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When coaches should hit the bench

While extreme cases of bad coaching behavior make headlines, a new study suggests the problem is common — and one that many parents, hoping to raise sports superstars, often willingly tolerate.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

Earlier this month, a youth football coach in Stockton, Calif., was charged with misdemeanor child abuse for allegedly rushing onto the field and tackling a 13-year-old from the opposing team.

And in the Pittsburgh area, a baseball coach was convicted of corruption of minors and criminal solicitation to commit simple assault for offering one of his players $25 to injure a 9-year-old autistic teammate so the child couldn't participate in a 2005 play-off game.

Over the summer, a Little League manager was caught on ESPN striking a player who swore, and a furor erupted when a Utah baseball coach intentionally walked a slugger in hopes that the next child at bat, a 9-year-old cancer survivor with a shunt in his head, would strike out and end the game — which he did.

Aren't kids supposed to be the ones getting into all the trouble?

While extreme cases often make the headlines, a new study suggests that bad coaching behavior is a common problem — and one that many parents, hoping to raise sports superstars, often willingly tolerate.

In the study, presented at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, researchers gave anonymous questionnaires on coaching to 376 parents of kids involved in organized sports, mostly in elementary and middle school.

Parents reported that their kids' coaches had used disciplinary measures such as extra exercise (64 percent), verbal scolding (42 percent), public embarrassment (18 percent), suspension (8 percent) and striking or hitting (2 percent).

Yet despite parents disapproving of most of these measures, just 7 percent had ever withdrawn a child from a team.

Apparently their quest for fame and fortune is just too great. Of the parents, 132 said they expect their kids to play college sports and 22 expect them to go pro — and the parents with highest expectations were more forgiving of rough coaches.

"The more intense the parent, the more intense they expect the coaches to be," says study author Dr. Robert Rohloff, an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Rohloff says he's very concerned by the findings, but not all that surprised, given how competitive youth sports have become and the fact that most coaches are volunteers. "I don't think their goal is to be abusive but they are volunteer youth coaches who don't get any training in youth sports," he says.

John McCarthy, director of the Institute for Athletic Coach Education at Boston University and a former high school football coach, says it's not clear to him that all the behaviors in the study, namely "verbal scolding" and "extra exercise," are necessarily always abusive though they certainly can be.

Still, he's not happy with what he's seeing on the field. "It is a distressing time in youth sports," he says.

Youth coaches, many with no knowledge of age-appropriate coaching, tend to mimic what they see professional and college coaches doing on sports TV, says McCarthy.

Oftentimes, the only requirement for becoming a youth coach is being available, he says.

'Double-headed monster'
Compounding matters, many of the coaches are parents looking to produce a pro. "It's a double-headed monster in that sense," says McCarthy. "The potential to do harm is great."

The pressure to produce sports superstars starts early, with kids now playing in competitive leagues at younger and younger ages. Parents and coaches push them to excel, often taking the game far too seriously.

While raising three kids involved in four different sports, Judy Rypel of New Berlin, Wis., says she has watched coaches with a no-mercy mentality crush the spirit of youngsters who weren't top performers. She's even heard coaches swear, including one who admonished a group of first-grade soccer players for "running with your thumbs up your a**es."

Certainly behavior on the sidelines can get out of hand, too, with parents screaming at coaches, players and other parents — and even starting brawls.

Experts say it's high time to stop the insanity and put the "play" back in youth sports.

"The No. 1 thing for young kids is having fun in sports," says Jim Thompson, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance. "If they have fun, they keep coming back."

And if they keep playing, hopefully they learn about teamwork and sportsmanship, build self-esteem and character, and get some much-needed exercise.

To improve youth sports, groups such as the Positive Coaching Alliance are pushing for required training of all youth coaches.

"You have to get a license to cut hair and yet you can go out and coach kids without any training at all," says Thompson.

Even instructional videos or short two-hour workshops like the one his group has given to about 200,000 youth coaches around the country can help coaches understand that their techniques must be age-appropriate and that young players need to be nurtured.

So when a 7-year-old is standing in the outfield picking daisies during T-ball, laugh it off.

OK to win, but not at all costs
The alliance backs a "double-goal coach" model that says it's OK to aim to win, but that youth sports must happen in a positive environment that uses sports to teach life lessons. That means lots of encouragement, no berating the players, no swearing and hitting, and everyone gets to play at least some of the time.

"We don't say don't try to win," Thompson says. "That's un-American. It almost goes against humans. We're competitive. It's not winning that's a problem, it's winning at all costs. It's the culture of youth sports that's a problem."

Thompson and others urge parents, coaches and administrators to have a conversation before the season begins about a league's goals. Will they keep score for the 6-year-olds? Will all 10-year-olds who come to practice faithfully be guaranteed to play at least 50 percent of the time? What types of discipline are appropriate and when? What are the rules for the parents?

"The vast majority of youth sports should be being played so kids can participate," says Dr. Richard Hinton, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

Parents and coaches need to keep their expectations in check because there is no evidence at all that kids who are great players in elementary school will go on to the pros, he stresses. And kids who enjoy sports and try out different ones are more likely to be well-rounded, injury-free players who enjoy the thrill of competition and aren't sitting it out on the couch by high school.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.