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Knowledge Base Home >> Psychology, Discipline and Philosophy >> When Cheers Turn Into Jeers

Psychology, Discipline and Philosophy - When Cheers Turn Into Jeers

Written by: Mary Lord
May 15, 2000 issue, Science and Ideas
2000 US News and World Report Inc.

In nine years as president of the Subdivision Sports youth baseball league, the low-pressure alternative to Little League he founded, Mike Finneran of Naperville, Ill., has had many memorable moments. Like the time one coach in a second-grade game began choking the other. Or the numerous encounters with parents who hurled the "F" word faster than Randy Johnson's fastball, berated their kids from the sidelines, and disputed every umpire's call. "We were the laid-back league," says Finneran, 50, who canceled this spring's baseball season for third- through eighth-grade boys. "I've had three heart attacks, triple-bypass surgery, and a stroke. I don't need the stress of these guys fighting."

Subdivision Sports isn't the only league stressed out by parent spoilsports these days. Across America, along with the idyllic scenes of kids scrambling after line drives or booting soccer balls around the park, there are the heckling hubbub and ferocious temper tantrums from adults taking child's play far too seriously.

Hardly a game goes by without an ugly example-or two or three. Last fall, a "midget league" football game in Pennsylvania ended in a melee involving nearly 100 players, coaches, parents, and fans. A Maryland father, disappointed that this son had been left off the all-star team, knocked down and kicked a coach, while an Oklahoma coach had to be restrained after choking the teenage umpire during a T-ball game for 5- and 6-year-olds. In fact, attacks on umpires have grown so common that the National Association of Sports Officials recently began offering a new benefit to its 19,000 members: assault insurance.

But they're not the hardest hit, says Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of Why Johnny Hates Sports: The players are. He cites a recent survey by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission in which almost half the young athletes said they had been yelled at or insulted, 17.5 percent reported being hit, kicked, or slapped, and 8.2 percent were pressured into harming others. No wonder 7 in 10 kids quit organized sports before their 13th birthday. "You'd never hear this at a child's piano recital: 'Erin, you bum, you can never do anything right!' " notes Engh, who likens the unrealistic expectations adults place on young athletes to child abuse.

Alternatives. Alarmed by the escalating epidemic of aggression, thousands of communities are embracing measures to quash the "win at all costs" mind-set and restore a sense of recreation to childhood's fields of dreams. West Des Moines's youth baseball league recently adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward obnoxious adults; cuss or brawl, and the kid leaves the team.

"We're going to stand tall on this," vows league president Mike Linn, who hopes to stave off violence before it occurs with other measures, such as giving every young player a turn at bat and running coaching clinics. Albuquerque fines abusive spectators $5, while soccer leagues nationwide now observe "Silent Saturdays"-sometimes with duct tape or lollipops to muzzle sideline shouters. In Florida, the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association is really playing hardball: It just became the first in the nation to require that parents attend an ethics class and sign a code of conduct if they want their kids to play.

So far, such measures have scored big with the unobstreperous parents who make up the vast majority of coaches and spectators. Jupiter-Tequesta didn't lose one of its 2,000 players because a parent shunned the sportsmanship class, for example. And while incidents still arise, they quickly get resolved-often by the parents themselves. "It's eerie how quiet it's been because the parents are trying to figure out where to draw the line," says JTAA President Jeff Leslie, who calls the overall effect "a blessing for our league."

But sports historian Gerald Gems, chairman of the health and physical education department at North Central College in Illinois, considers these temporary palliatives at best. He says that efforts to bring civility to youth sports ultimately will strike out unless they also attack America's win-at-all-costs mentality. What's also needed, he suggests, are programs to teach coaches child psychology and strategies for dealing with parents. Jim Thompson, founder and director of the Positive Coaching Alliance in Stanford, Calif., which has launched a 10-year campaign to boost sportsmanship, agrees. "We don't want parents just to learn not to be jerks," he says. "We want them to learn to be positive motivators."


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