Beward of the "Idiot Factor"

            Have you ever heard someone say “there’s no reaction, like over-reaction?”  I used this phrase frequently during my 23-year Army career.  It was normally spoken in a slightly dejected mood, describing a decision or policy that didn’t make sense.  A policy, created in response to a particular action, whose consequences were far too harsh.
            So how does this apply to Youth Sports?  Consider the following situations, listed in the 2007 Positive Coaching Alliance “Bottom 10” List – of the worst moments in youth sports.

·     Six hockey players and two coaches are suspended following a brawl between two teams of eight-year-olds in Guelph, Ontario.
·     A Chicago-area man is caught on tape hurling his son’s wrestling opponent off the mat.
·     An Allentown, PA-area middle school lacrosse coach is dismissed after pleading guilty to hitting a 13-year-old opponent in the face in the post-game handshake line.
·     Two Long Island brothers, apparently enraged over the benching of their son and nephew for cursing (after receiving a cell-phone call from the disgruntled boy), arrive at his game and eventually are arrested for allegedly beating the team’s coach in front of the coach’s son and the other 11-year-olds on the team.
·     Lincoln, NE police issue a ticket to a woman for leaving her daughter alongside Interstate 80 because of her unsatisfactory performance in a soccer game.

I think most rational individuals reading this blog post would agree…these incidents are at least unacceptable and probably “unbelievable!”  They are, however, all true and (although dated) representative of similar events happening in today’s ultra-competitive world of Youth Sports.
So how is it we (as a society) have digressed to this level?  What causes the type of reactions chronicled in these stories?  How do adults (parents and coaches) allow themselves to fly so far “off the handle” they become stark raving idiots?
While I certainly have my theories, I don’t think we’ll ever understand the raw, untamed emotion that causes the “idiot factor.”  My suspicion is most of these adults are doing what we typically refer to as “living vicariously through their children.”  The Oxford American Dictionary defines the word vicarious as: 1- experienced in the imagination through another person; or 2- acting or done for another.  So what does this mean?

In my opinion, it means the adult (parent or coach) is replacing the absence of their own emotional experience with that of their child (or player).  Maybe these adults weren’t fortunate enough to play sports during their youth.  Or maybe…they played, but never experienced the level of success achieved by the child.  Or finally…they are so wrapped up in the moment (of competition), they mistakenly experience the emotion of the child as their own…and act out on the athlete’s behalf.  Sometimes these actions go so far beyond acceptable, because the adult is experiencing this “idiot factor.”
The most rational adults experience this emotion at some point in their lives.  Maybe your child (or player) is embarrassed after making a silly mistake.  Or maybe…you think the umpire or referee makes an unfair call against your athlete or team.  Or possibly…you are so offended by the action of a particular player or fan, you react in a similar fashion…only to embarrass yourself and your team.  Welcome to the “idiot factor!”
How do we guard against these negative emotional outbursts?  Is it possible to separate competitive spirit from the “idiot factor?”  More importantly…can we be great fans and good sports?  I think so!  Here are some helpful hints to consider, from one who has crossed-over into the “idiot factor” a few times in my career (as a parent and coach).

·     First and foremost, remember “it’s only a game!  You may have heard the phrase “play on” at a hockey or soccer game.  Or maybe, you’ve heard the umpire at a baseball game declare “play ball” to start the game.  These phrases don’t make sense if you use the word “work” instead of “play.”  This is because we normally associate “play” with “fun,” and playing a game should (after all) be fun!
·     Second, use the experiences learned on the field, court or diamond as a chance to teach “life skills” to your child or athlete.  There are many “lessons learned” in sports that also apply in life.  The emotions experienced during or after an athletic competition, both positive and negative, may teach lessons that guide a young athlete to make better decisions later in life.
·     Winning is great, but not “at all cost.”  There is more satisfaction to be gained by playing your best and losing, than to win on the score board by cheating or humiliating your opponent.  All young athletes should relish the opportunity to compete against their peers.  Do so, however, in a manner that respects the game and your opponent.  Rules are made to guide the competition…not “to be broken.”
·     Finally, don’t forget – whether you like it or not (for you Charles Barkley fans) – you’re setting the example!  Young athletes look up to parents and coaches – and learn from their actions.  Encourage and teach your athlete by setting a positive example, rather than applying the “idiot factor!”



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