An Emily Post approach to kids' sports
Amid the squeak of sneakers on the lacquered court, the public-address announcer has one final thing he wants to say to the crowd at a girl's basketball game in this St. Louis suburb before tip-off - remember your manners.Skip to next paragraph
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Under a code of conduct the private school has adopted, parents, players, and coaches have agreed to maintain a sense of decorum throughout the game. The unspoken message: No swearing. No taunting refs. And, for heaven's sake, no fighting.
The scene on this Thursday night in the impassioned gym, where "Enjoy the Game" posters adorn walls and a "team parent" patrols the stands, is being repeated in various ways in hundreds of schools across the country.
Fed up with a flood of sideline incivility that at times escalates to violence - symbolized by Friday's involuntary manslaughter conviction of a Boston "hockey dad" for beating a coach to death - schools and communities are adopting programs to try to return some sanity to youth sports.
From Florida to California, they are getting parents to watch videotapes that emphasize emotional balance, reminding coaches that winning isn't everything, and appointing "culture keepers" to act as peacekeepers at games.
Call it Emily Post meets the goal post - hockey, football, and soccer.
"The growth of these programs has been incredibly rapid," says Clark Power of the Mendelson Center for Sport, Character, and Culture at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
Sadly, their proliferation is coming out of necessity. True, some claim boorish sideline behavior is no worse than it's ever been - it's just more publicized now, a staple of sports highlight reels. But at least some statistical evidence exists to suggest that the erosion of societal civility that has given rise to road rage and fights on planes hasn't spared youth sports.
For instance, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), a group that works with hundreds of parks and recreation programs across the country, says the number of reports of unsportsmanlike conduct remained steady at about 5 percent of all events it monitored until 1990. Now incidents occur at 15 percent of the events.
"When are we going to stop that pendulum swinging in the wrong direction?" asks Bill Stutz, the founder of Enjoy The Game, the sportsmanship program adopted by the MICDS school here and now used in 15 Midwestern states. "When are we finally going to say enough is enough? Sports are supposed to provide a positive environment for kids to learn life skills. What kind of skills are they learning right now?"
Dozens of programs have sprung up to try to take some of the pugnaciousness out of youth sports. Although the approaches and founding principles of the groups vary, all are battling the coarser aspects of America's cultural proclivity toward hypercompetitiveness.
Their tools: an array of seminars, slogans, ethics codes, and training sessions that seek to recapture the fun and enjoyment of youth sports.
Enjoy The Game, for instance, teaches participants to acknowledge that three things happen in every game and to maintain one's emotional balance when they occur: Coaches make tough decisions not everybody agrees with, players are not perfect, and officials by definition deal with controversy.
Another group, Positive Coaching Alliance, focuses on changing the mindset of coaches from exclusively winning to the double goal of winning and building positive character traits and teaching life lessons. PCA seeks to create a positive culture at schools and sports clubs, reinforced by "message bombardment."
It advocates adoption of the equivalent of a team "parent" who keeps the peace and reminds adults of their obligation to remain true to the spirit of amateur athletics. The group, founded just three years ago, has already trained more than 30,000 coaches.