Rage in youth sports discussion


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As published in the AAF/LA "Coaches Clipboard" Winter 2001 edition

Lately it appears that the news about youth sports is less about the accomplishments of the youngsters on the field of play and more about the violent incidents involving adults. This is of a serious concern to the MF as the quality of the sports experience for youngsters is negatively impacted by these thoughtless actions. To establish a dialogue among those involved in youth sports about the possible reasons for this sad state of affairs, and to discuss proactive measures that can be taken to avoid such situations, the MF convened a panel discussion on November I, 2000. The panel was moderated by Jim Thompson, founder/director of the "Positive Coaching Alliance." The panelists included Shari Young Kuchenbecker, Ph.D., sports psychologist specializing in child development; Darrell Burnett, clinical and sports psychologist specializing in youth sports issues; and Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at USC specializing in ethics in sports.
In opening the evening, MF President Anita DeFrantz explained the importance of the event, saying that even though rage and violence in youth sports is "still an exception. ..it is certainly significant as we (the MF) move forward in our efforts to serve youth in sports."

The goal of the discussion, according to moderator Thompson, was two-fold. To bring some insight to the issue, and to discuss practical tools that coaches and administrators can use to prevent (and, if necessary, address) incidences of rage and violence on the part of participants' parents.

Psychologist Burnert began his presentation with a plea for the audience to "get into the shoes" of parents who have experienced outbursts of rage. He spoke of the "baggage" that many parents carry with them into youth sports, including the pressure that often comes with participating (making the all-star team, earning scholarships, etc.), their own experiences as young athletes, and often their need to "relive their experiences through their kids." Also a factor, said Burnett, is the "myth" that expressions of anger can be a healthy way to "get things off your chest." According to Burnett, studies have actually shown, "the more anger you express, the angrier you get."

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These factors, combined with emotional "triggers" such as a bad call, not enough playing time, an "in-your-face" attitude, and of course, loss of a game, can combine to produce outbursts of rage. "If we don't appreciate where they're coming from," explained Burnett, "all we are doing is pointing fingers." Instead, Burnett offered a combination of "education and consequences" as a practical approach to working with parents (a process that would be echoed throughout the evening).

When educating parents, coaches should focus on the value of youth sports as a "game," and a way for young people to build self-esteem. Emphasis should be placed on skill-building over winning ("tasks over trophies"), and providing parents with information on the true odds of participants receiving college scholarships, or "going pro." Burnett also suggests that coaches provide parents with techniques for anger management -not normally considered a responsibility of a youth coach, but perhaps now a necessary one.
In terms of consequences for inappropriate behavior on the part of parents, all panelists agreed that they must be clear, firm, and enforced. Burnert's suggestions in this arena included having a specific list of "good sportsmanship," as well as lists of what exactly is considered "misconduct," and what the consequences for such misconduct will be. Parents must sign an agreement to abide by the rules of conduct, and a "game plan" should be put in place for handling the consequences.

USC Philosophy Professor Dallas Willard brought what he called a "different perspective" to the discussion, and a new weight to the issue, by discussing the philosophical implications of the recent increase in rage and violence in sports, and in society in general.

"Something has changed in our culture," he said, "not just in sports. We see it in road rage, elder and child abuse." He noted that anger is more and more a part of our daily lives and explained that, "we need to talk about this anger. We have to talk about it, because when it becomes rage, it is too late."

Willard defined anger as "the will to do or see harm done to something or someone," and went on to say that anger is always "inherently self-justifying and self-righteous," no matter how trivial the trigger may be. He echoed Burnett's statements by bringing up the fact that anger is "considered a good thing" in our culture, and that "people think they have a right to get what they want." Interestingly, he spoke of the need not to "repress or deny anger, but to learn how not to be angry" in the first place. (A tall order for many of us.)

As far as practical solutions, Willard emphasized the need to reintroduce the "moral body of knowledge" into the teaching and coaching process, and to "explicitly talk about it in the sports context." Teaching both youth and parents "that character, and not just achievement, is important," he warned, may have others "accusing you of preaching, but don't be a chicken!"

Willard ended his statements with the sobering message that, 'All of this will be hard. You now have to teach the society that used to sustain you."

Shari Young Kuchenbecker, author of "Raising Winners: A Parent's Guide to Helping Kids Succeed On and Off the field," spoke of the differences between how coaches describe successful sports participants, (they love to play, have a positive attitude, and are team players) with how parents describe them, (my son is the best on the team, we win every game, my child is physically gifted).

She also brought up the issue of "parental dynamics," where the father wants the child to win, and the mother "just wants the kids to have fun."

According to Kuchenbecker, "these 'PITA,' or Pain in the A ** parents, try to run both the child's life and the coaches' programs." Kuchenbecker enlightened the group with quotes from several young athletes who expressed, "my parents see me as a meal ticket," "my dad acts like he earned my letterman's jacket," and "last weekend I saw my dad ream out an assistant coach while I was playing."

Kuchenbecket emphasized the need to educate parents to "watch and listen to each child's needs." And to "promote pro-social development through sports." Kuchenbecker shared statistics showing that, "by the age of 14.75% of kids drop out of organized sports. Their primary reason: it's not fun." The quotes above illustrate patents' part in their children's disillusionment.

Jim Thompson, who uses some of Kuchenbecker's materials at his Positive Coaching Alliance, gave a pep talk to the coaches in the audience reminding them that, "for a movement to be successful, language is very important." He talked about the need for coaches to create their own culture, one of respect for the game. "We Honor the Game," read the pin on his lapel, and he urged coaches to use the phrase in their coaching (of both youth participants and their parents) in what he called, "message bombardment."

The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session in which coaches, administrators and other professionals expressed the need for "a code of ethics in sports," and their wish to have more focus on non-athlete role models who were successful in youth sports. Kuchenbecker agreed, saying that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her autobiography that the happiest day of her life was the day she became first-string on her field hockey team.

Another speaker, who applauded the evening's program and asked if the materials could be made available in Spanish, reminded the audience, "Oh, by the way, the Pope, he was a goalkeeper."

"Ethics is a code of values which guide our choices and action and determine the purpose of our lives." --Ayn Rand

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