parent behavior (shouting, berating, abusive language) toward children, coaches or officials at youth sporting events. And a surprising 80 percent have personally fallen victim to inappropriate behavior.

How much fun are kids having when a father yells at his 10-year-old son during a hockey game, "Nail him!" or a mother of a Pee Wee goal tender in Ontario, Canada, sues the team's coach for not giving the boy the ice time he was supposedly promised? Think back to the summer of 2000 when, to our horror, we read the story of two Reading, Mass., fathers who viciously fought each other after their children's practice hockey game, and one of them, Michael Costin, died.

Personally speaking, I remember a few years ago when my daughter was on her school's basketball team. As a young rookie on the team, my daughter did not get much playing time, because winning was clearly the main goal of the coach. After letting her warm the bench all afternoon, the coach decided to put my daughter in the game with 30 seconds left in the final period and her team trailing by two points. Another player fed her the ball; she shot the ball, but it bounced off the rim. The buzzer sounded and the game was over. I did my best to contain my emotions but, to put it mildly, I was seething. During the ride home in the car, my wife and I kept our thoughts and feelings to ourselves and let our daughter do the ventilating.

Another survey (August 2001) by Sports Illustrated for Kids received 3,000 responses from youngsters in the United States. Seventy-four percent had seen out-of-control adults at their games. The most common type of bad behavior was parents yelling at kids (37 percent) followed by parents yelling at coaches or officials (27 percent). When asked what emotions they felt when adults misbehaved at a game, most youths stated embarrassment, followed by disappointment, anger and then fear. An excellent resource for this information is the National Alliance for Youth Sports at

What's behind this outrageous behavior of dads and moms, often referred to as "parent rage"? And what are some communities doing to bring the situation under control? One reason for this behavior is that "many parents increasingly view winning as the primary goal in the game of life," explained Bob Katz in an October 2000 Parents Magazine essay. Many parents believe that success in youth sports will lead to college scholarships and even the magnificent rewards of a career in professional sports. Katz also said that some parents who act unsportsmanlike are former athletes or lifelong wannabes. He suggests, "They can't help fantasizing that if they could rewind the tape of their lives, the next time around, they'd practice harder and concentrate more. Now, through their children, a second chance has emerged and it's hard to treat a game as only a game."

Noteworthy: In August 2002, the New Jersey Legislature approved a law that permits a school board or youth sports team to ban the presence of any person at an event who engages in verbal or physical threats or abuse aimed at any student, coach, or parent, or initiates a fight or scuffle with any student, coach or parent.

Some of the remedies for this problem include: silent games where coaches and parents are prohibited from yelling, requiring parents to sign a code of conduct, and ejecting a Little League child rather than the parent from a game when the parent acts up.

Ninety percent of the parents in the Sporting Kid Magazine survey support a parent education program, and 75 percent believe it should be mandatory. In a 2001 New York Times article, Edward Wong described the approach in El Paso, Texas, where parents have to sit through a 3 1/2-hour class on appropriate fan behavior before their children can play in city-sponsored youth sports. Wong spoke with a soccer coach in Ohio who insisted, "The next step is to eliminate the fans altogether and just let the kids play the game."

This trend can be reversed if parents remove winning as the primary goal and emphasize the enjoyment and health benefits of competitive youth sports.

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog or e-mail "Be Counted" columnists are members of the public.