Sportsmanship in youth sports: MIA?

Michael Boylan's picture

My son, Colin, is still at least five years away from participating in youth sports and it may be longer with the way things are going in youth sports in general.

As sports editor at The Citizen, I hear about the (mostly) good things in recreational sports, but from time to time I also hear about the bad things.

Recently, I have heard of several bad things in a row and when you add them to the list of the bad things you hear on the national scale (fist-fights between parents, attacks on officials, etc.), I have to wonder if having my child participate in youth sports is worth all of the hassle.

The adage that states, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game,” is true at the beginning of youth sports but things quickly change as the difference between talent levels becomes more apparent and parents and coaches start believing that the stakes are higher than they actually are.

A very select few will ever make it to playing professional ball, and while a solid youth program is important to build a foundation for those athletes, the majority of the participants in youth programs need them as an outlet for exercise, fellowship and fun.

That message gets lost very quickly when a coach wants to assure himself of an undefeated youth coaching career or when a parent believes that his or her child will only become a superstar in a particular position.

Recently, I heard of a young player not being allowed to play in a younger age bracket of youth football, despite assurances from some in the organization that this was acceptable.

The boy’s parents did not want to see their son, who they felt was on the smaller side of children his age, get hurt in the appropriate age bracket. The coordinators from other leagues that played this boy’s team felt that because he had played for a year, he could hurt some of the younger kids who were playing football for their first year.

It is a shame to make a child sit on the sidelines when his friends are playing ball, but the coordinators of all three leagues needed to discuss the situation prior to him playing.

This never happened and instead there were arguments and finger-pointing between adults. The whole issue came about because the boy scored a touchdown against another team from his league and the parents of the losing side felt that there was an unfair advantage.

We’re talking 5-6-year-old football here, not the Super Bowl.

Another football story that crossed my desk was about a coach not shaking the hand of a former player after a football game. The photo certainly leaves the viewer with a bad taste and the coach in question has regretted that decision ever since he made it in, what he admits was, “the heat of the moment.”

Apparently, the issue came down to a disagreement between parent and coach. As the coach saw it, the player left the league because he wasn’t getting time running the ball, while the parents’ side states that they were treated rudely by the coach.

The parents were former coaches and administrators in the league and felt they were owed some respect when approaching the coach. After not getting the respect they felt they deserved, they left the league, which in turn upset people in the league, yada, yada, yada.

When the young man faced off against his old team, the player got to run the ball and, according to the coach, the player’s parents continually yelled at the old coach from the stands. The parents remarked on how the announcer kept announcing the player as a former league member, as if to embarrass him. They had also heard that their son’s former teammates were told to go out and “get their son.”

The young player jumped to the head of the line after the game and extended his hand for a shake, and regrettably the coach didn’t shake his hand.

There was clearly a disagreement between the two adult parties but it should have never been taken out on the child.

The coach was definitely in the wrong for not setting an example for good sportsmanship, but the parents, if indeed they were hollering throughout the game (and that isn’t outside the realm of possibility these days), they are in the wrong as well.

What do we teach our children when so much importance is placed on the results of a youth football game?

The key to good sportsmanship is respect, whether it is respect for your opponents, their coaches or the officials. The players deserve respect from the fans because they are giving their all while playing a game. The coaches deserve respect because they are volunteering their time to educate players and serve as role models and the officials deserve respect because it is one of the most thankless jobs known to man.

If you don’t agree, try it for a while. You’ll get a real up-close glimpse of the state of youth sports and it will truly shake your faith in humanity.

The last example that I have recently heard of is a very convoluted issue that I have yet to get to the bottom of.

The director of coaching for the Peachtree City Lazer program was terminated and while many parents and players are upset about losing him, they were more upset by the way the administration handled the situation and kept themselves from hearing from concerned parents and players.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to this story, but once again we have the adults playing or claiming politics in youth sports.

Granted, the Lazer program is a nationally recognized program with many players going for college scholarships and placement on national and Olympic development teams, but both sides taking it down a notch couldn’t hurt.

In fact, everyone on the sidelines of any youth sport could stand to take it down a notch, and the younger the players are the more notches it should come down.

Five-year-olds probably shouldn’t even be playing football (at least one that keeps score), but that’s another column, one that will also talk about how 3-year-olds shouldn’t model in beauty pageants.

You hear people talk about how children are being robbed of their childhood and that kids today are far less innocent today than children were in years past.

Well, you can blame letting them watch simulated murders and seizure-inducing cartoons on television and you can add taking youth sports so seriously to the list.

If you think I’m being over-dramatic, ask yourself if there were drafts or the ability to freeze players when you were playing Little League?

Did your league have paid coaches? Booster clubs? Diamond vision scoreboards?

We were lucky if the team mom for the weekend cut up enough oranges for everybody for a half-time snack.

What was most important to my teammates and me, even when we were on a state championship soccer team, was that the game would eventually end and we could spend the rest of our Saturday goofing off and watching “Police Academy” sequels late into the night.

One of the coaches I spoke with wondered if the kids are even enjoying playing these games anymore and, with all of the pressure that is added to a game, from coaches who are seeking to be the most dominant team in recorded history of intramural t-ball to parents that think that their kid will be the next Herschel Walker if he gets more touches, I’m sure they are liking the games less and less.

I think that most of the mission statements for the youth sports leagues is to give each child an appreciation for the game they are playing.

Are those missions being accomplished? I’m starting to seriously doubt it.

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