Following hoOut Of Control
J ohn Boccacino
by John Boccocino
Participation in youth sports has never been higher, with more than 60 million children nationwide taking to the soccer field, the basketball court, the softball diamond, and other venues in search of a challenging athletic hobby and the chance to make new friends while playing a game they love.
The perks of participating on a youth sports team are numerous, from the physical benefits of getting consistent daily exercise to the camaraderie gained from working hard and working together to achieve a common goal. But mostly it's about having fun while learning a thing or two about a favorite sport.
Since nearly all youth sports coaches volunteer their time to instill the cherished values associated with participating in team sports - from team building and learning good sportsmanship to handling adversity and problem- solving - more often than not, parents with children playing on the current team will lead that squad onto the playing field.
But what happens when a child's biggest influence, their parents, take their youth sports games too seriously and lose control of their emotions?
While winning is certainly an objective most youth sports teams hope to achieve, the more important goal is for children to have fun, and if their overzealous mother or father is taking the game too far by berating an opposing coach, referee or umpire, oftentimes the child can get turned off by a sport, or can learn bad habits.
An increase in the number of reported instances of parents engaging in violent, abusive, and controlling behavior toward athletes, coaches, officials, and fellow spectators has led many organizations to reconsider the role of the parent in youth sports. For example, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (www.nays.org/parents) has developed 'The Parents Association for Youth Sports Program' to promote sportsmanship behavior and teach parents skills such as self-control while at a youth sports contest. Another national organization, the National Council of Youth Sports, offers parents free informational video seminars on its website (http://www.ncys.org/education/sportsparenting- tips) that detail the proper code of conduct and behavior while at a youth sports game.
Similarly, the American Youth Soccer Organization (www.ayso.org) requires parents of children age 8 and under to attend classes addressing proper sportsmanship and behavioral conduct while rooting on their son or daughter.
But despite the many guidelines or suggestions for helping parents properly enjoy their children's athletic endeavors, out-of-control behavior from parents threaten to put a damper on the friendly spirit of the game that should exist in today's youth sports culture. Among the examples of bad, boorish behavior from parents is this recent event: Timothy Lee Forbes, a parent of a sixth-grader on a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball team that lost the championship game in March, allegedly became so enraged over the outcome that he, in front of his young, impressionable son, accosted and assaulted the winning coach, biting off a portion of the winning coach's ear over the defeat.
Local Bad Behavior
Closer to home, with a less violent but still equally disturbing tenor, parents from two under-17 girls soccer squads let the emotions of the game get the better of them. Following the conclusion of the July 15 Rochester District Youth Soccer League (RDYSL) game between the Greece Eclipse and Central Western United-Attica squads, overzealous parents began pushing and shoving each other in the parking lot in an incident that was recorded using a cell phone camera.
Mary Arter, the league's president, says trash talking among players led to the shoving match between the parents in the parking lot, and Arter, who was deeply saddened to see this display of poor sportsmanship, says there has been a recent disturbing trend with parental issues at youth sports games. As a result of the fighting, a Greece player will not be allowed to play next season and was fined $400 for her involvement in the fight. The Greece Eclipse coach is also facing a $400 fine for not controlling both the Eclipse players and spectators. The Central Western United- Attica coach faces a $300 fine for not controlling Attica's spectators, and the club was also fined $500 for the incident, according to Arter.
Arter and the RDYSL have taken measures to prevent such poor behavior from its players, parents and coaches. The league, with roughly 8,500 players between the ages of 7 and 19 suiting up for 548 teams during the summer outdoor season was one of the first youth sports leagues in the state to enact a zero-tolerance policy on fighting and violence. The policy, which has been in place since the 2009 outdoor season, defines acceptable behavior for parents, and, conversely, what types of behavior are unacceptable and unwanted at the games. Among the unacceptable actions for parents are talking in a derogatory manner to an opposing player or coach or engaging in a discussion with the referees about anything. The punishment for a violation depends on the severity of the incident and ranges from a small fine to "major financial penalties."
When each team registers for the upcoming season starting in February, the coaches, players and parents must agree to the league's code of conduct. Coaches, who are expected to maintain control over their players and fans, know they risk ejection from a game for failure to comply with the code. Additionally, each of the 34 member clubs in the RDYSL has its own code of conduct that parents and players must sign when registering.
