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Unhealthy Competition
By Derek Scholes

For some parents, there’s no doubt about it: It is all about whether their kids win or lose

“Get them out!”
“Come on, Matthew!”
“Find the zone!”
“Right to Casey’s glove!”
“If he wants to swing, give him something to swing at!”
“Get it, please!”
“Good eye!”
“Come on Matty, finish!”
“They wanna come home!”
“ . . . catch it, Catch It! CATCH IT!!!”

Jo Rivers

You only have to listen to a group of parents watching their kids playing a game of baseball at the Babe Ruth playing fields on Woodlawn Avenue in Albany to discover that, for some of them, it is anything but “just a game.” Palms sweat, fingernails are gnawed, lips are chewed. One dad stands alone hunched over his notebook, scoring every pitch and talking to himself. Another springs from his bleacher seat and roars when his son gets a base hit. Mobile phones ring with calls from absent parents anxious for an update. And there are the endless calls from the bleachers to “Matty.”

The bleachers are packed on this beautiful sunny day. Just as avid followers of professional baseball teams wear replica shirts of the teams they support, one set of parents is bedecked in matching red shirts, their chests boasting that their sons are champions and their backs proudly displaying their sons’ names and numbers. There are, in fact, more red shirts in the bleachers than in the dugout.

The Red Shirts are indeed dedicated fans. Prior to the playing of America’s tinniest version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the game, one parent tells me, “I have four children, so some weeks I spend every night watching one of them play a sport.” In fact, I find that all these parents watch their sons play two or three times a week. They do this to show their support for their sons playing baseball because playing a sport “is a good ‘anti-drug,’ ” and it teaches their children to cooperate with others and be responsible members of a team. The parents agree that organizing their time to make sure they see all the games is demanding, but the general feeling is, “Hey, they’re only young once.”

Since July 5, 2000, the behavior of parents watching children’s sport has been the subject of increased media attention across the United States. On that day, the escalation of an argument between two Massachusetts parents during their sons’ hockey practice resulted in the shocking death of one of the parents. What started as a routine session of hockey drills concluded with parents and children watching Thomas Junta, 42, a parent of two, beat to death Michael Costin, 40, a single parent of four, on the ice. In January of this year, Junta was sentenced by a Massachusetts judge to six to 10 years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter.

This tragic incident caused people to question the way parents behave during children’s sporting events. Mike Barnicle of the Daily News commented that, “Anyone who has ever witnessed a single second of the bizarre behavior that too often occurs at the edge of those places where America’s children play their games cannot have been shocked that a Massachusetts man was buried . . . after being beaten to death by another parent at the conclusion of a kids’ hockey event.” CNN.com quoted an umpire as saying, “I have told more than one parent to be quiet and let their children play a game. . . . I believe that parents are the root of the problem, and it will not be too far off in the future when they will not be allowed to attend the games.” Bob Still, a spokesman for the National Association of Sports Officials, observed, “It is a trend, and it is on the rise. Not only is it on the rise, but the type of violence has become more violent.” Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, claimed that the grim, competitive attitude that leads to such conflicts is driving kids out of sports. “When 70 percent of the children that play sports drop out by the age of 13, that should tell us something. The number one reason they said in a survey was that it ceased to be fun,” he said.

Since the Junta case came to light, there have been an increasing number of reports of “sideline rage” and “rink rage.” Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that two coaches and a parent spectator had been banned by the American Youth Soccer Organization for their part in a 30-adult brawl at the end of a game in Southern California when parents flooded onto the field. According to ChannelOne.com, in Salt Lake City, two women assaulted another mother after a dispute during a championship baseball game; the woman reportedly was beaten to the extent that Salt Lake City police said she was unconscious when they arrived at the scene. The Associated Press reported how a father in San Fernando, Calif., was sentenced to 45 days in jail for threatening to kill a coach who had removed his 11-year-old son from a baseball game after the third inning.

In the time following the Junta killing, we have also seen a high school football game in Port Orange, Fla., turn into a 100-person brawl of moms, dads, players and coaches. A soccer match between 8- and 9-year-olds of Staten Island, N.Y., and North Hunterton, N.J., developed into a fistfight after an argument about whether a coach can stand behind a goal during a penalty shoot-out. And in Miami, a fight between parents and coaches interrupted a baseball game between 4- and 5-year-olds after about 20 men charged the field. The National Association of Sports Officials recorded 150 assaults against youth-sports officials in the year 2000, a massive increase compared with the 30 they had recorded five years previously. The association now offers assault insurance to its members.

