I took my grandsons to a nice pizza restaurant for dinner and got an unwelcomed serving of R-rated language from the table of high school boys next to us. The adverbs and adjectives of choice began with "S" and "F" and were as liberally sprinkled into their conversation as flakes of parmesan on a pizza slice. When I approached their table to ask them to tone it down, they were shocked and ultimately very polite about it. I don’t think they even thought about the venue and how their language was drifting unconstrained into the room. While this episode ended with everyone agreeing on what rules of decorum should be followed, too often in sports we witness atrocious and uncontrolled incivility, and I’m talking about youth sports!
Whatever behavior the parents exhibit the kids will mimic. After all they want to be adults, and obviously adults belittle, swear, argue and fight. I’ve seen parents come to blows over the most trivial of reasons. There was a sideline battle when one parent told another parent that his team’s colors were stupid. Not sure why it had to be said and not sure why it couldn’t have been ignored, but I am really not sure why it required actual fisticuffs. I’ve heard parents call referees names that would make longshoremen blush. Even worse, it’s completely unacceptable to direct that type of verbal poison at a kid. We hear the stories of parents going onto the field, the court, or the ice and physically and verbally attacking a child for some perceived slight or play infraction. I witnessed a parent at a tournament approach a referee during a U8 game and slap him. The poor ref was only twelve and had no idea what to do. Police were called and the mother, yes it was a mother, was arrested right there in front of family and friends. There’s a warm, fuzzy memory for her child to cherish.
Coaches can forget that their charges are not seasoned adults, but impressionable insecure kids who only want to please. After a particularly tough contest that the team lost, the coach pulled one kid aside and told him, "You’re the reason we lost!" In the first place that’s blatantly false – no one player is responsible for a loss or a win – second, if the kid was playing so badly as to warrant that comment, the coach had the option to substitute him, and third, what lesson was the coach trying to teach? A better approach would have been to first focus on what went well in the game – fighting through two overtimes comes to mind – then breaking down some of the tactics and skills the team could improve on. We all have or have had kids and we know their attention span rarely exceeds three minutes. A few quick notes will sink in but a detailed analysis of the entire game won’t. Sadly, those moments when we say something rude and demeaning seem to last forever.
I’ve seen two instances of kids spitting on their hands before doing the obligatory handshakes at the end of the game. In one case the coach pulled those kids aside and told them that they needed to represent the team with pride, dignity, and courtesy. He warned them that the next time they would be benched for a full game. In the second case, the coach laughed, the parents egged the kids on, and the behavior became a constant until a referee stepped in and reported the team to the state association. It is unfortunate it had to come to a report. Kids, whose natural instinct is to stretch boundaries, will exhibit discourteous behavior when adults not only tolerate but encourage that type of behavior. For example, kids see their favorite soccer stars aggressively playing on the field, and they want to emulate that play. They don’t understand the evolution from controlled and civil field behavior to the tough, aggressive and often uncivil play of professionals. If they witness prejudicial behavior on the pitch against a race, gender, or religion, it’s up to us adults to immediately call that behavior into question. We have to encourage good manners and reject loutishness.
Kids should be learning from sports that respect for others and rules of decorum need to be foremost in the experience. If kids hear foul language, witness reckless actions, become the brunt of belittling comments and see adults not showing proper respect to authority, they will slowly morph into players who don’t play with civility. Once a game is over what will we be doing? Usually, we have plans like going out for lunch or a movie, meeting friends for a play date, or going home to watch Tiger Woods putt. Those activities are on a par with any soccer game when it comes to creating fun memories and family togetherness. Would we stand up at a movie and start yelling that the director is an idiot? Would we take one of your child’s friends aside to tell her that she is lousy at Go Fish? We seem to understand within most situations what is proper behavior and what isn’t. So why at a youth sporting events do we suddenly become these demons of language and behavior that we would never accept in a store, at a restaurant or at school? What do we really accomplish by yelling at the referee, engaging the parents of the opposing team in battles over whose team is better, or cheering on a child who has just punched another kid because we felt the hit was justified?
While I’m not an advocate of the "everyone is winner" type of false praise, I do believe we can encourage even when a child is playing dismally. We can find a way to approach a game positively without being disingenuous. If we don’t like a referee’s call, keep it to ourselves. We should expect our children to respect the authority of their coach and the referees, so we shouldn’t do anything to undermine it. We should teach our children that in the face of rudeness express only civility. It’s difficult because the tradition of "kill the umpire" pervades sports and trickles down to youth sports. In reality there isn’t a game our kids play that justifies bad manners. In the grand scheme of their lives and activities these games are mere blips; except of course for the game where your mother gets arrested. That game attains immortality.