Sad to see parents turn into infants

July 16, 2000|By John Eisenberg

In case you missed it, there was a sad, new low in the overbearing- sports-parent sweepstakes last week. A father of a 12-year-old hockey player beat another father to death after a disagreement during a game in Massachusetts. Isn't that swell?

That's an over-the-top story, obviously, but it illuminates a problem with kids, parents and sports that seems to be getting worse - a runaway behavioral problem tracing to an epidemic of misplaced values.

If you're among the many who spend any time around youth sports these days, either coaching or just following your children, you surely have experienced it in some fashion. The coach who wants to win too badly. The father pushing his son too hard. The parent berating an umpire.

The "too-into-it" adults who forget why they're there in the first place: to teach kids about being a good teammate, a good sport, a good citizen - and having fun.

"I see it getting worse every year," said longtime Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, who has raised two kids, now grown, and operated a popular summer baseball camp for 18 years. "The things I hear now at Little League games are unbelievable. It wasn't nearly as bad 10 or 15 years ago."

What's happened? You can debate that one endlessly. It's about society becoming too fixated on being the best, or spoiled baby boomers playing out their fantasies, or the culture of violence and disrespect that's seemingly everywhere now, or the lure of the money and fame in today's pro sports - something in there.

"When I see these aggressive parents causing problems, I see a jock who got somewhere, but maybe not as far as he wanted, and now he's living his life through his kid," Hendricks said. "And, hey, we all want our kids to be better at everything than we were. That's fine and understandable. But you have to face reality at some point and have the right perspective."

And that perspective, quite simply, is that the vast majority of the millions of kids playing sports aren't going to play pro ball, earn a college scholarship or get anything out of the experience other than some (hopefully positive) memories and some ideas about how to get along with friends and strangers.

That should be plastered on a handout given to every coach, parent and league administrator at the beginning of every season, under a big, bold headline reading, "Remember Why We're Doing This."

Not to win at all costs.

Not to develop the next Ken Griffey Jr.

To learn to play, excel if the child is so driven, teach positive behavior and, above all, make sure the kids are having fun.

"On the first day of every [camp] session, I tell the parents, `Sorry, but your kids aren't going to the major leagues,'" Hendricks said. "That's where I start. I tell them we're here to treat kids as kids. If one out of the 250 in camp makes it [to the majors], I'd be thrilled. But even the odds of that are extremely slim."

The odds of any child turning sports into a vocation are off-the-charts long. More realistically, some will play in high school and a few will compete in college.

To that end, there's certainly nothing wrong with instilling discipline and competitveness and preaching the right way to play - sometimes sternly, if neccesary. And playing to win? It's not a sin by a certain age, if it's kept in perspective.

"If you ask me what we're doing at the camp, I'd say we're striving to teach kids to play a game the right way," Hendricks said. "It's something that every good coach or instructor cares about deeply, in his or her heart. And that's something to proud of.

"But what we're really trying to do at the camp is make them better people. If they play better, great. But it's the behavior we really want to see."

The behavior?

"I tell them I want them to be a good, positive teammate, not a fighter or a name-caller," he said. "I tell them I want them to respect their opponents whether they're winning or losing, because it makes no difference. I tell them I want them to respect the umpire and don't use [bad] calls as an excuse.

"And I tell them that they're kids and don't forget it, and that, most of all, they should have fun."

Oh, yeah, fun.

That's what gets lost when parents demand too much, or coaches care too much, or umpires can't do their jobs because someone is heckling them.

"It's their game; you have to let them play," Hendricks said. "After the play or the game is over, you do your teaching. But when a kid is at bat and you're standing there telling him to lower his hands and do this and that and get a hit because the game is on the line, he's not going to enjoy it."

So just shut up?

"Just be there and be encouraging," Hendricks said. "That's really enough."

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