MILTON — As some parents of young athletes have gained notoriety in recent years for becoming too involved in their children’s games, a national movement that encourages parents to focus less on winning has been steadily gaining traction in the Boston suburbs.
A group of Milton parents, coaches, and administrators organized a workshop led by the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance last week to give residents a crash course in shaping the way their children look at sports, urging parents to tweak the language of their cheers to be more positive, rein in their bleachers behavior, and use sports events to teach their youngsters life lessons.
Milton is not the only community concerned with the overzealous behavior of some young athletes’ parents and coaches. Nearly 100 New England communities and organizations have partnered with the nonprofit, which is dedicated to creating healthy sports environments since it opened a local chapter in Natick in 2011.
David Mahery, who manages New England partnerships for the Positive Coaching Alliance, said the organization has been growing exponentially over the past few years. He has worked with school districts in Weston, Brookline, Newton, Waltham, Needham, Lexington, and Framingham, among others, and sees no end in sight, as he said many administrators value the organization’s message.
“The number one reason kids play sports is because they want to be involved and be with their friends, and because they also want to have fun,” Mahery said. “But somewhere along the way, sometimes winning becomes more of the main focus, where it should be more on developing young athletes.”
Larry Rooney, athletic director at Milton High School, said the nation’s youth sports culture has evolved to where “helicopter parents” become so embroiled in their children’s lives that it can become detrimental for everyone involved — especially in the competitive environment of sports.
“Times have changed since the 1970s or 1980s, when kids would go to a local field and find a pick-up game,” Rooney said. “Sports today are more organized, and cost a lot of time and money. People are looking for results to come with that.”
In Milton, workshop leader Tracy Jones suggested that parents use more positive language and a gentler focus in post-game car rides home, instead of harping on any mistakes their child may have made. She told the dozens of attendees that parents’ cheering at games should be considerate and respectful — even to the extent that “the person sitting next to you doesn’t know which side you’re on.”
During the Milton workshop, some parents said they felt uncomfortable with the mood of local games. Milton parent and coach Matthew O’Hara said his son, who plays on a Milton hockey team for children aged 10 and under, told him last weekend that an opposing team member’s father was kicked out of their Saturday game after he berated the referee.
“In sports, winning is the nature,” O’Hara said. “But in the younger ages, it’s mostly about having fun. Sure we want the kids to win, but we also want to make sure they have fun.”
Many administrators said the workshops, which help establish an encouraging ethos in local sports, would actually help their teams win in the long run. Needham High School athletic director Micah Hauben said organized sports at the school have grown to include more than 100 coaches and 1,000 student athletes.
With a competitive program so expansive, it made sense to make sure athletes, parents, and coaches were on the same page, he said.
“One thing we took from the [coaching alliance] was an outcome- versus process-based philosophy. So opposed to in the past where coaches and kids might be looking at winning or the score board and the outcome, we now really try to reel back in,” Hauben said, adding that coaches’ language and strategies now focus more on team-building and honing basic skills.
“So in basketball, instead of saying, ‘We need to make more shots,’ we now say, ‘We’re going to give 100 percent on every drill to work on our performance and benefit the team.’ ”
Other athletic directors said that not only are the behavioral workshops beneficial, they have also proved popular among parents and athletes. When the Waltham school district opened up a Positive Coaching workshop to parents, hundreds flocked to the high school’s auditorium, leaving some attendees standing, said William Foley, Waltham High School’s athletic director.
“The response was overwhelming — there weren’t enough seats, and the auditorium seats 300 or 400,” Foley said.
“We don’t understand as parents what the wrong phrasing can do to our student athletes,” Foley said.
“There was a survey done on athletes between 5 and 18 years old, and they said the number one reason they participate is to have fun. Winning wasn’t even in the top 10. So every so often we have to pull in the reins and put the proper perspective on things.”Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @JaclynReiss.