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Angry Grownups Are Real Spoilsports

Field of Screams


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.

"He knew his parents would be disappointed because he hadn't lived up to their expectations," recalls Burnett.

Another factor is that people today are more likely to retaliate than negotiate, he says: "Somebody pushes their buttons, and away they go."

Parents need to have reasonable and realistic expectations, stay calm when kids make mistakes, look for positives, and praise kids just for participating, according to Burnett, who says parent-training classes can be effective as long as they have some teeth in them.

So far, such programs have scored big with the nonviolent parents who make up the vast majority of coaches and spectators, says Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports and president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. The alliance's 19-minute parent program is used by more than 250 organizations, he says.

"These programs put everybody on the same page," Engh says. "Nobody can scream and embarrass their child, criticize officials, demean the coach -- all in the name of competition and sports. They learn that they're stepping over the line and that their behavior is detrimental to their child's development."

A year after the Jupiter Tequesta Athletic Association became the first in the nation to require that parents take an ethics class and sign a code of conduct if they wanted their kids to play, 84% of parents said the class was a hit, and 60% reported a change in behavior at games, according to a recent survey.

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