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Teaching parents to be better sports

Parents must learn to tread a fine line between caring too much about whether their children excel and taking too little interest.

By Lisa CohnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2002

During a girls' soccer game in Portland, Ore., Sue Mak gaped in horror as the coach for the opposing team screamed at his 9-year-old daughter for playing poorly, and then ripped off her shirt. The girl wrapped her arms around her bare chest and cried.

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"I was mortified," says Ms. Mak, a volunteer coach for more than 20 years. "I stopped the game and saw to it that the father never coached again."

While this is an extreme example, it illustrates the intense desire that some of today's parents have for their kids to excel in sports and attract recognition as top athletes – as all- stars, heavy hitters, offensive greats, and most-valuable players.

"We have made children's sports comparable to pro sports," says Fred Engh, founder and president of the National Alliance For Youth Sports, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Too often, he adds, parents fail to focus on the benefits of sports: physical exercise, social interaction, teamwork, and the opportunity to learn discipline and good sportsmanship.

"What sometimes gets lost in sports for children is the basis of it – the ethics and sportsmanship – in the name of winning at all costs," Mr. Engh says.

The 25 million American children who participate in sports each year generally begin playfully, at the age of 5 or 6, by batting, kicking, and pushing a ball around. But by the time they are 9 years old, competition heats up. Even at that age, many kids try out for all-star teams made up of gifted athletes, or join "traveling" teams that compete across the state and sometimes across the nation.

By the time young athletes are in middle school, some families spend as much as $1,000 or more a year for their children to join private "club" teams that focus on competitive play, says Mak.

Uncharted territory

Today's youth sports scene no longer resembles the old days of pickup games in the park, says Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center For Sports Parenting and a former professional baseball player in New York.

"Youth sports have changed so dramatically, we are really getting into uncharted territory," he says. "I'm a very strong proponent of parents being proactive in sports, because there are a lot of situations where things aren't run the right way."

In fact, 75 percent of youngsters drop out of athletics by the time they are 13 because taking part in sports is no longer fun, Mr. Wolff says.

When today's parents were kids, sports elicited more smiles. Dressed in T-shirts and shorts, children trotted out to a field or basketball court, chose sides, and played without the aid of or interference of adults.

"When I was a child in the 1950s and 1960s, the park or the basketball court was the place of social justice," says Daniel Doyle, founder and director of the Institute for International Sport, located at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. "Kids had to learn how to negotiate and compromise. It was not a perfect system; it was Darwinian, but it was Darwinian in a way that did not hurt kids."

But in recent years, kids' sports have become more demanding and more influenced by adults' values. Kids purchase expensive uniforms and attend adult-run practices two to three times a week. Athletic children ages 6 to 13 generally spend about 80 hours each three-month season participating in sports, says Engh.

Many of those youngsters commit Saturdays to playing in games and whole weekends to tournaments, where competition for championship trophies and most- valuable-player awards is overseen by trained referees and officials.

These changes in the youth sports scene are due in part to the growth of Little League baseball, which introduced parents as coaches, says Mr. Doyle.