SALT LAKE CITY — Every year, roughly 40 million kids sign up for youth sports across the country. While that may seem like a lot, several studies show most of those kids want to quit sports altogether by the age of 13.
The reason? It's not fun anymore.
So, why isn't it fun? KSL Investigates spent the past two months looking into that question. In short, the reason so many kids are dropping out of sports is because of grown-ups. The fact is, many feel that adults are taking the fun out of it.
A verbal and physical problem
With five different cameras and four different photographers, KSL recorded dozens of youth sporting events up and down the Wasatch Front, from Davis to Sevier counties.
What we found was the boundaries for the way both parents and coaches should behave at these games is a little blurry. Their words can be sharp, their tone is sometimes fierce, and often the body language is louder than their voices.
"You have eyes! You saw that! That's bullcrap!" a mother screamed to the referee from the sidelines of a high school girls' soccer game between Alta and Brighton. A couple of other girls' soccer games revealed similar language.
"Shut that coach up!" yelled one man.
Another mom flailed her arms in the air screaming, "Oh, you suck!" to the referee.
And they were just a few in the grand scheme of things. Others were heard cursing and berating coaches, parents and even the young athletes. We heard the father of a 10-year-old football player, tossing the ball to his son on the sidelines, swearing at his son after missing a couple of catches.
But verbal assaults are only part of the problem. At times, it can become physical between parents, coaches and referees, but as we just saw in Payson the kids are not immune.
Thirty-eight year old Nathan K. Harris was recently charged with assaulting a 13-year-old football player as the boy ran down the sideline.
"Honestly, the game's an aggressive game, and that brings about the aggressiveness in parents," said Mike Matich, the commissioner of the Ute Conference Football League.
Matich oversees 9,000 players, 2,500 coaches and 455 teams. He says he's seen it all.
"We've had fights, some fights break out. We've had many ejections and continually have ejections," Matich said.
So to keep people in check, the conference pays out roughly $80,000 a year for police presence at every field.
Unlike other leagues we spoke with, the Ute Conference keeps track of every person tossed from a game. This year it logged 67 ejections; 26 of those were adults, most of them coaches, removed for things like unsportsmanlike conduct, bad language, making threats, and starting a brawl.
A referee's point of view
But it often seems the referees are typically the ones who generate the problems — not on purpose, of course. But when a kid's big touchdown is called back because of a questionable penalty, the mood can quickly turn.
Kevin Barrs has refereed youth sports for more than a decade and recalls the time an angry parent raced onto the field and got up in his face.
"He's all, you want to fight? And I'm thinking, ‘Oh man, here we go,'" said Barrs.
Barrs is African American and says parents have screamed out racial slurs in the middle of a game. In fact, at one game he says parents and coaches got so out of control, police were grabbing people off the field.
That type of behavior isn't just bad for the game, Barrs says it's an embarrassment to the kids. He talked about a young football player reacting to his father's antics.
"The guy was like, ‘Dad calm down!' And he had tears in his eyes, and he's like ‘Get out of here Dad!'" Barrs said.
He went on to say the boy apologized for his father's actions.
And it's not just football. In a girls' soccer match a parent was heard screaming at the referee from the sideline, "No! Are you kidding me! You suck! You're terrible!"
The referee kicked him out of the park, with two teams of kids looking on.
It was a similar story at a girls' basketball game in West Jordan. The coach and referee went toe-to-toe, cursing at each other. The game was terminated, again with a full court of girls looking on.
The effect on children
"Sports is different. When you're playing sports some rules don't apply," said Maria Newton, a sports psychologist at the University of Utah.
Newton studies how adults impact a child's long-term perception of sports. What she found is fans often behave at kids' games the way they act at professional sporting events, yelling at refs, coaches and players. And all too often she says they believe their kid will be the next big star.
"Their child is the golden child. If they're (child is) successful, then they've been a good parent. So they're a measuring stick: their kid's performance on the field is a measuring stick of their parenting ability. That puts a lot of pressure on the parent," Newton said.
And a lot of pressure on the kid.
According to a group of studies, anywhere from 60 to 85 percent of kids drop out of youth sports by the age of 13. The top three reasons are adults, coaches and parents.
Working toward solutions
So, what's the fix? And is it realistic to think there is one?
In one league in Maryland, out-of-control soccer parents were booted from the sidelines and forced to watch the game 100 yards away. In Arkansas, a football program created a silent night: no cheering, no shouting; parents and coaches could only clap.
Here in Utah, a number of leagues make parents read and sign codes of conduct. Taking it a step further, the city of Lehi requires parents to watch a video on sportsmanship and take a test. If they don't pass the test, their kid does not play.
"It's just a game. It's not life or death," said Dan Harrison, the recreation director for Lehi City. He says in the past year alone, the policy has been helping.
"We've had less reports of fighting, verbally, and sometimes physically," said Harrison.
He said he is happy, so far, with the results and hopeful, for the sake of the kids, the improved sideline behavior will last.
A youth sports organization called I-9 recently did a study on the subject of kids dropping out of sports. It found several revealing things:
- 31 perct of kids wish adults were not watching their games because they yell too much, are distracting, and put too much pressure on the kids.
- 42 percent of kids say they would rather play video games of sports, instead of physically playing the same sport.
Be sure to watch "Sunday Edition" on KSL this week at 9 a.m. We will further discuss the topic of parental behavior at youth sporting events and have a sports psychologist break down the actions of Mike Headrick, as a youth basketball coach, to see what he's doing right and wrong.
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