Good sportsmanship used to be something parents encouraged in their children. Now it often seems parents could use lessons from their kids about the right conduct at games.
Parents' boorish, even violent behavior at youth sports events has made headlines across the country. Incidents range from harassment of coaches to outright brawls. In the most infamous case, one father beat another to death at a pickup hockey game for their kids.
There are no reliable figures on how widespread such conduct has become. "But the way I see it, it's getting more common," says California clinical psychologist Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D., author of It's Just a Game! Youth, Sports and Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents.
One explanation for the sideline savagery is that youth sports aren't played just for fun anymore.
"The big change came in the 1990s with the onslaught of club and travel sports, like hockey, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Parents were being told, 'I can get your kid a scholarship. This is where the scouts come,'" Dr. Burnett says.
The push for young stardom, despite the steep odds against making it big, can lead parents to invest too much financially and emotionally, he says. Then a small problem such as a missed game or a sprained ankle can make Mom or Dad lose all perspective.
Pressure also can cause a kid to burn out and drop a sport, Dr. Burnett says. He cites a 9-year-old Little Leaguer whose father hounded him to hit 200 balls off a tee in the garage at night after games and practices four days a week.
Don't push your children to fulfill dreams you didn't realize, experts urge.
"Think about sports as an ongoing, unending process, where you pick up a few skills, learn from your mistakes and successes, and keep going," Dr. Burnett says. "What you need to ask is, 'Will my kid have fun?' and 'Will he or she come back?' You've got to make sure that you look at your child as a kid who happens to be playing sports, and not as an athlete who happens to be a kid."