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Photo of Jens Omli sitting on a soccer field.

Research by Jens Omli, a doctoral candidate in sport psychology, has made it easier for coaches to talk to parents about coaching methods and competitiveness.

A sporting chance

U student studies adult bad behavior at youth sports events

By J. Trout Lowen

January 11, 2008

Embarrassed by her father's behavior, a young girl breaks down crying on the pitcher's mound. A pee wee flag football coach punches a 16-year-old referee during a game. A father pulls a gun on a football coach in an argument over his second-grader's playing time.

Adults' bad behavior at youth sports events has become a hot topic in the media, prompting some sports organizations to impose mandatory ethics classes for parents or "silent sidelines." How do youth really want parents to behave, though?

Jens Omli, a doctoral candidate in sport psychology and a research associate at the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, put that question to young athletes ages 3 to 14 as part of his Kids Speak research project. He thinks the answer could help athletes, coaches, and parents both on and off the field.

"We have a number of different programs and ways to change parent behavior," Omli explains, "but no research had previously been conducted on how children want [parents] to behave, so we don't really know what we wanted them to change to."

Omli interviewed 73 attendees of a beginners summer tennis camp in Washington, all of whom had previous sports experience. The campers played an average of 3.8 sports each; soccer was the most common, followed by baseball and swimming.

What the campers said they want might surprise some parents: quiet attentiveness. Children want parents to pay attention but to keep quiet unless somebody scores, then cheer, and then become silent again. What kids don't want is their parents coaching from the sidelines, or yelling at them, at the coach, or at the referee.

Even positive comments can be distracting or embarrassing, kids say. Embarrassing enough--especially for young teens--that they may want to drop out of a sport altogether.

Omli also quizzed youth about coaches, asking them to describe their best and worst coach. Their responses were remarkably similar, he says. More important than skill or ability was individual behavior. Kids described a good coach as someone who is "really nice" or "really funny," and in the case of younger children, someone who brings treats.

The only instance where the subjects were divided, Omli says, was around the issue of playing time. Some youth want the coach to give every player equal time, while others want the coach to use players to the team's best advantage.

Marceil Whitney, who oversees the Redmond, Washington, tennis program where Omli conducted his research, says his findings support what 30 years of teaching tennis has shown her: Children want sports to be fun and social. In sports programs that include those goals, kids learn faster. But parents don't always recognize the benefits, adds Whitney, who developed the nationally recognized Teenie Tennis program for children ages 3 to 9.

Omli's findings have made it easier for coaches to talk to parents about coaching methods and competitiveness. "The research gives us credibility, especially with some of the younger instructors," Whitney says. "It really helps."

Omli, who won the 2007 Eloise M. Jaeger Scholarship for Students in the Tucker Center, plans to continue his research, looking more closely at age and gender differences in the subjects' responses. He also intends to explore the impact of background anger--anger expressed between parents and other parents, coaches, or referees--on children's emotional well-being.