Sunday, August 15
(Courtesy of The Toronto Star - Friday Aug 13.04)

Program takes ugliness out of sport........

Out-of-control behaviour by players, coaches and parents is taking the fun out of youth sports

In the cool of the evening, with lush grass underfoot and graceful arc of the ball above, youth soccer can be among the most peaceful of pastimes. But like so many sports, it also has a dark side.

That side was on display one Sunday night this summer at a field at Esther Shiner Park in North York. The two elite under-15 boys teams had what's known as "a history," according to the online discussion that took place afterward on the Ontario Soccer web forum.

The rivalry was evident on the field. And it gained momentum on the sidelines, where nasty remarks were reportedly fired at opposing players and coaches. Details of how things unfolded remain unclear. The results are not. By the end of the night, police were on the scene. Two people were arrested.

One player, 15, was with charged with assault after an opponent was punched in the face following the game. A spectator was charged with carrying a weapon after nunchucks were waved around. Both were to appear in court later this summer. Investigations by police and the Central Soccer League continue.

These kinds of stories horrify Elaine Raakman. They also motivate her. And over the last few years, they've inspired to her develop what could be a groundbreaking solution.

Since 1997, the Burlington sports management expert has quietly been working on a program she hopes will help change the direction of the alarming trends in youth sports today. Poor sportsmanship, a focus on winning at all costs and increasingly out-of-control behaviour among coaches, parents and players.

She fears the pitch is so high these days that violence on and off the field is a growing risk.

"This is how extreme it is in youth sports," says Raakman, 42. "We are all just one bad call away from that happening, unless associations start being pre-emptive and start taking preventative measures."

Raakman's system, piloted in two minor hockey organizations in the Niagara area in the past three years, is aimed at helping them do that.

Called JustPlay, the program uses a simple process of data collection by game officials to measure the extent of these problems that everyone talks about but few have ever tried to track.

All they do is fill out a game card at the end of each match they officiate and rate the three groups involved — players, coaches and spectators — on a scale from 1 (very good) to 5 (very poor). They also rate their own overall satisfaction with the game. The information — which can be filled out manually and submitted or punched in on a telephone keypad — goes to JustPlay, where it is compiled, charted and made available to the association through a website.

Ratings are shown in graph format, making problems easy to identify. Critical incidents — any rating of 4 or 5 or more — are broken down into those caused by players, coaches and spectators and displayed in a pie chart.

"We wanted a tool that would take the anecdotal nature of the problems in youth sports and get rid of the `he said, she said' element," Raakman explains.

In Canada, 2.2 million children between the ages of 9 and 14 — or 54 per cent of kids — play organized sports outside school, Statistics Canada figures show. Forty-eight per cent of those play more than one sport. In the United States, 13 million kids are involved.

But according to the National Alliance of Youth Sports in the U.S., almost three-quarters drop out by the time they reach age 13.

The reason? It's just not fun any more. That's the finding of a survey by the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, which also cites too much focus on winning and overzealous coaches among other top reasons that kids quit.

In 2001, Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine reported that almost three-quarters of 3,000 readers polled had seen out-of-control adults at their games, ranging from parents or coaches yelling at each other, at kids and officials, to violence.

Raakman says identifying where the problems originate is critical so they can be properly addressed. Not only does poor conduct and lack of fair play and sportsmanship drive kids from sports, it influences how they behave in all spheres of their lives.

"It's not a question of whether adults are role models in sports — they are. We just have to ensure they are good role models."

Data collected through JustPlay's pilot projects in minor hockey leagues show some interesting trends about the role of adults:

Of the three participant groups — players, coaches and spectators — players are the least often cited as the source of poor conduct.

Three-quarters of critical incidents reported originate from the adults. Coaches tend to be responsible for roughly 40 per cent and spectators for 33 per cent, while just over 25 per cent are caused by the players.

About 80 per cent of the time, behaviour falls within the average range. But 20 per cent of the time it falls within the realm of unacceptable, indicating problems are more widespread than just the "few bad apples" commonly cited.

So how did youth sports reach this point?

Bob Bigelow, a former NBA player, leading youth sports advocate in the U.S. and co-author of the 2001 book Just Let The Kids Play, says there's one simple reason. Adults have turned youth sports — whether baseball, basketball or soccer — into big business.

In keeping with the rest of society, many of today's middle-class parents are driven by the guiding principles of competition and achievement when it comes to their kids. And they are prepared to invest considerable money, time and energy in the process.

"You're paying for all that and doing all that driving around and spending all that time and suddenly this becomes no longer a childhood activity, this is an investment," says Bigelow. "All of a sudden these are big bucks and people want to win and they don't want their kids sitting out."

In competitive hockey, it's no longer uncommon to hear of paid coaches. Skills clinics and specialty camps are booming enterprises. And the bigger those investments, the more determined parents and organizations are to ensure the best return — by winning.

