Children’s Sports​—The New Epidemic of Violence

▪ A group of high school students come together for a football game. The game ends in a brawl, with more than 100 parents, coaches, and players shouting and throwing punches after an overtime touchdown wins the game.

▪ A group of preteens are playing a game of coed football. When a ten-year-old player drops a pass, his coach throws him to the ground, breaking both of his arms.

▪ The coach of a Little League baseball team pulls one of his players from the game. The boy’s father threatens to kill the coach and is sentenced to 45 days in jail.

▪ During practice at a children’s ice hockey game, two fathers get in a dispute over the enforcement of game rules. One father beats the other to death in front of the victim’s three children.

CHILLING reports like these have become alarmingly commonplace. On playing fields, basketball courts, ice rinks, and playgrounds, a new epidemic of violence seems to be spreading. It is the violence of parents and coaches who would rather fight than lose. Says Jeffrey Leslie, president of  the Jupiter-Tequesta (Florida) Athletic Association: “I’ve seen parents screaming at their kids, pushing them too hard to perform; children fighting in games, incited by their parents; kids crying on the mound because their parents embarrassed . . . them.” He adds: “There is nothing like youth sports to bring out the worst in parents.” To protect children from such violence, some communities have had to take the drastic action of banning some parents from attending their children’s sporting events.

What has resulted from this epidemic of rage? “These disgraceful behaviors of a growing number of adults,” says Fred Engh, founder and president of the Florida-based National Alliance for Youth Sports, “are polluting youth sports, poisoning the fun, and sending ugly messages to millions of children.”

Win at Any Cost

At the root of this problem appears to be a desire on the part of some parents to see their children outdo other children and win at any cost. Says a representative of the Institute for the Prevention of Child Abuse, in Canada: “When winning is everything, when power is everything, this creates an environment where vulnerable people suffer. In these sports, the children are the vulnerable people.” An official of the Ontario (Canada) Physical and Health Education Association notes that children subjected to such pressures “may develop psychological problems at a young age. And when they get older, they [may] have a hard time coping with failure.”

Not surprisingly, the rage of parents and overzealous coaches often filters down to the young athletes themselves. During one girls’ volleyball game, players made seven attacks on the referees. A girl kicked out of a tennis match responded by vandalizing an official’s car. After being called for a foul, a high-school wrestler smashed his forehead into a referee’s forehead, knocking the referee out. “It used to be that youth sports [were] the one haven for good sportsmanship,” says Darrell Burnett, a clinical child psychologist and youth sports psychologist. “Not anymore. It’s not just a game anymore.”

What Parents Can Do

Parents do well to remember that fun and exercise are the reasons why children enjoy sporting activities. Turning children’s sports into a high-stress activity and subjecting them to verbal abuse is therefore counterproductive​—and unloving. Says the Bible: “Parents, never drive your children to resentment.”​—Ephesians 6:4, The Jerusalem Bible.

What can help a parent to keep his or her balance in this regard? First of all, it may help if you try to keep in mind what it was like for you when you were young. Were you really able to perform at near-professional levels? Is it reasonable to expect your son or daughter to do so? After all, “children are delicate.” (Genesis 33:13) Also, try to maintain a healthy view of winning and losing. The Bible calls unbridled rivalry “vanity and a striving after the wind.”​—Ecclesiastes 4:4.

Interestingly, a former major league baseball player encourages parents to keep winning and losing in perspective, neither getting angry when a child doesn’t play well nor getting too excited when he or she wins. Instead of hinging everything on winning, parents should focus on the children’s enjoyment and the benefit of their staying in shape.

Some parents have thus concluded that organized children’s sports tend to fuel an unhealthy spirit of competition. This does not  mean, however, that their children do not get to enjoy playing with others. Many Christian parents, for example, have found that their children enjoy playing with fellow believers in a backyard or at a local park. This way the parents have more control over their children’s association. Family outings may provide further opportunities for wholesome play. Granted, a backyard game will probably not give the same thrill as being on a winning team. Never forget, though, that at best “bodily training is beneficial [only] for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things.” (1 Timothy 4:8) By maintaining this balanced view of sports, you can prevent your child from being a victim of the new epidemic of violence.

[Pictures on page 15]

Sports should be fun, not a source of conflict