What The F*ck Is Happening In Youth Sports?
“If that fat ass girl gets one more rebound on you I’m going to bench you!” I’ll never forget the first time my oldest daughter heard bad language in youth sports. She was playing rec basketball in sixth grade and with her mouth wide open, she rushed up to me after the game and whispered in my ear what the coach, a volunteer dad, had said during a timeout. I was speechless.
Ask any parent with kids playing youth sports and they’ve at least heard an ass, shit or occasional f-u-c-k thrown around on the playing fields. The same lewd language deemed flat out unacceptable and offensive if a teacher in the classroom was using it, or pretty much any adult responsible for kids. Could you imagine the piano teacher screaming, “You played the wrong f**cking note!” So why is this behavior tolerated in youth sports? More and more parents are becoming concerned and wondering why.
“It’s disgusting,” one parent tells ILTWYP. “Completely inappropriate,” says another. A third worries about the example being set, “If the kids hear from parents or coaches then they start using the language which will just start a cycle of disrespect towards others in the future.”
One mom recently told me she feels like the swearing on her son’s competitive soccer team has reached epidemic levels. She explained that while at a tournament a few weeks ago, as she walked across several fields to the restroom, it seemed like every coach she passed was dropping F bombs, S bombs, and every kind of bomb you can imagine. She was appalled. She said that in the five years her daughter had played club soccer, she’d never heard anything like it.
Turns out society tends to be more lenient towards profanity in certain specific social contexts, like when the person cursing is experiencing strong emotions, according to Benjamin K Bergen, a professor and director of the language and cognition lab at the University of California, San Diego and the author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves.” “If someone slams her finger in a car door and swears, our first reaction isn’t ’how rude!’” says Bergen. “It’s similar with sports. Sports are emotional for kids and parents. I suspect that affects how we judge the way participants and observers choose their words.”
While there isn’t evidence that profanity causes harm to children, we do know that verbal abuse can be socially and emotionally harmful and verbal abuse can be accompanied by profanity. Put bluntly, says Bergen, “Yelling at a kid ‘you fucking suck!’ has a chance of causing harm. ‘You are fucking Awesome!’ – not so much.”
Which explains why most of the parents I spoke with said that they were OK with coaches using profanities as long as it was more generalized for the team and not a personal attack on a player. If it was meant to “demean the kids,” this was a much bigger concern than the curse words themselves.
When it comes to kids cursing at each other the same line of thinking applies. “A ‘fuck!’ or ‘pass the goddamn ball’ yelled in frustration isn’t going to cause teammates to sink into moral turpitude,” says Bergen. “But an ‘I’m going to kick your ass after we’re done’ is fighting words and could be trouble.”
While nearly all of us parents have experienced hearing an occasional swear word by a coach or fellow parent in youth sports, the frequency and intensity of swearing seems to be correlated to gender and age. Coaches cuss most often around male athletes. They also feel more comfortable swearing at older kids and the more competitive the team, the more likely it is the coaches will use profanity.
Surprisingly, the more competitive the teams, the less likely parents who are bothered by swearing are willing to speak up.
Unfortunately, many parents feel their hands are tied. They put up with the foul language because they don’t want to cause problems for the child on the team or have them penalized in any way. Often parents are more concerned about getting their child a roster spot on the prestigious club teams or even just the “right” Little League team with the winning coach than they are with the quality of the experience.
One mom says she hates the language her 13-year-old son’s coach uses but she’s not comfortable expressing her concerns because she feels lucky her son got a spot on the team.
Another family I spoke with, who has deep religious beliefs, felt any swear word to be a big concern and have struggled with allowing their son to continue to play baseball because of it, but they haven’t done anything about it. Maybe they know they won’t be able to change it. It seems sports provides the perfect landscape for cursing.
“Swearing can be a way of showing that we really mean something or that it is really important to us. That’s why swearing is so much a part of any sport,” says Dr. Neel Burton in an article in Psychology Today called The 7 Best Reasons For Swearing.
Not only is it a tool that helps coaches get their point across, but it also can help them feel like they have control when things are falling apart. “By swearing we show, if only to ourselves, that we are not passive victims but empowered to react and fight back,” says Burton. “This can boost our confidence and self-esteem, and also provide the impetus for further corrective action to be taken.”
“I had coaches that cursed in front of me; it didn’t change or affect me, because I had parents who raised me right,” says one dad. “I’m not saying I want the coach to talk like they are hanging with their buddies in a bar … but a curse word every now and again in the heat of the moment isn’t going to send your child into a world of sin, drugs and alcohol.”
Although it seems like an epidemic, one thing is certain, swearing in youth sports is not new. Think back to your playing days or just watch the Bad News Bears and your memories will be jogged back to how it used to be – curse words AND totally inappropriate comments – PC didn’t become a thing until the 1990s.
Maybe the reason it seems like a recent epidemic is that instead of our kids playing sports in the neighborhoods and parks with their friends, nowadays they are at organized practices and games and we are right there along with them – watching with eyes glued and cameras ready to catch all their glorious moments and unfortunately, all the bad language that comes along with it.