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.
"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.
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.
"Historically, before the Little League was founded in 1938 or 1939, parents did not play ball with kids. It was not part of the sports ethic," he says. "Little League grew and grew, and by the time you were in the mid-1950s, moms and dads were coaching Little League teams."
The popularity of sports has increased dramatically over the years, and so has the nation's preoccupation with superstars like Michael Jordan.
"For some parents, there is the sense that my child is the gifted one who will be the next Michael Jordan," says Wolff, the former ballplayer who has a master's degree in psychology. "Some say, 'Maybe he won't be a pro, but he will get a college scholarship.' Some parents also have a free-floating sense of keeping up with the Jones family."
To ensure that children benefit from their athletic experience, parents must learn to tread a fine line between caring too much about whether their children excel and taking too little interest in their athletic activities, experts say.
That distinction is different for each child, he notes. Some children play basketball or golf eight hours a day in the summer because they love it so much and that's fine if they manage to retain their focus on friends, academics, and other aspects of their lives, he says.
Take the young Tiger Woods as an example.
"His dad was not the pushy parent people thought he was," Doyle says. "He was always encouraging Tiger to play other sports and to have fun on the golf course. He encouraged him to be a fine student, and Tiger went to Stanford University."
When parents are too pushy, they focus too much on their own dreams, he adds.
Barbara Stahl, a sports parent for 15 years and the author of "Parenting, Sportsmom Style," says that she sometimes found herself in that position when her son played youth sports.
For many years, her son's soccer team beat its archrival, a team from a neighboring town. The first time her son's team lost, Mrs. Stahl was upset, and asked her son if he was sorry about the loss.
"I realized, for my son the game had ended 10 minutes before. I was the one who was wrapped up in the emotional rivalry," she says.
Mak, the youth coach, says that she, too, found herself emotionally involved at times in her son's athletic experience. She often yelled if her son was in danger or if referees failed to watch for fouls, she says.
"If someone would jump on my son, I would say, 'Open your eyes. You almost killed my kid.' If I saw a kid fouling another player, I would yell, 'Ref, watch what's going on!' "
When Mak's son, Justin, was about 12, he told her that she embarrassed him when she challenged referees' calls. "I realized I was overzealous, so I tried to tone it down. I tried to back off," she says.
She continued to attend all of Justin's games, but she often sat on the opposing team's side, where she felt more inhibited about yelling.
"I tried to find a way to still be involved in the game, but to be a real positive part of the excitement," Mak says.
Savvy sports parents not only strive for balance, they try to ensure kids take part in baseball, hockey, or soccer for the joy of it.
Parents should let children lead them, says Wolff. Children who excel in sports are those who are passionate about it. And these kids' drive comes from within, he says.
"All you need to do is be supportive," says Engh. "You need to tell your child, 'Win or lose, you are doing a great job; I want you to have fun.' "
To support a child, parents should attend their children's games, whenever possible, and cheer them on, experts say. They should provide positive feedback to coaches, referees, and umpires.
"Good sports parents realize this sport is a tool to teach your child about life," says Mak.
As a rookie soccer coach 20 years ago, Mak struggled to find a balance in how she gave feedback to her team. First, she says, she was too loud on the sidelines and often too negative with the kids. Even though her team won, victory seemed to carry a high price.
After experimenting with a number of styles, she discovered that children benefit most if they receive mainly positive feedback. Her job, she decided, was to be a master cheerleader.
Not all coaches strive for a balance that is appropriate for young team members. For that reason, parents should seek out coaches who are most likely to suit their child's needs.
Parents should inquire about the coach's philosophy, and attend enough practices and games to feel comfortable that the coach's style is compatible with their child's personality.
Parents should also find out if the league has checked the coach's background to ensure that he or she has no police record, says Dan Reidy, a parent and director of recreation services for Lantana Recreation, in Lantana, Fla.
"You don't just take your kid to a doctor's office, or drop them off at school without knowing the doctors or teachers are competent," says Mr. Reidy.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports offers communities nationwide a program, "Time Out," that establishes guidelines and standards for coaches, referees, and parents participating in sports. It also provides a mechanism for reporting bad coaches.
Once parents feel comfortable with a child's coach, they should brush up on the fundamentals of the game. They're more likely to enjoy watching the game and be better equipped to cheer the child on.
They will also be better prepared to discuss with their children the emotional, social, and political lessons that are critical to playing on a team.
"It's really great if you can talk to your kid about ... what's happening out there, if you can understand it when he says, 'I saw Calvin cut for the ball, but I didn't give him the ball and should have,' " says Marshall Pile, a coach in Portland, Ore.
Ultimately, these discussions are about the important rules of life, says Engh. "Lose with grace. Focus on discipline. Abide by the rules," he says.
Parents need to follow one more rule, too, says Stahl: "I think the perfect sports parent is someone who can always remember and never forget: This is the child's experience, not the parent's."
Coaches can either motivate a child to excel or crush a child with negative feedback and too-high expectations, experts say.
That's why it's critical that parents choose a coach who best suits their child's goals and personality.
Before a child begins a season with a new coach, parents should seek out answers to these questions:
What's the coach's philosophy? According to Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center For Sports Parenting and author of "Coaching Kids for Dummies": "If the coach says, 'I'm here to win at all costs,' you have the right to say, 'This isn't the best team for my child to play on.' "
How does the coach divide up kids' playing time? Many recreational leagues require coaches to give each child a minimum amount of playing time during games. In more competitive environments, though, coaches give the most talented players the most playing time.
Is one of the coach's children a team member? Ask the coach how he treats his child. "When I coach my own kid, I make a point to have my kid sit out the first half of a game," says Mr. Wolff. If the coach favors his own child, be sure you are comfortable with this before allowing your child to play on his team.
Ask the coach if and how he gives children constructive feedback. Or watch the coach during a practice. If you discover he yells at or berates the children, consider finding another coach or starting your own team, suggests Wolff.