Although the Capital Re-gion has not witnessed any major violence at children’s sports venues, a local retired coach says he has seen how parents’ emotions can get the better of them when they’re watching their kids play sport. Before he became an assistant coach of the Rensselaer Women’s Hockey Team at RPI, Jim Feck spent six years coaching 10- to 13-year-old children in baseball at the New Scotland Kiwanis Club; for 15 years, he was a hockey coach for the Troy-Albany Youth Hockey Association. He speaks with the authority of a man who’s seen it all: “I’ve seen parents arguing with parents, parents yelling at the coach or at the umpire, or parents having a go at their kids,” he says.

One incident he remembers clearly was when, “at the end of one particular hockey game, parents came over the glass, because that was the only way to get onto the ice, and started fighting with each other and the officials.” However, he emphasizes that violent incidents were rare, and that he did not have a problem with most parents. He attributes this, in part, to the relationship he built up with the parents. “At the beginning of every season, I gave the parents of my new team a sheet stating the objectives of teaching their kids hockey. Top of the list was for the kids to have fun. The last and least-important objective on the list was for the team to win. All kids, regardless of ability, played the same amount of time.” Feck believes that stating his rules and goals when he met each new team avoided potential confrontations later in the season.

Of course, the vast majority of youth-sporting events do pass without violent incident, but stories of violent, angry parents are indicative of the increasing passion with which many of them now watch their kids’ sports. In questioning 500 adults from a five-county area in South Florida, Survey USA found that 82 percent of respondents believed that parents watching youth sports are too aggressive. Furthermore, 72 percent thought that aggressive parents should be banned from youth sports. Other research suggests that parents place more emphasis on winning than their children do, and that kids prefer to play as part of a losing team than to sit on the bench as part of a winning team. At the baseball game I observed at the Babe Ruth playing fields, parents told me that their kids were not upset if they lost. Yet the same parents admitted that watching their kids tied their stomachs in knots.

“The parents are more concerned about the team winning than the kids are,” says Feck. He describes how one season he was coaching a group of children, and during the season, he’d promised them that if they won a game, he’d take them out for ice cream. Unfortunately for the kids—and the local ice-cream stand—they hardly won a game all year. At the end of the last game, when they’d lost yet again, Feck gave a little talk to them about how the game and the season had gone, and he asked if there were any questions. “The first and only question was, ‘Can we still go for ice cream?’ ” he recalls.

This surely is a unique situation in sports, where the spectators are more concerned by the result than the actual competitors. A Southern California sports psychologist interviewed on WebMD.com believes that one explanation is that parents hope to help nurture a little Derek Jeter or Mia Hamm, and dream that one day, their child might win a college scholarship. Dr. Darrell J. Burnett says, “If your kid is out there, and a ball goes through your kid’s legs and he makes an error, it’s not just, ‘We’ll get them next time.’ For some parents, it’s like, ‘What if a scout is here?’ So then it’s not just a game.”

Feck adds, “It’s the Garrison Keillor mentality, that all children are above average. It’s a reflection of society. You only have to look at the back of cars: ‘My child is an honors student at such-and-such a school.’ Another thing is that many parents don’t understand the game, so rather than just enjoying watching their child play, they focus on the result.”

Not putting too much emphasis on winning is something that many coaches of youth teams are extremely aware of. Dave Wall, a youth coach of the Bethlehem Travel Soccer program, admits that ensuring that all players enjoy themselves while trying to help his team win is often a fine balancing act. Although he says that both he and his team like to win, “Winning at all costs is not necessarily a good life skill for third graders to learn,” Wall says. “Sometimes a player really, really wants to play goal, but couldn’t catch the ball if their life depended on it. In a case like that, I will put them in goal if we are really getting crushed or really winning. However, if it is one of those situations where that player absolutely, positively has to play goal, I’ll let them play. And I’ve been there before, where I’ve decided to let someone play, and it means losing the game. Losing a game in the grand scheme of things just doesn’t matter. All that being said, if we are playing a good, tight competitive game against an opponent with whom we are well matched, I will play to win. All the kids will play, but I might play two or three of my solid players more than the rest.”

The atmosphere becomes tenser at the Babe Ruth playing fields as we reach the later innings, with each strike and base-hit drawing greater applause from one set of parents, and causing silent frustration on the other bleachers. The team now pitching is losing to the Red Shirts’ sons by a couple of runs, and their opponents are threatening to score, with runners on base yet again. A fly ball hangs for what seems like eternity above the kid at right field, and the crowd holds its breath. A catch will swing the momentum of the game to the fielding side, but dropping the ball will be sure to give the opposition another run or two. The ball slips through the boy’s glove and fingers, and, as he wishes the ground would swallow him up, the Red Shirts collectively clap, whoop and cheer at his expense.

