I’ve shared before how involved my kids are in youth sports and how many benefits to being involved in team sports that I think there are. Sports have helped my boys work on their social skills, learn the importance of teamwork, given them a chance to learn about responsibility, provided a fun means of exercise and produced friendships they still cherish today. All of these skills are vital for kids as they move through elementary school and into junior and senior high. I still believe all the positive things that I’ve written about youth sports before but, after an incident recently happened to my son, I feel compelled to share about the other side of youth sports and also what I believe to be our biggest responsibility as parents, coaches, leagues, and fans.
One day a couple weeks ago, my son and his teammates had just played a soccer game and experienced a lot of dirty play from the other team- pushing, yanking jerseys, tripping, etc- which is really not all that uncommon in youth sports nowadays. My kids have played sports since they were in preschool so I’m aware that there are just some teams that do that more so than others and it’s sadly become pretty commonplace and ignored (at least in the handful of leagues we’ve been involved in).
My concern is how that “dirty play” and “win at all costs” culture leads to further negative physical and verbal interactions. Even in this recreational team my son is on that says they are all about “fun”. When my kid, or any kid, no longer feels safe (whether emotionally or physically) playing youth sports we have a problem.
So back to the soccer incident… My 9-year old son was at the soccer game and it had come to the end of the game where the “losing” team and the “winning” team meet to exchange handshakes and give a quick “good game” to the other side. My son happened to be on the losing team this day and they were bummed (like most kids are when they lose) and the other team was excited (which is completely understandable). One child in particular chose to tease the losing team reminding them they lost instead of saying “good game”. My son responded that it “didn’t matter” who won and this child responded with “you don’t matter” and when my son said “be quiet” this kid purposefully hit my son in the face (hard enough to make my tough, sports playing kid cry).
So of course all the adults in the situation responded to let the child know that was not okay, right? NOPE. When my son’s coach saw him crying and his teammates told the coach what had happened my son’s coach marched him across the field and let the other team’s coaches know that a child on his team had hit my son. The coach did not show any empathy at all and made the boy shake my son’s hand but no apology was given. The other coach then laughed about the situation with a parent on their team and later verbally attacked our coach who had just been bringing the situation to his attention.
Talking to our league’s team mom representative that next morning she’d told me that she’d received a number of complaints about this team’s dirty playing and that the coach of the other team was a league rep who should know better and be held to a higher standard and that the child would be suspended. I also contacted our league commissioner and president of the organization and thought for sure that contacting them would result in a resolution. At first, the league commisioner seemed to be as appalled as everyone else was. Weeks later though they brushed it off and the president even responded to my son’s coach saying he “was more concerned” with the verbal altercation that the two coaches got in after the game, after all the children had left, than my son being hit in the face.
The league’s “code of conduct” states punishment for “physical violence” is one year suspension from all league events but we weren’t even asking for that. All my son and I wanted was an apology and the league to acknowledge that physical violence is not acceptable and to know it will not be tolerated and they will take action when it happens. The league’s actions lead me to believe that a kid who scores goals and a coach who wins games don’t need to apologize for their behavior or receive any punishment at all.
And it’s not limited to this one incident being “swept under the rug” so to speak. Last season a parent on an opposing team was screaming at the umpire during a baseball game because he didn’t like some of the calls he made. The umpire was a teenager. Another season, my son struck out during a baseball game and his coach cussed him out. The worst part is that this kind of thing runs rampant at youth sports games across the country so much so that some leagues had to start putting signs up reminding spectators that it’s “just a game” and these are kids playing.
Our biggest responsibility to our young children who play youth sports is to provide a safe environment for them to learn and play. We cannot allow bullying, violence, or other unsportsmanlike conduct on our field because “it’s just part of youth sports”. It shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be something everyone just accepts. This means that we all need to acknowledge that the players are still learning and developing their skills. We need to all realize that umpires and referees are human and make mistakes. We also need to remember that we all have a responsibility to model good sportsmanship and treating each other with respect. Providing a safe environment also means standing up for those who are experiencing unsafe or mentally unhealthy conditions.
From coaches cussing at kids for striking out to parents screaming at umps to leagues defending the actions of their top performers to kids physically harming other kids with rough play and physically hurting others without fear of consequence, the “win at all costs” mentatlity is harming our communities and our children. It’s okay to want to win but it’s not okay to create and foster environments where winning trumps everything else, including the safety of our children.
What do you think? I’d love to hear about your experience with youth sports in the comments below.