THE BLOG

Sideline Rage: Fighting Over Child's Play

06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sports talk and sports writing are often littered with clichés. It's not if you win or lose, it's how you play the game. Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Well, here's another one: It's all about attitude.

Youth sports can be as beneficial to the emotional and mental health of a child as it can be for their bodies. But, if there is an obsessed parent screaming at them or the game officials from the bleachers, it can seriously damage a young person's psyche. The attitude on the sidelines and in the bleachers can make all the difference between sports honing a child's good character or breaking it.

You don't have to scan the headlines too long to see how some of those sideline attitudes have grown ugly. With competitiveness at an all-time high - for scholarships and old-fashioned prestige - incidents of parents losing their cool with coaches, officials, players and each other are on the rise. The consequences, in some cases, have been fatal. In one of the most famous incidents, one father beat another to death on the ice rink at a youth hockey practice. He was sentenced to 6 to 10 years in prison in 2002.

In other cases, the toll is emotional. Tennis champ Andre Agassi writes in his autobiography, "I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have." Agassi's father pushed him to hit 2,500 balls a day - a million a year - when he was only seven years old. He grew up playing a sport he hated and doesn't credit his father for the success he experienced in the sport. Most kids under this kind of crushing pressure will never have glory at Wimbledon to show for it.

That hasn't stopped parents from taking youth sports way too seriously. An April Reuters/Ipsos poll of 23,000 adults in 22 countries confirms what many who are regulars in the bleachers already suspected. This survey found that more than 35 percent of adults worldwide have witnessed a parent become physically or verbally abusive toward a coach or official at a youth sporting event. At home, the news is worse, with 60 percent of U.S. respondents saying they have seen unsavory behavior by parents during youth sports.

But why do parents lose their cool during a ball game - sometimes even those you would least expect? A 2008 study by a University of Maryland sports psychologist looked at several hundred Washington D.C.-area parents right after they watched their children play a soccer match. More than half of the parents reported getting angry during the course of the game. Of those, a third vented that anger. Most troubling of all, more than a quarter of those parents reported their ire was due to their own child's performance.

The toll exacted on the child on the field when the parents get violent or mean on the sidelines is costly. Some children develop post-traumatic stress disorder. It can affect performance in school, increase the likelihood of children exhibiting aggressive and delinquent behaviors and turn kids off of sports and exercise.

How do you avoid being one of those parents in the bleachers or at home?

Start by examining your attitude toward winning. Real sportsmanship can only be exhibited when there is an honest desire to win honorably and fairly. That said, be careful how you frame what constitutes winning. Being prepared for the game, putting in maximum effort and improving their skills on the field are also "wins" worth celebrating. Think about the questions you ask, too. If you miss a game, consider asking your child, "so, how did the team play?" instead of what the final score was.

Whether it's baseball season or football season, remember that this is their time. What happens on the field is not about you. When you feel your grip on your temper loosen, remember that and keep in mind those mistakes are also opportunities for leaning. Sounds simple, but try to hold on to your rationality the next time you disagree with a call the ref makes in your child's game.

Leave the coaching to the coach, and resist the urge to coach your child from the bleachers. If you're unhappy with the coaching style, discuss those concerns privately with the coach.

Sports are supposed to be fun. The point of youth sports is to teach those values mentioned above - teamwork, cooperation, leadership, resilience. Dreams of scholarships and a pro career are in fact secondary to having fun. For the younger ones, fun is really the only thing that matters to them anyway. Studies have shown that most kids, especially those under age 12, would prefer to play for a losing team than warm the bench on the winning team.

Playing sports with your kid should be fun for you, too. Play catch, just for the joy of the smack of the ball against a worn leather mitt. Dribble a basketball down the driveway, or a soccer ball at a park. Keep it light and enjoyable without falling into the pattern of playing the disciplinarian coach. Their skills and success on the field will improve - and their attitude will remain positive and sportsmanlike - if you keep the element of fun in the game.

Support your children in choosing the sports best suited to their talents and tastes rather than pushing them into the most popular sports, or your personal favorites. Let them play the game for themselves, not to relive your own athletic heyday. Take this into consideration, too, when determining if your child is best suited for team sports or individual sports. A very shy child with no interest in baseball probably won't enjoy playing on the local Little League team, but might enjoy swim or karate lessons. At the same time, a child might be willing to come out of her shell and play soccer on the local YSO team if she really loves the game. If you're concerned your kid isn't showing any interest in athletics, it may be that they don't know all the activities that are out there. Experiment with enrolling them in martial arts classes or other fitness activities until they find something they like.

The lessons learned on the youth playing field - whether the team emerges victorious or loses - are valuable for a lifetime. A key one is sportsmanship - behaving honorably and gracefully regardless of the final score. Practice it on the sidelines, and you can be sure your children will, too.