Youth Sports: Character, Respect and Sportsmanship

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Youth SportsThis year my 10-year-old son joined a travel hockey team. He’s been playing hockey for the last five years and is obsessed with the sport. He eats, drinks, and breathes hockey. And, he’s not too bad of a player (yes, I know I am biased). He’s been playing on recreational and house teams until this year, when we decided that we’d try travel hockey.

A Big Commitment

My husband and I knew it would be a big commitment. First, it’s expensive. Not only are we paying for ice time, uniforms, and tournament registrations, but we pay to travel around the state for games and tournaments. This means hotels, meals out, and lots of tanks of gas. Second, it’s time consuming. Outside of tournament weekends and games, we have practice two to three times per week. I feel like we’re at the rink every day of the week. I’m exhausted!

But we knew that our son would develop at a different level on a travel team. The intense schedule and frequency of play challenges him to be a better player. Not only that, but he is learning how to juggle school and sports and understands that he is a student first – and then an athlete. The amount of time he spends with his teammates is creating a bond that I didn’t know exists for 10-year-old’s. To watch these young men grow and advance – together – is really something special.

Before starting a travel sport, we received lots of “advice” from our family and friends: 

“You’ll be broke the rest of your life.”

“Your poor daughter, what about her?”

“There goes any sense of normalcy for your family.”

And this one … “Oh my Gosh! How are you going to deal with all the nasty parents?”

This is Intense!

Before this year, parents had been generally respectful. I really couldn’t imagine a parent getting out of control or being “nasty.”  On occasion, a parent would loudly coach their child from the stands or be a bit critical of a call a referee made. But it wasn’t anything too distracting or disrespectful.

Then, this year we entered a new sphere of youth sports. Luckily, our team parents are pretty tame, but over the past couple of months I have witnessed behavior that is less than sportsmen-like. At a recent tournament, I could hear the parents of another team yelling at the referees from the other side of the arena. I have watched as a mother rushed to the boards to berate a ref because she thought a penalty should have been called. I have heard parents scream that a whistle should be blown to stop play because a ref couldn’t see the puck from his angle.

Part of the reason we have our son in youth sports is to teach him character, respect, and sportsmanship. A father on our team is constantly saying, “Boys, remember who and what you are representing.” I love this. This is a lesson I am sure most young athletes are receiving.  Yet, I am boggled by how this message gets lost on the parents.

Youth Sports are Not Pro Sports

Most kids who play youth sports do not go on to make it as a professional. A recent study shows that a young hockey player has a 0.4% chance of making in the NHL. The odds are worse for other sports – 0.03% for basketball, 0.015% for baseball, and 0.09% for football. Yet, we act as if our children are already playing at a professional level. And our expectations of our children, coaching staff, and the officials sometimes reflect that.

A young player receiving a penalty will not be blacklisted. And yelling obscenities at the referee will not reverse a call. Loudly referring to another team as “dirty” when you’re down won’t change the what the referees are witnessing on the ice. However, I do know that our young players are observing our behavior, and at some point, they will begin to mimic our actions and words – losing sight of what sportsmanship is all about. I also know that the player you are badmouthing, is someone else’s child.

A parent’s perspective from the stands and bias for our children are different from those who have been trained to call a game. Officials aren’t taking bribes or conspiring against (or with) a team. Many referees are teenagers who are looking to make some extra cash to help fund their love of the sport. Others are working full-time jobs and choose to spend their free-time enriching our kids’ lives. These refs work hard and are just as dedicated to their jobs as our coaches and children. It would be a shame if our kids couldn’t play because there we scared away all the referees.

Parents of youth sports players, let’s pledge to act with dignity and respect at our children’s games.  Let’s remind one another of the big picture and hold one another accountable for our words and actions. Remember that our children are watching and that referees are human.

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Dana has lived in Colorado for the last 17 years. She met her husband, Ben, in Boulder and they made the move to Colorado Springs. Together, they are busy raising two children. Dana is the Director of Meeting the Challenge, Inc., a national disability compliance consulting firm. She is an active community volunteer and has served several boards. When she is not working, Dana can be found cheering on her son and daughter's travel hockey teams at area ice rinks. She enjoys spending time hiking in the mountains with her Vizsla, raising backyard chickens, and cheering on her Alma Mater's Michigan State Spartans!