Unsportsmanlike behavior by parents, spectators, coaches, and participants at youth athletic events has become a national epidemic. It has led to a dramatic decline in youth sports participation and has been cited as the main reason sports officials quit. Because of this shortage of sports officials locally and nationwide, and because of the exodus of youth athletes from organized sports, solving the sportsmanship issue is critical to the continued growth and enjoyment of amateur athletics.
Silbo believes the first step towards improving sportsmanship on a national level is to improve it in its local community. Silbo’s inaugural Triangle Sportsmanship Conference, held in Raleigh, North Carolina, brought together sports leaders from across the country to share ideas and kick off a plan for improvement. Following the conference, Silbo has outlined six strategies to reduce poor sportsmanship:
By addressing sportsmanship directly and adding tangible consequences to unsporting behavior, these strategies can decrease sportsmanship issues and reinvigorate fun in organized athletics.
Dr. Stacy Warner, a panelist at the Triangle Sportsmanship Conference and a professor at East Carolina University, is an expert on the societal impact of youth sports. Her research has shown that parents are more invested than ever in their childrens’ sports careers. The increasing financial investment due to the rising cost of youth sports creates an emotional investment and an expectation of ROI in more playing time, better coaching, and more winning. Warner thinks officials are often seen as the villain by parents when calls go against their child. The following examples suggest that this is true.
In June, 2019, a melee erupted at a youth baseball game in Lakewood, Colorado. Six adults were cited for disorderly conduct. Two city employees – parents involved in the fracas – were placed on leave. Video footage from the incident shows parents threatening each other with metal bats and one man knocking another unconscious with a sucker punch from behind. And, if the story weren’t unbelievable enough already, the brawl occurred at a 7-year-old baseball game when a 13-year-old umpire called a contested 3rd strike.
Unfortunately, the brawl in Lakewood was not an isolated incident. Incidents of harassment and violence occur daily, like when 11 police departments were called to end a 60-person brawl at a high-school basketball game in Pittsburgh.1
The painful effects of poor sportsmanship go beyond the physical trauma. In fact, poor sportsmanship continues to be the single largest reason that youth athletes and sports officials end their respective sporting careers. The average child today spends less than three years playing a sport, quitting by age 112 with 70% of boys and girls leaving organized athletics by age 133. Nine out of ten kids say fun is the main reason they play sports4. When the game stops being fun, often because of aggressive and unsportsmanlike parents and coaches, many kids opt to quit.
In addition, sports officials quit the avocation at a rate of nearly 20% each year.5 On top of that, 80% of new officials quit after 2 years with most citing bad behavior by parents and coaches as the reason.6 Things have gotten so bad that the North Carolina High School Athletic Association requires a “law enforcement officer in uniform [to] be present at all high school varsity football and basketball games” and recommends one at soccer and baseball games as well. Teams, leagues, and clubs from California7 to Colorado8 to Delaware9 are struggling to get officials for games. The worsening referee shortage places a chokehold on the number of games that can be played by amateur athletes, limiting potential growth for sports in general. Without drastic intervention, the world of amateur sports stands on the precipice of disaster.
To start addressing this crisis, Silbo convened its inaugural Triangle Sportsmanship Conference in October, 2019, in partnership with the Carolina Hurricanes and North Carolina Football Club. The event was attended by youth sports administrators, youth league volunteers, elected officials, and referees and umpires for more than a dozen sports.
John Engh, Executive Director of The National Alliance for Youth Sports, and Steve Malik, North Carolina Football Club Owner and Chairman, offered their perspectives on sportsmanship in their keynote addresses. Two panels comprised of experts from around the country and the North Carolina youth sports community discussed best practices and possible solutions to the sportsmanship problem. From these authorities on the subject, Silbo has identified the following key strategies to improve behavior at youth sports events.
1. PRE-GAME COACHES MEETINGS – ESTABLISHING A LANDSCAPE OF MUTUAL RESPECT
Jim Baldwin, a veteran hockey official, suggested many incidents can be avoided by addressing sportsmanship in a pre-game meeting with the coaches. He believes the official should learn the coaches’ first names and refer to them by their names throughout the athletic contest, and vice versa. Speaking to one another on a first-name basis defuses animosity by developing a personal connection between coaches and officials. Each participant is now a person, not “ump,” “ref,” or “coach”.
“Both of the officials, go to both coaches and introduce yourself before every game and just let them know that you’re going to do the best you can.” –Jim Baldwin, veteran hockey official and former executive of the Carolina Hurricanes and Hartford Whalers
Dave Olsen, Executive Vice President of the Carolina Hurricanes, is a 30-year hockey coach and referee, and he agrees that sportsmanship is all about respect. He started reffing at the age of 14. When he started coaching as an adult, he had an understanding of the referees’ job and challenges, and was therefore able to give officials the benefit of the doubt rather than take bad calls personally.
