OBNOXIOUS SPORTS PARENTS: Guess Which Country Has the Worst?
New Survey Challenges Adults’ Management of Youth Sports
By Doug Abrams
A new nationwide survey of 300 youth leaguers between the ages of 8 and 14 sends a disturbing message to parents and coaches who care about the place of organized sports in their children’s lives. Among other things, 31% of the youth leaguers said that they wish adults did not watch their games. Eighty-four percent said that they have quit or considered quitting a team, and 47% said that they wanted to quit because they were not having fun.
The World’s “Worst Behaved” Parents
The new independent survey was commissioned by i9 Sports, which offers youth sports leagues, camps, clinics and after-school programs with a focus on fun, safety and convenience. Many of the survey’s findings are old news because they replicate equally disturbing findings that have been around for the past 20 years or so. This is not the first survey to suggest that as youth leaguers get older, many grow dissatisfied with the way adults manage their games and many even quit playing altogether. Dissatisfied adults frequently join in the criticism.
In 2010, Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos jointly conducted a survey that explored youth sports in twenty-two nations. The survey ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials; runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%) and Australia (50%).
“It’s ironic that the United States, which prides itself in being the most civilized country in the world, has the largest group of adults having witnessed abusive behavior at children’s sporting events,” said an Ipsos senior vice president.
The Reuters/Ipsos survey confirmed earlier estimates of adult excesses in youth sports. In a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey, 45.3% of youth leaguers said that adults had called them names, yelled at them, or insulted them while they were playing in a game; 21% said that they had been pressured to play with an injury; 17.5% said that an adult had hit, kicked or slapped them during a game; and 8.2% said that they had been pressured to harm others intentionally. In a Survey USA poll in Indianapolis, Indiana, 55% of parents said that they had seen other parents engaging in verbal abuse at youth sporting events, and 21% said that they had seen a physical altercation between other parents.
The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that about 15% of youth league games see a confrontation between parents or coaches and officials, and a national summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports concluded that youth sports is a “hotbed of chaos, violence and mean-spiritedness.” In a survey conducted by Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine, 74% of youth athletes reported that they had watched out-of-control adults at their games; 37% of the athletes had watched parents yelling at children, 27% had watched parents yelling at coaches or officials, 25% had watched coaches yelling at officials or children, and 4% had watched violence by adults. In a survey of adults and players conducted by SportingKid magazine, more than 84% of respondents reported that they had watched parents acting violently (shouting, berating, or using abusive language) toward children, coaches or officials during youth sporting events.
This steady stream of survey data does not paint a pretty picture for adults who want sports to play a positive role in children’s lives, and for those of us who hope that conditions might be improving. Children are perceptive, and they know what is happening around them as they play organized sports.
The new i9 Sports survey suggests that in one important respect, matters may be growing worse rather than better. Nearly a third (31%) of youth leaguers surveyed said that they did not want adults to attend their games.
Most earlier surveys indicated that most teens did want their parents and siblings to attend the games, root for them and share their experiences. In 1987, for example,Gary Alan Fine wrote about a survey in which 88% of Little League baseball players said they liked having their parents watch their games. A year earlier, Jon C. Hellstedt wrote about a survey of 15- and 16-year-old ski racers; more than 60% wanted their parents to watch them race “very much”; only 12% indicated a preference that their parents not watch; and 75% wanted their parents to watch them “right on the race course” rather than from the base lodge.
Bob Bigelow anticipated growing youth dissatisfaction in 2001, when he confided to his readers that many children would like to play with adults nowhere to be seen. “I chuckle,” he wrote, “when parents proudly tell me that they haven’t missed even one practice or game in the seven years their children have been playing sports. Here’s a little secret: Whether he or she says it or not, your child doesn’t always want you there. He or she doesn’t always have the gumption to say so.”
The apparently growing disconnect suggests that many parents do not fully appreciate the positive role that youth sports can play in strengthening family bonds. When teenagers begin seeking independence from their parents and resisting their influence, organized sports still enables parents to share wholesome activities with their children. But instead of seizing this golden opportunity to bring the family together and remain intimately involved in their children’s lives throughout adolescence, many parents behave in ways that drive their teenagers to wish the parents would not attend.
We Can Do Better
When Americans do not like a particular survey’s results, they sometimes criticize the survey rather than squarely face the bad news. Playing “kill the messenger” in this way normally does nobody any good. Parents and coaches may discount this survey or that one, but a steady stream of surveys reporting youth leaguers’ dissatisfaction for nearly a quarter century should serve as an overdue wakeup call. In a nation that firmly believes athletic competition enhances children’s physical fitness while teaching valuable character lessons, the accumulating survey data demonstrates that adults need to do better.
[Sources: Gary Alan Fine, With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture, pp. 203-04 (1987); Jon C. Hellstedt, Children and Sports: Anticipating Your Questions, in Jon C. Hellstedt, Daniel A. Rooks and David G.A. Watson, On the Sidelines: Decisions, Skills and Training in Youth Sports (1988), p. 89; Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall, Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports (2001), p. 25; Brian McCallum, Parents, Pressure Push Kids Out of Sports, Florida Today, July 15, 2012; Douglas E. Abrams, The Challenge Facing Parents and Coaches in Youth Sports: Assuring Children Fun and Equal Opportunity, Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 8 (2002), p. 253 (citing the earlier survey data)]