Categorized | Youth Sports

The Parent Trap

By Stephanie Apstein

Tommy Schanzer was appalled at the behavior he witnessed at his sister Lindsay’s soccer game in 2002. Lindsay’s team was playing one from New Jersey, and the parents on the other team, Tommy said, were “the most obnoxious fans I had ever seen.”  They were blowing whistles, beating drums, shouting instructions to the kids, yelling at the referees and generally making a scene.  “It was more about the parents’ involvement than the players on the field.”

So he took an unusual approach for a 14-year-old: He wrote a letter to the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association (CJSA), the governing body of Lindsay’s team.  The administrators listened, inviting him to speak before the board of directors, and eventually implementing the Silent Sidelines program, which allows parents to clap but otherwise asks them to remain quiet during the games and even encourages coaches to limit their in-game instruction.  The hope is that children will be able to focus better without hearing suggestions from all corners, and that they will feel free to make their own decisions.

“It was an attempt to give the game back to the children,” Kathy Zolad, president of the CJSA, explained.  “The enthusiasm of the parents was kind of overtaking the kids’ games and all you could hear on the sidelines were, Kick it!  Shoot it!  Harder!  Shoot!  Pass the ball! or possibly negative comments toward an official.”  Zolad and all other sources in this story spoke in telephone interviews in the spring of 2011.

The CJSA now dedicates two weekends per year, one in the fall and one in the spring, statewide, to Silent Sidelines.

“I think it would be a little much for them to say, Parents, don’t ever say anything,” said Schanzer of why it’s not a blanket policy for the season.  But the CJSA does hope parents will realize, “Look at how much better the game was without your involvement,” he added.

Zolad said that most coaches and referees are in favor of the program and many parents have come to see it as a positive.  The idea has spread to leagues from San Francisco to Florida, but not everyone thinks it is effective.

“I think it’s a band-aid approach to a bigger problem,” said Nicole LaVoi, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.  “The real issue is that it’s become the norm for parents to yell and scream at the referees.”  LaVoi encourages educational programs that teach parents why they should behave rather than restricting their behavior.

Regardless of the approach they are taking, though, youth programs realize that there has been a shift in the way parents emphasize winning and performance.

Incidents such as the July 2000 death of Michael Costin at the hands of Thomas Junta over an argument at their sons’ hockey game in Reading, Mass., and the 2009 banishment of all parents from the Bethesda (Md.) Legacy girls’ soccer games after an altercation with a referee are certainly exceptions, but damaging incidents do occur in a culture in which parents are becoming more and more involved in youth sports.

Thomas Junta was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Photo credit: AP

Many people in their 40s and 50s remember sandlot baseball and pickup basketball games.  These impromptu games have, over the years, gradually given way to adult-organized—and adult-sponsored—contests.

“The more the adults took over…the more that winning became a need,” said Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player with the Kansas City Kings, Boston Celtics and San Diego Clippers who is now a youth sports speaker and author of “Just Let the Kids Play.”  “Kids want to run around, they want to have fun, they want to make friends.  Adults want to win.”

The involvement of adults has also meant the monetization of youth sports; there is an entire industry built around prepubescent athletes.

Don Longtin, who has been involved with the Glastonbury (Conn.) Little League for 40 years and its president for 30, emphasized that business owners are encouraging youngsters to specialize in individual sports at an early age so that they will play all year—and the business owners can sell them additional equipment and lessons.

“Now with the sports industry, if you own a business and you’re in the baseball business, you have to feed your family in the winter as well, not just in the fall, so you conjure up activities,” he said.

Parents get caught up in the race to ensure that their children get the best opportunities.  “The marketing strategy is, You know, you’re a pretty good ballplayer, but unless you play year-round, the world’s going to pass you by,” Longtin said.  “Parents don’t want kids missing out.”

Many experts attribute some of the negative behavior in youth athletics to a culture of constant sports coverage, especially at the professional level.  Most people feel comfortable booing professional athletes and they forget that their children cannot always withstand the same treatment.

“One of the fallouts of being a 365-24-7 sports society,” said Bigelow of the attitude about winning, “Is that that filters down.”

Daniel Gould, Ph.D., the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, used the focus on the Little League World Series as an example.  At first, he explained, not many people focused on it.  Then, the championship game was televised, then the semi-finals, then the regionals.

“Now we have 35 hours of coverage up close and personal on an 11-year-old,” he said.  “We’ve made professional sports the model.  But kids are not miniature adults.”

Some coaches encourage the trend, letting the less talented children languish on the bench in favor of winning games—even when the stated goal is skill development.  Some leagues, like Glastonbury’s, have instituted rules to ensure that everyone participates: No player can sit out consecutive defensive innings, every child must play at least two innings in the infield and the batting order rotates each game so no one is always hitting ninth.  Longtin acknowledged that teams sacrifice wins by not being able to have their best player at bat in important situations, but he believes it’s worth it.

“If you’re a teacher and you’re teaching all your students and then when you give the test, you only give it to your best students, what would you think of that teacher?” said Longtin.

Leagues that do emphasize winning sometimes struggle with parents who feel that their children are being slighted.  Paul Deceglie, coach of the Toms River, N.J., Little League All-Star team that represented the Mid-Atlantic Region through the first round of the championship games in 2010, said that he met with parents to explain to them how everyone was expected to behave.

“Parents sometimes think that their kid should be batting first and playing shortstop every inning of every game,” he said, “But that doesn’t always happen.  Play time is not negotiable.”

The obsession with winning can have a negative impact on kids who are not very good, because they tend to drop out of sports early, said Harvey Dulberg, a sports psychologist based in Brookline, Mass., but it can also place an almost unbearable amount of pressure on kids who are talented and for whom the expectations are high.

Gould conducted a series of studies, financed by the United States Tennis Association, on the role of parents in the success of their children.  In general, his team found that parents meant well and that most of them behaved well, but that occasionally they would lose perspective.

Based on interviews with more than 300 experienced junior tennis coaches, Gould estimated that three in 10 parents struggled to find what he called the “optimal parent push”—that is, reminding a child who does not want to wake up for practice that he or she can quit tennis after the season but that in the meantime he or she has made a commitment and must adhere to it, as opposed to telling that same child to get out of bed because he or she will lose the next match.

Dulberg, the sports psychologist, remembered being at a youth figure-skating competition a few years ago and hearing a parent say, “We’ve mortgaged the house for your career, so you better win.”

Dulberg has seen 10-year-olds who have migraines and throw up before competitions because they feel the pressure so intensely.  Once, he said, a teenage girl whose father had been a minor league baseball player wanted to quit her sport but did not have the nerve to tell her dad.  Dulberg held a family meeting and the daughter told her father she was done.  The father pulled her out of therapy, but six years later, Dulberg got a phone call from the mother thanking him and telling him that the daughter had gone to college and had gotten a chance to be a normal individual.

Although Gould’s study showed that three of 10 parents were making life harder on their children, it also found that the other seven were creating an environment where kids could be successful and enjoy themselves.  He found that kids whose parents reinforced life skills and development were just as likely to be successful tennis players as those whose parents pushed too hard, and that the youngsters in the first category tended to be much happier.

“It’s a huge problem,” Gould said, “But it doesn’t mean every parent is beating their kid up in the backyard.”

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