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Carolyn Hax: Adults warp meaning of youth sports

Dear Carolyn: Recently we (grandparents) were witness to two of the most appalling examples of poor sportsmanship and lack of self-control in recent memory, by the same opposing team coaches. While at a girls softball tournament, the coaches of said team got in the face of the umpire over a call, which is not supposed to be allowed, delaying the game for 30 minutes and requiring a mediator but ending as called. The second incident involved the opposing team’s request for a rain delay (denied).

Has winning at all costs become so important? How sad is that? And what is it teaching these girls? It is no longer just a game, but borders on bullying.

How does a parent/grandparent explain such inexcusable behavior by adults to 12-year-olds of both teams? Everyone witnessing this was stunned. Hope to hear your thoughts on this.

– FanNana

A: But … how will their girls go Division I if the umps blow the calls!!??!!

Yes, some people lose their minds over youth sports. Yes, this is terrible. Yes, the kids deserve better from the adults in their lives.

But no, the multicoach freakout you witnessed from one team over one game does not herald a new era of winning at all costs. These girls need all the adults, not just these coaches, to keep things in perspective.

Maybe a researcher keeping track of youth sports altercations would find more per game now than in the past, and maybe he or she would be able to trace that to greater parental/societal stress or fatter athlete paychecks or the general ESPN-ification of our culture. I can’t speak to this.

But you say yourself that these two incidents were “the most appalling … in recent memory.” Meaning that, in your experience, most youth sporting events don’t cross the crazy line. (My experience, too, for what it’s worth, as long as I wear earmuffs to hockey.)

So treat this recent mayhem as an aberration. First, tell your granddaughter that you’re sorry she had to deal with the coaches’ loss of perspective, and ask how she feels about it. That covers the three most important messages: No, this was not fair to the players; no, prioritizing victory over sportsmanship is not acceptable behavior; yes, she’s your top priority. Remember, the stalled game likely did its own teaching; all the girls were presumably thinking, “Shut up and let us play.”

Second, write a letter to the proper authorities – club, league, tournament organizers, local governing body of that sport, however many of these apply. Your granddaughter can do the same. You’re free to lament the decline of sport, but it’s not enough; to rein in or remove bad actors, witnesses have to speak up.