Youth leagues try to rein in 'bad news parents'
Buffalo Grove, Ill. • No parent here has rushed onto a playing field to jump a referee who made an unpopular call. No adult has gotten angry and slugged or pushed a coach or a young player, as has happened elsewhere. Nor have there been any of those embarrassing sideline brawls you sometimes see posted on online video sites.
At least nobody's admitting to it.
Still, parent behavior in this quiet suburb north of Chicago has been questionable enough to cause the park district officials to post new signs at ball fields with what you might call ... a few gentle reminders.
"This is a game being played by children," the signs in the Buffalo Grove Park District begin, with the words "game" and "children" highlighted in bold letters. "If they win or lose every game of the season, it will not impact what college they attend or their future potential income.."
The campaign, which began this month, is relatively low-key. You might not even notice the small blue signs if you weren't standing right by them. But they speak to a growing movement in youth sports aimed at reining in parents who, many say, are too involved, too competitive and in need of a little perspective.
"I just want to get back to what I was brought up with as a child and that's, 'Let the kids play,'" says Dan Schimmel, the park district's executive director.
Elsewhere, some youth sports leagues are requiring parents to sign codes of conduct or recite pledges before games, promising in front of their children that they'll behave. If they slip up, they might be pulled aside for a conversation or kicked out of a game if a warning does no good.
Other leagues occasionally have "silent" games, where parents and sometimes even coaches can only offer encouragement or cheer and clap, but can't direct the young players or say or shout anything too negative.
Buffalo Grove officials say some have questioned whether this is just another attempt to coddle children. Some wonder: Shouldn't a young player learn to take criticism? And what's wrong with a little competition, anyway?
But this, say coaches, leagues and even some parents and kids, is about parent behavior that increasingly goes way over the line and interferes with a kid's ability to enjoy something that's supposed to be fun.
"We've all seen that person on the sidelines and we're thinking, 'Are they really going there? Really?'" says Brian Sanders, president of i9 Sports Corp., a national franchiser of youth leagues and camps based in Florida that uses sportsmanship as one of its cornerstones.
In some cases, violent behavior has led to criminal charges in Newark, N.J., for instance, where parents allegedly beat up a Little League baseball umpire because he wouldn't call a game because of darkness.
"The level of competition in youth sports has gotten exponentially greater, forcing this level of hyper-competition," Sanders says.
"I think that is driving a certain level of behavior on the sidelines that is amplified."
Haley Small, a 19-year-old college student who played soccer and then traveling softball through high school, puts it this way: "The more competitively I played, the more interesting the parents got."
"We'd joke about it, but it's serious. Some of my friends were walking on eggshells," says Small, now a student at Ithaca College in New York. "We hear a lot more than people think."
It gets so bad sometimes that some players wish their parents would just stay home, she says.
Laura Marinelli, who coaches Small's younger sister on a traveling softball team for 12- to 14-year-old girls in Essex County, N.J., also has noticed more over-the-top parent behavior in recent years.
Marinelli recalls one dad who was angry about a play on the field and tried to tackle her assistant coach during a game. The coach was able to duck the parent and ended up throwing him to the ground.
At a national tournament last year, she says a father of a player was so unhappy with a decision she'd made that he ran at her in the dugout, screaming and pointing in her face, causing some of her players to cry. Ultimately, she asked his daughter to leave the team because she felt the dad had repeatedly violated the team's code of conduct.
"The girl is a phenomenal softball player. She's a sweetheart and a great kid," Marinelli says. "But I can't have a parent like that on the sidelines."
Kicking kids off teams is one of the more serious punishments that leagues and coaches use to try to keep parents under control. Some leagues and tournament officials also are giving umpires more power to warn offending parents and coaches and then ask them to leave the premises if they ignore the warning.
It can be an effective deterrent, though in many other instances, umpires or referees at youth games are often teenagers who may not have the experience or confidence to stand up to parents.
And often, there's no security at games. So parents are left to police themselves.
For that reason, some teams assign parents to be "culture keepers," asking those people to help keep the yelling and negativity from fellow parents to a minimum. Sometimes, they even hand out lollipops to help keep themselves quiet.
"But sometimes the culture keeper isn't always the best person because that person is yelling just as much as the other parents," Jill Kirby says, laughing. She's a mom in Long Grove, Ill., whose five children participate in sports, from soccer to swimming and T-ball, sometimes in neighboring Buffalo Grove.
She says the signs asking adults to behave are a nice idea perhaps even a way to get people talking about the issue. But ultimately, she doesn't think the tactic will work.
"I think the worst offenders don't think they are the worst offenders," Kirby says, conceding that maybe even she was one of those parents, "once upon a time."
"And then I got a little perspective," she says.
Greg Dale, a sports psychologist at Duke University, agrees that it's difficult for parents to see themselves as "that parent," at least without a little help.
He recalls a mom in California telling him about a dad she called "leather lungs" because he yelled so often at the officials, coaches and kids.
Hesitant to approach him, the woman secretly filmed him at several games and anonymously sent him the video. "And the guy changed the way he was acting from then on," Dale says.
More often, though, he says he sees parents who "say the right things" about sportsmanship maybe even reciting a pledge before a game, as is the case at his own children's Little League games.
"Those things help. But ultimately, I think they're Band-Aids," says Dale, author of the book "The Fulfilling Ride: A Parent's Guide to Helping Athletes Have a Successful Sport Experience."
More important, he says is whether parents are actually BEING good sports, even at professional sporting events.
"As parents, we have to model the lessons we want our kids want to learn," he says.
There are other good reasons not to interfere, says Malcolm Brown, a high school and club soccer coach in Westchester County, N.Y.
One of his teams has instituted very occasional "silent Sunday" games. But he'd like to have them more often because he says they make his players better and more able to make decisions on their own.
"Too often during games, they're looking to the side for direction," he says of this generation of young athlete. "They become robots. They can never become good in soccer because soccer demands the imagination and creativity of the player."
Wendy Grolnick, a psychology professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, sees why silent games could be useful. But she also says coaches and leagues shouldn't punish all parents because some are overzealous.
"We don't want to just shut people up and make them feel like they can't say anything," says Grolnick, who wrote the book "Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child."
She recalls her own experience at meetings for parents when her daughters have played field hockey and tennis in college.
A lot of those meetings focused on "what not to do," she says. "It could feel a little insulting.. We need to feel like partners in the process."
But there's a happy medium, even for the most well-intentioned parents and even when they're not yelling or fighting says Mike Cherenson, a youth sports coach who founded a lacrosse league in his town, Pequannock, N.J.
He tells the story of a first-grade soccer game, when a young goalie was having trouble stopping the ball. Her mom ran onto the field to block it for her.
"Everyone had a good laugh no harm, no foul," Cherenson says. "But I think it does depict a larger problem.
"There seems to be an inability to separate yourself from your child."