Teaching Mom, Dad to lighten up at the game

It seemed as though tensions had eased when the boys lined up to shake hands after a particularly volatile football game here. But with a single comment from one of them, another fight erupted.

The bigger battle, however, was raging in the stands.

"The parents started shouting at each other and calling each other names, then lawn chairs started flying," says Melanie Giles, mother of one of the boys. "I finally pulled my son out of this program because of the parents."

All across America, parents can be found screaming on the sidelines, bellyaching in the bleachers, and fistfighting on the fields.

Jupiter, an upscale beach community north of West Palm Beach, is one of the places trying to do something about it.

Fed up with out-of-control parents, youth sports organizations around the nation are taking drastic steps to bring a sense of peace - and fun - back to the game. In northern Ohio, parents must remain silent during certain games. Parents in Los Angeles are asked to sign a "promise" of good behavior. But in Jupiter, parents will now be required to take a good-sportsmanship class before their children are allowed to play ball.

While other organizations have asked parents to volunteer for similar classes, the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association - with more than 6,000 children involved - is the first to make it mandatory. Participate, or your kids won't, is the attitude.

"I've seen parents screaming at their kids, pushing them too hard to perform; children fighting in games, incited by their parents; kids crying on the mound because their parents embarrassed the stew out of them," says Jeffrey Leslie, president of the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association. "There is nothing like youth sports to bring out the worst in parents."

While disruptive parents are nothing new to youth sports, participation in the games is on the rise, especially among girls, and competition for collegiate athletic scholarships is getting stiffer. This combination makes for mounting pressure on kids - the majority of whom are simply out to have fun.

Wiping the sweat from her face after scoring a goal during soccer practice here in Jupiter, 11-year-old Tracy Baynham is glad her parents will have to go through the good-sportsmanship class.

"When my parents come to my games, they shout, 'Come on, Tracy! Shoot! Go!' It's embarrassing," she says. "And they make me play softball. My dad thinks I have a better chance to get a scholarship playing softball, even though I prefer soccer. I just want to have fun."

The one-hour class, created by the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a nonprofit association in West Palm Beach, includes an instructional video and discussion of parents' roles and responsibilities.

It's an extension of the current system of having coaches merely talk with parents, says Kathleen Avitt of the alliance, adding that many other beleaguered communities across the country have expressed interest.

As they drop their children off for soccer practice on a balmy Jupiter evening, parents talk about good sportsmanship, the mandatory class, and youth sports today.

Ron Ferguson thinks the class is a "great idea," though he says the trouble always begins with the other team's parents. Mr. Ferguson says that sports are supposed to be fun - at least, that's what his nine-year-old daughter, Kate, tells him.

"Parents need to get the message that winning at all costs is not the right attitude," he says. "Plus, when they're on the field, children are supposed to be learning from the coach, and that kind of behavior takes away from the coach."

While many parents praise the idea, just as many believe it's a lost cause.

"To be honest, I really don't think you are going to change adults' behavior in a one-hour class," says Ms. Giles, whose 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, is in the athletic association. "But I'll do what I have to do."

Both Giles's and Ferguson's daughters are on traveling teams. The majority of kids who participate in youth sports are on recreational teams, which play on nearby fields, but traveling teams are a cut above. Competition for slots is fierce, kids spend more time practicing and traveling around the state, and even the nation, and parents can spend a small fortune making that happen.

"It used to be that youth sports was the one haven for good sportsmanship. Not anymore," says Darrell Burnett, a clinical child psychologist and youth sports psychologist in Laguna Miguel, Calif. "It's not just a game anymore. There are too many consequences connected with it."

Just as parents pressure their children to get good grades in hopes of an academic scholarship to a top college, parents are now pushing their kids to get athletic scholarships - and that means getting them on the field by age 5 or 6.

"The message is out: If you want to get a scholarship to a good school, you have to start early, even though the odds are very, very slim," says Dr. Burnett. "So here's a dad sitting at a game, his kid strikes out, and he's thinking, 'What if there is a scout here?' All those thoughts start rambling around in the dad's head, and he becomes a different person."

One father in Brunswick, Ohio, tried to sue the coach of his son's baseball team for not winning more games. The judge dismissed the case.

Parents may be part of the reason why most kids drop out of organized sports by age 14, claiming the game is no longer enjoyable, says Carl Pavlovich, vice president of the Northern Ohio Girls Soccer League. "The parents are the ones putting the emphasis on winning; the kids just want to have fun," he says.

In an effort to keep parents in check and give the game back to the kids, the 217-team league in suburban Cleveland came up with an unusual solution. Dubbed Silent Sunday, during specified games spectators and coaches are asked to be silent: No verbal interference from the sidelines whatsoever.

The idea struck Mr. Pavlovich last summer when he was refereeing a soccer game. "The noise was so deafening, I couldn't even hear myself at times," he recalls. "We lose a lot of referees every year. Most can't stand the abuse from the sidelines."

It was hard going that first Sunday in October - many used candy, chewing gum, and lollipops to stay mum - but the rewards were great, backers of the plan said.

Children had to make decisions on their own and could finally hear teammates and referees.

"For the first time, children really enjoyed themselves," Pavlovich says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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