S.O.S.: save our sportsmanship.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that 15% of parents and spectators will embarrass their children or be abusive toward kids, officials, and coaches at athletic events.
As a result of all this negativity, many of the participants quit organized sports by age 13. Even worse, child psychologist Darrell J. Burnett has found that troubled youths (runaways, drug users, suicidal kids) often turn out to be youth sports dropouts.
Recent trends, such as requiring parents to sign behavior pledges, using gimmicks like silent days for spectators or adopting so-called zero-tolerance policies don't address the root of the problem.
They remind me of the story about the hiker in the forest who keeps hearing cries for help and spends all afternoon jumping in the river to save people. Time after time, rescue is followed by more cries for help. He's so busy saving people that he's unable to see how they're getting into trouble in the first place.
Unlike the hiker, we can look at our compass and see that it points directly to the problems plaguing our youth sports: too many uneducated spectators and poorly trained coaches, often with a misdirected attraction to the revenue- driven, professional sports model.
Experts agree that adults in charge of youth and scholastic sports programs need to focus on the needs of their growing athletes. This will require changes in adult attitudes as well as changes in the formats of many youth and scholastic sports systems.
Youth and scholastic sports programs should be designed to keep as many kids involved as possible up until the varsity level. Only then are teens ready to be subjected to cuts, winning playing time, or other real world lessons on competition.
Strategies for implementing sportsmanship and making positive changes in such programs should include defining and emphasizing sportsmanship, stressing participation rather than results, teaching values as part of the program, and educating and involving parents.
Give sportsmanship a definition. Today's athletic culture seems to have an "I know it when I see it" mentality when it comes to sportsmanship. Sadly, most people think it's little more than shaking hands at the end of ballgames.
Youth and scholastic sports leaders need to clearly define sportsmanship to athletes and spectators. The Josephson Institute of Ethics preaches a "Character Counts" philosophy and defines sportsmanship as "pursuing victory with honor." Another useful concept is the cliched but sage advice that it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.
It's how you play the game. Young athletes could benefit tremendously by being given more opportunities to organize and lead themselves. How about parents simply dropping their children off and allowing them to coach themselves while a few trusted adults supervise? Maybe the athletes would get to know the rules, value fair play, and not be tempted to cheat.
It's how you coach the game. Youth and scholastic programs should focus on what's best for the children. Strategies should include modification of equipment and rules when needed, encouraging everyone to learn all positions, allowing equal playing time, and finding creative ways to teach the fundamentals.
Adults could do a world of good for youngsters by focusing on participation and effort rather than results. The message should be that winning is important, but how you play the game is even more important.
By Rob Vandenabeele, Physical Education, Sharon (MA) High School
Rob Vandenabeele is a physical education and health teacher at Sharon Middle School in Sharon, MA. He has served as both a coach and sports official at every level of sport.