MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — If you have a child in youth sports, there are few things more satisfying and exciting than watching them play.
And there are few things more disheartening than watching an adult get out of control.
The stories are strikingly similar.
Four years ago, Robin Johnson was sentenced to six years in prison after getting upset and assaulting the organizer of a sixth-grade basketball game.
In 2008, Wade Campbell was sent to jail for threatening to shoot his son’s Little League coach “like a dog.”
It’s an alarming issue, and one that seems to be getting worse – even at the youngest levels.
“The parent came onto the field and ran and got in my face and started yelling,” said 18-year-old Jayden Fassett, recalling a recent Little League game he umpired. “And the coach was behind him egging him on.”
At a Little League tournament, Jason Halvorson witnessed a coach come screaming out of the dugout, yelling expletives at an umpire after a player was thrown out at the plate.
“I’ll never forget the looks on the kids’ faces,” Halvorson said. “They were mortified, and really they were scared. They shouldn’t see stuff like that.”
Last year, a coach grabbed the oldest son of former Twins player Corey Koskie at a hockey practice and threw him against the boards.
“His neck hurt for four days,” Koskie said.
After a fifth-grade basketball tournament he officiated, referee David Hobson was met in the parking lot and threatened by an out-of-control parent.
“He goes, ‘I’m going to my trunk and I’m getting my gun,'” Hobson recalled.
Jay Johnson, a youth hockey coach in Stillwater, was told of a recent incident involving the coach of a 10-11-year-olds team.
“The boys won the 3rd place trophy, were all excited, sitting in the locker room cheering,” Johnson said. “Coach came in, walked in, shook his head in disgust, grabbed the trophy, basically chewed them out, said, ‘I can’t believe you’re celebrating a 3rd place,’ threw it in the trash can and walked out the door.”
There’s a problem in youth sports. Parents and coaches — the adults involved – are sometimes out of control.
But Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a new nonprofit, is working to fix this problem.
“I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having some pretty bad coaches in my youth career,” youth baseball coach Kelly Kirby said. “And I don’t want to be one of those.”
PCA’s mission? Fix the problem in youth sports by equipping the adults involved with the tools to build the right kind of culture.
“We really try to force coaches to really re-think why kids play,” said PCA trainer Eric Eisendrath. “And this win-at-all-costs model is something that is far more of an adult mindset than a kid mindset. Rutgers did a study that found that 84 percent of kids said they would rather play on a losing team than sit on a bench on a winning team. And every statistic and study will find that the reason kids play is to play. It’s not to win.”
Parents and coaches — the adults — have invested so much time and money into youth sports that it’s no surprise they get caught up in the results.
“The worst thing is the ones that don’t think they have a problem, because they’re not the real belligerent dad,” said Derek Wolden, a basketball referee who wrote a book called “BasketCases” about the problem in youth sports.
But even less extreme behavior like not giving kids equal playing time, badmouthing a child’s teammate or having a bad attitude, can make a negative impact.
“The goal really should be to help those kids become good athletes, good people,” Johnson said.
He won a national award from PCA after being nominated by one of the parents on his team.
“From a player’s standpoint, I have seen a very, very positive response from the players,” he said of his implementation of PCA’s principles. “They appreciate the way in which we communicate them, they appreciate that feedback. I have seen a lot of positive attitudes, a lot of positive effort.”
Koskie spends much of his time these days coaching his four kids in youth baseball and hockey. After the incident his son had with that coach last year, he sees the need and has high hopes for PCA.
“So hopefully PCA can open their eyes a little bit and kind of see what, as coaches, what we’re really trying to accomplish with our youth,” he said. “And show them another way, and give them other tools.”
But can it work? Each of the pro sports teams in town have committed resources to make sure it does. They’ve offered financial support, and access to facilities, tickets, current and former players and coaches and more.
“We think PCA can be really transformational in our community,” Twins president Dave St. Peter said. “And making sure that it’s not just about competition but it’s also about doing it the right way.”
“[Coaches] don’t get out of bed saying, ‘I’m gonna be a bad coach, I wanna shame every kid, I want a kid to have a bad experience,'” Koskie said. “I think deep down, the coaches truly believe that they want to do a good job.”
But when push comes to shove — usually figuratively, sometimes literally — they don’t always follow through.
“If parents would grow up and act like parents and be reasonable adults,” Wolden said, “so many problems would go away.”
Positive Coaching Alliance established its 10th local chapter in Minnesota last summer and keeps growing.
It offers workshops for athletes, administrators, coaches, and parents, though they say the parent workshops are the hardest to fill. For more information about the Positive Coaching Alliance, visit their website.