Bringing Sportsmanship Back to Your Youth Sports Leagues: Learn How the Salt Lake County Park and Recreation Department Changed Its Youth Sports by Changing the Game

Article excerpt

When the carnage ended, the scoreboard revealed that the girls 5th-6th grade basketball team that had signed up for the league as an intact unit had defeated their opponent by more than 50 points. Across the floor was a thoroughly embarrassed and discouraged group of girls from tire losing team, each of whom had signed up for the league as an individual. One month earlier, those girls had appeared at the park and recreation office, registration forms in hand, as excited novices eager to learn a new activity that seemed to promise fun, fitness and new friendships. Consistently, the mission statement displayed proudly by the registration window of the park and recreation office proclaimed that the department "develops pride," among other outcomes.

No pride, however, was developed that day. The novices' playful enthusiasm and fascination with basic skills of dribbling, defense and shooting had been fully consumed by the superiority of their opponents, who stole the ball at will, ran patterned offenses, and reveled in the rout of their less-experienced opponents. To add lasting insult to injury, when the teams lined up for the ceremonial post-game handshake, the coach of the winning team, a parent of one of the more experienced and talented girls, refused to participate. "I'm not shaking their hands," he exclaimed, "those girls suck." An hour later, a parent of a girl on the losing team was still trying to console her daughter who continued to lie on her bed sobbing. The score discrepancy had quickly been cleared by the league supervisor in preparation for the following game, but the memories of losing and effects of those memories on subsequent participation in sport and physical activity would certainly be much more long-lasting.

A very concerned park and recreation manager at the annual meeting of the Utah Recreation and Parks Association last year, described this incident that did take place. The situation exemplifies a pervasive problem of sportsmanship in youth sports. Too many youth sport environments are characterized by sportsmanship violations that range from being subtle and insidious to being tragic media sensations involving serious physical injury and legal action. Reason for optimism, however, clearly exists. Increasing numbers of progressive park and recreation professionals are stepping forward to address this tragic trend by implementing creative and innovative policies that are designed to promote good sportsmanship and create positive outcomes such as enjoyment of health-promoting physical activity and personal pride in accomplishments. Indeed, sessions on sportsmanship are in high-demand at professional meetings and articles are appearing in professional publications (such as Dennis Docheff and James Conn's article, "It's no longer a spectator sport" in the March 2004 issue of Parks and Recreation) and in popular media.

A new program entitled the "Play Hard, Play Fair, Play Fun Program," was implemented through a youth sport program that was offered through a partnership between the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah and the Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Department, at their Copperview Community Center. This new initiative worked well in Salt Lake County, and could work for your organization as well.

A fleeting glimpse at an enormous problem

This sportsmanship problem is clearly pervasive. More and more youth are dropping out of organized sports programs--never to return. In his book "Why Johnny Hates Sports," National Alliance for Youth Sports President Fred Engh reports that "70 percent of the approximately 20 million children who participate in organized out-of-school athletic programs will quit by the age of 13 because of unpleasant sports experiences." Consistently a study conducted at Michigan State University identified the top 10 reasons that boys quit youth sports. Eight of the top 10 reasons were directly related to sportsmanship and having fun:

* I was no longer interested. …