But for coach and former professional athlete Jim Sundberg, thestory of parental rage sparked by youth sports was not entirely foreign. "Sometimes parents just lose it during games--I've seen ithappen," said Sundberg, a 16-year Major League baseball player whohelped the Kansas City Royals snag the 1985 World Series title."Sometimes it goes too far."
Observing such incidents firsthand, though none as extremeas the Boston incident, prompted Sundberg to team up with his wife, Janet,to write "How to Win at Sports Parenting" (Waterbrook Press), to teachparents effective parenting skills for youth sports. "We've seen parents yell at their own kids and other people's kids--sometimes they make rude comments or negative comments," said JanetSundberg, a psychologist and parent of three children who playedcompetitive sports. "Some parents even get obscene. It's all prettyuseless. Yelling doesn't help the child at all."
Although the Boston incident is an aberration, the case stillillustrates how easily heated emotions can kindle a nightmare inchildren's athletics, she said. "What went on in Boston is an irrational act from an unstable person--people who are well-rounded psychologically don't behave that way," she added. "But it just shows the level to where we've lostperspective in sports, that cursing somebody can end up in a tragedylike death."
Parents can do themselves--and their children--a favor bykeeping sports in perspective, noted her husband. "Try not to get into such intense structured competition that it seems as if the kid's whole life is centered around competition and sports," he said. "I don't think kids should get involved before the teenage years in a lot of structured sports where there's 30 or 40 or50 games in a year--that's ludicrous. But if a child is showing a lotof desire and wants to play, I think getting him involved in someless competitive program like a YMCA program is a good thing to do."
His wife agreed. "Probably one of the biggest mistakes parents make isover-management and over-involvement in their child's athletics," shesaid. "It takes the fun out of sports for the child."
Part of keeping the game in perspective is realizing that rules ofetiquette and good sportsmanship apply to the sidelines as well as theplaying field, the two write in their book. A parent's actions on thesidelines or in the stands matter just as much as the action on thefield. "Parents should avoid getting into conflict with other parents at allcosts--it does no good for kids to see their parents fighting in thestands," said Janet Sundberg.
Parents who find themselves upset about action on the field shouldnever act on impulse, advised her husband. "If something occurs that is troublesome, they shouldwait 48 hours before they do something about it," he suggested. "Ifafter they've calmed down they still think there's a problem, then theycan take steps to talk it out and reconcile the matter. I don't think inany way should a person be confronted during or after a game whentensions are still high." He said prayer has often helped him keep his emotions in check. "Prayer is always an option--I have often utilizedprayer myself at times," he said. "I ask God to help me to defuse thetension building up and help me to see more clearly his perspective ofthe situation.
The Sundbergs also cautioned parents against appearing upset,frustrated, or disappointed with a child's performance during a game. "Parents should be mindful of how they respond during a game becausekids--especially younger children--will generally look into thestands to see how their parents react to a play," said Janet Sundberg."You can emit tension by your facial expression, your tone of voice, orif you hold your head in your hands, and kids will pick up on that andget tense, too. It would probably even be better for the parent to walkout of the event than have the kid see them that uptight--it's justnot helpful."
Parents might even ask their child how he or she expects them tobehave during a game, suggested her husband. "We asked our youngest daughter Briana how would she like for us torespond at her games. She said she'd prefer we not say anything,because she could hear our voices but didn't always know what wewere saying. It was confusing for her," said Jim Sundberg. "So we started using eye winks or the thumbs up signinstead of shouting."
Such encouragement is the best way to support a child's athleticendeavors,he said--too many parents believe they need to be harshtaskmasters in order to develop a child's athletic ability. "I don't believe a parent has to do things like stand over the childbanging trashcans over the kid's head in order to make him a betterconcentrator," said Jim Sundberg. "If the parent isfortunate enough that God has given his kid the ability to play, thenall that is not necessary."
Given the time and money parents invest in their children's sports, it is no surprise many take thoseactivities quite seriously, the Sundbergs said. But too frequentlyparents forget the children--and their happiness--should always bethe main focus of youth sports. "In the end, the game is for the kids, not the adults," said JimSundberg.