But for coach and former professional athlete Jim Sundberg, the story of parental rage sparked by youth sports was not entirely foreign. "Sometimes parents just lose it during games--I've seen it happen," said Sundberg, a 16-year Major League baseball player who helped the Kansas City Royals snag the 1985 World Series title. "Sometimes it goes too far."
Observing such incidents firsthand, though none as extreme as the Boston incident, prompted Sundberg to team up with his wife, Janet, to write "How to Win at Sports Parenting" (Waterbrook Press), to teach parents 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 Janet Sundberg, a psychologist and parent of three children who played competitive sports. "Some parents even get obscene. It's all pretty useless. Yelling doesn't help the child at all."
Although the Boston incident is an aberration, the case still illustrates how easily heated emotions can kindle a nightmare in children'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 lost perspective in sports, that cursing somebody can end up in a tragedy like death."
Parents can do themselves--and their children--a favor by keeping 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 or 50 games in a year--that's ludicrous. But if a child is showing a lot of desire and wants to play, I think getting him involved in some less competitive program like a YMCA program is a good thing to do."
His wife agreed. "Probably one of the biggest mistakes parents make is over-management and over-involvement in their child's athletics," she said. "It takes the fun out of sports for the child."
Part of keeping the game in perspective is realizing that rules of etiquette and good sportsmanship apply to the sidelines as well as the playing field, the two write in their book. A parent's actions on the sidelines or in the stands matter just as much as the action on the field. "Parents should avoid getting into conflict with other parents at all costs--it does no good for kids to see their parents fighting in the stands," said Janet Sundberg.
Parents who find themselves upset about action on the field should never act on impulse, advised her husband. "If something occurs that is troublesome, they should wait 48 hours before they do something about it," he suggested. "If after they've calmed down they still think there's a problem, then they can take steps to talk it out and reconcile the matter. I don't think in any way should a person be confronted during or after a game when tensions are still high." He said prayer has often helped him keep his emotions in check. "Prayer is always an option--I have often utilized prayer myself at times," he said. "I ask God to help me to defuse the tension building up and help me to see more clearly his perspective of the 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 because kids--especially younger children--will generally look into the stands to see how their parents react to a play," said Janet Sundberg. "You can emit tension by your facial expression, your tone of voice, or if you hold your head in your hands, and kids will pick up on that and get tense, too. It would probably even be better for the parent to walk out of the event than have the kid see them that uptight--it's just not helpful."
Parents might even ask their child how he or she expects them to behave during a game, suggested her husband. "We asked our youngest daughter Briana how would she like for us to respond at her games. She said she'd prefer we not say anything, because she could hear our voices but didn't always know what we were saying. It was confusing for her," said Jim Sundberg. "So we started using eye winks or the thumbs up sign instead of shouting."
Such encouragement is the best way to support a child's athletic endeavors,he said--too many parents believe they need to be harsh taskmasters in order to develop a child's athletic ability. "I don't believe a parent has to do things like stand over the child banging trashcans over the kid's head in order to make him a better concentrator," said Jim Sundberg. "If the parent is fortunate enough that God has given his kid the ability to play, then all that is not necessary."
Given the time and money parents invest in their children's sports, it is no surprise many take those activities quite seriously, the Sundbergs said. But too frequently parents forget the children--and their happiness--should always be the main focus of youth sports. "In the end, the game is for the kids, not the adults," said Jim Sundberg.