One person who believes that this kind of situation teaches children all the wrong lessons about life is Alfie Kohn, the author of the book No Contest, a critique of competition and its destructive potential. Kohn examines how children are affected by playing competitive games. “It’s teaching the kids that you should celebrate other peoples’ failure,” he says. “The kids are learning to pay lip service to ideas like sportsmanship, even while at a deeper level understanding that the real goal is to be victorious.”

Kohn believes that bad sportsmanship is so widespread that he has come to the conclusion that the problem is not just a few over-enthusiastic parents or out-of-control kids, but is competitive sport itself. “When you see enough examples, naturally it has to occur to you to ask whether it’s just poor sportsmanship, a few bad apples, or whether it’s the logical consequence of setting up an activity where one side has to fail in order for the other to succeed,” he notes.

When asked if he agrees with parents who believe that sports teach children how to work as part of a team and learn about responsibility, Kohn says, “If parents are sincere in that their primary concern is to help their children learn to be part of a team, to cooperate, then you certainly wouldn’t need to have competition. Rather, you would have kids participating in genuinely cooperative activities, where you get all the good stuff without all the ugly stuff. Right now, competing against other people is the only game in town. If you want your kids to get some fresh air and exercise and learn teamwork, it’s got to be baseball, soccer, hockey and so on.” He suggests that parents turn to books, such as The Second Cooperative Sports and Games Book by Terry Orlick, for alternative games for kids that are challenging and fun without requiring a competitive element.

Kohn’s controversial opinions clash with the more conventional belief that children’s sports are largely harmless, or even that they help build character and serve as valuable preparation for life in a competitive American culture. This conventional view was best summed up by Hillary Clinton in a television address she gave at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in 1999. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Women’s World Cup soccer competition, Clinton said that she hoped that soccer would teach children “to be competitive not only on the sports field, but also in the classroom and in the workplace.” Although Kohn’s views will not stop any games from being played in sports halls and playing fields, he raises some interesting questions about the merits of teaching children competitive sport. He points out that, as soon as you set up a game in which the ultimate goal is to decide winners and losers, there will always be unhappy children.

Parents involve themselves ever more in the sports of their children these days, whether it’s watching every game from the bleachers, driving them to and from practice sessions, coaching their child’s team, paying for equipment, or spending the night away with their child on a trip with a traveling team. Considering this great investment, we should not be too surprised when many parents become emotionally involved in how successful the team and their children are on the field of play. However, according to Jim Feck, we adults have to keep our priorities right, remembering that the most important barometer of youth team success is whether the children are enjoying themselves or not. He says, “The key to success is in keeping the experience intensely about the kids and not clouded by the egos, memories, unfulfilled aspirations or unreasonable expectations of the adults involved.”

As the sun begins to set and the air cools, the Woodlawn Avenue game reaches its climax. The team playing the sons of the Red Shirts now trails 5-1 in the bottom of the final inning. The batter knows it’s now or never and, throwing caution to the wind, swings at the next pitch as hard as he can. But he can only watch as his hopes of being a home-run hero loop into the air and land in an infielder’s glove. For this batter, the disappointment proves to be too much. Frustrated by his failure, his emotions boil over. He throws down his bat, slams his helmet on the grass as he walks off the field red-faced, and tosses his gloves over the dugout. He does not look like he is having much fun.


Jo Rivers

Nice Game. Now You’re Late for Practice
By Stephen Leon

How sports can set the agenda for the contemporary American family

On the Kellys’ calendar, the pink highlighter represents Ben, 15, and his schedule. Blue is for Matt, 13. Maryann, their mother, is coded in yellow. Pat, their father, has his own calendar in his office.

“I have to have everything color-coded,” says Maryann Kelly, explaining how she keeps track of all of the kids’ games, practices and other assorted commitments. “It’s easy, you just look for a color for a kid, and you know where you have to be at what time.”

Well, it’s not quite that simple. “Sometimes I mess up and color-code the wrong kid,” she admits.

And sometimes, the daily pressure of keeping track of a household, two jobs, and two extremely active sons and their nonstop sports schedules can be just a little overwhelming.

It’s a cool Sunday afternoon at Blatnick Park in Niskayuna, where Ben Kelly is supposed to have a Babe Ruth League game. The game is canceled because the field is too wet, but Pat and Maryann Kelly keep their appointment with a reporter to detail their daily lives as a fairly typical contemporary sports family.