But it isn't limited to elite sports.

Dan Pupo, director of the novice division of the Welland Minor Hockey Association, says even at the house league level, he sees parents yelling at coaches, coaches yelling at refs, spectators yelling at refs. Any system that helps minimize that is worth trying, says Pupo, "to help ensure it is fun for the kids."

Raakman shares Bigelow's belief that what goes on in sports is a reflection of society.

"We used to believe sports builds character," she says. "Now we know, and the research backs it, that sport reveals character, unless we have in place safeguards to ensure the principles of fair play and sportsmanship and accountability."

Bert Lobo, president of the Central Soccer League, has spent years as a coach and administrator in youth soccer. From a personal standpoint, Lobo says he's disheartened at the direction of youth sports, where the focus is so much on winning. "If you're not winning, then people are unhappy," he says. "Everybody's looking for the edge."

By the time players hit their teens — like the uder-15 teams involved in the Esther Shiner arrests — the game is highly competitive on and off the field. Players change organizations to stay on top, teams are constantly jockeying to get a leg up. Rivalries build, and so do hard feelings.

Lobo muses at how much different things would be if there were no parents in the stands. Not so far-fetched maybe. Parents are no longer permitted to watch in certain youth sport leagues in Australia and parts of the United States, says Raakman.

John Gardner, president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, remembers the corporate lawyer in a nice suit who leaned over the stands one day and poured his hot chocolate on a referee whose calls he disdained. Gardner says every year there are parents banned from watching their children for the entire season because of bad behaviour — theirs, not the child's. The youngest GTHL players are 9.

After decades officiating hockey at all levels, Dennis Pottage of Regina is a big believer that youth sports are important for kids and a healthy society. But the former referee-in-chief with the Canadian Hockey Association says there's something wrong when the annual attrition rate is 33 per cent among hockey refs.

The intolerance of mistakes by apprentice referees and the abuse and harassment so many are subjected to drives even more — up to half — out in their first and second years, he says. "Many just say, `I don't need this.'"

There have been growing attempts to address the problems. Fair play contracts signed by parents, coaches and players have become commonplace, along with codes of conduct and behaviour policies that spell out expectations. Refs are trained to handle abuse and harassment.

Organizations with names like the Spirit of Sport Foundation in Canada and, in the United States, the Center for Sports Parenting and the National Institute for Sports Reform, are trying to change the dynamic.

All good things, but enforcing conduct rules and policing behaviour is another matter.

Sadly, Raakman notes that in the arenas and on the fields, those who behave badly are too seldom held accountable.

Imposing penalties is difficult because of the nature of youth sports organizations, she notes. They are overwhelmingly run by parents — volunteers with jobs and families, vested interests and often minimal training. People know each other, and each others' kids.

"It's very, very difficult for these local grassroots associations to operate efficiently or effectively because as soon as a problem arises there's a conflict of interest. Everyone has a relationship with each other," she says.

That's what she's aiming to address, by giving leagues hard evidence of where the problems lie — right down to a specific team and whether coaches, parents or players are the trouble spots — so they can take action.

The fact that all officials at a game complete a conduct card, and that their ratings are completely subjective, means all ranges and impressions are factored into the data base, in the end presenting a statistically accurate, true picture, she says.

Pottage says JustPlay's appeal is it will lead to "data-driven decision-making" by producing hard evidence. For officials, "it's simple, it's do-able, and it has realistic expectations."

Raakman says it's a way to harness the expertise and observations of officials and give them a voice. Each official's satisfaction ratings along with their age, years of experience, and training, are recorded. Using that, a software tool can match refs to the type of games most suited to them. It can also spot the ones with records of dissatisfaction to try to intervene and help them before they quit.

"It's an awesome tool," says Pupo. "I feel this should be the way of the future."

This season will be the third year that the 40 referees for the Welland association, which has 1,500 players, will be filling out conduct cards.

Pupo says the system will be critical in coach selection because administrators can look at histories of coach and team conduct. It has already helped the league match refs to the most suitable games, he says.

JustPlay got a provincial grant to develop workshops for parents and coaches, which the organization offers for $350 to $500 per group. Raakman says when her program spots behavioural problems, the workshops can be part of the solutions to address them.

Pupo wants all parents to take the JustPlay workshop. This year, they will be also be required to sign a code of conduct and the JustPlay program will help monitor whether those measures have an impact on behaviour.

Perhaps what excites Raakman the most is the chance to make a difference before problems occur.

"I can now predict the potential for problem behaviour in any game for any league using the risk evaluation tool," she says. The result? "You can be proactive and prevent it."

It could be by ensuring the most suitable officials are on the field and in greater number, that security or league officials are on hand, or even that spectators are warned or even kept out of a potentially hostile situation.

The kinds of things that might have been worth trying at the Esther Shiner field that summer night not so long ago.

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