Sickening sideline behavior hurts kids

Published February 23, 2007

When sports psychologist and Duke University professor Greg Dale speaks to parents about how to enrich their kids' sports experience, he often gives this advice:

"If your spouse or significant other won't sit next to you during a game, it might be an indication you need to change things," Dale said.

The statement invariably draws laughs, but Dale always notices a few husbands or wives elbowing their spouses and saying, "That's you."

Dale, author of The Fulfilling Ride: A Parent's Guide to Helping Athletes Have a Successful Sport Experience, would undoubtedly get the same reaction if he spoke to parents in our area. Sadly, the action of some parents isn't always a laughing matter.

Last week, Sickles High School softball coach Angela Irwin resigned for "personal reasons" after being confronted by a parent after a game. According to an incident report, parent Steve Nesfield used profane language in confronting Irwin and had to be escorted from the field by police. He has since been banned from all school activities.

Farther from home but even more shocking is the recent video of Ray Hoffman, an Illinois parent who prevented his 11-year-old son from losing a wrestling match by picking up the opponent and tossing him from the mat. The saddest image, however, was the horrific look of shame on the face of Hoffman's son.

Even sadder is that these incidents aren't uncommon in the world of youth sports.

Too often, we see parents or coaches go into a blind rage because they lose sight of a simple fact: It's just a game.

Or is it? Part of the problem, Dale said, is that parents live vicariously through their children or their self-esteem is too closely tied to how their children do.

"Sports is a very public situation," Dale said. "In sports, our kids demonstrate how good they are or how bad they are and that's a direct reflection of us, in our minds anyway.

"If our son or daughter gets an F on their report card, we don't have to share that with anyone. But if they let the ball go through their legs at third base and the other team scores the winning run, we have to share that with everyone."

A newer and arguably more pervasive problem is the increasing amount of time and money mom and dad are devoting to sports. In most cases, I would argue that the return on the investment is worthy if you're trying to make your kids well-rounded. But you're being unrealistic to expect your commitment to result in a collegiate scholarship or professional career.

I'll remind you that less than 2 percent of all high school athletes will earn an athletic scholarship. Only one in 13,000 prep athletes will receive a paycheck from a professional team.

In short, the emphasis needs to be on your kids having a good time and reaping the benefits of all the good things sports teaches: sportsmanship, teamwork, competition. That doesn't stop parents, however, from thinking travel teams and sports camps are a better investment than a prepaid college tuition plan.

"Above all, kids need to have fun," Dr. Bruce Svare, director of the National Institute of Sports Reform, told Parade magazine. "Instead, adults are providing unrealistic expectations and crushing pressure."

In Maine, a sweeping reform has parents taking training sessions to define out-of-bounds behavior at sporting events. Parents, Dale said, should remember they're serving as models of behavior for their kids.

He also suggests that parents follow a few rules in dealing with coaches: Talk to coaches about specific skills your child can work on; never talk to them about playing time; wait 24 hours after a game until you talk to them; never communicate a problem through e-mail; don't confront the coach in front of your child.

But this may have been Dale's best advice: Ask your kids if you're doing anything to embarrass them, like coaching from the sidelines, yelling at referees or yelling at the coach.

"Ask them, 'Do I make you wish I wasn't there by the way I'm acting?' " Dale said. "We need to listen to them because it's not about us, it's about them."

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 813 226-3406.