Good Sportsmanship Declines on the Sidelines

Amid rising tempers, leagues and parks are insisting on parental cool

It was an all-American scene: A gaggle of eight-year-olds gamely giving it their best on a baseball diamond. Supportive families cheering as the kids rounded the bases.

But then an enraged mother leapt from the stands and started choking the teenage umpire over a call she didn't think was fair. Then the umpire's father came on the field and began arguing with her.

"The amazing thing was [the teams] weren't even keeping score," says John Ouellette recalling the recent incident. "And the saddest thing was there were 24 eight-year-olds looking at these adults acting totally crazy," says Mr. Ouellette.

This example may be an extreme, but parents and coaches involved in youth sports are all too familiar with parental tantrums. And observers like Ouellette, who oversees coaching for the American Youth Soccer Association, agree the intensity and frequency of the incidents is on the rise.

Now, however, leagues and schools are taking steps to maintain a semblance of etiquette on the sidelines.

* In Corning, Iowa, there's a zero-tolerance policy: Spectators who act out are barred from games for the season.

* In Roswell, Ga., the parks department has stopped keeping score

in games for kids under 8.

* After a shooting incident last April between a coach and a parent, Clayton County, Ga., issued a conduct policy that allows an offender in a verbal or physical confrontation to be charged with criminal trespass.

* Last year, the American Youth Soccer Organization, the national group that oversees most youth soccer leagues, began requiring its coaches to be certified. They have to complete a program that teaches them to coach in a positive way and how to deal with parents. The coaches must also sign a code of ethics.

* A growing number of schools and parks departments give out handbooks or call meetings in which acceptable behavior for all involved in youth sports is outlined.

Certainly not all parents lose their tempers. But "while 98 percent of the parents involved are tremendous ... we spend the majority of our time concerned with the 2 percent who are out of control," says Ouellette.

And while kids and coaches sometimes lose their cool too, parents seem to be the most regular offenders.

"When you see evidence of poor sportsmanship in youth sports, it's usually coming from the adults," says Robert Malina, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.

Observers cite at least three reasons for the rise in parental tempers:

* The number of children in nonschool sports programs such as Little League, soccer, and football has jumped from about 15 million in 1985 to 25 million today, prompting more parental involvement and perhaps more clashes.

* Parents often put tremendous pressure on their children to get sports scholarships, ratcheting up tension even in games between young kids.

* Professional sports have also fostered a greater emphasis on winning, often at the expense of good manners.

"To be a good sport seems to have lost its meaning," says Joe Eldridge, a soccer coach in West Virginia.

In Bob Brossman's case, there hasn't been any violence. But "there are certainly heated conversations," says the coach of his nine-year-old son's USA Hockey team north of Atlanta.

Parents have confronted him in regard to what position they want their kids to play and who they want their kids to play with. Some even use stop watches to make sure their children get the same amount of ice time as others. Mr. Brossman's wife has stopped going to games because parents began directing their complaints to her.

While parents often should know better, many observers say the responsibility to promote good sportsmanship must start with coaches.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who administer sports for children have never been trained in how to do it, but they have responsibility for in some cases 500 kids," says Fred Engh, founder of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association in West Palm Beach, Fla. His organization has trained more than 1 million coaches.

"Most coaches are volunteers - truck drivers, accountants, housewives. We require certification for people who are electricians or plumbers. Isn't it amazing we don't require certification for someone who handles children?"

Jay Smither of Roswell, Ga., has been both parent and coach. Ten years ago, when he coached his son's baseball team, he and the kids were munching their snacks when a mother marched up, screamed at him and called him a "dummy" for a coaching decision he made.

In 1994, he remembers when a policeman was called to break up a group of parents from opposing teams who yelled threats at each other. "I've witnessed behavior ranging from the bizarre to common rudeness," says Mr. Smither.

All this experience leads him to one conclusion: "The field is a classroom and should be respected as a classroom," he says. "The problem comes from people whose idea of baseball is what they see in the Major Leagues, and now they have a child and they figure he's a little bitty Major League player," Smither continues. "But this is just a little game with guys who are going on to be lawyers and insurance brokers and all that."

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