Out of bounds: Experts weigh in on youth sports
New Canaan youth sports have faced a rough few months. First, three football coaches resigned after burning players' third-place trophies in Irwin Park. And two weeks ago, a former coach filed a lawsuit against the New Canaan Lacrosse Association for gender discrimination.
"I would characterize this as a long-standing problem that was promoted by a culture where the importance was placed on the boys' side of the program," said Dr. Claudia Harris, who filed the lawsuit alleging the NCLA discriminates against girls by providing them fewer resources than boys.
The trophy burning issue had more to do with parents being upset by the message these coaches were sending to their children. The suspended coaches sent an email to the parents and kids apologizing for the burning.
"In football, there is a tradition of `burning the shoe' as a means of forgetting any disappointment in the season and instead focusing on the positive and looking forward to next season," the email read.
More Information84 percent of parents believe that youth athletic programs place too much emphasis on winning; 64 percent of parents say their children have been dissatisfied with their sports experience; 44 percent said their child has dropped out of an activity because it made them unhappy; 92 percent felt sports programs were important to the overall development of their children; 56 percent said the biggest negative is that sports are too competitive; 50 percent said they would like to see coaches be less focused on winning; 2003 National PTA Convention survey
"Unfortunately, we as coaches made a mistake in our attempt to carry out this tradition. While our message was intended to be positive, it was a mistake to carry it out in this way and for that we would like to apologize. This lack of judgment on our part should in no way tarnish all of the hard work, sportsmanship and success that you accomplished this season and in previous seasons."
While it remains to be seen whether their resignations will change the sports culture, or if the lacrosse lawsuit will hold up in court, experts in psychology and sports said these attitudes, which are nothing new in competitive sports, can certainly be harmful.
According to data from a 2008 survey conducted by the National Alliance of Youth Sports, parents found that their children's experiences with coaches were sometimes troubling. Approximately 16 percent of respondents claimed to have witnessed confrontations between players and coaches once, while 12 percent said occasionally.
Other troubling statistics include 74 percent of respondents admitting to seeing a coach yell at a child for making a mistake in the game and 13 percent say they saw a coach advising their kids to cheat.
"It is inexcusable to allow altercations -- whether they're physical or verbal -- to occur during youth sports events," John Engh, chief operating officer of NAYS, told Athletic Business in 2008.
"All children deserve the opportunity to participate in programs that are free from any type of senseless violence and unruly behavior that not only sabotages their fun but also can potentially jeopardize their safety and well-being."
More data from a Reuters/Ispos survey in 2010 suggests that it is not just the coaches either.
According to the survey, bad behavior by parents at youth sporting events is more likely to occur in the United States than in any other country. The survey was given to 23,000 adults in 22 different countries around the world. 60 percent of those respondents who said they witnessed poor behavior by parents were from the United States.
"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 sports events," said John Wright, senior vice president of Ipsos said to the NAYS in 2010. "There is clearly a fine line between participatory enthusiasm and abuse, and parents, as role models, have got to keep that in mind and keep themselves in check for the sake of their children."
A similar survey from 2003 conducted at a national PTA convention found that parents had concerns about youth leagues and the emphasis coaches have on winning. Approximately 84 percent of those parents believe that too much of an emphasis is placed on winning and 44 percent said their child dropped out of the sport because they were unhappy or not having as much fun as expected.
"What's harmful is that most adults involved in youth sports, mainly coaches and parents, have a very distorted image of what is important," Goldberg said. "A coach's responsibility is to understand they are like an educator. The outcome is not what's important. It's the experience and what these kids can gain from the process."
Instead, Goldberg, who has been a psychology consultant to young kids and college athletes, said the mentality that is bred is to admire the win-loss column. He also says the parents who push their kids are damaging them for the future as well.
"What ends up happening is that kid realizes very early on that the parent might be happier when the child performs well," he explained. "Very soon they realize if they fail their parents will be disappointed and see themselves as less lovable. That means every time they get there on the court or field, they put their `love-ability' at stake and parents don't realize that. Parents lose their perspective that these kids are going to be affected by how they act long after they put the bats and cleats away for good. These kids can be traumatized for a long time."
Singer, a California-based doctor who has dealt with athletes all over the world, would agree with Goldberg about the message coaches tend to send. Singer believes they should focus more on effort as opposed to winning.
"These New Canaan coaches basically had an all or nothing approach. It is `win' or be a failure. The problem with that is effort is never rewarded and kids will start to believe that if they are not perfect, then they're a failure," Singer said.
"It's really an archaic kind of coaching but it is prevalent. But effort means something. Take a team like the New York Giants who were on a losing streak earlier this season. Now they are in the Super Bowl. So effort is rewarded. If you are consistent in your effort then winning will take care of itself."
Singer also believes in what he calls the "Oreo cookie" approach to coaching.
"The first thing you do is you tell the youngsters something positive about their performance," Singer explained. "You follow that up with something you want them to improve upon and end it with another positive. The trophy burning situation was all negative and not the right way to handle this."
Both Singer and Goldberg also believe the gender issue is a problem and kids will never truly appreciate equality until boys and girls sports are given their fair share.
"What's important here? Why are professional male athletes and coaches more valued than their female counterparts? Somehow this patriarchal society we have stemmed from has gone full force in sports," Goldberg said. "It is gender discrimination. Why shouldn't girls have the same opportunity?"
Singer said he sympathized with Harris and her lawsuit against the NCLA.
"I agree 100 percent with this female coach," Singer said.
"In many cases, female sports are not considered as important and lacrosse is no different, especially at the high school and lower levels. It is considered by many as one of the traditional `manly' sports. That should not change anything and she shouldn't be treated any differently or penalized for bringing up equality."