Behavior ruins fun for kids

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Friday, August 15, 2008
— They scream obscenities at the referees.

They criticize their own kids’ performance.

They threaten the coaches.

There’s even been some minor violence.

Unruly parent conduct at sporting events happens everywhere, including at games for grade school kids.

It comes from a minority of parents, but when it crops up, it poisons youth sports, say local coaches and referees.

Janesville youth hockey and lacrosse parent Margery Tibbetts recalled an incident a few years ago, when parents verbally abused the coach at the rink, pushed him in the parking lot, and then chased the coach with a car.

“Mainly it’s verbal, either criticizing the kids or the coaches or the other parents,” said Tibbetts, who sits on the board of the Janesville Lacrosse Club.

Babe Ruth coach Tom Davey remembers a parent who got drunk and unruly, embarrassing his 17-year-old son.

“He had to go into the stands and tell his father to leave. Now that’s a horror story.”

Coaches and referees say a change has come over parents since the 1960s, when kids organized their own sandlot or pickup games and parents stayed home, to today’s organized leagues for even the youngest children.

Ironically, more organization has meant more parents behaving badly.

“As society has gotten more uncivilized in general, I think we see that in the conduct of fans and parents,” said Jack Hoag of Janesville, who has coached basketball, football and baseball at several age levels.

“I just think sometimes people don’t take a step back and check themselves and think about what we are doing and why we’re there,” Hoag said.

Most coaches and officials interviewed for this article think things are getting better, although it’s still a problem.

“I think it was worse, in my observation, probably four or five years ago than it is now, because I think the clubs and all the associations are taking a harder line on it,” Tibbetts said.

“Sometimes I think parents expect too much of their kids,” said Tom Bier, who has seen a change for the worse since he began officiating youth games as a senior at Craig High School in 1969.

Parents expect too much and put too much pressure on their children too early, Bier said.

“I can see on the kids’ faces that it’s not fun,” Bier said.

Parents’ tacky behavior is commonly aimed at three targets: coaches, officials and the kids.

Attacking the coaches

Hoag said he’s seen parents trying to micro-manage coaches’ decisions, right down to the batting order. Or, they try to undermine the coach by complaining to the high school principal.

Davey doesn’t mind the occasional parental outburst, if it’s not over the top and if the parent gets over it and sits down right away. But nonstop harassing of coaches or umpires is not OK.

“The child doesn’t want to hear the parent screaming out loud for the whole game in a negative way,” Davey said.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Davey said. “They want their son or daughter to have the same chance as anyone else to be successful.”

“Part of it is that parents have so much influence in the hiring and firing of coaches at the high school level, and if things don’t go well for their son or daughter, they start raising hell about it,” Bier said. “I think that’s a shame.”

Yelling at officials

“I used to be a guy who yelled at officials a lot,” said Kevin Porter, athletics director for the Janesville School District.

Then someone challenged Porter: “If you think you can do a better job, why don’t you get an official’s license?”

So he did.

“I don’t think people understand how hard it is to be an official,” Porter said. “You’re not going to see everything. There are things you’re just going to miss.”

The younger the kids, the harder it can be, because younger players are just learning the game, and that makes them unpredictable, Porter said.

While the Janesville School District has no guidelines for parent behavior, foul language should not be tolerated, Porter said: “They get one warning as far as I’m concerned,” and then they’re out of the gym.

Chris Nicholson, an official and commissioner of the Rock Valley Conference, said his worst experience was at a baseball playoff game. A father objected to a call and followed the umpires out to the car after the game, shoving one ump before Nicholson intervened.

The man later was arrested.

Nicholson said it bothers him that anyone would think he would favor one team over another.

“I don’t know any sports official who would intentionally make a bad call to blow the game for anybody,” Nicholson said. “… I’m up there to do my best and try to enforce the rules as fairly and equitably as possible.”

Dan Rankin, who has officiated at volleyball and basketball for more than 20 years, said it’s getting worse.

“Everybody wants their kid to be the Michael Jordan or Mistie Bass, and they’re not, and they just can’t accept that fact,” Rankin said.

“Cut ’em some slack, and the calls tend to even out,” Bier said. “… Officials make mistakes at all levels, and nobody feels worse when they make a mistake than an official.”

Hammering the kids

“I think parents are harder on their kids for their performance on the field than I’ve ever seen,” Davey said.

More parents send their children to sports camps, and that might be driving the high expectations, Davey said, but the best thing a parent can do is to be positive, especially when the kid’s in a slump.

“A lot of parents are living through their kids or have their kid in sports with the expectation that they’ll get a scholarship,” Tibbetts said. “… They’ve taken the fun out of it and expect perfection at every move,” even of 6-year-olds.

If a child is a standout at age 9, that’s no guarantee of success later, Bier said.

“By the time they get to high school, they may not be playing that sport anymore,” Bier said.


“Shut up and let ’em play” was the blunt advice from several coaches and refs.

