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Children and Sports - Whose Love Is It?

By Dr. Philip Fitch Vincent, Director of the Character Development Group

Some years back I had the wonderful opportunity to assist in coaching a T-Ball team. For those of you who are not familiar with T-ball, it is the first step in organized baseball. The ball is placed on a "T" and the child hits the ball and runs, hopefully, to first base. I did notice that not all children would run to first base after hitting the ball. Left-handed batters may just as quickly run to third base; after all it is the base they see. These young sluggers may also be distracted from the game. Once, my daughter-the shortstop-started screaming with joy that there was a lizard near second base. The entire team, as well as several batters, ran faster than they ever had in their lives towards second base. The coaches had to work hard to save the life of that poor lizard.

I thought coaching T-ball was one of the joys of my life. I did not care whether the children won or lost the game. Just introducing them to the pleasures of baseball and having them participate, as a group, was reward enough. Most of the parents understood this, but not all of them. I had to remind one parent that his child had only been on this earth around 60 months, and that it was a little too early to determine whether the child was major league material. I also had to remind several parents that it was just a game being played by a five-year-old, and that yelling at their child for missing a grounder was unacceptable. I eventually told one parent that if she did not stop heckling her child as well as others, that her child would be removed from the team and she could explain why this was occurring.

What is going on here? Was I just encountering the only obnoxious parents in the United States on my teams? I doubt it. I see it when I attend Little League games in which my neighbor's children are playing. These are just kids who simply want to have a little fun. They are happy just being with each other, hitting, throwing, and running around the bases. And that is enough. The problem, far too often, are the parents and the other significant adult in a child's athletic life-the coach. Their lack of sportsmanship and civility towards others has a negative impact upon the children's playing of the game.

Although I am not an expert at this, I will present one possible explanation as to why a parent or coach is willing to act so inappropriately in the presence of their child at a sporting event. First of all, parents, and hopefully most adults, desire that their children grow to be better people than themselves. Ideally, we want them to be better people than us-to be more moral and more socially conscious regarding the needs of others. Perhaps we want them to be better educated or more financially secure than we are. These are reasonable aspirations to have for our children, but it doesn't stop here. Far too many parents and coaches failed to achieve their athletic goals and must now achieve them through their children or the children they coach. Choosing not to play at all or not to play with a great deal of intensity and expertise is unacceptable for too many parents as well as the coaches. They must now live their lives and their athletic failures through children. I am not talking about failing to support children in their athletic efforts. I happen to be someone who loves sports and loves to support children in all athletic endeavors. But I hope I have a healthy understanding of what is important and what is not important regarding sports and life. Being on a winning team is wonderful, but learning how to play the game, developing good skills, and learning to win and lose with dignity is still more important. Parents and coaches should encourage their children to give their best and to work hard, but they should not be judged on who they are as people, based on their athletic abilities. Most of us will not make our living playing sports, but we will need to learn to build lives of decency and civility. Sports can play an important role in shaping our understanding and practice of civility, but only if they are put in proper perspective.

A wonderful example of putting sports in perspective was provided by Sandy Koufax. Sandy Koufax was one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. He was selected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, a splendid accomplishment. Once, during the World Series, Koufax announced that he would not pitch on Yom Kippur-the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people-even if it was his turn in the rotation, which it was. Some members of the sporting press and even more people in the stands questioned why Koufax would make such a statement. It was the World Series. Surely one could make an exception. Koufax said no. An exception would not be made. What was most interesting was that the Dodger front office as well as the players supported Sandy. They understood the importance of this day in Sandy's life and they also understood that this was a game-yes, an important game-but still, a game.

What about us? Do we know that it is just a game? Do we know that most children who play sports will never get a college scholarship or play professionally? And do we act as if we know this? If we understand this, we will do the following:

  • We will teach our children to play hard and fair.
  • We will model good sportsmanship to them while we are on the way to the game, sitting in the stands and on the way back from the game.
  • We will not make excuses if we lose a game. Rarely does one bad call or one play determine the outcome of a sporting event.
  • We will support the coaches, but will not allow our children to play for coaches who verbally or even physically abuse them.

Perhaps now is the best time to assess how you are treating your children as they play sports. Be the person you want your child or the children you coach to be-whether the child is playing for the state championship or assisting a neighbor with her chores.


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