(From 2004, the MarkBlum ReportŠ one of our most popular guest editorials on the subject of children and sports).
By Eric Van Slyke
Head Football Coach
Canastota High School, New York
Tens of millions of youngsters aged 5-12 will be taking to the athletic fields in an entity that we call youth sport. Sounds like fun doesn't it? Unfortunately, there is a collective group of people who are ruining the fun, PARENTS.
Of course this doesn't include all parents, but some of us should take a real good look at ourselves and our conduct the next time that we are at a youth sporting event. Adult intervention is a vital part of the learning process, but this process is interrupted when behavior becomes abusive.
Lets take some events of the year 2001 as examples:
June 2001- Youth soccer game breaks out into a full-scale brawl that involves players, coaches and parents in San Diego.
March 2001- Nearly 20 players and fans were involved in a fight that ensued at mid-court of a varsity girls' basketball game in Boston. Not youth sport, but a carry over for sure.
February 2001- Youth basketball game ends with the referee using a knife to slash the coach that questioned his calls. The referee was a Baptist minister, substitute teacher, bus driver, Air Force veteran, and father of five. In Fayetteville, Georgia.
February 2001- A hockey mother in Euless, Texas fights another parent in the stands after allegedly shoving a student for badmouthing her son during a game.
January 2001- A youth hockey coach is banned from an ice rink for five years after parents witnessed him verbally and physically abusing players and challenging parents to a fight in Cleveland.
Unfortunately, the above events are just a tip of the iceberg. More and more violence is being reported at youth sporting events. From bench clearing brawls to drive by shootings, the story isn't getting any better.
What can we do?
Below are 12 guidelines that all parents should follow when their children wish to involve themselves in youth sport:
1. Find out who will be coaching your child. Has the league run background checks on the coaches? Sadly, in these times the person you least expect could be a predator. Trust, but verify. Is the coach an encourager or a screamer? Does the coach focus primarily on winning or on participation and teamwork? Does he or she let everyone play at least half the game? Does he or she allow team members to play different positions, or are children pigeonholed into one position for the entire season?
2. Make sure your child is competing at his or her level of ability. Is your child overmounted, riding a horse too hot to handle? Is a travel team over your child's head or appropriately challenging? Are all your child's teammates bigger, stronger, and more skilled? It's no fun for children to compete when their chances of success are slim. Instead of pressuring your child to ride the newest horse or join the travel team, encourage your child to find enjoyment on a level where he or she can succeed.
3. Learn the rules of the game. Youth rules are not always the same as professional rules. More knowledge equates to less frustration and less yelling at officials, players, and coaches.
4. Remember that winning is only one of the goals of competition. Keep it in perspective. Winning is important; everyone likes to win. Yet playing to one's ability, giving strong effort, exhibiting good sportsmanship, improving skills, playing within the rules, and learning to lose with grace are just as valuable as winning. The lessons your child can learn when he or she doesn't win may be more valuable than winning that particular game.
5. Respect the other participants. This includes coaches, officials, and other team members. Cheer for members of the other team when they make a good play. Applaud the winning swimmer. Praise other athletes in front of their parents.
6. Hang onto your temper. Model restraint for your young athlete. Yes, get excited, but channel that excitement into encouragement and applause. Staying home is an option to consider if you lose control and occasionally berate officials or disrespect other spectators.
7. Refrain from yelling from the sidelines or stands. Players are too busy to process and integrate all the advice that is yelled from the sidelines, anyway. Often they don't even hear you. Check it out. Go out on the field and have some parent yell at you. See how easy it is to follow his or her instructions. That experience will cure you of yelling advice from the sidelines.
8. Get involved. Volunteer. The coach is giving up much time and energy to coach your child. Help out by organizing after-game treats and carpools and helping out with fund raisers. Lend a hand at practice if you feel qualified and the coach approves.
9. Praise your child for his or her efforts. Stay away from evaluative praise like "Good job," "Excellent play," and "Tremendous pass." Instead, give important feedback using descriptive or appreciative praise. Descriptive praise describes what was accomplished. "You threaded that pass right between the two defenders," "Your decision to take the extra base ended up with an important run being scored," and "Looked like you maintained your concentration after your horse changed leads on you" are all examples of praise that describes. Appreciative praise tells the effect the child's behavior had on the team. "Your pass set him up with the perfect opportunity to score" and "The way you were encouraging teammates got everyone excited" are examples of appreciative praise. Descriptive and appreciative praise will leave room for your child to make the evaluation.
10. Resist the urge to critique your child. Improvement is more likely in an atmosphere of positive encouragement. Often with positive intentions, parents inform children of their errors and how they can improve. This feedback is often unnecessary, as children are usually aware of their errors. They don't need parents making a verbal list of mistakes to be corrected. They need you to be there and to allow them to play and have fun.
11. Compliment the officials. Most officials are volunteers or older children working for minimal compensation. They are learning too. Even if you think an official made a bad call during the game, you can comment on his or her hard work. Say something positive to the officials, and let your child overhear you.
12. Cheer for other children. Focusing solely on your child sends the message that you don't care about the team or the event. It tells others that you are only there for your child. Compliment players as they are substituted in and out of the game. Applaud their accomplishments.
It can be said that nothing will be a 100% guarantee, but following these guidelines would insure that many of the above incidents would be prevented, and that more positive learning will take place, for you as well as your son and daugther. Good luck.