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Let Them Play Ball

Adults need to allow kids to have fun on the field, say concerned parents, coaches and psychologists. Even that 'positive' yelling from the sidelines of Orange County youth leagues can have negative effects.


Claudia Gassin did not need a needlepoint Christmas stocking.

What the Irvine homemaker needed as she sat along the sidelines of her children's various soccer, basketball and baseball games was a diversion, a little something to occasionally pull her eyes, ears and emotions away from that trickiest position in youth sports--the sidelines.

So she did needlepoint. When the heat picked up, so did Gassin's needle. Not because she didn't care or want to watch every second, but because looking away from the action and fellow parents for a few moments helped her keep a focus on the big picture of youth leagues. And that, as she sees it, is that youth sports is just one piece of childhood, not its focus, and that it's about fun, teamwork, camaraderie and those funny baggy uniforms draped on spindly bodies. Or should be.

"I've noticed fewer parents are able to sit and watch games. They all seem to be standing up and screaming. By and large, they seem to be screaming 'positive' things, but I think it would be better if they would just sit down," says Gassin, who has four children, 17, 15, 10 and 7. "It intensifies the game. I think it puts the pressure on. I don't think the kids can really differentiate it [from criticism]. Yelling is yelling."

And it can kill the fun of youth sports, those community leagues where children start playing as young as 4 in Orange County and in which the first goofy, grinning team photo is a rite of passage.

At the moment it's T-ball, baseball and softball. Come fall, it's soccer and football. In winter it's basketball. But whatever the game, many parents fall into the same sideline rut--shouting. Not those ugly screaming spectacles among referees, parents and coaches that make an occasional headline. They are in fact rare. More subtle and pervasive is the well-intentioned but intense cheering, rooting and nonstop instruction, say coaches, parents and child psychologists.

At best, the sideline chatter is distracting to children already doing all they can to focus on a moving ball and muster every molecule of their coordination in an attempt to chase, hit, catch, pass, kick, dribble or receive that ball.

At worst, it's as bad as blatant obnoxiousness because kids feel the push to perfection behind it, says Darrell Burnett, a clinical and sport psychologist from Laguna Niguel and author of "Youth, Sports & Self Esteem" (Master's Press, Spalding's Sports Library, 1993.)

"Cheering the kids on is fine," says Burnett, who is also a youth sports coach and a 1996 Sports Ethic Fellow with the University of Rhode Island's Institute for International Sport. "But there's a fine line between 'That's the way to go to the ball!' versus 'Go to the ball! Go to the ball! Go to the ball!' Or if they're yelling out 'Put your foot back! Step back! Keep your eye on the ball! Keep your head up!' That can get very frustrating to a kid."

And what does the sideline din do to the experience? It pumps up the competitiveness and turns child play into a command performance for adults, says Thomas Tutko, a San Jose State psychologist and author of a youth sports newsletter for parents. Yes, everyone likes to win. But at this age, it's not the Holy Grail of childhood, Tutko says.

"If you think about winning, you're really not in tune with children," Tutko says. "I love sports, and I love kids. And if you combine them, if you watch kids play, quite frankly, you get a feeling for what sport is all about."

Or at least what kids think it's all about.

Tutko, Burnett and others point to a landmark study by UCLA's Sports Psychology Laboratory that surveyed 2,000 youth athletes. The top three reasons they listed for playing sports were positive coach support; a chance to learn the game; and being part of a team. Winning was at the bottom of their lists.

True enough, Gassin says. Her 10-year-old daughter, Brie, is a wonderful athlete and has been named to soccer all-star teams every year she has played. But she had one of her most enjoyable seasons when she happened to be on a less than stellar team. It didn't win a game all season. And the players had a blast. Her daughter was never frustrated because the total season was what counted, Gassin said. And it had been full of fun, friends and improved personal skills on the field. And pizza parties, of course.

Another year on a winning team was full of trophies but dampened by high-pressure coaching and chronic profanity by one of the players--a player the coach just couldn't bear to let go, Gassin says.

Likewise, Burnett last year coached a National Junior Basketball team of seventh-graders that won only two out of 10 games. About a week after the season ended, one of the boys--who was new to basketball but nevertheless honored by Burnett with a Mr. Intensity award--sent the coach a huge computer-generated thank-you note.

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