"Everything starts at the pro level and funnels down to the college and the youth sports level," says Leonard Zaichkowsky, head of the sports psychology program at Boston University. "At Fenway Park, people with multicolored hair strip off their shirts to show tattoos and body paint, and a certain kind of clientele prides itself on drinking and using foul language."
What makes a youth-league event even more emotionally charged is that parents are watching their own children play, their own DNA body paint and tattoos, and everyone knows that blood is thicker and more volatile than beer. "Something deep down inside happens in moms and dads when they see their kid up mere with the bases loaded," says Joel Fish. "These are well-intentioned parents. We know the people booing the loudest are pretty straitlaced in their everyday lives. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a parent say: 'Did I really yell at the 16-year-old umpire? Did I really yell at my kid?' "
Last Sept. 25, at a high school soccer game in Easdake, Ohio, George Telidis, a 40-year-old Greek immigrant and former scholarship soccer player at Cleveland State, went racing onto the field after, he says, he saw his 14-year-old son, Alex, go down twice while fighting for the ball with a 14-year-old Bosnian immigrant, Davor Jozic. Alex has braces, and Telidis says he saw his son's mouth bleeding. "You kind of lose it when you see your own son's blood," Telidis says. He belted Jozic in the mouth, splitting the boy's lip. (A teacher of Jozic's says both boys had been red-carded for the incident and were walking off the field when Telidis struck.) Telidis was arrested for assault, to which he pleaded no contest, and was sentenced to 10 days of community service. He seems chagrined now. "I would not hit him if I could do it over," Telidis says. "I would control myself more. I did what I did to defend my son."
The whole parenting experience is emotionally loaded, says child sports psychology consultant Alan Goldberg, and in sports it often stirs feelings that have been buried for years. "All the old garbage comes to the surface," Goldberg says. "If you were frustrated as an athlete, if you were never picked to play on a team or didn't go anywhere as an athlete, all that stuff gets tapped into."
Frank Smoll, a sports psychologist at Washington who specializes in youths in sports, speaks of a "reverse dependency trap" between young athletes and their parents. Normally, Smoll says, youngsters depend upon their parents for feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. The trap is set when the parent overidentifies with the child. "So it's not just Johnny or Mary out there," Smoll says. "The parents are playing the game out there, maybe trying to live out a past glory or attain some athletic excellence they were denied or incapable of attaining."
Over one 12-year period, Burnett says, he worked with as many as 1,000 troubled youths in Southern California. "Runaways, drug users, suicidal kids," Burnett says. "Ninety-eight percent of these kids had dropped out of youth sports. I asked them why. Kid after kid gave the same two reasons: negative coaches and negative parents." Burnett and other psychologists recall the common plea of children to their parents: "Please don't yell on the sideline. It's distracting. And it's so embarrassing."
In Goldberg's archive of horrors, the pi�ce de r�sistance is the memory of an irate mother at poolside during a swim meet, slapping her nine-year-old daughter across the face in front of everyone and screaming, "Don't you ever do that to me again!" The girl had shown up late for her heat and been disqualified. "Know why she missed the race?" Goldberg says. "Her mother never asked. She missed her race because two heats earlier her best friend had had a lousy swim and was devastated and sobbing in the locker room. This girl had been in there comforting her."