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 > Little League Online > Learn More > Newsletters > Coach's Box Newsletter > 2013 > Coach's Box - February > PROFANITY IN YOUTH SPORTS: Kids, Coaches, & Parents: An “Attitude” Problem

PROFANITY IN YOUTH SPORTS: Kids, Coaches, & Parents: An “Attitude” Problem


Written By:  Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D.

During the past year I witnessed three youth sports players overreacting to an official’s call. A female volunteer umpire called a third strike. The batter glared at her and said, “That was a ball, B *** h!” A soccer official flashed a yellow card at a player, who hunched his shoulders, pursed his lips, got up in the official’s face and said, “You’re full of s..t!” A basketball referee called a 5th foul on a player, who then furiously stomped off the court making an obscene gesture with his finger.

The three players had one thing in common: they were all nine years old!

Adult “Profanity” Role Models

Profanity is creeping into youth sports. I guess it was just a matter of time until the kids picked up what they’ve been seeing and hearing from adults in televised sports.

* Professional athletes “lose it” on TV, with sizzling interviews liberally interspersed with “Bleeps.”

*TV cameras zoom in on coaches who lose their cool and get in the face of officials, flailing away with a stream of four-letter words.

*TV close-ups show college athletes mouthing obscenities in reaction to an official’s call.

The media love to show an adult who is out of control. It makes for great ratings.

But we can’t lay all the blame on the media. Go out to a local youth sports event, and listen to the adults involved, whether coaches or parent spectators. With veins bulging in their necks, some yell out obscene remarks at the officials, at the opponent, and sometimes at their own players!

An “Attitude” Problem

When I see profanity creeping into youth sports I get concerned because it indicates an attitude. People don’t usually use profanity unless they are considerably upset about something. Profanity seems to have developed as a way of underlining how angry or frustrated or hurt we are. It usually occurs when a situation is tense, threatening, unsettling, etc. It doesn’t usually occur when people are having fun. Attitude is defined as “a person’s behavior, which indicates his/her thoughts, feelings, or opinions.” How is it possible that profanity appearing is in youth sports, where the major focus and “attitude” is supposed to be fun?

You can tell kids’ attitudes toward youth sports by watching their behaviors during practice or a game. If they see a game as a game, with an opportunity to learn skills, compete, increase confidence, and have fun, they’re able to “go with the flow,” have fun, and relax. They’re able to show a sense of humor and a sense of sportsmanship, winning without gloating, and losing without complaining. They’re able to handle and learn from their mistakes. If kids see a game as a game, there will be no reason for profanity.

When I see kids using profanity in reaction to an official’s call in a game, that tells me they have a whole different attitude toward youth sports. Show me kids who use profanity, and I’ll show you kids who see the game as a pressure-filled event, with winning as the only acceptable outcome. I’ll show you kids who are spending most of their energy trying not to make mistakes. I’ll show you kids who, if they make a mistake (which is inevitable in youth sports), will waste lots of energy making excuses and blaming others.

Message to Adults: “Your Attitude Is Showing!”

Why is profanity starting to show up more in youth sports? We know how kids learn to use profanity. They see it; they hear it; they try it. Kids have had their “mouths washed out with soap” for generations. Most youth sports have rules and consequences for using profanity. Some kids will respond. Some won’t.

A more important question is, how did the nine-year-olds quoted above develop an attitude toward youth sports that got them so upset, frustrated, and stressed out, that they reacted with profanity?

I think the answer may lie in the old saying, “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.” As parents, we have to be aware that our behaviors, whether as spectators or as coaches, often set the tone for our kids’ attitudes toward youth sports. Do we give positive encouragement, or critical judgmental remarks? Do we show a calm demeanor, or heated overreactions to mistakes? Do we praise participation, or game statistics? Are we preoccupied with standings, all-star status, and trophy accumulation? Have we developed a reputation for hurling offensive remarks at the officials or opponents? It’s confusing for kids. They’re told to “have fun,” but they see and hear adults on the sidelines who appear to be having anything but fun.

As adults, we often tend to focus on the “end product,” rather than the “process.” When an adult arrives at game’s end, and sees the kids coming off the field, what is the first word out of his/her mouth? It’s usually, “Who won?” or “Did you score any goals (get any hits, etc.)?” With our emphasis on the end product, we run the risk of teaching our kids to focus strictly on outcome rather than process. Their idea of success then becomes based upon outcome (winning) rather than process (skill improvement). Mistakes are no longer viewed as opportunities to learn. They are seen as occasions of failure, setting the scene for profane overreactions.

Research has shown that elite athletes focus on tasks, not trophies. That is, they focus on the process of their skill development, measuring their progress in terms of frequency, duration, or intensity. They have an intense desire to win, but most of their energy is spent competing against themselves. They don’t overreact to their mistakes, to their opponent, or to questionable calls by the official. Success in their eyes is measured by progress, not trophy size. They learn to control their anger, and stay focused, regardless of the situation. They take sole responsibility for their athletic performance, blaming no one. These are solid goals for parents to set for their young athletes, and profanity can only get in the way.

So, if you’re an adult involved in youth sports, and you come across one of those mouthy nine-year-olds mentioned above, it’s not enough to go for the soap. You’ve got to change the attitude. And it might involve changing your own. Parents, if you’re looking to develop a positive attitude in your kids, you would do well to watch your own behaviors at athletic events. Next time you go to a game, remember, your attitude is showing, and your kids are watching.

Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice in Laguna Niguel, California for more than 25 years. He is a member of the Little League International Board of Directors. The Institute listed him among the “Top 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America” for International Sport. His book, IT’S JUST A GAME! (Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents), and his Sportsmanship Card Game, GOOD SPORT! are described at his website, www.djburnett.com, along with his other books, booklets, and CDs on youth sports and family life.