March madness isn’t only about what happens in college basketball tournaments. A different sort of madness has afflicted some parents at youth sports events across the country. Recent news reports have included stories of three fathers who have been arrested within the past month for acts committed against youth sports officials.
Shelly Miller of Michigan City, Ind., is accused of punching his daughter’s basketball coach repeatedly until the coach was unconscious. Witnesses said Miller was upset that the coach asked his daughter to run extra laps during a practice as a kind of punishment. Miller is being held on felony charges.
Timothy Lee Forbes is accused of attacking and biting off part of an ear of the coach of a team that beat his son’s sixth-grade basketball squad in a Catholic Youth Organization final in Springfield, Mass. Forbes pleaded not guilty to disorderly conduct, assault and battery, felony mayhem and other charges.
Joseph Cordes is accused of pointing a laser beam into the eyes of the goalie opposing his daughter’s hockey team at the Massachusetts high school playoffs. His daughter was preparing to take a penalty shot when her father attempted to increase her odds of success by distracting the opposing team’s goalie. Cordes faces a charge of disturbing the peace.
“It is one thing to root for your son or daughter, but those who go overboard, the fringe, take that a step beyond,” Joel Fish, director of the Philadelphia-based Center for Sport Psychology, told the New York Times. “In psychology we call that over-identification. In the moment, winning can feel like a life-or-death thing.”
Fish said the USA has fewer serious incidents of fan violence at the pro level than Europe and South America but more at the youth level. That may be a function of the fact that U.S. parents who have kids in youth sports many times are more directly involved in their kids’ leisure activities. Who among us is not familiar with parents of pre-school kids arranging “play dates” for their kids?
“We’ve taken our eye off the goal of what the purpose of youth sport was always meant to be: effort, participation and skill development,” he said. “I think what has trickled down from the pros to youth sports is defining winning as success and losing as failure.”
Parents today worry that society is too dangerous to simply let their kids roam around the neighborhood playing with friends in an unsupervised setting as kids did as late as the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps, however, the greater danger lies in overzealous parents who cannot control their emotions when vicariously living through their children.
Many soccer experts around the world point out that countries in Africa and South America, as well as poorer areas of cities in Europe, tend to produce young soccer players that are much more technically skilled and who “feel” the game much better than American youth players. American players are said to be physically fit and strong and well-schooled in tactics; but they lack a basic feel for the game. This is seen as a product of the rigid system of youth soccer in the U.S. A majority of youth players rarely play the game outside of organized team practices and matches.
These are issues that professionals working with youth sports must confront on a regular basis. It is no longer just enough to roll out the balls and blow a whistle to start play. Much more is demanded of sports coaches and administrators who work with young people. Let’s hope that parents don’t manage to ruin the games for everyone.
Sports ethics and the impact of contemporary issues on the world of sports are topics of study at the United States Sports Academy. For more information on Academy programs, go to http://ussa.edu.