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The Fun is In the Game: A Story on Sideline Ethics
CHAIRMAN’S LETTER
by David Repka, 04/24/07

Sideline Behavior

One of the most written-about topics in youth sports is sideline behavior.  Unfortunately, what is written about most frequently is bad sideline behavior — and usually bad sideline behavior of adults.  Of course, the mainstream media generally focuses on the truly exceptional examples such as shootings and fist fights that support the view that organized youth sports have gone "over the top" and are now more about parents than they are about kids.  At DC Stoddert we have a longstanding philosophy of emphasizing participation and putting kids at the center of the program.  Fortunately, we have not seen truly exceptional, media-friendly examples of bad behavior.  Unfortunately, however, we do see a more garden variety of bad sideline behavior — behavior that is not even noticed because it has practically become part of the accepted culture.

What am I talking about?  A few examples:  coaches constantly yelling instructions to their players from the sideline or from a position part way out on the field;  parents yelling instructions or negative comments to their own kids;  coaches and parents criticizing referee decisions as if the World Cup were at stake; and disregard for the laws of the game or of league rules such as the "3 goal" rule or the rule that parents should not be behind the goals.

DC Stoddert has long advocated a set of Sideline Ethics that applies to both Recreational and Travel Soccer.  They were written several years ago by our Director of Coaching, Len Oliver, and are posted on the website if you want to read the entire document.  But for my present purposes, let me highlight and add my own perspective to just a few:

THE FUN IS PLAYING
Encourage youngsters in skill development and l00% performance.  For most kids, winning is more fun than losing, but for the kids winning is not the only thing and it is probably not even the most important thing.  The kids want to play with their friends and have fun.  To keep a healthy atmosphere, adults on the sideline must decrease the competitive pressures, and encourage skills, teamwork, effort, and good sportsmanship. 

A few years back a couple soccer clubs received some media notoriety because they held "Silent Saturdays" during which all comments from the sidelines were banned.  While this may seem a bit extreme, the point is valid.  Soccer — much more than many other sports — is a player-centered rather than coach-centered game.  Players do not run "plays" and must make rapid decisions on the field.  It is of little value for coaches and parents to be barking instructions.  If we cannot have Silent Saturdays, at a minimum we should have adults focusing on positive feedback and encouragement rather than criticism and instructions. This is how players learn to think independently and play creatively.

KNOW THE GAME AND THE LAWS

Soccer looks simple but it is complex to play, coach, and officiate.  In my mind, this is a big one.  How much criticism of the referees stems from inadequate knowledge of the rules?  Rules such as:  the offside rule (e.g., there is no infraction simply from being in an offside position);  of the rules on contact (e.g., not all contact is a foul or cause for comments like "c’mon ref, that’s a foul!"); of the rule on substitution (e.g., on a team’s own throw in only, and not (at least for U9+) "on the fly").  I am certain that we would have many more young and adult referees available for our games if sideline adults knew the rules and checked their comments accordingly.  Constant referee criticism is not conducive to maintaining a referee pool.

While we are on the referee issue, I should note that we have had several complaints already this Spring about criticism of the referees from the sidelines.  If adults take just a minute to reflect on the issue, it should become quite obvious that such behavior is not — at the youth sports level at least — part of the game or part of the "fan experience."  And, as a small example, let me make one more suggestion.  We should  simply declare a moratorium for all time on sideline comments on referee calls on possession after the ball crosses the touchline.  That is often a tough call for a single center ref to make.  Furthermore, in soccer, and especially in youth recreational soccer, possession is not as important as it might be in other sports.  Throw-ins can be 50-50 balls and, in any event, goals are often scored on counterattacks.  After a questionable call, adults simply need to take a deep breath and "let it go."

PRACTICE GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP
Always show your sportsmanship and enthusiasm.  This is an obvious one, isn’t it?  I am sure all of our parents taught us this one when we played games (whether organized games or pick-up games).  Why wouldn’t we pass this on to our kids?  Is winning really so important in our contemporary culture that we need to forget basic principles?  As Len says in his piece on Sideline Ethics, "young people learn by example.  Encourage your player to play by the rules.  Cheer good play by both teams.  Ask your youngster:  ’Did you have fun and try your best?’ rather than  ’Why didn’t you win?’  Win gracefully, not boastfully.  Lose without being negative.  Make sure the end-of-the-game rituals (like the handshakes) reflect good sportsmanship."  It is hard to improve on that advice.