The recent tragic death of Utah youth soccer referee Ricardo Portillo has once again highlighted the need to make drastic changes in the youth sports environment. Portillo was killed after being punched in the face by a 17 year old player that had been cautioned on the previous play. Once again, the ugly side of sports has reared its head, and a man who loved the game and served his community is dead. When is enough going to be enough?
My great fear is that the response to Portillo’s death will be more rules, codes of conduct, and attempts at compelling better sideline behavior. While these look good on paper, and give those in charge the veneer of having done something, the reality is that we will not change the environment by compelling behavior. If we really want change, we need education. We need to make parents and coaches see differently if we want them to act differently. But how?
First, all schools and youth sports organizations must take a far more proactive role in educating parents, starting at the elementary school level. This cannot be simply a speaker once a year, or an email reminder. It needs to be ongoing parent education; a commitment by youth sports entities to educate players, coaches AND parents. Once parents understand what helps their children (i.e., giving them ownership, seeing the big picture, understanding the anatomy of high-performance, etc.), they are far more likely to act in a way that fosters a positive sports environment. Parents love their kids; they need far more education on what is actually helpful to their kids, and what is detrimental. Most do not know, and we are not doing enough to educate them.
Next, we need more standards, and less rules in youth sports. Since we were young, all of us have encountered rules, and some of us have broken a few more than others. The point is that rules are eventually broken, and if we do not hold rule breakers accountable, then what good are the rules? Go to any youth sports event this weekend – and I am assuming that most organizations have codes of parent and player conduct – and tell me if the rule breakers are being held accountable. My guess is that the answer is a resounding NO!
Standards, on the other hand, are things that are aspired to. Great companies, great educational institutions, and great sports organizations have standards. Standards are created by those who lead and work within organizations, and are mutual agreements that everyone within that entity is willing to hold others accountable for. People aspire to standards because they want to be a part of something greater, and do not want to let others in the organization down. Standards inspire performance, while rules compel it. See the difference?
Finally, we all need to take a deep breath and decide what we value as parents, and then make sure sports is delivering those values to our kids. Right now, it is not. Unfortunately, most parents are afraid to stand up to the aggressive, over the top parents who are ruining the experience for our kids. We need to be brave, and our clubs and schools need to empower our positive parents to drown out the negative ones.
If we want to truly change the game, and do our part to prevent future tragedies like Ricardo Portillo, then it is high time we get serious about education and reform in youth sports. Until we truly embrace parents, accept that they must become an extremely positive force in youth sports, and change the culture, we will keep on writing rules, and someday soon the next Ricardo Portillo tragedy will happen.
We need to take deliberate action. We need to change the game!