Arter says while the policy and its associated punishments for violating the policy have served as deterrents against out-of-control parental behavior, there have still been several incidents with bad parents over the years. "It's unfortunate that people get so wrapped up in a kids game that they get to the point where they throw punches at each other," says Arter, a mother of three children who has served in the RDYSL for 17 years, the last five as president.
"Parents need to remember why their children are playing sports in the first place: to have fun and play a game they enjoy while learning valuable skills and develop their abilities that will be with them for the rest of their lives." She adds, "Youth sports lose their value if they aren't fun because mom or dad is hindering the child's experience and ability to have fun. I hope this (incident) prompts parents to take a hard look at their own behavior and see if they need to make a change."
In basketball, the Greece Basketball Association (GBA) mandates all of its players sign a player code of conduct, and all parents must agree to a parent code of conduct that clearly defines what is and what is not acceptable behavior. GBA parents are "expected to be in control of their emotions and behaviors and encourage their team. Comments are to be kept positive," the code states, while "violators risk not only forfeiture of the game involved, but also expulsion from the league."
A recent study of over 25,000 children from across the country broke down the motives for why children enroll in youth sports, with the most popular reason being having fun. The next most popular reasons given by these youths were to obtain new skills, to make new friends and to experience the thrill of competition. While winning was given as a reason why children join youth sports teams, it was not among the five most popular reasons for playing sports, a fact that can sometimes be lost on the overbearing parents who, under the worst circumstances, use their children's sports teams as an outlet for either reliving their own failed sports dreams or envision their children becoming the next Abby Wambach or Derek Jeter.
"Those parents who become preoccupied with winning and losing place an unrealistic amount of pressure on their child, and risk turning their child off to youth sports," says Lynne Staropoli Boucher, who has coached and cheered on her twins, Jonah and Kateri, in baseball, softball, soccer and ultimate Frisbee. Boucher has a unique perspective when it comes to parents behavior at youth sports games. Besides being a coach, Boucher works as both the director of the Center for Spirituality and the head chaplain at Nazareth College.
In her role at Nazareth, Boucher works with the Division III student-athletes and coaches to ensure the sports teams maintain the "highest standard of respect and good behavior" in the games and practices, a culture that has fostered a sense of respect for the game, the players and the officials among Nazareth's intercollegiate teams.
Boucher says the area's assorted youth sports leagues, coaches and parents could learn a lesson from how Nazareth handles the pressures and scrutiny of competitive sports. "Parents love to fight their children's battles, and with these helicopter parents who hover over their kids all the time, they become over-involved in their children's lives," says Boucher. "The biggest issue I have is other parents demonizing the players and coaches on the other team. They make the other team out to be the bad guys and create this divisive atmosphere that takes away from the true spirit of the game. We all love sports and want our kids to have fun learning and playing, and if we don't teach our children how to deal with conflict in a respectful manner, they'll never learn."
Growing up in Penn Yan, Kelly Lickert was a lacrosse enthusiast who starred at Penn Yan Academy and played her way onto the Limestone College women's lacrosse team, where she graduated as the school's all-time leading scorer with 259 points as a three-time All- American attacker. Lickert, who currently is Keuka College's head women's lacrosse coach, spends part of her summers refereeing and coaching youth lacrosse, and recalls an incident she encountered this past June when refereeing a youth game between two teams made up of children in kindergarten through second grade.
The behavior from the stands was so obnoxious, with parents and coaches from both squads engaging in disruptive conduct, that Lickert says she had no choice but to call off the game, punishing eager and enthusiastic children for the unsportsmanlike conduct of their parents.
"It was ridiculous to see grown adults acting like that at a youth lacrosse tournament," says Lickert, who suggests parents should go through an introductory rules of the game seminar during the preseason in order to gain both a better sense of the game and respect for the difficulties facing referees. "I don't think these are bad parents, but it certainly comes off that way and it's definitely bad behavior for a parent. Youth sports should be fun, and should serve as a learning tool, but if a kids are embarrassed over their moms or dads screaming at them or at referees, they might quit the sport and miss out on a lifetime of positive memories, just because their parents couldn't control their emotions."
Even the staunchest of helicopter parents will agree: if a child is quitting a sport over an overzealous parent's poor behavior, that's a no-win situation that goes against the founding principles of youth sports.
John Boccacino is a frequent contributor to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. He lives in Webster, NY and reported on sports and local news for more than 6 1/2 years with the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. He is currently the Director of Sports Information for Keuka College.