Leagues blow the whistle on competitive parents; Spectators are asked to tone down pressures on younger athletes


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."

Today, the only sound on the sidelines will be from coaches, Soper said.

His advice for parents who can't abide the tennis-match-style silence is to "go sit in your car. Let your kid actually play."

Parents who take the games too seriously do not understand what is important to the children: "They're out there to have a good time for about an hour, figure out who's got the treats and then go home."

Though problem parents are the exception, coaches and others say they can cause damage.

"Across this country there are thousands of children who are psychologically, emotionally, physically and socially abused by parents and coaches in children's sports, who have lost perspective of what children's sports should be," said Engh, who wrote "Why Johnny Hates Sports: Why Organized Sports Are Failing Our Children and What We Can Do About It."

The blame, he said, lies with adults who invest their ego in a child's performance -- a phenomenon that seems to be most evident in sports.

"If the parent sits in the back of the auditorium at a piano recital, and if the kid hits a bad note, does the parent stand up and say, 'Hey, you dummy'? Of course not, but they do it in sports," Engh said. "They get caught up in egos, in standings and scoreboards and all-star games."

And, some say, in the race for college scholarships.

"It's the parents who are getting the big saucer eyes" over scholarships, said Jeff Leslie, president of the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association, a Florida group that organizes leagues in six sports for 6,000 children.

Engh and his organization keep a record of troublesome incidents. The organization also tracks brawls, such as the one involving more than 100 players, coaches and spectators at a youth football game in California, and attacks on referees and umpires.

Dave Miller, a stockbroker in Baltimore County, said he quit coaching and umpiring youth baseball when he could no longer tolerate abuse from parents.

Miller said he was coaching a team of 10- to 12-year-olds in Catonsville several years ago when a misplayed fly ball to right field prompted a boy's mother to lose her temper and berate him.

"She said, 'You're not man enough to run this team,' and I said, 'You're probably right, but you are,' " Miller said.

"The parents take all the fun out of it," said Miller, who also umpired in city youth leagues until about five years ago. "They cuss at you bad. I've had them follow me to my car. They just wear you out."

That kind of behavior led the Parents Association for Youth Sports, a membership association of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, to create a program to remind parents not to lose control of their emotions.

"It just seems like it's escalating more and more," said Kathleen Avitt, the group's national program director. "They all want their kids to go to college and get those scholarships."

The program includes a 19-minute video and a handbook with a code of ethics. Parents are given buttons with mottoes such as "Having Fun Is #1" and "All Kids Are Winners."

It will be offered soon at three pilot sites, including the Jupiter-Tequesta Association, in which it will be required by 2001 for parents who enroll their children in sports.

"Youth sports are getting more competitive every year," said Leslie, president of the Florida group. "Our hope is to try to get people to calm down a little bit."

The issue has been the focus of other national organizations. In April, the Women's Sports Foundation, a Florida-based advocacy group founded by tennis star Billie Jean King, conducted a seminar called "Screaming Parents, Sobbing Athletes."

At least one local recreation leader, whose program is seen as a model by many, says seminars are not the answer.

"Videotapes do nothing," said Nelson White, chairman of the Hickory-Forest Hill-Churchville boys' basketball program in Harford County.

White said the first thing he tells parents is that no player from the program has gone on to play major college basketball. Then, he makes sure that players of varying abilities are scattered among the teams to prevent one team from being dominant.

"You get the competition baloney when you're up against a stacked team," he said. "The parents of the unstacked team, they're going to complain about the program.

"The parents of the stacked team are walking around thumping their chests."

A few weeks ago, parents of field hockey players in the Towsontowne Recreation Council program received a briefing on what was expected of them.

"We talked about how we want positive things coming out of everyone's mouth on the sidelines," said Guinee, the Bryn Mawr parent, who is on the board of the Towsontowne council's field hockey program.

"These kids are great," she said. "If we set the standards, they will rise to them."

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