Ever notice the crowd at a Little League game? The stands are jammed with zealous parents cheering their children on to victory. If the kids win, the parents dance and celebrate like victorious game show contestants. If they lose, their parents sulk, sometimes more than the children themselves.
In the quest for victory, many parents place too much emphasis on winning, says child psychologist Alan Yellin, and in doing so, they run the risk of doing serious psychological harm to the children they love.
"Self-esteem is really the purpose of Little League--not winning," Yellin told about 70 parents and Little League coaches at a Centinela Hospital Medical Center workshop on "How to Be a Good Little League Parent."
"Good self-esteem lasts longer than the season," he said.
According to Yellin and several other experts who spoke at Saturday's workshop, a child can find organized sports more traumatic than enjoyable if he or she is striving to please coaches, impress peers and make parents proud.
The Inglewood hospital offered the free program on sports medicine and sports psychology as part of an ongoing effort to reduce the number of sports-related injuries, both physical and psychological. Parents need to be educated, "so they can avoid the common mistakes that often lead to disaster," said workshop organizer Dr. Lewis Yocum, an orthopedic consultant to the California Angels.
Other speakers at the workshop included Geoff Zahn, who recently retired as a pitcher for the Angels, Pat Screaner, a physical therapist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Roger Williams, a trainer for the Angels.
But it was Yellin, a Brentwood psychologist, who seemed to capture the audience's attention. With the rapid-fire delivery of a stand-up comic, he outlined some of the most common mistakes made by Little League parents.
The biggest of those, Yellin said, is failing to give a child positive reinforcement.
"Remember to praise the effort and not just the product. Tell him he tried his best, he came on time, he helped clean up after the game, he made a genuine effort. . . . These things are important and our children will benefit from them forever."
To illustrate his point, Yellin cited a study in which psychologists compared the homes of well-adjusted children to those of juvenille delinquents in which researchers found that praise--not punishment--was the most important factor influencing children's behavior. The study showed that the more praise a child received at home, the better his or her behavior was apt to be, and that well-adjusted children received more than twice as much positive reinforcement and rewards as the problem children, Yellin said.
The second most-common mistake parents make, Yellin said, is to forget that they are role models for their children, who often imitate parents' behavior. As an example of children's imitative behavior, he described a psychological experiment in which a child watched an adult throw darts at a board in a dentist's waiting room. Every time a dart landed within 10 inches of the bull's-eye, the adult popped a jellybean in his mouth, but if the dart landed outside the 10-inch range, the adult slapped his leg or otherwise expressed disgust.
When the adult left the waiting room, the child began playing darts, following the same pattern the adult had establsihed by granting himself a reward or punishment, depending on where the dart landed.
"In essence, these adults taught their children how to reward themselves," Yellin said. "The problem is, some of us teach our children to reward themselves only if they get a bull's-eye. This is the worst thing a child can do because it leaves them no room for failure."
In baseball, as in life, Yellin said, children have to be taught to fail as graciously as they succeed.
Yellin also said that parents should avoid pushing their children to become great athletes and concentrate instead on teaching them to be good and likable people. He also advised against being overprotective.
Although most of what he said could easily have fallen under the heading of basic parental skills, Yellin maintained that his advice should be of particular interest to parents who have children who play organized sports.
"For the first time in their lives, these children are moving from their real family to an extended family," Yellin said. In Little League, children also experience their first taste of competition and their first taste of failure in front people other than their families, he said.
Often the pressure from these new experiences can build and manifest itself in vomiting before or during a game, shaking and bouts of uncontrollable temper, said workshop coordinator Yocum, who advised parents to look for these warning signs.
"If we can defuse some of the pressures of being in a Little League, then you will reduce the chance of psychological injuries," Yellin said.
"Whether we realize it or not our children are just as vulnerable to psychological scarring as they are to physical pain. The best thing we can do to protect them from trauma is to encourage them without being pushy, praise their efforts as well as their successes and teach them how to be likable people. This is probably the most important gift that parents can give any child."