Youth Sports, Adult Conduct Disorders and One Shining Moment

Are we really about "whatever it takes" in youth sports, even when safety is at risk?
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Children join the world of sports with the hope of having fun, learning skills, and being with their friends. According to Michigan State University's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, an estimated 30 million children in our country play organized sports each year and the benefits to children include better health and a "character-building values such as teamwork, dedication, and discipline."

Unfortunately, with great zeal and determination, adults can often mess it all up. They have increasingly taken over the games children play and become, what Jordan Cox calls, "the ultra-organizers" of youth sports. The problem, Cox argues is that "[w]hat parents want and what parents hope to gain from their children's participation in organized youth sports is often at a polar extreme to what their kids want."

Like the Dementors in Harry Potter, the "ultra-organizers" can suck the joy, the fun, and the life out of sports through their emphasis on "winning at all costs" and their push to the professionalization of youth sports.

There are, unfortunately, media reports of:

Violence, including assaults and death threats
Cheating, including forged birth certificates, bringing guest ringers to the roster, or urging kids to use performance enhancing drugs
•Poor sportsmanship, including adults cheering the mistakes and yelling profanities at children on the opposing team, coaches running up the score against opponents, and coaches subjecting children to various forms of emotional distress

Sometimes all perspective and rationality is lost.

As a college student at the University of Texas, I worked in the athletic department and used to referee youth basketball to earn a few dollars to help pay for my education. In a recreational 5th grade league, the gymnasium wall was so close to the baseline that the league imposed a rule that a player could not contest a layup from behind or they would be suspended for the remainder of the game.

In one game, a player pushed an opponent driving to the basket from behind so hard that he flew out of bounds and into the wall. The rule was clear and so the kid that committed the foul quickly apologized to the player he pushed and sat himself on the bench. He knew the rule. However, when we walked out to the parking lot, we were confronted angrily by the kids' father, who was upset his son was taken out of the game and that his son's team lost. He proceeded to explode and threaten us while screaming, "Nobody should stop a player from doing whatever it takes to win!"

Are we really about "whatever it takes" in youth sports, even when safety is at risk?

Sadly, although the parent's behavior was shocking and upsetting to us, what was worse was the impact on his child. You could see in the 5th grader's eyes the horror and embarrassment of the moment. But, as with most of these types of incidents, the code of silence and eye aversion went into effect and all the parents and both of us referees scattered to our cars and drove off. I doubt anybody ever even talked to the parent about his behavior.

There is nothing fun, civil, ethical, or acceptable about such incidents, but they are not uncommon. According to Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports and founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports:

Studies show that an alarming 70 percent of the approximately twenty million children who participate in organized out-of-school athletic programs will quit by the age of thirteen because of unpleasant sports experiences...It's a frightening statistic that paints a rather bleak picture of organized sports in America today. The culprits are the adults who, in their roles as coaches, administrators, and parents, have misguided motives and ideals of what youth sports are all about.

Children are quitting youth sports in droves, according to The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, because they are "not having fun, too much pressure, too much emphasis on winning, overbearing coaches and parents, the coach played favorites." More and more kids would rather play FIFA or NBA Live on the X-Box or PlayStation in the safety of their basements rather than subject themselves to the behavior of coaches and parents out on the sports fields or gym floor.

As a parent recently pointed out to me, the behavior of adults is such that the Montgomery County Recreation Department in Maryland requires parent and spectator codes of conduct to be signed by all adults -- but not by the kids. Anne Arundel Recreation and Parks requires a signed "Head Coach's Pledge" that maybe all recreation departments should require. But the overriding point is, children are typically not the problem. It is why I have come to have a strong visceral reaction to the saying "behaving like a child" because the fact is that no child would act as poorly as some adults do when it comes to youth sports.

Unfortunately, despite parents and coaches signing codes of conduct, the abusive behavior continues. In fact, there seems to be an undercurrent among hyper-intense parents and coaches to justify and defend their behavior by arguing that "winning" and "striving for excellence" should be the overarching goal of youth sports -- no matter what the cost.

