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Pacers vs. Pistons: It Started With Youth Sports!

Ken Kaiserman -- Emphasize winning, but not without sportsmanship.

We can all probably agree as parents, athletes, and fans that the actions in big time college and professional sports the past couple of weeks have been disturbing.

The recent series of events started by the horrific brawl involving the Pistons, Pacers, and the Detroit fans. The next day, the entire Clemson and South Carolina footballs teams got into a ten minute sidelines clearing melee. Recently, Jason Giambi admitted to taking steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. This all comes on the heels of Terrill Owens' pre-game Monday Night Football incident.

What do all these events have to do with youth sports? Everything!

What we teach our kids in youth sports, how we act at the games as coaches and parents, and the emphasis we place on winning, all send very clear messages.

The Attitude of the Parents and Fans

The 6th man, the 12th man, super fans, and the home field advantage; they all have a place in sports -- professional sports and youth sports. But do we have a duty as a fan, especially when we are cheering for our kids, to set an example of how to act?

Every professional or college game you go to will almost always have a cheer at some point that the visiting team or its star player "sucks." Every time Barry Bonds comes to the plate, he's going to hear "Bonds sucks!" Every New York Yankees' game will have the cheer "Yankees suck!" At the start of every UCLA football or basketball game, the crowd points and screams in unison: "Yes, that's the looooosing team!" Not only with the "Cameron Crazies" at Duke University, but at every arena in the country, the music leads the chants of "AIR BALL, AIR BALL" to deride an opposing player who missed a shot.

Cheering in sports, both professional and youth, comes with a set of responsibilities. It's true that buying a ticket enables a fan to act anyway that they want to, including being an idiot. But should we? Clearly there has to be a line that we shouldn't cross.

There is no way to condone the actions of Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jermaine O'Neal, but it is also unacceptable to have fans throwing things at the players. For that matter, negative cheering, booing, insults, name calling, and slurs thrown at athletes, both professional and amateur players, may be too much.

Considering that kids learn from everything we do, it's important that we set an example for how we want them to behave. Charles Barkley told everybody that athletes aren't role models and that parents need to be. When we're most rabid as sports fans, it's important to remember that our kids are watching. Instead of booing and cheering AGAINST the other team, we should think about cheering FOR our team. In youth sports, we can cheer for both teams, especially on great plays; it's likely the kids on both teams are friends in the community and go to school together.

One main area that all of us, coaches, parents, and fans, need to improve on is our treatment of officials. Sure, they make mistakes all the time, miss calls, and unfortunately, affect the outcome of the game, but they are doing the best they can. We really need to manage our expectations about what officials, even at the professional level, can do.

Coaches should be able to discuss calls with the officials, but not yell at them. Furthermore, under no circumstances should parents be yelling at the officials; they are not going to change their call and it really sends a bad message to the kids playing the game. Yelling at the officials by players and coaches has an impact on the kids that comes out in many negative ways. Youth leagues should take a much stronger stance against this behavior.

Was Vince Lombardi Wrong?

Of course all of us know Vince Lombardi's famous saying: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Professional athletes are paid to win and it is all about winning, but it doesn't mean professional athletes shouldn't be expected to exhibit sportsmanship. In youth sports, Lombardi is just wrong; it has to be about much more than just winning.

I like to win and the kids that I coach like to win, too. For that matter, competition is natural for everyone. It's innate in all people to compete and try to win. Are there any of us who haven't told our young kids we'd time them putting on their shoes or cleaning their room to get it done? It's amazing how fast a three-year-old can run up the stairs and bring me down their jacket -- always setting a new record!

While we do like to win, when a kid cries about losing or wants to quit because sports aren't fun anymore, we've taken it too far. On the other hand, wanting to win is perfectly normal and good; if a kid doesn't care about winning, we've certainly made an equally bad mistake and gone too far the other way.

The issue is that at the youth level we put too much emphasis on winning instead of performance and sportsmanship.

If somebody sees a kid sitting in his uniform, what is often the first question asked: Did you win? If we put the kids onto a playground, they'll pick teams and just play for the fun of it. Even if they keep score, it's over when the game is over. Kids play for fun and we need to keep youth sports fun -- with competition -- but fun.

