Years ago, when my son was beginning his foray into competitive tennis, I entered him in a local, somewhat low-key tournament intended to introduce new players to tennis competition. I thought it would be fun. But as I watched my son's match, the activity one court over distracted me. A father was screaming at his son from the sideline, for making an error. The boy grew frustrated and angry; their interchange was embarrassing.
An official informed the father that he'd be removed if he could not keep quiet. A short while later, when the boy lost, he threw his racquet and burst into tears. He could barely bring himself to shake his opponent's hand.
Surprised? Not really. While there are multiple reasons some kids end up being bad sports, parents usually receive the most blame -- something we moms and dads ought to consider as another sports season is set to kick off.
In recent years, bad sportsmanship, it seems, has reached new heights, leading to fistfights, assaults and even cases of manslaughter. Remember the hockey-dad fight in Massachusetts five years ago that resulted in the death of a father who had volunteered to act as referee? Or the 13-year-old in Palmdale who was just sentenced to 12 years in juvenile detention for killing a player from another team with a baseball bat after a Pony League game?
Why and how are we, the parents, bringing out the worst in our kids?
Some invest their own egos in their children's athletic achievements. Some are hoping that athletic prowess will buy a free ride to college.
And some set the stage by exhibiting their own deplorable conduct from the sidelines.
"Most parents support and encourage their children's athletic activities appropriately," said Ed Gelb, varsity basketball head coach at YULA, an Orthodox high school in Los Angeles. "But many need to be reminded that the experience belongs to their child, not to them. They need to stress for their children the value of commitment and teamwork. Parents teach their children a valuable lesson when they support their efforts, the team, the coach, and the rules."
When parents do not support their child properly, or when they demonstrate unacceptable behavior and lack of control, the problems escalate.
"I've seen parents become abusive toward other parents and even toward their own children," said Dennis Rizza, tennis director at the Jack Kramer Club in Palos Verdes. "Tournament play can be very stressful for youngsters and teens. There is no official on the court most of the time, so kids are on their honor to play fairly. If parents send the message that they value the score over their child's character, that child will learn to cheat."
There are coaches who contribute to the problem, as well. Some are under so much pressure from parents and school administrators to win that they resort to cheating and encourage overly aggressive behavior.
"If the school is more interested in winning in order to gain publicity, raise money, and keep parents and alumni happy, [the coach] is pressured to look the other way," Gelb said.
The governing bodies of athletic associations are taking the problem seriously. They've revised their rules, and required stricter enforcement. The United States Tennis Association developed a new code of conduct with a penalty system that results in a default after three infractions. According to Rizza, this teaches an important lesson: "If there are consequences to a player's outbursts, he will learn self-control."
American Youth Soccer Organization, concerned about negative and violent behavior of kids, parents and coaches, initiated their Kid Zone program, designed to counter the growing trend of bad sideline behavior. Spectators who do not abide by certain standards can be asked to leave the field. The focus for the players is on developing skills, learning teamwork and having fun.
"This is what we strive for," said Rob Andersen, a girls' soccer coach. "Soccer is a terrific sport, one in which players can compete hard and have great success. But if they don't play like a team player -- if they're more interested in personal records than in the success of the team -- they bring the team down.... For parents who expect their kids to play on club or high school teams, they'd better help them learn how to handle themselves."
Parents can set the stage by helping kids learn how to cope with disappointment, said Dr. Jaye-Jo Portanova, a child psychiatrist.
"Children benefit when they lose now and then, because that gives them perspective on reality," she added. "After a loss at a sporting event, parents and coaches should praise children who have handled their disappointment appropriately. This will lead to better sportsmanship, real self-esteem, decreased anxiety and, ironically, better playing next time around."
Parents, of course, also have to model that kind of behavior on their own.
As legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne said, "One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than 50 preaching it."