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Doug Wolter: Kids' sports need a balance

In Buffalo Grove, Ill., people are becoming increasingly concerned about unruly parents at youth ball games. So they've put up signs to remind them not to be jerks.

"This is a game being played by children. If they win or lose every game of the season, it will not impact what college they attend or their future potential income," one of them reads.

These kinds of reminders can't hurt. But let's face it, they're not going to stop every parent from getting a little carried away --or a lot. We've all heard stories of parents abusing 6-year-olds, pulling on a coach's collar, or worse.

In Worthington, for the past several years, coaches and sometimes umpires have led their little athletes in a pledge:

"Win or lose, I pledge before God, to do the best that I can, to be a team player, and to respect my teammates, my opponents and officials and to improve myself in spirit, mind and body," they say.

Andy Johnson, executive director of the Worthington YMCA, said that before the pledge was introduced, it was discussed among Y employees how best to implement it. It was decided that it should be said before the games begin, and close enough to the cheering sections that parents could hear. Nowadays, a lot of the kids have memorized it. Sometimes they'll lead the pledge themselves.

I'm sure many studies have been done to figure out why parents get out of line at youth games. Many of us (myself included) have both watched and coached our own kids in these things, and we know first-hand how the emotions percolate under our skins. We want so badly for our kids to play well, that it's everything we can do to avoid blurting out something that we'd rather have kept to ourselves.

For other parents, well, they probably behave badly everywhere else, too.

In most cases, offenders only need a gentle reminder.

"Like anything, you can have all the policies and procedures and signs on fences, but what we've tried to do over the years is remind parents what we're here for," said Johnson, who adds, "You think about all the number of games we've had in Worthington. And (bad behavior) is minimal."

He does, however, remember a few embarrassing moments in the past. Sometimes they involve dads. Sometimes they involve moms.

In the late 1980s Johnson was refereeing a YMCA soccer game and a dad was so out of control he was asked to leave. But he refused to leave. The players were shocked, the parent's son was crying. And the other parents had to escort the unruly parent off the premises.

Incidents like that serve as harsh reminders.

"Every time they happen, no one wins. And I'm not talking about the score," Johnson said.

All around the nation, youth sports officials have continued to debate the issue of unruly fans. Some leagues require parents to sign codes of conduct or recite their own pledges before games. Some leagues have what are called "silent games" where parents and even coaches are only allowed to offer encouragement. Anything that can be considered negative is forbidden.

In the worst cases of adult misbehavior, players themselves have been kicked off teams. It's the only way, apparently, leagues can extricate themselves from the worst kind of abusive parents.

I can't help but recall how things seemed so different in my own youth. When we were kids, we organized our own neighborhood games and fought our own battles. Without adults around, we seemed to get along OK. Sure, there were the occasional taunts and even a physical confrontation or two. But learning how to get along with each other, the hard way, wasn't entirely bad.

Another thing has changed, too. We didn't have "traveling teams" as they are defined today. I'm not one of those people who regret the fact that youth sports has become more competitive. It was inevitable. But it's more difficult now to find a balance. Kids are getting more praise (and pressure) from adults nowadays. They still need to have a childhood, and the sign in Buffalo Grove is correct --college recruiters won't care how many games they may have lost in Little League.

Johnson, whose job it is to help structure athletic contests for young people, himself remembers when adults were less involved.

"Those neighborhood games are gone," he points out. "The kids today don't know what that is. Because everything is structured for them."

But the kids are alright. The great majority of the parents are, too. Johnson leaves us all with something to think about. Years ago, he said, he and his YMCA friends thought it might be a good idea to have a rule that no parent will be allowed to watch a YMCA game without first having put a whistle around his or her neck.

The idea was never adopted.

Said Johnson: "We figured nobody would be coming to games."

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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