Ugly Truth Behind Youth Sports

By Dave Ferguson of BEYONDtheCheers, Special for USDR

A passerby stops to watch a bunch of kids playing an organized game of soccer. In his unbiased view, there is much fun and camaraderie-taking place between the players. Kids are smiling on the sidelines; teammates are passing the ball to each other on their way to the net, players are moving as a force — giving a false indication that all is fine on the field.

But, behind the scenes at many youth sporting events, there lurks a dark cloud of ugly truth. Approximately 70 per cent of young athletes between the ages of 7 to 13 leave organized athletics for various reasons — most of which may surprise you.

In the words of the late Nelson Mandela, “Sport has the power to change the world… it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

With this kind of capability and power, perhaps it’s time that those involved in youth athletics to take a step back and remember why kids are involved in team sport and what is really important when playing a game.

Obsessive parents, coaches with a “win at all costs” agenda, bullying and harassment of players — these all add to the fear and injury caused to young team members. All aspects are pieces to the puzzle as to why kids may choose to leave organized sports. The reasons may have little to do with the game itself.

Parents who get caught up in the heat of the moment, at their child’s sporting events, will often experience the same adrenaline rush that their daughter or son gets from playing the game. Unfortunately, some parental behavior includes yelling and screaming, and has become more commonplace. Obscenities from mom and dad are not only pointed at their child, but towards team members, the opposition and as well, officials, coaches and other parents in the stands. In fact, some say the problem with unruly parents has reached epidemic proportions.

Teams, leagues and sport organizing bodies have begun to take this behavior more seriously as it is deemed unacceptable. Although most parents have good intentions, without realizing the impact, they may in fact, be taking the fun away from their children who are really more interested in just playing a game:

  • Some parents live vicariously through their children to achieve what they may have not accomplished, themselves, as a young athlete.
  • Parents can push their kids to take part in sport excessively, in the hopes of a scholarship or draft pick.
  • Over indulgence in sporting activity leaves little or no time for kids just to be kids.
  • Parental coaching to and from games can feel overwhelming to a child.
  • High expectations from parents, who believe their child is the best player, can unknowingly expose the entire team to a greater risk of defeat and failure.

Scattered in pockets throughout America, parents are now required to take mandatory training regarding codes of conduct, prior to the game season start. In some cases parents are required to pay for a weekend course or online training. Not all parents are happy to have to pull more from their pockets, however, the expectation is that paid courses are often regarded as more valuable than those offered for free. With newly implemented policies and provisions, the hope is to capture the majority of parents’ attention and have them look in the mirror to realize how poorly they have behaved on the sidelines.

It’s still too early to tell if training on conduct and behavior are making a difference, but the goal for the future is to reduce poor parental behavior and improve team play, over an extended period of time.

Jack Malley has written a book entitled,Meet the Lunatics Who Run Your Kids’ Sports Leagues, where a variety of his parental caricatures fill the pages at an array of youth sporting events. Jack hopes that readers, especially parents, will recognize some of their nasty traits and take appropriate measures to correct them. Malley says, “Parents don’t have the exclusive rights on unacceptable behavior — coaches, and even officials, can also have a detrimental effect on players.”

According to research, amateur coaches routinely commit psychological abuses against young athletes, triggering a “toxic tornado”, with long-lasting effects on youth development. About 40 per cent of hockey, baseball and football games contain either direct or indirect abuse, according to striking new data collected by JustPlay, a national sport research firm. Direct abuses include coaches berating or threatening players, inciting violent play and demoralizing young athletes. Indirect abuses include harassment of officials, aggressive approaches to opposing team members and lashing out at spectators.

Josh Shaddock says such highly charged moments were part of the environment as 13-year-old member of his youth hockey team. “My coach would scream and freak out over things in practices, breaking sticks and singling me out in the dressing room,” he said. “Coach would yell at me. You don’t care about this game! You have no commitment to the team and shouldn’t be playing,” the teen added. Shaddock eventually quit after becoming less and less interested in attending practices and games. “It demoralizes you,” he concluded. The coach was eventually suspended for four games and placed on probation for one year.

Sport psychologist, Dr. Paul Dennis says that the emphasis from many coaches on “winning at all costs” lies at the heart of abusive behavior. The trouble with this is that abuse is allowed to continue and there are too many ongoing situations affecting our kids.

“I think its hurting young players’ development,” said Dr. Dennis. It’s athletic Darwinism — survival of the fittest. That’s not the way it should be.” There are certainly increasing incidents of anxiety levels among young athletes as a result, with bullying and harassment amongst teammates, another reason why kids may decide to call it quits.

The fact remains, that kids can learn new skills, refine techniques, build relationships, boost their confidence and, most importantly, have fun during practices, games and team play. The power of sport to “change lives for future generations” lies in the power of each player and in their participation as one member of a team. The winners will emerge when the ugly truth gets buried.

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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