Leagues blow the whistle on competitive parents

Spectators are asked to tone down pressures on younger athletes

October 03, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

In suburban Cleveland, "Silent Sunday" is imposed to mute the loud-mouthed soccer parents who stalk the sidelines.

In a Florida town, recreation officials schedule sportsmanship lectures for parents and vow to make them mandatory.

Closer to Baltimore, amid concerns about the pressure-cooker atmosphere of youth lacrosse, a Towson recreation leader appeals to parents for "positive cheering." Soccer moms in Lutherville heed written instructions on how to yell.

With heightened urgency and novel approaches, youth sports organizers in Greater Baltimore and throughout America are targeting grown-ups who take the fun out of childhood games -- a problem more pernicious than ever, say some experts.

"The problem across the country is not as minor as most people think. It's growing worse and worse," said Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a Florida-based nonprofit that monitors youth sports issues.

"We have parents who sign their children up for sports and push them into highly competitive situations before they can tie their shoes. We have parents who tell a 7-year-old he's a dismal failure and will never amount to anything because he struck out in the last inning with the bases loaded."

Parental misbehavior embarrasses children and sets a bad example that contributes to a decline in sportsmanship among players, say youth sports officials. It's also considered a reason that 70 percent of children drop out of sports by age 13.

Parents attacking referees, accosting coaches and berating children: Almost any recreation official or parent can tell stories like the one about the Baltimore-area mother who charged onto a field and hit an opposing player with her pocketbook.

In Pennsylvania, a police officer is alleged to have paid a 10-year-old pitcher $2 in the spring to plunk a rival batter with a fastball.

As parents cram their children's calendars with organized sports and many other extracurricular activities, many also seem determined to direct their youngsters' every step on the field.

"You have one parent saying, `Pass the ball,' another parent is saying, `Dribble the ball down the sideline,' and another one's saying, `Move four steps to the right.' All of this cacophony of noise is projecting out on the field," said Michael Colglazier, commissioner of the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council's youth soccer program.

"It's the orchestration of their lives and activities, without sort of thinking that there is a concomitant need for children to have their own space, to test their own instincts and decision-making capabilities," he said.

Reining in parents

Leagues are trying to rein in overly competitive parents, turning to several approaches to remind parents that winning isn't everything.

At field hockey and lacrosse games at the private Bryn Mawr School, one parent sometimes distributes lollipops "so people won't be so mouthy," said Michelle Guinee, a parent, laughing.

Bryn Mawr, like many other institutions, enforces a written code of conduct for athletes and their parents.

The Western Howard County Youth Baseball and Softball League recently began requiring parents to sign a pledge of "positive support" for players, coaches and officials.

The Towson Recreation Council prints behavior guidelines on the backs of registration forms.

This fall, for the first time, the Lutherville-Timonium soccer program's handbook includes a recipe for behavior, originally written by a California soccer coach, under the heading "How To Yell."

Besides encouraging parents to "yell only positive things," the guidelines caution parents against coaching from the sidelines and screaming advice that often contradicts the coach's.

On a recent Saturday, the guidelines were put to a test during an under-10 girls' soccer game behind Lutherville Laboratory Elementary School.

A man on the Purple team's sideline screamed: "Come on. Get in front of her. Come on, take it. Come on and take it away!" His voice was piercing, the tone urgent.

"The testosterone is a little out of whack," Tony Barone observed from across the field as he sat under a child's colorful Crayola umbrella, watching his daughter play on the Kelly green team.

"They're getting a little too excited for [a game for] little girls."

`Encouraging them'

Patty Reilman, a 9-year-old on the Kelly team, said she tries to block out the parents' shouting from the bleachers.

"I just ignore them," she said, "because that gets me confused."

"Which they've told me in the past," said her mother, Nancy, "but it doesn't stop me from encouraging them."

Many leagues require spectators to stay away from the players' benches.

Noise on the sidelines inspired plans for the Northern Ohio Girls Soccer League's "Silent Sunday," said Al Soper, president of the 200-team youth league.

"The under-9, under-10 games were insanity," he said. "The yelling was so loud the kids couldn't react, couldn't think, couldn't do anything on the field without hearing a lot of yelling and criticism and compliments."

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