Sport Parent Education: Creating a Tipping Point

As part of my work, I do quite a few sport parent workshops (read my previous blogs about sport parents here). The purpose of the workshops is to share evidence-based information with sport parents, so a positive climate for youth athletes is more likely to be created.

I also conduct research on the topic of sport parents. One of our lines of research is examining the causes of what makes sports parents angry, and how the toxic climate and background anger created on youth sport sidelines affects children.

Almost a year ago in early 2010, I wrote and was interviewed about and  a local Minnesota sport parent who  assaulted a youth basketball commissioner following an in-house game played by sixth graders.

Unfortunately less than a year later, two more episodes of egregious sport parent behavior have again occurred in Minnesota. In the first, a father of a middle school boy punched his son after poor play in a basketball game. In the second, another father made terroristic threats and put a youth hockey coach in a choke hold after a disagreement with the coach following his 12 year old son’s hockey practice. (allegedly his son got into a fight with an opposing player, and used his hockey stick as a baseball bat, so the coach broke the fight up and scolded both players, of which the father took offense). Interestingly and related to this story is based on research, when children witness or hear their parents being violent or abusive, the children are more likely to act in similar ways.

In a series of studies I did with colleagues while at Notre Dame working in the Center for Sport and Character, we found that kids who perceived a high rate of background anger (parents yelling and screaming frequently at refs, coaches, other parents, and players), were more likely to report acting in unsportsmanlike ways on the field. Tree…Apple.  We can do better.

If we want youth sports to be a place where all kids can have the opportunity to have fun, learn skills, develop, make friends and learn life lessons while striving to win, the adults have to get it right. Sport parent education is a great step in creating a tipping point, and making positive change happen. It may not prevent the three egregious type events reported above, but it might. Educational efforts will certainly help a critical mass of sport parents, most of who want to do the right thing but have no clue what that looks like and why it matters for their children, get closer to getting it right. Once parents see youth sport from the perspective of their kids coupled with evidence, rather than their own lens…change is possible, and evidence-based educational programs accomplish this goal.

Youth athletic associations, clubs, school systems have to commit the time and resources to educational efforts or else real change will not occur. The tipping point will not occur without it. No Code of Conduct, banner, sign, Public Service Announcement, parent meeting, rule or policy will affect real change until the culture of youth sport and norms of sport parent behavior changes…and that does not happen without education.

What is more important, investing in: a) educational programming that helps create a positive climate for kids while striving to win, and gets parents on the same page in that goal, or b) doing damage control, prosecuting or defending lawsuits as a result of bad parent behavior? If your answer is “B” you will also have to invest and deal with the traumatic aftermath of children who are targets of, or are witness to, egregious sport parent behavior.

Investment of time and money reflects personal and organizational values. What does your organization value? Can you do better? Do you feel responsible for making it better for all kids?

A Tipping Point in Changing the Culture of Youth Sport?

In the last month I’ve been thinking and reading about the idea of equal playing time in youth sports (click here and here). Based on the evidence, I’m convinced that equal playing time should be mandatory up until the age of 12. Following, all youth sport organizations and associations should adopt this policy at ALL levels of play–in house, recreational, travel, and competitive. Regardless of the level of play, kids are still kids who should all have the opportunity to develop, grow, and experience all the joys and benefits sports has the opportunity to impart. I’ve come to believe in the last month that short of having a strong equal playing time policy, parents and coaches will structure youth sport to meet the needs of their own goals, needs, and desires rather than what is best for all kids.

I applaud USA Hockey for leading the way constructing a better model for youth sports. The USA Hockey Youth Council just voted to eliminate their national championship for the Peewees–the 12 & Under level. USA Hockey has recently rolled out the American Development Model (ADM)– “a tool  that will ensure every kid will have the same chance to succeed.” The mission and purpose of ADM is clearly focused on countering (and hopefully reversing) the detrimental forces of the performance/win at all costs focus and professionalization of youth sport. The philosophy and ABC’s of ADM is evidence-based, and the “E” of the ABC’s is….equal playing time! Finally at least one youth sport organization appears to taking some cues from sport science scholars!

On a similar note, the Boston Globe ran an interesting piece titled “What happened to losing?” which outlines how youth sport has lost the true meaning of competition (which is “to strive or strive with, not against”). When I worked at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendelson Center for Sport and Character, the co-director and my colleague David Light Shields, was working on a book about “True Competition”. He has since finished and I recommend you read it as it is accessible and instructive for why and how to change the culture of youth sports-True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport and Society. Check out the accompanying website and sign up for the newsletter.

I hope these and other efforts by those who care about the health and well being of all youth athletes provide a start of a Gladwell-esque Tipping Point in changing the culture of youth sport to a primary focus on fun and development, rather than winning and performance.