"When I went to high school and played sports, I just wanted to have a good time," says Steve Gompertz, director of boys' basketball in Andover, Minn., which instituted mandatory parent training after a father punched a teenage basketball player in the chest. "When did it get so critical?"
Within the past five or 10 years, according to Douglas Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri and longtime hockey coach. Hardly a day goes by when "some parent isn't yelling and screaming and acting like a lunatic" at their child's game, says Abrams, who tracks incidences of violence at youth games.
The most shocking example of sportsmanship gone bad occurred last July in Reading, Mass., when an ice hockey dad was killed by another father during an argument over the level of body checking in the game.
And attacks on umpires have grown so commonplace that the National Association of Sports Officials recently began offering an assault protection plan to its members. Coaching youth games "is very, very dangerous," says Bob Sills, the association's president.
Kids, too, are getting harmed. A recent survey by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission reports that almost half of the youth athletes said they had been yelled at or insulted; 17.5% said they were hit, kicked, or slapped; and 8.2% were pressured into harming others.
The problem comes from parents being too invested, emotionally and financially, in their children's games, says Darrell Burnett, PhD, a sports psychologist who often advises parents and coaches. Oftentimes, these people harbor dream of the kids winning scholarships through sports, or even more unrealistically, a professional contract.
"It's not just a game anymore," Burnett says. "It's a dream."
When something goes wrong -- the child makes a mistake or is benched, a ref makes a bad call, another parent makes a disparaging remark -- they see that dream going down the drain, he says.
Parents also often suffer from "misplaced self-esteem," Burnett says, living through their children's accomplishments -- and failures.
The results can be deadly. One of his young patients, Burnett says, tried to kill himself after he got injured and lost his chance for a football scholarship.