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PARENTING : Keeping It Fun : At a Woodland Hills center, coaches and parents involved in youth sports are taught good sportsmanship.

March 26, 1993|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michael Szymanski writes regularly for The Times.

Six years ago, a group of parents of 6-year-old Little League players at the Woodland Hills Recreation Center shouted down an umpire's call. They ran onto the baseball field, they screamed and shouted. Their children cried.

"They got so caught up in the competitiveness of the game, they forgot what it was all about--that their children were out there just to have fun," says Tracie Fields, director of the center.

Now, a series of classes, seminars and Good Sportsmanship lectures are a regular part of the curriculum for parents, coaches and volunteers involved in a variety of youth sports at the center.

"We have a lot of success in getting parents involved in car-pooling, making the team banner, all sorts of things. And at the end of a game or a season, the kids don't even know if they've won or not," says Ed Bates, the senior director of the center for the past 12 years. "It doesn't matter if they've won because they feel so good about themselves just for playing."

Youngsters pick up the stress from an overzealous adult, and one angry parent in the stands can ruin a game for everyone, Bates says.

"You won't believe how many of the dads come up to me and say they were part of the Yankees or were almost in pro ball," Bates adds. "We're not talking about pro ball here; we're just talking about children throwing the ball around."

Before the team season gets started, Bates sets up seminars for parents with professional baseball and football players, a youth psychologist and other parents who have coached for years.

Two parents who are longtime coaches are Canoga Park car dealership owner Dave Ellis and Calabasas insurance salesman Dale R. Lowenstein. They have coached for longer than their children have been involved in Pony and Little League sports.

Ellis says athletic experiences often have an enduring importance in a person's life. "I don't remember much about school, but one of my big childhood memories is getting a home run when I was 8," says Ellis, who grew up in Anaheim.

Now, in the seminars, Ellis explains the impact that a parent's involvement has on a child's self-esteem.

Ellis started coaching five years ago when his eldest son was old enough for athletics. His two sons, John and Joey, have different enthusiasms for sports but have played baseball, soccer and basketball. "I've learned never to say a negative thing to the boys on the team," Ellis says. "I'm always telling them about their good job--pat them on the back and never tell them they blew it."

Ellis' 4-year-old daughter Caroline, who grew up going to her brothers' games, will start in one of the two all-girls teams next year. Sometimes they get a chance to play a boys team, and often they beat them.

Five- and 6-year-olds play T-ball, a simplified, unscored game in which the players hit a ball that's placed on a stand. The league took the pressure off these younger teams when they stopped scoring their games two years ago. Everyone has a chance at batting, and the field positions are frequently changed.

"When they're that young, they stand in the outfield with their gloves over their faces if you don't keep the game moving," Lowenstein says.

"We see a lot of success stories," Lowenstein says. "I remember one guy who couldn't catch a ball for three or four years, and then I saw him with the 12-year-olds years later and he was playing shortstop."

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More than 100 children are involved in the center's 12 teams, and at least 50 parents a year help with activities including refreshments, car pooling, score keeping, assistant coaching and making team shirts.

What do they do about the father who insists that his 5-year-old should be playing first base?

'We make all the parents read and sign a pledge that they will remain good examples to their children during the games," Bates says. "If they, or the coaches, violate the agreement, we show them the paper they've signed."

Bates also encloses a poem in their packets to remind them: "He is just a boy, not a pro."

In other words, he says, "we teach them that it is no disgrace to lose."

As for the children, adds Lowenstein: "they just want to play with their friends."

As for the parents, the most enthusiastic arrive in force to cheer their beginning 5-year-olds. The older the teams get, the fewer parents participate.

But team sports at the Woodland Hills center are still consistently exciting.

"We have some big names coming out to open the season for us," says Bates, who has pictures in his office of past opening days with Ernie Banks and Tommy Lasorda. "We'll have some surprise guests again this year."

'It doesn't matter if they've won because they feel so good about themselves just for playing.'

Ed Bates

Senior director, Woodland Hills Recreation Center For Good Sportsmanship parent sessions and league information for T-ball, softball, basketball and soccer, contact the Woodland Hills Recreation Center, 5858 Shoup Ave., Woodland Hills, (818) 883-9370, or your nearest city park or recreation center.

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