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This is an old story and unfortunately, it’s not getting any better with age. Some would argue it’s just getting worse. The conduct of parents, players, and some coaches, even in some of the most junior leagues is driving youth sports officials off the field and out of the game for good.
A recent national survey showed just two out of every ten officials lasts more than three years. More often than not the cause is lack of sportsmanship, and poor parent behavior is cited as the reason for leaving the game. The impact on youth sports on the shrinking pool of officials means a lot of schedule aerobics, overworked officials, and at worst, cancellation of games.
Not just an American problem but a modern one
Interestingly enough, it isn’t just one sport or even one country that has a monopoly on poor sportsmanship and bad behavior. Parents have been banned from attending their children’s hockey games in Canada. A 14-year old female soccer referee was verbally abused to the point of quitting a match for girls under the age of 8. In England, Australia, and Mexico, soccer and rugby refs have been threatened, physically hit by players, spat on and had to be escorted to their cars after a match.
Some point to the less than role model behavior of a few professional athletes and coaches, while others highlight the additional stress caused when parents begin to “invest” heavily in their child’s athletic career and the dream of playing professionally. Whatever the reason, the official shortage is real and it’s going to continue to negatively impact how youth sports are played.
To help turn the tide and return the proper level of respect and support to youth sports officials here are a couple things every parent, player and coach should keep in mind.
Know that negative behavior leads to a negative recruiting experience
There’s a great piece of advice for every parent and every player in Jason Smith’s article How Coaches Evaluate Parents on the Sideline and that is, “Whether you’re in line at the concession stand or sitting in the bleachers, act as if a college coach is always around you—because they most likely are. In these moments, your behavior becomes a reflection of your family.” Coaches are going to hold a dim view of parents who ride and otherwise abuse officials, or student athletes that challenge, threaten, criticize or confront referees and umpires. There’s really no room on any college roster for that kind of negative drama and lack of sportsmanship.
College coaches are not only looking for good athletes, they want students who will make a great addition to their team as well as their school.
Keep in mind, coaches love to talk with other coaches and bad behavior of any kind is most likely to come up in discussion. A college coach may even interview league officials for their take on certain players and their parents.
Parents and student-athletes who want to play at the college level need to make sure they are setting a high bar while attending or participating at any competition.
A team uniform means you are part of something bigger than yourself
Back in the day, uniforms were more than just a way of telling one team from the other. Wearing the colors came with a promise and certain responsibilities. Once the uniform was on, you became a representative of your team and your behavior was a direct reflection of that team’s character and image. The pride in wearing a jersey comes from not just winning but from being part of a tradition of excellence.
Like the Sussex Central High School soccer team. Delaware hands out just two sportsmanship awards a year and one of those went to the Sussex soccer squad. Note that Coach Kevin Cash makes sure his team shakes hands of each referee before and after each match. His players are to refrain from back-talking the referees and trash-talking opposing players during the games.
“I try to instill those values in all of my players,” Cash said. “I make sure they know we have to handle ourselves in a professional manner.” In case you were wondering, Cash knows about winning, too. His teams at Georgetown Middle School racked up an impressive 54-0-1 record.
Remember that all officials are sons and daughters, too.
For many youth sports officials, it is their love of the game that leads them onto to the field. It’s often a way to get some exercise, enjoy their sport, and support the local athletes in their community. Their training might not always be adequate, they may miss calls here and there, but they are giving up their free time and weekends, enduring all the elements, and doing their level best to ensure a great game or match.
They will be the first ones to tell you they are human and they may not always get it right. They will also tell you they are human and the verbal abuse and physical threats can take their toll and they will eventually leave the game because of it. They will tell you a little word of encouragement, a thank you, and small gestures of sportsmanship like from the Sussex soccer team go along way and will help keep them coming back.
And for any parent out in the stands, just remember those officials out there are sons and daughters, too.