As both a clinical psychologist and a parent, fostering an atmosphere conducive to child development is important to Brian Monteleone, whose children both play on travel sports teams.
The Charlotte-based psychologist has seen it all: Children physically sick after being berated by coaches and others buckling under pressure by parents determined to win at all costs.
“I refuse to have my son play on a couple of teams because the coaches allow this kind of behavior from their parents,” he said. “There was no way I was going to have my son on a team like that.”
Youth sport teams in our region are faced with this facet of competition — when some parents push their children, sports leagues have the ability to push back. By ensuring proper coaching and game monitoring, leagues can prevent extreme competition between players.
At Duke University, Greg Dale regularly works with student-athletes and coaches as the director of sport psychology and leadership programs. In youth sports, his work translates into team building for the younger athletes.
“Kids now are moving away from the importance of teams. The focus is not so much on teams — it’s on individual athletes,” Dale said.
One reason for the rise in competitiveness is parental involvement. Urged by parents, some children take their involvement in youth sports to a higher, more competitive level.
“There’s no doubt that parents have a huge impact on how kids view sports because kids emulate their parents, and kids listen to their parents,” Dale said. “Parents shape kids’ views on everything.”
Kathleen Seifert, program director of i9 Sports for Chapel Hill, Durham and Carrboro, has seen children who are focused solely on winning come and go, and she prides herself on her organization’s commitment to keep competitiveness down.
“In my own personal experience, what it has been is total blowouts, like one team winning flag football 50 to nothing, or not using team aspects, like one kid always trying to shoot the ball when it comes to soccer or basketball,” Seifert said.
Seifert’s organization, i9 Sports, is the nation’s largest sports league franchise, with more than 500 branches in communities around the country.
In 2014 alone, the South Durham and South Orange Counties branch served an estimated 1,200 players from ages 3 to 12.
“We have playing time regardless of skill level, so sometimes the parents with more competitive children will see that and are like, ‘We want a little bit more than that,’ and that’s fine,” Seifert said. “There’s a time and a place for competition, but it’s not our program.”
Trained to spot inappropriate behavior, specialized i9 staff members monitor games to make sure parents adhere to a required parental pledge, an agreement to emphasize sportsmanship.
“The most I’ve seen in (the Carrboro Recreation and Parks Department) is an emphasis on, ‘We’re not going to yell at the coaches. We’re not going to yell at the umpires,’ but there’s not really a staff member to say, ‘Hey, you’re amping it up more than we appreciate,’” Seifert said.
But since 1989, parents and participants in the Carrboro Recreation and Parks Department’s youth athletic programs have also adhered to a code of conduct.
According to the code, verbal abuse or harassment of an athletic official results in suspension for the rest of the season, and refuting an official’s decision results in a maximum suspension of three games.
Recreation Supervisor Charles Harrington said violations of the department’s rules are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“As far as competition, it’s an inherent part of athletics. What we can say is that it’s important to keep things at a healthy level and maintain it so the participants can enjoy the experience.”
A problem with prices
A rise in competitive sports and travel teams has led to what Monteleone calls “a big business” of profit-generating tournaments. A 2013 survey by The Aspen Institute’s Project Play found parents with children on travel teams spend an average of $2,266 per sport each year, and some elite sports lead to spending of $20,000 or more per year.
“There’s pressure on all angles,” Monteleone said. “If you think of American society in general, there’s a big push to keep up with the Joneses, and sports is no different than any other realm.”
Carrboro Recreations and Parks currently charges $60 for Orange County residents to participate in youth sport leagues and $88.24 for non-Orange County residents.
At i9 Sports, the cost to participate in 7-week programs including soccer, cheerleading, flag football and basketball averages $119.
But other leagues in the area, like the Carolina Copperheads, charge parents anywhere from $150 to $300 for their children to participate.
“In sports, (parents) are much more invested in their kids financially, and parents’ time is more invested than ever before,” Dale said. “When you have that much invested in something, your child’s a reflection on you, so they’re going to put more pressure on their kids.”
Parents who expect their children to do well in high-cost sports leagues could be disappointed when the players don’t live up to what was envisioned.
“They’ll say, ‘If I put in $1,000 over the past however many years, you better put forth the effort. I didn’t come here to see you sit the bench,’” Monteleone said.
“What I find is that parents want to be supportive, but they want to push, and often times, it’s a balancing game. And sometimes, that could be tough.”
A potential fix
Responsibilities to keep safe and fun environments at games often falls on coaches, many of whom volunteer their time.
“The only real place of impact, besides the parents monitoring and controlling themselves, is to have the coaches step up and demand a higher level from parents and themselves when it comes to the kids,” Monteleone said.
“Not only are you volunteering to coach this kid, but part of your responsibility is to make sure the kid is taken care of.”
Youth sports leagues typically meet once or twice a week, with a game once per week, which Dale said is still enough time to instill teamwork in the young players.
“Even doing things like tug-of-war, where teams have to work hard together and (talk) about the importance of teamwork — whatever those things are, they can incorporate that into 10 minutes at the end of practice or 10 minutes at the beginning of practice and do something like that,” he said.
During instructional time, coaches can teach players to include other kids in their sport plays, cheer from the bench and support their team members.
“To help them have fun, (coaches) need to make it fun. They need to emphasize fun,” Dale said. “They need to take the time to develop quality practices so that kids are engaged and moving and having fun rather than standing around.”
“You actually have to live this idea that it’s about developing every kid — not just your better kid, but all of them.”