Similarly, Deran Coe, Athletic Director for Wake County Public Schools shared that their program requires pregame meetings between coaches, players, and officials in order to establish a bond of common humanity and mutual respect. Officials remind the coaches and players that they are human and will likely make mistakes during the game just like the players and coaches will. The officials ask that any dissention be brought forward in a calm and respectful manner. Officials may also hand pieces of paper bearing the league’s sportsmanship policies to each coach during these pregame meetings, then ask each coach to affirm they have read and acknowledged these standards. Like the large sportsmanship placards placed at each field (See 2, on next page), these slips of paper act as reminders to keep sportsmanship top of mind for coaches.
2. TRAINING PLAYERS, COACHES, AND PARENTS TO HAVE RESPECT FOR OFFICIALS
Marissa Young, Head Softball Coach for Duke University, believes that, if participants and spectators understand that umpires are human and officiating mistakes are as much a part of the game as mistakes by players and coaches, there will be less focus on what are perceived to be bad calls. One of her assistant coaches stopped a scrimmage when players were becoming unglued because of a bad call. The assistant asked them, “Do you think you are so bad that you need every call to go your way?” She explained what the players already knew but had lost in the heat of the moment: bad calls are arbitrary and fall both ways over the course of a game. Players, coaches and spectators need to remember that officials do not have a bias toward one team and are trying to be fair. Now, coaches during Duke Softball’s scrimmages purposefully make incorrect calls so the players adapt to adversity and learn to maintain composure. When fans see the players behaving respectfully, they have a tendency to follow suit.
“In practice, one of the things that we do very regularly when we scrimmage or we have intense drills, we’ll intentionally make a bad call as a coaching staff and expect our kids to respond and continue. I think that’s something that as part of our training for leagues we can encourage coaches to practice that bad calls are going to happen. How do we not react and just continue the game and go on? That’s something that’s been very powerful for us in our program to teach our kids how to deal with that.” –Marissa Young, Head Softball Coach at Duke University
Brett Malone of North Carolina Football Club Youth, one of the largest youth soccer organizations in the U.S., is convinced that a code of conduct, one clearly stating the expectation of sportsmanship and good behavior by parents, is a necessity for all youth sports leagues. The NCFC Parents Code of Conduct is included in the online registration process and must be read and accepted by the parent. NCFC also communicates regularly with coaches and parents, and reminds them of their promise to abide by the code. Any violations are dealt with by a two-game suspension.
“It really comes down to communication and education. We start with our code of conducts for players, parents, and coaches. They all have code of conducts, they’re all held to them.” – Brett Malone, Challenge Director and ECNL Coach at North Carolina Football Club Youth
YMCA of the Triangle’s Jerry Foley agrees that teaching the values of sportsmanship and good character are not only critical in establishing a baseline of good behavior but are the core values of the Y: Respect, Responsibility, Caring and Honesty. Foley wants parents to know that it’s okay to allow their children to face adversity and that the struggle to overcome hardship is important to prepare for a happy and successful life.
“Really teaching the athletes to persist, but also the parents the gift of struggle. Allow your athlete to struggle. It’s okay. They’re going to come home and they’re not going to be happy with the coach or they’re going to fail. That’s the biggest lesson and value you can allow your child to get through, to teach them that.” – Jerry Foley is the Senior Director of Competitive Swimming at YMCA of the Triangle
3. SPORTSMANSHIP SIGNS
One simple step to improving sportsmanship is adding large, positive-attitude placards, banners, or displays at each game location. Physical placards act as tangible, constant reminders of what constitutes good sportsmanship. For instance, Silbo endorses language similar to the examples below for youth recreational games:
Moreover, signs like these help administrators and sports officials enforce good sportsmanship. Sportsmanship signs may aid officials, both new and experienced, to mitigate bad behavior by giving the officials a way to place the blame of a foul or ejection on the league’s policies as opposed to the officials themselves. If a sportsmanship issue arises, administrators and officials can point to the placard and reinforce the league’s values to the offending party. The offending party can no longer feign ignorance over a missed sportsmanship email or claim they forgot the values taught during league’s pre-season sportsmanship discussion.
