Sideline rage in youth sports:

It’s not your local sandlot anymore As parents and their children become increasingly involved with organized sports, focusing on the need to excel, which can result in college scholarships, increases stress, sometimes leading to outbursts that can be deadly.

By Nikki Pedersen/Special to The Malibu Times

It isn’t hard to miss them-they scream the loudest, verbally humiliate players, and threaten coaches-and that’s just their own team. They dish out their meanest brand of disdain, sarcasm and belligerence to the opposing team, whose members aren’t old enough to understand this type of adult angst.

Jeff Gardella, Malibu High School’s athletic director, is no stranger to sideline rage.

“I’ve coached 26 years, and I’ve seen it in all its aspects,” said Gardella.

“I think what adds to the situation is the money that pros make,” Gardella explained. “Each parent sees his or her kid as an all-star, sees the scholarship potential. Winning is everything.”

Another cause, said Gardella, is that some adults try to live through their kids. The worst are parents of 13-year-olds.

Malibu AYSO soccer coach Ruben Azar said, “Parents often bring issues of tension and dominance to the field.”

Sideline rage seems to be escalating.

Locally, at a water polo game in Malibu, recounts Gardella, “The parent of an opposing player who got hurt went crazy, pushing the coach out of the way and cursing him. I told the parent straight out, ‘You’re leaving now or I’ll call the cops.’ “

That incident is mild compared to what happened in Reading, Massachusetts. Two fathers got into a fight during a hockey practice as boys 10, 11 and 12 stood by, watching one of them kill the other. At a 10-and-under boys’ sectional event, a father, angered by a line call during his son’s match, pulled out a gun and pointed it at an umpire. In San Juan Capistrano, parents were arrested for fighting at a soccer match between 14-year-olds.

One theory about the rage is that media coverage is ratcheting up the stakes, while expanding the opportunities for youth sports to be big business.

The pickup game and local sandlot are no more, according to Dr. Darrell J. Burnett, a Southern California sports psychologist, in his book, “It’s Just a Game.”

“Now there’s a good chance the field is organized and scheduled or reserved for other teams,” writes Gardella.

The more competitive the sport, the more rage, according to Gardella.

Reports from the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) show that about 15 percent of youth games involve some sort of verbal or physical abuse from parents or coaches, compared with five percent just five years ago. These are big numbers when you consider that some 30 million youth ages 4 to 14 are involved in organized sports, according to NAYS. Not only is anger becoming the common denominator of our daily lives, but also there isn’t even a uniform code of conduct and ethics that applies to youth sports.

To deal with outbursts, many organized teams are beginning to require that their players sign oaths or contracts to uphold standards of behavior and good sportsmanship. The city of Santa Clarita has already mandated that parents sign a binding code of conduct before their children are allowed to play on a sport team. The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) issues a Player’s Rights, “No Fighting Contract.” It ends with a section of large, bold type stating, “Any player, coach or parent refusing to sign this document will not be able to participate in play.”

Gardella said, other than having a “Code of Conduct” that only coaches are required to sign, there’s no such thing as a “No-Fighting Contract” in inter-scholastic sports.

Yet the issue is so pervasive that former Los Angeles mayoral candidate Steven Soboroff thought to make parental oaths a part of his campaign platform.

Another tactic to combat negative parental behaviors is “Silent Saturday,” where parents are not allowed to yell anything during the game.

“I had a ref send one parent out of the park for shouting destructive comments,” said Gardella, “after two warnings.”

Overall, Azar gives Malibu parents a good score on managing rage: “There’s political correctness here; parents know each other, so they don’t speak up over problems.”

Azar also observes a difference in attitude between “old” and “new” Malibu parents: “Old Malibu is very easy going; new Malibu tends to be pushy.”

Regardless of parents’ attitudes, the bottom line for Azar is that his kids stay focused on skill development, which allows him to move them around so they play a variety of positions. “If the attention is on winning, I’m going to be focused on where to put the kids to win the game, not on looking for the depth inside each child.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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