Are some taking Youth sports much too seriously?

Parents screaming at umpires.Coaches cursing at referees.Fights breaking out among adults. Games between children can turn ugly.
Referee John Robertson stepped onto the court for a team scrimmage in Cape May County last year between third- and fourth-graders — boys still young enough to place a baby tooth under a pillow at night. He soon noticed signs of tension between the rival coaches. His eyes followed the ball from player to player, but in the background he begins to hear criticism from the sidelines. He pays little attention.
“Three seconds. Three seconds,” he hears from the visiting coach, an opinion that the offense is spending too much time in the paint.
“Four seconds. Five. Six,” he hears. “Hold! How can you call a hold?”
Then he hears it — “You’re full of (expletive), (expletive).”Robertson calls a technical foul. The cursing continues. But the penalty free throws are never taken — the recreation coordinator cancels the scrimmage halfway through.

Overzealous parents — even the well-meaning ones — excitable coaches or others often turn youth sports into something that becomes less about the children and more about the adults, experts say. Many Little League baseball, youth soccer and basketball programs — some for youngsters who have not yet entered middle school — now require parents or children either to take a course or sign a promise to obey the rules of proper etiquette and sportsmanship. Sports for children, experts and coaches say, should be about improving skills and getting exercise. Competition is important, but first place doesn’t have to be. Most adults understand this. “The problem you get is that the really vocal (adults)are the ones that get all the press. They’re the ones that are going to be on the 6 o’clock news … The majority of parents are looking at youth sports as something for my kid to do and get good exercise,” said Dr. Darrell Burnett, a clinical and sports psychologist and author.

The recipe

Youth recreational sports have the least skilled players, coaches and referees. Nevertheless, parents who have children in these programs sometimes get very emotionally involved. And from a numbers standpoint, there are simply more children playing in youth games than in high school, college and the pros.
With these factors, youth sports has the ingredients of a potentially “toxic combination,” said Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials, which represents referees from the professional to the youth levels.
“In general terms, we are a society unwilling to accept the decision of authority figures … and then you overlap that with calls by officials that people don’t agree with,” Mano said. “What we have is people acting out on that.”
Nationally, there have been reports of parents videotaping their children’s’ games, disagreeing with the call of an official and then seeking to use that videotape to overturn the call on the field — as in professional sports.
The referee association even offers assault insurance to its members. Poor sportsmanship often appears in conduct toward the referee, Mano said.
People can get wrongly caught up with a referee’s calls, said Mike Granigan, president of Cape Express Soccer Club, a youth soccer league.
And when that happens, it comes more from the parents than from the children, Granigan said.“I don’t see much of it, but if I do, it’s parents,” he said.
Most often, when sportsmanship goes awry, it’s verbal.
But sometimes it gets physical: In 2003 in Franklin Township, two coaches of a Delsea Knights Midget Football League fought in view of their 11- and 12-year-old players, reportedly over a child’s playing time, according to newspaper accounts.

Sometimes good and bad sportsmanship exist together: In 2003, a 17-year-old quarterback for Springfield Southeast in Illinois surpassed a 5,000-career-yards mark on a touchdown, only to find two opposing coaches had allowed him to score. Upon learning of the arrangement, Nate Haasis asked the Central State Eight Conference to void the 37-yard pass. His efforts were successful.

Fun and competition

“Sportsmanship to me is an appreciation of your opponent. You should have an appreciation of your opponent whether you’ve won or lost, said Jeff Conlin.” Conlin, a Middle Township plumber, volunteers his time coaching wrestling for children from 1st grade to 5th grade. “At that young age, it needs to be fun,” he said. “Kids today have pressures of their own, not like when we were growing up … we want it to be fun. If it’s not fun, kids don’t want to do it.”
Wrestling is an aggressive sport of holds and grapples and pins.
“We want them to be aggressive, but we want them to be good about it, kind about it, good sports about it,” he said.

“Whether these guys know it, we’re teaching life lessons along with how to dribble a basketball,” said Brian O’Connor, a Dennis Township, Cape May County, committeeman who has coached youth sports from boys basketball to girls softball. As a referee, he recently took the time during halftime of a game to show a child how to protect the ball. Paul Roller, also of Dennis Township, enjoys watching his 12-year-old son make three-pointers during recreation-league games between 5th- and 6th-graders.
“It’s fun watching. It’s relaxing,” he said.
Parents in the stands clap and, when the score gets closer, they clap louder.
The game ends 34-31 and his son, also named Paul, walks to the sidelines with a big smile across his braces. The younger Paul said he likes the competition and the fun of the game. He likes shooting.
“Competition is you on any given day giving your best skills and the other person giving their best skills. It’s not a matter of anything else other than I’m giving it my best shot today,” Burnett said.

The good/bad/ugly

In some leagues, the sportsmanship trophy is larger than the first place one, Burnett said.

But while our culture is one that values the concept of sportsmanship, it doesn’t always display it. Many local leagues require parents or children to sign a code of conduct before the season. Some keep statistics on bad behavior. The South Jersey Soccer League, which represents about 6,000 children between the ages of 7 and 18, keeps statistics of yellow and red cards issued — not only to players, but coaches and fans as well. In the past two years, reports of poor conduct by coaches dropped from 36 to 32. Those of spectators dropped 73 percent, from 26 to seven. Nick Mareletto, president of the league, said the organization has taken a number of steps to raise awareness of the issue. But it remains a large problem and one that renews itself every year, he said. “We don’t necessarily know what the cause is,” Mareletto said. “I think there are a lot of people living vicariously through their kids. When you talk to these people and you put them in a competitive environment, there’s a transformation with how they conduct themselves.”

“I really think a lot of this has to do with the preoccupation with winning,” said Jeffrey Margolis, an academic adviser at Rowan University and author of “Violence in Sports: Victory at What Price?” “Right now, politically, America is the only superpower. I think there’s a certain amount of angst (in being) an American because everyone is looking at you. To follow that as an extension, you can see how some parents and coaches are focusing in on the importance of winning as opposed to having a good time, meeting people, getting exercise. I think we’re getting away from that.” What happens in American sports is a reflection of American society, Margolis said.

Role models

Former Philadelphia 76ers Charles Barkley famously said he was not a role model.
But children watch and they see, Burnett said. For example: Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija caught a pass in the opening possession of the Sugar Bowl in January, and in an uncharacteristic move, taunted the Louisiana State University defender by tossing the ball at his chest. This prompted a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, pushing the Fighting Irish back. Unable to make up the yards, Notre Dame lined up to punt, faked the kick but failed to make the first down.
Louisiana quickly got the ball back and scored, setting the stage for a 41-to-14 rout. Burnett says that when watching an action such as this with a child, parents should explain that those actions aren’t right —“that it’s not a good idea because look how it hurt the team. If you’re a real team player, every one of your actions has an effect on your team.”

Back to basics

The scoreboard keeps time, but not the score. Basketball rules of traveling and double-dribbling are more like suggestions. There are no penalties. And nobody stops two young girls from playing hula hoops on the sidelines.
The Bobcats and the Grizzlies are teams of 1st- and 2nd-graders in Middle Township’s recreation league. They pass the ball to teammates in an arching manner that distinctly resembles the shots on net; the orange and grey from their team T-shirts form a two-tone mass wherever the ball bounces. “The parents we have are good,” said Chris Brown, volunteer coach for the Bobcats. “In the next couple of years (when the players are older), the parents get a little rough.”

And that’s when the scoreboards will start keeping score.