'Bad news parents': Youth sports officials try to control over-the-top parent behavior

  • Article by: MARTHA IRVINE , AP National Writer
  • Updated: July 3, 2013 - 4:40 PM

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.

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