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Are adults taking the fun out of kids' sports?

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May 28th, 2014
little kids playing soccer
little kids playing soccer

Good sportsmanship, how to work in a team, perseverance and dedication are but a few of the life lessons children learn from participating in organized sports programs. An estimated thirty-five million young people between the ages of 5 and 18 participate in some form of sports. However, for many children, the lessons learned on the playing field are not all good. 

The desire to see a child win, attain recognition, and earn that elusive college athletic scholarship often propels adults to misbehave without recognizing how their behavior might influence young athletes. From the parent who bullies a referee to the bellowing father coaching his child from the sidelines to the headline making instances of “sports rage” that culminate with violence, adults have a knack for taking the fun out of youth sports.    

Setting a bad example

“Parents don’t often realize that their kids observe their parents’ behavior at games very, very closely. As a result, when a mom or a dad is going nuts on the sideline—screaming at a ref or at the coach—kids assume that this is merely correct and appropriate behavior. Clearly, it isn’t, but kids don’t necessarily know that,” says Rick Wolff, a nationally recognized expert in the field of sports psychology and host of The Sports Edge, a weekly call-in radio program on WFAN radio in New York every Sunday, 8-9 a.m. 

“Very few parents who are out of control at these kids’ games ever take the time to sit down with their child later on and explain that their behavior was wrong,” says Wolff. “It really is incumbent upon parents to act like they’re adults. As I say on my radio show,  somebody has to be the grown-up at kids’ games—it might as well be you.”

Code of conduct

While extreme acts, such as when parents physically attack a referee or a coach, make national headlines, Wolff believes that the atmosphere of youth sports is getting better. Many youth athletic programs have codes of conduct for spectators as well as participants, and they are not shy about enforcing those codes by ejecting out-of-control parents from the games. 

“I think bad behavior at games reached a peak about ten to fifteen years ago. Since then, there’s been growing concern about sports parents. I think people are beginning to control themselves more,” says Wolff. “Somebody once suggested that in any youth sports organization, maybe 15% of the parents don’t care about their behavior. Those are the parents who are out of control. So the question is, how do you get that 15% reduced to zero? More awareness, more education, and more pressure from other parents to conform to social norms.”

Where did all the fun go?

A poll conducted by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission reveals that 45% of the children polled said they had been called names by coaches and 37% said they wished no parents would watch them play. While winning may be everything to many of the adults involved in youth sports, 71% of the children said they wouldn’t care if no score was kept at their games. 

“Sadly, what should be the top priority for kids playing sports—having fun—is often pushed aside as parents focus more on the child’s athletic development,” says Wolff. “Even though most parents know that less than 4% of all high school varsity athletes ever make a college team, most moms and dads assume that their child will be part of that 4%. That can be very precarious for a youngster whose sole focus is on sports.”

There was a time when young people played their sport for their school or perhaps the local Little League. Today, there are travel teams and personal coaches and costly summer camps to turn young players into superstars. These things require a considerable investment of both time and money, which raises the stakes for both parent and child.

“The irony is that if you want your child to keep playing sports,” says Wolff, “it’s essential that they focus on having fun. Without pure enjoyment, they will find that their interest will wane. In short, their sense of fun will be transformed into work—and when that happens, kids often burn out and walk away from their sport.”

Sports grandparenting

For grandparents who may be returning to the world of youth sports after a thirty-year hiatus, Wolff says they should expect a whole new ball game. The play is often more competitive and the stands are much more crowded now than even a generation ago. 

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the value of having someone cheer you on. “The general rule of watching kids play has never really changed much,” says Wolff. “Parents and grandparents should be on hand to offer praise and positive support during the game—not just for their own grandchildren but for the kids on the other team. 

“Grandparents might also be tempted to try and instruct their grandchildren on what they did wrong during the game,” he says. “That’s a poor idea. Let the kids enjoy their moment in the sun, and if you still want to offer constructive criticism, do it later in the evening, long after the game is over.” 

To learn more, check out Wolff’s book The Sports Parenting Edge (Running Press) or visit his website askcoachwolff.com.

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