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When Games Turn Deadly
How to keep the Poison out of the Passion in Kids Sports

By Brian Abrahams

It's hard to comprehend that moment on the suburban Massachusetts ice rink when a group of kids with their skates and padded uniforms watched one father beat another father to death with his bare fists.

Over a children's hockey game.

The death may be thankfully rare, but parental aggression isn't.
All across America, on diamonds and fields and rinks, adults are turning child's play into a measure of their own self-worth.

The Massachusetts ice rink story was still in the news last week when a Florida youth baseball coach was charged with breaking the jaw of an umpire.
Last October, MP's had to stop a fight among parents at football game for young children. In Oklahoma the coach of a T-ball team was sent to jail for attacking a 15-year-old umpire. Fourteen states, including Georgia on July 1, have passed laws stiffening the penalties for assault of amateur sporting officials. These are all warnings of just how bad the situation has become.

Now the death of Michael Costin, single father of four, should give all of us a reason to step back and ponder what is happening to our children, and to us.
Because like fathering itself, each of us comes to the subject of our kids and sports with a mini-van full of psychological baggage.

Were you a basketball star and want the same for your son or daughter? Were you a perennial last pick for the softball team, determined your child not feel that same pain? Were you a middling athlete thrilled you might finally have a winner in the family? Oh--and let's not forget money. A collegiate scholarship in field hockey could save fifty or a hundred grand.

There is no questioning the value of sports to kids.
Sports can build confidence, teach teamwork, foster self-discipline, and offer worthwhile lessons about the larger world. Sports skills, especially with boys, become an important social yardstick with peers.

And, lest we forget, playing just happens to be a lot of fun for kids.
Besides, we're all doing it. Over 40 million children in America play organized sports. Parents welcome the organized activity, the chance for their child to burn energy without breaking a light fixture in the living room. On the other hand, a lot of parents worry about how young this all starts. According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (, 49% of kids enter organized sports before they even have basic motor skills. But for some dads it's like the Cold War arms race - they wouldn't necessarily choose to start their kid so early, but they don't want their daughter to fall behind all her classmates.

And if competition with the neighbors isn't your bag, then how about guilt?
Little Timmy next door not only goes to karate, swimming, piano, and art, but he has a private baseball tutor. By the time he turns five he should switch-hitting. Don't you love your own kid that much?

Anxious enough yet?
How about that chauffeur thing. Our over-programmed scheduled-to-the-minute children need to be driven to practice, the game, practice again, and maybe a team meeting for good measure. So we sit behind the wheel of the car all weekend and a few weekday afternoons, swearing like a New York cabbie at the traffic and checking our watch every twenty seconds, worried that we'll be late to the game.

All this sweating, kicking, and running comes with an occasional price.
According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (,) 11,000 kids between the ages of 6 and 16 go to the emergency room for sports-related injuries every day. Eight million additional children a year receive treatment or medical care for a problem related to athletics, such as stress fractures. That's the physical toll. There's no way to keep stats on what's going on in Junior's head after a strikeout when Daddy and the team needed so badly for him to get an RBI double.

What You Need to Know Starting Out

Extra-curricular organized sports operate at two basic levels.
Recreational leagues are seasonal and intended more for kids' exercise and fun than achievement and winning. They play to win, sure, but the kids in them are less focused on making that particular sport a passion.

When kids (or their parents) are really serious about a sport, they join a club or traveling team.
These are private sports leagues that offer the highest levels of coaching and competition along with high prices and commitment levels to match. For the serious family in a club team, the chosen sport is usually played year round, to the exclusion of a lot else, possibly including the team at school. The rewards for a successful child on a club team can be enormous - a kid learns confidence, intensity, and focus-but be alert to pushing too hard. Remember it's your kids that need to choose and enjoy the sport. Parents dream big dreams for their talented kids when they look at the rare examples of a Tiger Woods or Dominque Moceaneu, who started as toddlers in golf and gymnastics. But is that what your son or daughter wants?

And what about the children that are driven hard by their parents and don't make it to the elite and rewarding sports stratosphere?
Hanging a tennis racket over your child's crib is unlikely to turn him into Andre Agassis. Indeed, 73% of young athletes in focused sports "careers" quit their sport by age 13, burnt out barely into adolescence. And of the remaining 27% who stick with it, fewer than 10% of those will get college scholarships, much less Tiger Woods' paycheck. The Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics ( reports an even lower number - less than 1% of kids in organized sports will receive a college athletic scholarship.

So be realistic starting out.
Be supportive, be alert to your child's passion-but don't impose your own. In other words:

Be conscious of that narrow chalk line between encouraging and pushing too hard.
There's no simple answer or measurement for this, but your own gut and your child's face will tell a lot. Forget the pout that comes after a strikeout or lousy day on the court. Is this activity enriching his life or a source of stress? Is her play and attitude creating friction in your relationship with her?

Try to gauge when focus on a particular sport has become too much.
Is your kid still having fun? (Which is the whole point, right?) Is school suffering because your child is tired and rundown by the practice schedule? And is all the driving to practices and games burning you out? Taking a season or year off can sometimes be the best thing for a kid - and a parent

And Don't Forget

If you have the time, take a role with your child's team, (provided they are young enough not to be mortified by your presence.)
Don't worry if you didn't play a sport or don't know it well - chances are neither do the other coaches, and you'll learn quickly. Volunteer to be assistant coach, team parent, line judge, or just helper. If you have to be at the games anyway, this will let you share more deeply in your child's experience and possibly have a positive influence on the team.

Do some research before picking a league, team, and especially a coach.
Quality of coaching and the other kids on the team will have a major impact on your child's experience. If you are of a recreational sports frame of mind, look at programs like AYSO Soccer, which emphasize positive coaching and confidence building, rather than winning or playing the sport for it's own sake. Know the overarching philosophy of a league before joining, and make sure it's a match with your child's personality, skill, and interest level.

Lead by example.
We can all scoff at crazed Little League parents. But give yourself a reality check from time to time and ask if your sideline behavior demonstrates good sportsmanship, fair play, and a healthy attitude towards winning and losing.

Plan your child's sporting activities around the idea that sports enrich life and are poor substitutes for a balanced life.
The goal is the physical and mental health, growth, and maturation of our children. When child's play becomes work, it's time to readjust. On the other hand, whatever their level of involvement and skill, if your child is having fun, so will you. .

Useful links on kids and sports:

American Youth Soccer Organization
"Children & Sports" from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Youth Leagues
National Youth Sports Safety Foundation
Youth Basketball of America

Brian Abrahams, a Chicago writer and father of two, founded a T-ball league based on principles of positive coaching and building self-esteem. He was a lousy athlete as a kid.

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