As it happens, it has been an emotionally draining week for Maryann. “Pat’s been on the road for the last five or six weeks,” she says, referring to her husband’s frequent travel for his new job. “And I’m working five days, and I’m having a hard time remembering to get the kids to the right place, and being confused what day it is. Just this week it’s been overwhelming, and I’ve had a couple breakdowns, crying, not handling it right, forgetting games—”

It seems almost unthinkable. The Kellys are so organized—they have to be, to keep up their schedule—and so committed to their sports. Could Maryann Kelly actually forgot one of her son’s games?

“I did it this week,” she admits. “I’ve also forgotten a hair appointment this week, and I forgot my Mother’s Day gift for my mother this week. All in one week. By Thursday, I had messed up three major things. It’s been too much for me.”

Usually, Maryann and Pat Kelly are on top of their sons’ sports schedules. And there’s a lot to be on top of. mmmmmmmmmmmmm Both Ben and Matt play in Schenectady’s youth ice hockey program, and they both play on travel teams. Ben also plays for the Niskayuna-Schenectady combined varsity high school hockey team. Matt is about to start in a roller-hockey league. They both play some form of hockey from summer until the winter season ends in March. Matt also plays football and golf, which both overlap with hockey. And both boys play baseball: for their school teams (Ben attends Niskayuna High School, while Matt is at Van Antwerp Middle School); on Babe Ruth League teams; on their respective Babe Ruth all-star teams; and on travel teams. Most of the year, the Kellys have games and/or practices virtually every day of the week.

The travel teams can be particularly demanding of a family’s time and energy, especially hockey. Basically, young athletes can try out for whatever travel teams represent their town or area, and the team schedulers contact other teams to set up reciprocal weekend game trips. The travel baseball teams in this area tend to stay close to home—Niskayuna will “travel” to Bethlehem, for example—but with hockey, the net is cast far and wide.

“We go as far north as Canada, south as Long Island, east as Boston, and as far west as Buffalo,” says Maryann, laughing at the thought of it all. “So there’s really a lot of traveling.”

“And they’re not always in synch,” notes Pat. “Being two years apart, [the boys] are in different age groups, so they’re on different teams. And their home and away weekends don’t necessarily jibe. We could be both away in different directions, or one home and one away.”

Maryann: “And then you go to tournaments, which are a whole other thing—those can start as early as Thursday, and go through a Sunday night. And that requires—if you’re interested—occasionally pulling your child out of school. We didn’t do that because Ben’s first commitment was to the high school team, and his games were usually Friday nights or Saturdays.”

It’s a lot of miles—the Kellys put approximately 20,000 miles a year on each of two cars—and a lot of meals on the road. And sometimes, hotels.

Pat: “They’re not all overnights.”

Maryann: “We travel to Massachusetts and come home.”

Pat: “We try to run back and forth, and probably half the people on the team make an effort to get home at night, rather than pay for a hotel.

Maryann: “Between the two of us, we probably had maybe 20 hotel stays, between the two boys. A few times we’ve sent our kids with other families, too, so they stay in their kids’ hotel rooms. Because there are times when Pat’s out of town for business, and we just physically couldn’t be in two out-of-town places at the same time.”

Did the Kellys envision this lifestyle when they started a family?

Maryann: “Definitely not. I always say if I were to do it again, I would never get them in a travel program. But they love it, and I don’t know how to take it away from them. So they have to age out now. . . . We would never do high school hockey and travel again. We didn’t know [Ben] would make the high school team, so we signed up for the travel hockey. That was just a question-mark year, and we’ll probably have to do that with our younger son as well, one year. But I would never do this again.”

Pat laughs.

It’s too much,” she says, realizing he isn’t convinced.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he replies.

According to Dr. Darrell Burnett, a clinical psychologist in Southern California who specializes in youth sports, there are approximately 30 million kids playing youth sports in the United States; 10 million of them are playing interscholastic sports. And while Burnett, who writes and speaks frequently on the subject, is quick to emphasize the potential benefits of youth sports in their various forms, he also is concerned about a problem he says he sees more and more often these days: burnout.

“Part of the problem,” Burnett says, “is that the travel teams are going lower and lower as far as the age of the kids on the team. There are about eight reasons why burnout is occurring—one is too many games, another is they get too much too soon.”

“The definition of burnout is when a positive experience turns negative,” he continues, detailing some of the factors that can take the fun out of sports for the ones who are actually playing: overzealous coaching, pushy parents, a creeping feeling that the kids themselves don’t have any choice in the matter. “Seventy-three percent of kids playing youth sports will drop out by the time they’re 13 years old.”