With them, all perspective, sportsmanship, and civility is gone. What was about "fun" for kids has been replaced by a twisted version of Bruce Springsteen's song "Glory Days" where parents try to relive their sports careers through their kids and pursue a lottery-like chance of making a professional sports team. They simultaneously exhibit a lack of understanding of what kids truly "want" and a failure to grasp what legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden calls "pursuing victory with honor."

One response is to require more compliance with a set of rules to discourage unfair competition, such as the youth basketball rule prohibiting double teaming and pressing through 4th grade because the offensive skills of younger players are such that it would be virtually impossible to get off a shot against such pressure. Unfortunately, rules will never work well enough because the zealots often abuse the rules by turning them on their head while managing to remain in some sort of "compliance."

For example, in 2nd grade recreation basketball, one coach was "in compliance" with these rules by sending his four weakest offensive players into the corner and having his most talented offensive player go one-on-one in a play he called "Money." It may have been fun for his one player to score basket-after-basket on layups against a weaker defensive player, but devastating to the defender and completely worthless basketball for the other eight players on the court standing in the corner. In fact, for 9 of the 10 players on the court, "Money" was anything but fun.

Another coach simply taught his kids to go ahead and double-team the entire game anyway under the calculus that referees were unlikely to call it all game long and that the penalty required the offensive team to bring the ball in from out-of-bounds, which is a 50/50 proposition at that age anyway. His team abused the rule to either steal the ball through double-teaming or, when the referees managed to make the call, steal the ball on the subsequent in-bounds pass. While the other coaches were dutifully teaching their kids not to double-team on defense, he did the opposite and his team cruised to an undefeated record with many overwhelming victories due to the fact other teams often could not even get a shot off for entire quarters.

By the end of the season, other coaches decided to adopt the double-teaming strategy back against both of these teams -- thereby stopping the one-on-one "Money" play in its tracks in one game and giving the double-teaming team a taste of their own medicine in the other. Although it was good to see in one sense, it is sad that teams had to resort to such tactics in 2nd grade recreation basketball to counter such behavior.

So, if rules can be bent to undermine the intent of creating an environment of enjoyment, fun, and fairness in youth sports, the most powerful thing we can do is to speak out and end the silence toward poor, unsportsmanlike behavior while simultaneously lifting up and highlighting those shining moments where civility and class come first.

This week, Coronado and Franklin High Schools in El Paso, Texas, demonstrated such a moment in the midst of a pretty close and tense basketball game that should be a national story. In the game, Coronado (where I played high school basketball many years ago) was seeking to finish the regular season undefeated in district play and Franklin was trying to upset its neighborhood rival in preparation for the post-season playoffs. In the waning moments of the game with Coronado leading by 10 points, El Paso Times reporter Bret Bloomquist reports:

... the game turned into something remarkable. Coronado inserted Mitchell Marcus, a special-needs student who has served as the team manager for four years. He was allowed to suit up for the first time for senior night and the Thunderbirds spent the last 90 seconds trying to get him a basket. When Marcus couldn't handle a pass that went out of bounds with 13 seconds left, it appeared it wouldn't happen. But, in a show of class and sportsmanship, Franklin inbounded the ball to Marcus and on his final try, moments before the buzzer sounded, he made a layup.

The team and student section mobbed him and chanted his name. "Mitchell is our heart and soul. That was awesome," Morales said.

Coronado Coach Peter Morales, Franklin Coach Todd Bostic, and the players and fans for both schools were all part of a very special and classy moment. As Franklin basketball player Jon Montanez, who was the one that purposed turned the ball over to Mitchell, tweeted: "Congrats Mitchell... You deserve it man!! Glad I'm the one who gave the ball up to you... Best Coronado vs Franklin game ever!!"

Although I was not fortunate enough to be there, I am sure it was.

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