“If a parent can’t come to have good time and cheer their son or daughter on, stay home,” Nicholson said.

“If a kid makes three errors out there and strikes out three times, the sun’s still going to rise tomorrow,” Davey said.

More important than performance on the field is high expectations for your son or daughter’s conduct, Davey added.

Think about what’s important: “It’s about the experience that their son or daughter is experiencing—the leadership skills, developing teamwork, sportsmanship, becoming a positive role model, enjoying those experiences—because unfortunately not everyone can be on a winning team all the time,” Nicholson said.

Tibbetts said it might help if parents and kids are educated early, at the youngest ages in the club leagues.

Janesville Youth Hockey has altered its philosophy, stressing the value of learning the game and having fun, and de-emphasizing winning and playing lots of games, Tibbetts said.

“And I think the kids play better and have fun,” Tibbetts said. “I think maybe that’s had some positive impact.”

But it’s natural to get upset when one’s child is in the middle of an intense competition. Over the years, backers of some local teams have found a way to police themselves: Tootsie pops.

Some passed them out at the beginning of the game as a reminder. In youth hockey, Tibbetts said parents would pass one to anyone who got too mouthy.

“It was a fun way to quash it. It all became good fun,” she said.

In the end, it should be about the kids’ character, not their statistics, several coaches and refs said.

“And when you go to the game, just sit and enjoy the game and be glad they’re out there participating,” Bier said. “And at the end of the game tell them, ‘Boy, you played great.’”

Sports-parenting expert says take a seat

Leave the coach alone. You have no business questioning lineups or any other game decisions.

You’re a parent. Sit down, enjoy the game and support your child. That’s your role.

That’s the word from Dan Doyle, executive director of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island. Doyle is co-author of the recently released “Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting.”

Doyle said it’s great that parents have become more involved with their kids’ activities. Contrast that with the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Doyle was a sandlot kid. Then, it was rare for a parent to show up at a game.

But parental support has warped into something ugly.

Kids need to learn to deal with success and with disappointment, Doyle said, and they won’t learn it if a parent complains to the coach every time Junior gets benched.

“It in effect robs kids of the chance to grow and to take that journey to self reliance,” he said.

Some parents might have visions of a college scholarship or Olympic berth. But what are the chances?

Doyle said a recent study found 382,000 children registered in youth basketball leagues, but by their senior years in high school, only 81,000 were playing varsity ball.

Of that group, 1,100 ended up with a Division I scholarship.

Nevertheless, parents with visions of glory push coaches and berate referees.

“It is an unfortunate part of contemporary parental culture, but I think I see change,” Doyle said.

Doyle, who has spoken at numerous campuses for the NCAA, said some of that change is coming from coaches, who are more willing to resist parental pressure.

“Dad or Mom needs to take on the role of Counselor of Wisdom, to counsel the child to deal with problems. Picking up the phone and screaming at the coach is not a noble thing to do,” Doyle said.

It’s natural to feel those protective parental impulses when your child is on the field competing, Doyle acknowledged. “But you have an obligation to have some dignity and self control.”

Cheer. Be respectful. Recognize the human frailties of everyone, including coaches, refs and kids, Doyle advises.

“You can cheer as loud as you want, but don’t be swearing or yelling. It’s not right.”


Youth sports groups have started adopting rules for parents such as these from the Janesville Lacrosse Club:

-- I will be a positive role model for my child. I will encourage good sportsmanship by showing respect and courtesy and by demonstrating positive support for all players, coaches, officials and spectators at every game, practice or other sporting event.

-- I will not engage in any kind of unsportsmanlike conduct with any official, coach, player or parent such as booing and taunting, refusing to shake hands, or using foul language or gestures.

-- I will not encourage any behaviors or practices that would endanger the health and well being of the athletes.

-- I will teach my child to play by the rules and resolve conflicts without resorting to hostility, violence or unsportsmanlike conduct.

-- I will demand that my child treat other players, coaches, officials and spectators with respect regardless of race, creed, color, sex or ability.

-- I will praise my child for competing fairly and trying hard, and make my child feel like a winner every time.

-- I will never ridicule or yell at my child or other participants for making a mistake or losing a competition.

-- I will emphasize skill development and practices, and how they benefit my child over winning.

-- I will respect the officials and coaches and their authority during games. I will never question, discuss or confront coaches or officials at the game field and will take time to speak with coaches at an agreed upon time and place.

-- I will refrain from coaching my child and other players during the games and practices.

-- I agree not to criticize my child’s teammates at any time or talk negatively about his teammates with him or others.

-- I will provide positive support and encouragement for my player participating in the Janesville Lacrosse Club program and emphasize the importance of achieving common goals through teamwork.

-- I understand that the coaches try to be as fair as possible. I will support their team placement decisions to my player and other parents.

-- I will be a respectful fan and encourage good sportsmanship by demonstrating positive support for all players, coaches, parents and officials at every practice, game or other Janesville Lacrosse Club event.

Last updated: 10:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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