Remember when playing kids' sports was actually fun?

It's distressing to read about the latest incidents of parents' sports rage resulting in violence. But as a former kids' coach, I can't say I'm surprised.

There are all kinds of sports parents out there. Some are highly involved, in touch with their kids, and nurturing - and some show up at their kids' games with faces painted half orange and half blue. Most are somewhere in between.

As a kids' soccer and baseball coach, I've experienced all these types. Most have been supportive, in control, and a real asset to their children and the program.

But some seem to arrive at the game with not only a cooler and folding chair, but an agenda. "Josh better play forward today, or I'm going to have it out with the coach." "That other team always gets away with pushing, so our guys need to push back." "That umpire rooked us last time. Today he better watch his step."

Most parents who get into trouble or embarrass their team come with unreasonable expectations and a preconceived result in mind.

It isn't enough for some parents that their children are developing individual and team skills and practicing social interaction under stressful circumstances. Winning is everything. Not messing up is everything. Making Dad and Mom proud is everything.

Parents seem to have no trouble getting into the spirit of fun when their kids are little. It's when they get older that the

fun stops and pressure to perform and win gets intense.

It stops being about the kids. Perhaps Dad was a promising ballplayer and an injury robbed him of hoped-for glory. Josh can make up for that. Maybe Mom was a soccer star and wants soooo badly for Heather - who just wants to run around and have a giggle with her friends - to do the same.

Some families move into sports-proficient towns and school districts in order to further their young athletes' careers.

The Massachusetts town in the news because a fight between hockey parents resulted in the death of one father is widely regarded as having the best junior-hockey program in the East. When major family sacrifices of time and money are involved, expectations of a return on the investment run unreasonably high. So do tempers.

We are, sadly, living in a rude, ignoble age in this country, and professional sports have become the living, seething proof.

Our kids see pro athletes trash-talking, brawling, spitting, taunting, and retaliating - and being rewarded and admired for behavior that used to be the opposite of the American ideal of sportsmanship. With such athletes as role models, it's no wonder parents and coaches have a hard time deprogramming kids.

Having a clear perspective on exactly what kids' sports programs are meant to achieve and communicating those goals to the parents is more important than ever. Far more important than wins or losses.

Sure, winning is more fun than losing. But playing a game, any game, is more fun than just about anything. Remember how great it felt to just run around in the sunshine and kick a ball? Or slide around in the mud? Or fly around the bases?

The kids' teams I've coached always did well, no matter the level of talent, because we kept it simple. I made no promises or predictions about how we'd do, except that we'd have a really good time and everybody who showed up for practice would get to play.

If parents got on my back, I'd thank them for coming and pretty much ignore them for the rest of the game. Worked for me. And I guarantee, the kids had fun.

And, yes, so did the parents.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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