Is Sportsmanship Dead?
The Impact of Parents' Behavior on the Sidelines

Kirk West, a veteran Little League coach in
Northridge, Calif., has seen his share of problem parents over the years. But the incident that occurred on April 15, 2000, was different: He was physically assaulted by the parent of one of his players.

Is Sportsmanship Dead?

  • Damage Done to the Young

  • Causes of Parental Violence

  • Curbing Bad Behavior

  • Sport Parent Code of Conduct

  • Keeping Sports Fun for Kids

  • QUIZ: Are You a Bad Sport?

  • His attacker, Mitchell Gluckman, was sentenced to serve 45 days in jail and given three years probation along with mandatory anger management counseling. This sentence, handed down on Jan. 25, marks a sea change in the reception that overly aggressive parents could face from authorities dealing with the phenomena.  That change is propelled by the rash of incidents in the past year in which parents have crossed the line from verbal abuse to outright assault. The most publicized of these events involved a father in Reading, Mass., who beat another father to death at a children’s hockey practice last July.

    West’s encounter did not end tragically, but was no less fraught with peril.

    "After the game, I was over at my truck changing out of my uniform in the parking lot,” he recalls. “Gluckman came flying into the parking lot, and threw his son’s jersey into my chest, yelling, ‘How dare you make my son a three-inning player. I’m going to kill you, and my son is going to kill your kid.’” Gluckman, at 5-feet-8-inches and 300 pounds, then picked West up (West is 5-feet-6-inches and weighs 135 pounds) and slammed him against the back of the truck.

    “The worst thing about the whole incident,” recalls West, was that Gluckman’s son, age 11, “was standing right there to witness everything.”

    The Damage Done to the Young
    West has good cause for his concern. Children who witness their parent’s violent behavior can have negative and, possibly, long-term reactions, according to Leonard D. Zaichowsky, a sports psychologist at
    Boston University. In a recent National Youth Sports Safety Foundation newsletter, Zaichowsky asserted that children who have strong reactions to viewing violence could develop post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms including re-experiencing the event through play or trauma-specific nightmares or flashbacks, increased sleep disturbances, irritability, poor concentration or regressive behavior.

    "Imagine how these reactions could inhibit a child,” Zaichowsky wrote. “Associating a traumatic event with sports can greatly affect the young athlete.”

    Young children who have witnessed violence are more likely to react with regressive behaviors (crying, clinging, thumbsucking, etc.), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Children ages 6-11 may exhibit disruptive behavior, irritability, outbursts of anger or a refusal to attend school or sporting activities. Adolescents may act in these ways, but are also likely to turn to substance abuse, show suicidal tendencies or engage in anti-social behavior.

    AN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Although no hard data exists today as to whether the actual number of sports-related assaults is increasing, it’s clear that unsportsmanlike behavior is increasingly well-publicized, and punished in extreme cases. League officials and state authorities are fighting back, by authorizing “Parental Codes of Conduct,” which spell out the sportsmanlike behavior expected of parents, and requiring a signed “contract”  before children are allowed to play. “Zero Tolerance” strategies are also gaining in popularity.

    AN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">The Causes of Parental Violence
    While “societal pressure” is an oft-cited cause for these actions, psychologists offer informed opinions on the roots of this obnoxious – and sometimes criminal – behavior.

    AN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Sports psychologist Dan Wann, an associate professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky and a co-author of Sports Fans: the Psychiatry and Social Impact of Spectators, has studied the phenomena of fan violence extensively. Wann has found that the most important factor precipitating fan violence is whether the fan identifies with the team or player.

    AN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“If he sees the team’s, or the player’s, performance as an extension of his own self-worth, then he will identify with their successes and failures,” Wann explains. “For parents, this equation is even more true: A person can’t be more identified with a player than a parent is with his child.”

    AN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">So parents easily fall into the trap of taking on their children’s successes and failures on the field (or rink). But other factors can also help tip an “over-identified parent” into aggression. For example, if the sport that the parent is viewing is violent, then parents can get increasingly agitated while viewing the action.

    AN style="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“A parent watching his child get slammed into the boards, or hip-checked and knocked down, gets wound up,” says Wann.

    The combination of parental disappointment with a child’s perceived failure, coupled with the righteous wrath of a parent “protecting” his child, is the fiery brew that provokes many off-field confrontations.

    Hockey, because it involves a huge parental investment of time and money, and also involves violent play, seems to provoke the most extreme behavior – but other sports, such as football, baseball, soccer and basketball are not immune.

    Continue to Curbing Bad Behavior on the Sidelines

    Also in this series:
    The Sport Parent Code of Conduct

    Keeping Sports Fun for Kids

    Are You a Bad Sport? A Quiz for Parents