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Guest Column - January/February 2003

It's Not Just a Game Anymore

Combating violence in youth sports by teaching sportsmanship

By Frank M. White


Everyday I hear another story of adults getting out of hand at some youth sports game.

A pregame pep talk is a good time to reinforce sportsmanship.

Does that surprise any of us? I doubt it, and if you've been to any youth sports events lately, it shouldn't.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of all programs is that sports violence is one of the most accepted types of negative behavior and abuse in our society.

"There has been a dramatic shift in youth sports away from a sense of enjoyment, physical fitness and sportsmanship to intense competition," says David Walsh, Ph.D., author of the book Selling Out America's Children.

Most of us look at this negative behavior at a ball game, and we're appalled when it turns into violence. Unfortunately, our sports programs and facilities are not immune to what occurs around us everyday.

An article that appeared recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune included a report of a survey conducted by the research group Public Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit organization. The report included: "road rage, foul language, collapsing customer…the United States has become the land of the rude."

Seventy-nine percent of the adults surveyed said a lack of respect and courtesy in American society is a serious problem. Sixty-one percent believe things have gotten worse in recent years.

Imagine someone driving on his way to watch his kid play, and he encounters road rage, regardless of who's at fault, he's already primed for an outburst.

When you get right down to it, it's the attitudes that people bring to the events that potentially add to the displays of negative behavior.

Our society is filled with people in a hurry, only thinking about themselves, which has resulted in a culture that nourishes disrespect. Add to this fact that competition at children's athletic events grows more intense as parents see possible college athletic scholarships ahead.

"In general, there has been a tremendous increase in parents' emotional investment in their children's extracurricular activities," says William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.

As parents we want the best for our children—we want them to be #1, and society adds to this with an attitude that, "Winning isn't everything…it's the only thing."

Everyday we're bombarded with the hype that being #2 isn't good enough. So, when you add those pieces to the adult or parent who is in the stands at our athletic events, it's no wonder that we've seen a tremendous increase in this type of negative behavior.

The actions that we see demonstrated at some athletic events would never be accepted at restaurants, movies, malls or other public places.

What we can do
The positive ritual of a postgame handshake.

As administrators, we're conscience about "risk management" and protecting our participants. We look at ways to insure that our entire facilities are safe, including the floors, ball fields, swimming pools, locker rooms, and so on, but what about the emotional safety of the participants?

It's time that youth sports associations, park and recreation departments, and school district administrators set standards for our programs and facilities that demand sportsmanship. We need to return youth sports to a positive and safe environment for our kids.

Every time I do a presentation or workshop, I promote the positive model that Northfield Youth Baseball Association in Minnesota uses as a solution to educating and handling negative behavior in its program.

Here's how it works: At the beginning of the season, parents and players receive and sign an agreement that outlines expectations and behavioral guidelines.

If a fan demonstrates unsportsmanlike behavior directed toward umpires, coaches or players, the following will take place:

Initial offense—Umpire will stop the game and notify both coaches of the problem. Coaches are expected to take the appropriate action.

If behavior continues—Umpire will stop the game and give "notification" (see card*) to fan involved. This step can be eliminated if fan behavior is deemed excessive.

If behavior still continues—Umpire will stop game until fan leaves the grounds.

The card reads: "We, the NYBA, appreciate your attendance at our youth events. Our participants need your POSITIVE SUPPORT and ENCOURAGEMENT. ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR of players, coaches, umpires or fans WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. If your behavior continues, WE WILL STOP THE GAME UNTIL YOU LEAVE THE PREMISES."

The NYBA has refined these guidelines since 1996, and each season they give out fewer and fewer cards, which in my opinion means it's working.

Athletic associations and school districts may tell you they have codes of conduct or sportsmanship plans, but my questions are: Do they have consequences tied to the code? Do they enforce the plan?

Today, codes of conduct or sportsmanship plans without consequences have little effect.

Whenever you talk with someone who's involved with youth athletics, they'll say, "I'm in it for the kids." It only takes a short time to watch and know who's involved for the kids and who's involved for themselves.

When we think of role models, we shouldn't think of professional athletes first, we should be looking in the mirror. As parents, educators, managers and coaches, we have the potential to have a tremendous positive impact on young people's lives.

A young person's development, personality and self-esteem are all delicate and fragile. Every adult who comes in contact with a young person's life has an opportunity to influence and leave a lasting impression beyond the season and possibly for the rest of that child's life.

Let's hope that the impressions are positive ones.

Whether you're a player, spectator, parent, official, volunteer coach, board member, park and rec manager, school administrator, or just a good ol' sports junkie, I challenge each of you to become actively involved in changing our school and youth sports programs.

You must ask yourself, what is the image that you want for your community and athletic programs?

Think about sportsmanship in this way, and let these values prevail in your sports programs:

Respect—acknowledge good efforts by opponents, officials and teammates
Civility—be gracious in victory as well as in defeat
Courage—follow the heart to do the right thing
Fairness—observe the spirit and letter of the rules
Responsibility—take charge of your actions and words

Remember that sportsmanship starts with each of us.

Frank M. White is manager of the Richfield Recreation Programs & Athletics in Richfield, Minn. He can be reached at Frank@respectsports.com or visit www.RespectSports.com.

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