If you start a kid at age 5 with intensive playing and coaching, Burnett says, “Suddenly he’s 15 and he doesn’t want to see another baseball. He’s tired of it.”

And then there are the parents who are convinced that if their little Gretzky gets enough ice time today, he’ll be going to college with a full scholarship 10 years from now. Unlike the Kellys, who aren’t expecting sports scholarships for their two sons, some parents may be pushing too hard, signing their kids up for too many teams, because they’re afraid that’s the only way they’ll stay in the race.

“Believe me, there are people who do way more than we do,” says Maryann Kelly. “For instance, with the hockey, we go to our two practices for each kid, and then these other people who are expecting to go further, they’ll also have their children at a trainer lifting weights, and then at a private skills clinic on their off-day. Some of these kids are skating seven days a week.”

“And year-round,” chimes in Pat.

“Way more intense than we ever could be,” says Maryann, “and we think we’re over the top.”

Dave Randall, director of the skating and hockey-skills school North American Hockey Systems in Troy, knows something about what it takes to get the college scholarship: He has trained such college athletes as recent RPI standout hockey players Matt Murley and Marc Cavosie. And he’ll be the first to warn parents not to get their hopes up unrealistically. “If you do your homework on scholarships,” Randall says, “you’ll find the odds are much more in favor of academic scholarships than they are of sports scholarships.”

“Less than 1 percent of all high school athletes gets any kind of money from a Division 1 school,” says Burnett. “One out of 100 high school athletes plays even one minute in college. And one out of 100,000 high school athletes will get a professional contract.

“I don’t want [parents] to get rid of that dream,” he stresses. “I just want them to be realistic—and not take it out on their kids.”

When it comes to making the time and cost commitment to sign their children up for extra sports programs, travel teams and the like, Burnett says, the key is to have parents and children discuss the options together and agree on how far they do or don’t want to go. “The key is that everybody is on the same page,” he says. “If they all do that, then no matter what you throw at them, they’re going to be OK.”

As Randall points out, there can be an upside to the grind of playing on a travel team—children and parents may be spending more time together than they otherwise would. “One of the biggest spinoffs is the time they get to spend together in the car.” Some families enjoy these trips, he points out, “and it doesn’t financially stress them to spend a couple of nights in a hotel. Families really stretching to do this—caution.”

And Randall also cautions against filling up every minute of a child’s spare time with sports. “It’s the same as when somebody works too much,” he says. “They don’t seem to settle down very well at the end of the day, always looking for that next thing to do because they’re so used to being so busy.

“Kids need to go to the beach. Kids need to have time in the backyard.”

Because of their sons’ sports commitments, the Kellys have sacrificed a lot: They don’t ski anymore. They often have to pass on invitations to socialize with friends. They miss a lot of family gatherings, or, say, make a brief appearance at a family Thanksgiving before rushing off to a hockey tournament.

But every August, they spend two weeks in Maine. That’s their one big vacation, and youth sports take a backseat.

Well, almost.

“Last year,” Maryann says, “Matthew missed a [tournament] game so we could go on our family vacation.”

But Ben’s baseball tournament almost created a conflict. “If Ben’s team had progressed in the state [tourney], Pat was actually thinking of commuting to Maryland from Maine to get Ben to the regionals,” Maryann says. “I shouldn’t say ‘thinking’—he was planning on taking Ben.”

Seriously?

“Yeah,” Pat replies, without hesitation.

“I think it’s way over the top,” Maryann says, glancing at Pat. “Do you?”

Pat: “Yeah, I mean, it’s fun, keeps you busy.”

One thing is for sure: Youth sports aren’t anything like what they used to be.

Pat: “I didn’t play organized sports like these guys did.”

Maryann: “You played youth hockey.”

Pat: “Very disorganized. I mean, we grew up in Glens Falls, and I guess they had a youth hockey program, but it was kind of like—what was that movie?—The Mighty Ducks. I mean it was an outdoor hockey rink, and half the time you had to shovel it. The year I went away to college, they built the civic center, and that’s when their youth hockey program took off.”

Maryann: “Kids just didn’t start this young. They might have played Little League, but there was no such thing as travel baseball, and travel soccer. The only traveling we did was up to Gore Mountain skiing. We had a normal life.”

Thinking about his own youth, Pat Kelly makes an interesting observation: He doesn’t see many pickup games any more. There’s a park across the street from their home, and in several years, the Kellys have seen a few pickup football games, but that’s it.

“Nobody ever comes over on their bike with a baseball bat and a glove any more,” Pat observes, “and rounds up kids in the neighborhood to go play baseball.”


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