On any given Saturday in December you can enter the gym and feel the energy from the players. The gym is filled with fans screaming for their teams and of course yelling at the officials. The two coaches pleading to the refs hoping for a call in their favor and letting them know about each call that is missed. The action is back and forth and the pressure to win is off the charts. As the game ends and the fans are exiting the gym, you can overhear them talking about how poorly the game was officiated or how the opposing team cheated. Seldom is heard a kind or encouraging word. A loss means the end of the world, no shoe deal for the players, no product endorsements, no interviews, and no job offers for the coach. This could be a fair assessment if we were talking about college or pro basketball, but the story I described is Little League basketball.
Little League was formed to help develop kids as athletes by teaching the basic fundamentals of the sport. Winning is not a bad thing but it is not the most important part either. It’s a program to teach respect for authority and others through sportsmanship taught in winning and losing, and not the win at all cost game we now see. It’s not winning that is the problem. It’s the inability of the coaches and parents to teach something about the loss.
Many of the coaches fill the role of a parent, a fan, referee, and even a former player. They have experienced the emotion of the competition from all angles. But the biggest pressure a coach feels actually comes from a deep seeded desire to win because nothing else shows his success more than a win. Parents and fans buy into this with their cheers and a boo or two that spur on the coach and players. Parents are just as guilty for ignoring what should really be important in the game. Adults at the game exhibit a win-only attitude that shows much more negative behavior than positive. There is a clinical diagnosis for this kind of behavior known as Little League Parent Syndrome (LLPS) (Parents Can Kill Little League Fun, 2003).
According to Mike Jacobs who coaches soccer at the University of Evansville, he once worked with a sports psychologist who believed that the clinical definition of LLPS might be a parent who looks onto a field and imagines that their own head is sitting on their child’s body. He said, “Wanting our children to enjoy the sport they are playing, and trying to live vicariously through them are two very different things.” (Jacobs, 2012)Children learn by watching the adults and leaders in their lives. There is a name assigned to this. Psychologists call this behavior the Social Learning Theory, where "an observer's behavior changes after viewing the behavior of a model." (The Psychology of Sports, 2007) It is hard to teach these young impressionable youth respect and about playing fair when what they are seeing adults acting like winning means more than anything else.
So why does the social learning theory matter in Little League and just how far does LLPS drive parents and coaches? In one example, Coach Cory Petero physically assaulted some parents, referees and even players. Coach Petero was thirty-six years old when he actually tackled a thirteen year old boy because he tackled his son after the whistle was blown. (The Psychology of Sports, 2007) Another sad instance is the story of Thomas Junta. He was the parent of a hockey player and his emotions got so out of control that he severely beat another supervising parent. (The Psychology of Sports, 2007) There are many other stories of coaches attacking referees and fans attacking opposing fans or even the players. These are obvious examples of adults behaving in such a way children should not imitate.
Most parents and coaches can see how detrimental these kinds of behaviors can be to a child. Parents that are in the stands yelling at the referees or coaches arguing with each other send a very confusing