A Massachusetts father, angered over rough play in a youth hockey game, beat a hockey coach to death. In North Carolina, a mother attending her child's soccer game was charged with assault for slapping a 14-year-old referee. A 36-year-old coach in Florida attacked an umpire and broke his jaw during a baseball game. A police officer, who was thrown out of his son's baseball game for unruly conduct, later retaliated by pulling the ump over at a traffic stop for allegedly making an illegal left turn.
"America is, by far, the most violent country in the world when measured against comparable, industrialized nations," says California Congressman Dan Lungren. "Violence is deeply rooted in our society and has become woven into the fabric of the American lifestyle."
But, is this the reason why adults fight among themselves or abuse children at what are, after all, kids' games?
Violence on the Rise
Speak with anyone involved in youth sports and they'll confirm that the incidence of violence related to youth sporting events has increased dramatically over the last couple of decades. They'll also agree that most of this violence comes not from the children, but from their parents and adult coaches. What the experts are still discussing, though, is which factors are driving this growing trend and how civility can return to the bleachers and the sidelines.
"[The concept of] violence has been desensitized," according to Washington DC-based youth counselor, Willie Jolley.
David Dimmick, an instructor at Penn State University and a consultant to Little League Baseball agrees. Since the 1970s, Dimmick says, movies, television, and video games have become "much, much more violent." This, in turn, he claims, has made society more violent, which is reflected in the culture of youth athletics.
Increased exposure to violence is only part of the problem. Jolley believes that too much attention is focused on
rather than the attitude in which a game is played. Dimmick concurs and adds that America has turned sport into a cult, where winners are exalted and their defeated opponents are degraded. He argues that we have blurred the distinction between sport, which is intended to provide enjoyment and escape from the rigors of everyday life, with athleticism, which is all about competing for a prize.
Psychologist Darrell Burnett agrees. "Kids see the game as a process; they see it as fun," he says. "Parents see it as an end result: win or lose."
Dimmick's solution is to emphasize the fun and learning aspects of playing sports, while diminishing the focus on competition. While he doesn't want to ignore competition completely, since it exists as part of everyday life, Dimmick proposes that intramural sports be banned prior to high school. This would remove the pressure on children to perform well and, hopefully, remove parents' anxiety about their children's performance.
A similarly extreme approach is advocated by Scott Lancaster, senior director of the National Football League (NFL) Youth Football. He believes that parents bring their personal troubles to the playing field, and try to live out their own athletic dreams and frustrations through their children. Lancaster's solution is to "blow up" existing youth sport leagues and "start over again."
According to Lancaster, research by the NFL indicates that 75% of kids said they played football to have fun, while competition and winning were ranked near the bottom of the list of reasons for joining.
A Return to Fun
Lancaster believes children's sports leagues should emphasize learning and having fun rather than competition. He urges that the current focus on winning and the stigma of defeat be removed along with the designation of players as first string or second string. Kids should be given a chance to play every position and each child should have equal playing time during games, he says. And he's not alone; a study of young male athletes indicated that 90% would rather have an opportunity to play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team.
A child's participation in team sports should be fun and contribute to physical development and well-being, while helping to develop social skills and promote an appreciation for physical activity. This is not a new concept. Yet, over a decade ago educators and healthcare professionals began to notice that this concept was not always a reality. For many children, the pressures associated with sports produced low
self-esteem, excessive anxiety, and "sports burnout," all of which led to a lifelong avoidance of physical exercise.
Code of Ethics for Parents
What about the adults—if they are the primary cause of violence in youth sports, shouldn't they become involved in the corrective process? The cities of Jupiter, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina think so. These towns have adopted a sportsmanship training program that includes an 11-point code of ethics that parents of sport-playing youngsters must sign.
Merely signing a piece of paper does not go far enough for Rick Wolff, founder and chairman of The Center for Sports Parenting. He notes that parents are more involved with their children's sports activities than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Wolff also recognizes that many parents see their child's sports prowess—whether real or perceived—as a way for their child to get into a good college or to attain the big payoff—a career as a professional athlete.
To counter this attitude, Wolff wants parents to attend a two- to three-hour seminar before their child can participate in any organized youth sports league. The seminars would educate them on the purpose of youth sports and also instruct them on how to manage their
and frustration. No child would be able to take the field until their parents have completed the seminar. Something similar has already taken place in Boston, where the city's youth sports league has held mandatory meetings for parents because too many were swearing during games or yelling at their kids.
And what about the children who are exposed to displays of adult rage and violence? How do they react when parents go on the rampage? Most don't know how to react, and they watch, frozen in embarrassment, Wolff says. Or, as one child who witnessed parental anger firsthand said, "There's this guy, his father is always yelling…I feel bad for him."
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