WESTBOROUGH, MA January 20, 2016 “Childhood sport represents an opportunity for children to learn the value of teamwork, sensible competition, winning, and loosing. Some important lessons in life emerge from the spirit of youth competition,” according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., Director of Psychology at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough. “I have coached youth hockey up through high school-age boys and have found 99 percent of the families I worked with to be very reasonable and respectful,” remarked Sefton in preparation for the blog post. Just as importantly the games must be fun or children will not want to play. In recent years there has been a growing notoriety of fan behavior while attending the sporting events of children. It is almost a “mob mentality” as parents shout at referees over botched calls, yell at other players, and become obstreperous toward the opposing fans. Sometimes this becomes violent as it did in Reading, MA in 2002 when two men squared off and fought over a youth ice hockey practice resulting in the death of one. “The fight was less about hockey than about the loss of control and unencumbered anger” according to Sefton. For his part, Thomas Junta who outweighed the victim by over 100 pounds was sentenced to 8 years for manslaughter. He was released from the state’s prison in Concord, MA in 2011.
Social scientists have been interested in mob behavior for years and when it comes down to what the underpinnings of fan behavior experts cite alcohol, adrenaline, and blind team loyalty as primary culprits. But as far as parent behavior at childhood sporting event goes some parents become delusional and behave out of some overdriven striving on behalf of their child. Some parents see scholarship money in a child as young as 5-years old when in actuality only 2 percent of athletes will ever receive scholarship funds for playing football for example, according 2008 NCAA published data – most receive only a partial scholarship package and not the coveted “full ride” – published in the NY Times. As a parent I took my children to an NCAA ice hockey playoff event that was so much fun. The kids were given ice time to skate with coaches and players from the playoff teams. During this time I attended a parent education seminar on scholarships and the lengths to which some parents will go to get their child athletes noticed. How is it possible that an angry father might physically attack a volunteer referee over a missed call or become enraged at a youth coach over the amount of playing time a son or daughter receives?
According to Brooke De Lench, Mom’s Team executive director, parents lack the basic coping skills to respond to the ups and downs of their kid’s competition and are injured when their child does not succeed. De Lench seeks a shift from an adult-centered model to a child-centered philosophy as a way of eliminating unruly and sometimes outrageous fan behavior. When fans loose control the results can be deadly. “We lose ourselves when we watch our children play sports” said Sefton who regularly attends high school parents’ night in Massachusetts speaking on concussion. But becoming lost as children play youth soccer or football must never include losing control as it sometimes does. Because for some parents, a child’s failure, or even the perception of failure may evoke strong emotions.
In 2002 during a youth hockey practice 2 children jostled and battled for the puck. One parent, confronted the coach, whose son it was involved in the on ice scrap. He objected to the rough play during the on ice scrimmage. A shouting match ensued followed by the 270 pound Thomas Junta, 45, jumping the much smaller Michael Costin, 44, and punching him violently and killing him in front of his child and other players in the ice arena in Reading, MA. Junta was charged and served 8-10 years in the state’s prison for manslaughter. The lives of both families were destroyed by this event. Both Junta’s and Costin’s boys have grown into troubled men and have themselves served time in prison. This sensational story left quite an impression on me as an outrageous exemplar of state of the art parenting.
Most of us know there is much psychology in youth sports including developing core beliefs about winning and loosing, team cohesion, mastery of physical skills, and the growth of healthy competition. Balance is needed pushing children to become something for which they are may not be physically or emotionally equipped. Just as important parents must recognize their own feelings at their children’s games and accept that some things should not be worthy of the fight to end all fights.
Dr. Michael Sefton is a neuropsychologist and former police sergeant in Westborough, MA . He along with 3 colleagues published a psychological autopsy on the Dexter, ME domestic violence homicide from 2011 and presented the research before the Domestic Violence Homicide Review Board at the state house in Augusta, Maine in November 2011.