This is especially true with younger kids who are playing instructional youth leagues. The type of league should make a difference. An instructional league should allow every kid to play QB and carry the ball, not just the best kid -- even if that means losing a game. We should coach and teach the kids to play each game to win and do their best, but in an instructional league, our effort to win can't be at the cost of leaving some kids out.

The recent admission by American League MVP Jason Giambi to using performance-enhancing drugs, including steroids, is a symptom of the same "win-at-all-costs" syndrome that starts within our youth sports leagues. By emphasizing teamwork, sportsmanship, and effort instead of just winning, maybe we can avoid kids using drugs. Cheating to win or improve performance, especially when statistically none of the kids playing youth sports will be pros, is a dangerous trend. Hopefully, the story of Lyle Alzedo, who died from steroid use at 42 years-old, can help us keep kids away from performance enhancing drugs.

For professional athletes, it is all about winning, but that is not what we should be teaching our kids. We can certainly emphasize winning, but not without sportsmanship. It can't be all about winning; we have to change the focus to playing hard, doing our best, and being good sports.

Kids and Sportsmanship

We should be able to win and lose as good sports. That should be the key we teach our kids as both coaches and as parents. There are far too many examples of bad sportsmanship.

After every youth game, kids on both teams shake hands. I can't believe how many times I've heard kids saying "bad game." Unbelievably, I hear this more often from kids who lost the game.

There is no excuse for a coach allowing his players to say anything derogatory to the other team after a game as the losing team or the winning team. Is this the kid who ten years from now will throw a full beer at an NBA player? Maybe not, but it's certainly not good sportsmanship and that needs to be one of our major objectives in youth sports: to teach kids how to be good sports in both victory and defeat.

After getting pretty soundly beaten during the 2004 NLDS, the Los Angeles Dodgers went onto the field and shook hands with the St. Louis Cardinals, congratulating them on their victory. Surely, the Dodgers were not happy to lose, but they displayed the kind of sportsmanship that all of us should strive for. Eric Gagne, the Dodgers Cy Young award-winning closer, was born in Canada and is a huge hockey fan. He was inspired to make this happen by the NHL tradition of having Stanley Cup participants shake hand after each series. There was even the Little League world series game where a pitcher ran to home plate so that he would be waiting to shake hands with the hitter who just hit a tater off of him.

In contrast, NCAA rivals the Clemson Tigers and the South Carolina Gamecocks got into a 10 minute free-for-all. The game was lopsided in the 4th quarter when the fight started, exhibiting poor sportsmanship on both sides. Rather than apologizing, Clemson running back Yusef Kelly was proud of the fact that they kept the fight on the field and didn't involve the fans.

While that's certainly better than the Pistons/Pacers Brawl, because it's all about the kids, we have to make more of an effort to teach coaches, parents, officials, and fans more about sportsmanship.

Sports is ultimately about winning and losing, but changing our views on these subjects and how to deal with the life lessons that can be learned through sports is crucial. Kids can learn through sports and the family bonds created by watching and playing sports together is unparalleled. That is what makes the "T.O." Monday Night Football pre-game show so difficult to accept.

As parents, we can make a decision to restrict our kids from watching Desperate Housewives if we want to, but why should we even think about not watching football with our family? Every sporting event on TV now has commercials for ED, alcohol, and sexual content that we would generally not allow our kids to watch. With sports playing such an important role in society, networks need to be more careful what they broadcast to our kids just like parents and coaches need to do a better job with what we teach.

The majority of fans, parents, and coaches are good people who play and cheer with a positive attitude. Yet, we all get emotional with sports, especially when we watch our kids. It's just important to remember that we are being watched. The way we coach, play, and root for our kids in youth sports has a dramatic impact. The results of these our actions in youth sports can be seen throughout society, but were clearly evident during the disturbing recent events.

We can all do better.

Ken Kaiserman is the president of, a leading youth sports website featuring games, sports news, sports camp and league directories, community features, and the Superstore with over 150,000 products. Ken coaches youth football, basketball and baseball. He also serves on the local little league board of directors as well as the Park Advisory Board. Visit his site at

© 2004 Ken Kaiserman

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