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.

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?"

Battle against coarseness

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.

The National Alliance for Youth Sports, for its part, convened a summit last summer with 65 top national sports figures to develop standards for community athletics. Now codified, those standards were released last week and will form the basis of a nationwide initiative with the National Parks and Recreation Association.

Fred Engh, founder of NAYS and the father of seven athletic children, likes to emphasize training. He says playing fields are really outdoor schools. But instead of having the equivalent of trained teachers as coaches, most youth-sports programs use volunteer athletic managers who are unscreened and untrained.

Who are these people?

Accountability is a key element of many of the new programs. Several require participants to sign a pledge, which can be a powerful tool.

Last year the Independence (Mo.) Athletic Association, with 130 teams, expelled three assistant coaches for life following verbal and written warnings about their behavior.

While the evidence remains anecdotal, many of the programs appear to be effective. Last winter, the sixth-grade girls basketball team at Mary Queen of Peace Elementary School in suburban St. Louis played a cross town rival. The game got increasingly rough as young referees failed to control the on-court action.

Soon parents on both sides were yelling at each other. The bleachers emptied. Parents went toe-to-toe. The game was called off, but the verbal battles spilled outside. The police arrived and settled the situation down, mercifully, before any blows were thrown.

"I thought, what are we doing here, what are we focusing on?" says Greg Shipman, the school's athletic director. "It's a sixth-grade girls basketball game for crying out loud."

Out of the ruckus, the community decided to adopt Enjoy the Game. Students, parents, coaches, and players were all exposed to the program.

This fall, in a conference of some two dozen schools, the soccer program at Mary Queen of Peace captured the "best sportsmanship" award.

And there's the Pleasant Hill, Calif., boys baseball and girls softball program, which oversees more than 900 games a season. Three years ago 18 parents were expelled from games. Two years ago, the first year the city worked with the Positive Coaching Alliance, the number dropped to six. Last year it was three.

One of the league's teams made it to the West Zone World Series. "People think you have to choose between winning or positive coaching," says PCA founder Jim Thompson. "We don't believe that. Positive coaching isn't anti-competitive. It reinforces good performance."

Still, the overall challenge is daunting. "There's no question the techniques work," says Michael Josephson, founder of Character Counts! Sports, another program aimed at encouraging sportsmanship and constructive values. "But we need to reach many more parents and kids."

Take a look in the mirror

At a recent seminar at a private high school, Enjoy the Game's Stutz, a 6-ft., 8-in. former college basketball and baseball player, drew his biggest reaction when he gave parents a little advice on what do to when they become overwrought at youth sporting events: go home, go into the bathroom, lock the door, look in the mirror, and say, "My career is over."

Stutz's advice, or at least his program, seems to be working at this private school in Ladue, Mo. Banners bearing the Enjoy the Game logo hang from walls. A team parent circulates T-shirts with sportsmanship slogans in the stands.

On this night, the game is close and passions begin to rise. A referee's questionable foul-calling elicits grumbling from parents and fans. The atmosphere in the bleachers is not tea time at Buckingham Palace.

But, in the end, harmony reigns - even though the local varsity girls lose.

"It's hard to say how effective something like this is," says Bruce Olson, the father of an MICDS basketball player, of the program. "But I do think it has had a positive impact."

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