Field of Screams
By Kathy Bunch
April 9, 2001 -- El Paso youth football games were always rowdy events. But in one memorable year there were two stabbings, a gunfight, and numerous attacks on officials -- all caused by parents taking their children's games too seriously.
After one huge melee -- in which one parent stabbed another in the head with a down marker while 8- and 9-year-old players watched in horror -- Paula Powell knew she had to do something about the Wild West atmosphere at the games.
"It was like parents had lost what they were there for," says Powell, El Paso's sports operation supervisor. "I've been attacked by parents two times, and once by a referee. There were lots of brawls and drinking. Youth games were just not healthy places to be."
Powell admits to getting caught up in the win-at-all-cost frenzy. She once was evicted from her daughter's softball game for walking onto the field to complain to the umpire.
"I've done things I'm not proud of," says the mother of three. "Not violent things, but stupid."
Disgusted with the heckling, temper tantrums, and violent outbursts from parents, the city decided to play hardball.
Last August, El Paso began mandatory parent-training classes for those whose children play sports. The three-and-a-half hour program includes videos of parents acting up at games, essays, and artwork from children explaining why they like sports, a review of how each game is played, and a psychotherapist and child crisis counselor talking about problem behavior and child abuse at sporting events.
At the end, parents must sign a code of conduct that calls for suspensions -- even lifetime bans -- for breaking the rules.
"It's made a big difference," says Powell, adding that not one of the 6,000 parents who have taken the course has had to be disciplined.
Alarmed by the escalating epidemic of aggression at kids' games, thousands of organizations around the country are adopting similar programs aimed at quashing bad behavior and restoring civility to the playing fields. With some 30 million kids ages 4 to 14 involved in organized sports in the U.S., athletic organizers say parents increasingly are clashing with coaches, other parents, and at times even their own children.
"When I went to high school and played sports, I just wanted to have a good time," says Steve Gompertz, director of boys' basketball in Andover, Minn., which instituted mandatory parent training after a father punched a teenage basketball player in the chest. "When did it get so critical?"
Within the past five or 10 years, according to Douglas Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri and longtime hockey coach. Hardly a day goes by when "some parent isn't yelling and screaming and acting like a lunatic" at their child's game, says Abrams, who tracks incidences of violence at youth games.
The most shocking example of sportsmanship gone bad occurred last July in Reading, Mass., when an ice hockey dad was killed by another father during an argument over the level of body checking in the game.
And attacks on umpires have grown so commonplace that the National Association of Sports Officials recently began offering an assault protection plan to its members. Coaching youth games "is very, very dangerous," says Bob Sills, the association's president.
Kids, too, are getting harmed. A recent survey by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission reports that almost half of the youth athletes said they had been yelled at or insulted; 17.5% said they were hit, kicked, or slapped; and 8.2% were pressured into harming others.
The problem comes from parents being too invested, emotionally and financially, in their children's games, says Darrell Burnett, PhD, a sports psychologist who often advises parents and coaches. Oftentimes, these people harbor dream of the kids winning scholarships through sports, or even more unrealistically, a professional contract.
"It's not just a game anymore," Burnett says. "It's a dream."
When something goes wrong -- the child makes a mistake or is benched, a ref makes a bad call, another parent makes a disparaging remark -- they see that dream going down the drain, he says.
Parents also often suffer from "misplaced self-esteem," Burnett says, living through their children's accomplishments -- and failures.
The results can be deadly. One of his young patients, Burnett says, tried to kill himself after he got injured and lost his chance for a football scholarship.
"He knew his parents would be disappointed because he hadn't lived up to their expectations," recalls Burnett.
Another factor is that people today are more likely to retaliate than negotiate, he says: "Somebody pushes their buttons, and away they go."
Parents need to have reasonable and realistic expectations, stay calm when kids make mistakes, look for positives, and praise kids just for participating, according to Burnett, who says parent-training classes can be effective as long as they have some teeth in them.
So far, such programs have scored big with the nonviolent parents who make up the vast majority of coaches and spectators, says Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports and president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. The alliance's 19-minute parent program is used by more than 250 organizations, he says.
"These programs put everybody on the same page," Engh says. "Nobody can scream and embarrass their child, criticize officials, demean the coach -- all in the name of competition and sports. They learn that they're stepping over the line and that their behavior is detrimental to their child's development."
A year after the Jupiter Tequesta Athletic Association became the first in the nation to require that parents take an ethics class and sign a code of conduct if they wanted their kids to play, 84% of parents said the class was a hit, and 60% reported a change in behavior at games, according to a recent survey.
"It's been real effective," says Jeff Leslie, president of the athletic association. The proof, he says, is the dramatic decrease in the number of serious incidents that have occurred, from 12 in 1999 to none last year.
And while minor incidents still arise, the association board or even the parents themselves quickly resolve them, says Leslie, who calls the overall effect "a blessing for our league."
In El Paso, parent Powell says the sportsmanship classes have been a big hit with everyone.
"The parents needed to be brought down to reality," she says. "They were getting too competitive and thinking only of winning, and not why they were really there."
Perhaps no one likes the program better than the kids, she says. Now when their moms and dads come to watch them play, they aren't embarrassed anymore.
Kathy Bunch is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
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