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Violence and Aggression in Youth Sports

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Many parents and fans have good intentions when it comes to watching youth sporting events. But sometimes they get carried away in the emotion and excitement of the game. Each year over 20 million youths participate on organized sports (Ellis, 2006). There is little scientific research that clearly states there is a rise in violence and aggression during youth sporting events, however many continually hear or witness violence and aggression at youth sporting events. The media loves to highlight such events. “The Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission reports that 45.3% of young athletes have been called names, yelled at or insulted while participating in sports; and that 21% or young athletes reported they were pressured to play with an injury. The Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission goes on to report that 17.5% of young athletes confide that they have been hit, kicked or slapped while participating in sports; and 8.2% of young athletes report they were pressured to intentionally harm others while playing sports. The National Alliance for Youth Sports reports that 15% of parents at youth sporting events display obnoxious, unruly or unsportsmanlike behavior” (Calloway, 2013, 4-5). Considering that these statistics are now five years old, and the media is constantly highlighting violent or aggressive issues in youth sports, the numbers are probably much higher.

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Where does this aggression and violence come from? There are three main theories that tie violence and aggression to sports. The first theory is Instinct Aggression Theory. This is based on the theory that humans are naturally aggressive and cannot change this behavior. Aggression needs to be released and playing sports can help to release this aggression in a harmless manner.

Frustration Aggression Theory is when someone gets frustrated and the frustration builds up to the point where it is eventually released. Once the release happens the chance for aggression is reduced. An example of this theory, during a basketball game, when a player gets blocked and then turns around and fouls on the next possession. The player’s frustration is released onto the next person. Parents also get carried away when they think their child is going to be the next super athlete. “Some parents view athletics as a means of achieving fame, glory or material rewards. In many instances, the goal can be a college scholarship or professional contract” (Heinzmann, 2002, 6). The frustration is released as acts of aggressive behavior when things don’t go as the parent thought they should. The parent has to make sure they don’t project their own wishes and desires onto their children. They are not living vicariously through them. Many parents and spectators have the “win at all cause” attitude. When the game isn’t going as they planned and their team is losing, they can get aggressive. “Team identification is commonly defined as the extent to which a fan feels a psychological connection with the team” (Wann et el., 2001). Many parents and fans feel as if their favorite or children’s team’s success and or failure is their own (Wann, Waddill, Bono, Scheuchner, Ruga, 2017) and therefore behave poorly.

Aggression Socially learned theory is about learning to be aggressive by observing actions of people around you. If you live in a household with aggressive adults and watch this on a daily basis, one is more apt to mimic that type of behavior. Watching aggressive behaviors on TV during professional sporting events can also make one think that this type of behavior is acceptable. There is some evidence suggesting that recent violence in youth sport settings stems at least in part from modeling effects of observing adult sports (Sacks, Petscher, Stanley, Tenenbaum, 2003, 174). One way that youth and parents/fans observe poor behavior is from watching professional athletes. This adult behavior can negatively affect youth. There are “detrimental effects that can result when youth observe undesirable behaviors by adult athletes” (Sacks, Petscher, Stanley, Tenenbaum, 2003, 173).

Knowing that aggression and violence in youth sports exist leads us to find ways to reduce these issues. There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce violence and aggression in youth sports. Some of the changes that can be made include establishing codes of conducts and a code of ethics for players, parents and coaches. This would outline behaviors that are expected from all parties and consequences for breaking the codes. Along with the codes of conduct and ethics should be parent orientation meetings to make sure parents know what the expectations of these codes are.

Proper training for coaches, referees and officials would also help to eliminate aggression and violence. This should include background checks and training on positive youth development and promoting fair play and sportsmanship. There should also be training of officials and referees and a way to pair the best ones to each type of sport. By pairing proper soccer officials to soccer games their knowledge of the rules etc. would be obvious. This alone could reduce aggressive behavior from parents and fans such as yelling from the sidelines when they think there is a bad call.

The media could also help to play a role in reducing aggressive behavior. Instead of highlighting the poor and negative behavior aspects of sports on the news or in print; they could focus on stories that cover good sportsmanship during youth sporting events instead. This would help to reduce the number of times youth are exposed to these negative blasts.

Youth sports facilities could be improved to separate spectators from opposing sides, have a cleaner user-friendly environment that promotes good feelings and hire visible security personnel to enforce the code of conduct and curtail poor behavior.

In conclusion, “the benefits of physical development and well-being, development of social skills, and involvements in physical activity often are lost by the increasing aggression and violence. The pressures associated with parental expectations, winning at all cost and being the best produces low self-esteem, excessive anxiety, fear and aggressive behavior in youth and their parents” (Calloway, 2013, 8). The key would be to turn the youth sports arena into a safe space that can promote sportsmanship and fair play.

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