Silent September

Back in July, this article from the US Today High School Sports site about a youth soccer association’s attempt at a Silent September caught my eye.  After some initial feedback like this, the South Carolina Youth Soccer Association sent some follow-up guidelines clarifying their intent and purpose.  Briefly, the guidelines for Silent September looked like this:
– Fans can’t cheer or jeer while the ball is in play.
– Any violations follow an Ask/Tell/Dismiss policy where a fan is asked to stop, then told to stop, then dismissed from the game.

The program itself is designed to directly address the officials’ retention rate that continues to drop.  The hope of the youth association was that this month would be awareness to fans (admittedly, by all accounts, a small percentage of fans) about their verbal treatment of officials during matches.  Like everywhere else across the nation, new officials are not returning while older officials are retiring…which, naturally, leads to a shortage of officials.  This shortage is then compounded by the continued addition of teams, leagues, and matches.  More matches + fewer officials = massive problem.  So the SCYSA made a direct attempt to call awareness to the problem.

As an AD who has briefly written about this before, I also see two other benefits to this program: (1) this would allow coaches to coach without “feedback” from the sidelines, and (2) this would allow the kids to just play without worrying about what instructions mom and dad might be yelling at them from the sideline.

I think this was a great idea (as long as it was uniformly enforced!).  At the high school level, I know of several schools who have tried to implement certain programs to help remind fans how to appropriately cheer: handing out suckers to loud fans, issuing yellow cards as a warning, etc.  We (meaning: adults) have fallen into a trap of thinking that (1) winning or losing games at the youth level will determine something greater for our kids, and (2) that we have to force the benefits of youth sports into our kids.  Before I dig a little more into those two things, I do want to clarify a couple points.  First, I don’t think that ALL adults fit under that umbrella.  To be honest, I’m not even sure if it’s the majority of adults; it’s just that the vocal adults are really vocal.  Secondly, I don’t think that it’s some fundamental problem with “parents these days.”  I actually think it’s caused by a “Keeping Up With the Joneses” mentality that we’ve slowly allowed to trickle into all levels of youth sport (something I’ll write more about in the future).

To the first trap regarding winning and losing: I’ve written before about how part of the problem with youth sports leagues is that they have to be run by adults.  Adult run competitions place the value on winning and losing because that’s what our adult minds value.  Once we place the value on winning and losing, we treat our kids as if the importance of the activity is in the winning or losing, and we inadvertently ignore all of the other good stuff that comes with playing a game with friends.  I have one comment that I’ve been using quite a bit lately when questioned about whether a program is winning enough games: What would the kids have learned had they won the game that they didn’t learn because they lost?  Chances are, the answer to that question is nothing.  Winning and losing is a by-product of so many things that it can’t become the focus of youth sports.  Using sports as a catalyst for positive character traits should always be the focus of youth sports.  Which leads me into that second trap…

Sometimes, we adults think that we have to force those positive traits into our kids while they are playing.  If I, as an adult, don’t feel like my son is working hard enough, I start yelling at him to work harder because I know that working hard is a good trait to have as an adult.  If I, as an adult, don’t feel like my son is using his teammates the right way, I start yelling at him to pass the ball because I know that being a good teammate is a good trait to have as an adult.  And so on and so on.  In doing that, though, what I’m actually accomplishing is making my son scared to do something “wrong.”  I’ve taken away (1) his personal ownership of the activity in which he’s engaged, and (2) his ability to experiment and take risks.

He’s not supposed to learn the importance of working hard because I’m yelling at him to work hard.  He will learn the importance of working hard because some other kid is working harder than he is and kicking his tail.  [And then, I can’t get mad and start yelling because my son is losing.  This is supposed to be the safe environment where he learns what it takes to be successful.]

He’s not supposed to learn the importance of teamwork because I’m yelling at him to pass the ball.  He will learn the importance of teamwork when he realizes that not passing the ball or effectively using teammates isn’t working.  [And, again, I need to quietly let him fail while he learns this lesson.]

I waited on this blog post until the end of September so I could read some feedback before posting.  (And, I’m fortunate enough to teach a class this December with an AD from South Carolina, so I’m excited to visit with him about how this program went.)  So how did it go?  From the little feedback I could find (during an admittedly lazy internet search), it seems to have gone over fine.  Hurricane Irma stole some of the thunder (both by canceling a weekend of games and by being far more important than youth sports), but the couple things I could find here and here describe the atmosphere just as different instead of bad.   Even this internet message board, which can be particularly cruel, seems to be fairly tame.  The one major concern seems to be what fan behavior will be like on Sunday, October 1 when Silent September comes to an end.

Will this work?  Tough to say this early in the conversation, but I really like this comment from Burns Davison who works for the SCYSA: “We’re not naive enough to think we did this for September, we’re good to go,” he said. “This is the beginning of a dialogue. I am hopefully optimistic that we’ll be transitioning into having set a new experiences for people that the players like, the parents like and the coaches like.”

Thoughts?  What other measures could be done to draw awareness to behavior?  Or should we just be ignoring fan behavior?  As always, comments are welcome!

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