4. PURPLE CARDS
Pati Rolf, Director of Officials’ Development for USA Volleyball, reported that two USA Volleyball regions are currently testing the “purple card” system in its matches. In volleyball, an official currently can issue yellow and red cards to players and coaches for rules and sportsmanship violations. Officials in these test regions may now issue purple cards if they witness a sportsmanship issue arising from a spectator. When the purple card is issued – for instance, if a parent from Team A exhibits bad behavior – then the official gives a point to Team B as well as the serve. Thus, not only is the purple card a warning to the game’s external participants, but it also provides real consequences to their actions. These repercussions may not be dire, but still have a real impact on the outcome of the match. You can read the complete purple card policy here. Silbo recommends that, when possible, leagues consider implementing such a policy, even in other sports. For instance, in baseball an official may issue a purple card, then call the team’s batter out or give the batter/ runners a free base. In basketball, a purple card may signify a technical foul.
5. ON-SITE MONITORING OF SPECTATORS
Deran Coe, Athletic Director for Wake County Public Schools says that having “visible and vigilant” representatives of his department in the stands at every game creates relationships of mutual respect at games. These game-day administrators interact with spectators in an unthreatening manner to cool tensions before they erupt. USA Volleyball also has on-site monitors as do Special Olympics of North Carolina. Both report positive results of adding these game-day administrators. Keith Fishburne, President and CEO of Special Olympics of North Carolina, sees as much if not more passion among parents and spectators at Special Olympics games as other leagues. Having a “Sportsmanship Officer” at games to interact positively with fans can defuse tense situations and calm angry family members and friends.
6. GAME CANCELATIONS
In FIFA matches, if an official encounters racist or discriminatory behavior from spectators, they may pause the match and request a public announcement to insist that the discriminatory behavior cease. If the behavior continues, the officials may then suspend the match until the behaviour stops following another warning announcement. Finally, if the behaviour still persists, the officials may decide to abandon the match. Silbo envisions the same policy being implemented for referee harassment. If an official feels abused or harassed, they can call together both coaches – regardless of whoever was committing the abuse – and warn them. The next instance of abuse they may suspend play for 15 minutes. After another, final instance of abuse, they may end the game. In this way, the coaches and fans are made aware of the situation and the officials have tools at their disposal to control the situation. No parent wants to see a game ended or forfeited on their account. They sacrificed too much time and money to be there for the game to end on account of a preventable issue like harassment. Like the purple card, game cancelations add tangible consequences to poor sportsmanship.
Silbo believes the strategies outlined above can and will decrease sportsmanship issues when instituted by team, leagues, clubs, and associations. Each of these strategies reinforces a more sporting culture, adds tangible consequences to unsportsmanlike behavior, and provides a much more positive experience for all participants, especially our children. While Silbo is committed to fighting this problem, we know we have more to learn. We plan to hold additional sportsmanship conferences around the country to receive more input from officials, coaches, league administrators, parents, and players and will share future findings with the youth sports community.
At Silbo, we believe that by advocating for officials, we can in turn improve the experiences of everyone involved in youth sports: parents, coaches, athletes, and all.” – Brendan Szulik, Silbo CEO and Cofounder
A printable, pdf version is available here: Silbo Whitepaper – 6 Ways to Improve Sportsmanship at Youth Sporting Events
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1. Berman, Beau, and JIm Madalinsky. “Both Schools on Probation after Large Brawl at Clairton-Monessen High School Basketball Game.” February 12, 2018. Accessed June 26, 2019. https://www.wtae.com/article/ large-brawl-breaks-out-at-clairton-monessen-basketball-game/16652378.
2. “National Youth Sport Survey — The Aspen Institute Project Play.” https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/ national-youth-sport-survey-1. Accessed 5 Dec. 2019.
3. Dilworth, Cate. “Would you let your child quit a sport mid-season?” National Alliance for Youth Sports. February 11, 2015.
4. (n.d.). Ask Kids What They Want — Project Play: Playbook. Retrieved December 5, 2019, from http://youthreport.projectplay.us/the-8-plays/ask-kids-what-they-want
5. Livingston, L A, et al.
6. (n.d.). NASO National Officiating Survey. Retrieved December 5, 2019, from https://www.naso.org/survey/
7. Miles, Frank. “Toxic Fans May Explain California’s High School Referee Shortage: Report.” Fox News. January 29, 2019. Accessed June 26, 2019. https://www.foxnews.com/sports/toxic-fans-may-explain-californias-high-school-referee-shortage-report.
8. Abeyta, Michael. “Referee Shortage Has CHSAA Juggling Games To Avoid ‘Major Disruption’.” CBS Denver. September 29, 2018. Accessed June 26, 2019. https://denver.cbslocal.com/2018/09/29/referee-shortage-chsaa-games/.
9. Cuevas, Jose. “Delaware Suffers Shortage of Referees.” WBOC. March 21, 2019. Accessed June 26, 2019. http:// www.wboc.com/story/40175761/delaware-suffers-shortage-of-referees.