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Youth Athletics: Taking Away Sports as Punishment

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For a lot of young student-athletes, sports are essentially a hobby. They represent an activity to boost a college résumé or a tool to stay active. But for many young athletes, sports mean much more.

Sports can be an outlet used to forget about an otherwise troublesome life, whether those troubles lie at school, home or both. Sports are all some kids have. So what happens when sports are taken away?

Kids make mistakes. When the mistakes add up, however, some form of punishment is usually in order. In the world of interscholastic athletics, punishments placed upon athletes, or the lack thereof, can cause a ripple effect. If the star running back fails his math class, what are the consequences? How do those consequences affect his team in the future? Is the punishment softer because of who he is, or is he made an example of?

These questions must be taken into account by coaches and administrators, and often there are no easy answers.

Dr. Dan Martino is the principal of Cynwyd Elementary School in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., as well as a former high school administrator. Martino says that as kids grow and mature, their understanding of basic moral guidelines becomes more evident.

“There are understandings of code of conduct,” he said. “And in that, there are consequences for our actions as young adults, and the reality of that is there has to be some sort of understanding that (bad behavior) is unacceptable. There needs to be some sort of repercussion.”

A tough punishment is often a good idea, perhaps providing a positive incentive for athletes to be on good behavior so he or she can keep playing. 

On the other hand, harsh punishment—such as pulling that youngster out of sports altogether—can be extremely discouraging. Sometimes, losing the structure of everyday practices and games can be damaging to their self-confidence, especially if sports provides one of the few positives in that child’s life.

“You have to know the kid really well to know which side it’s going to fall on for that specific kid,” explained Danielle Martin, a track coach and math teacher at Crestdale Middle School in Matthews, N.C. “Some of the kids that need the structure. When you do take that away from them, it really does kind of put them in a spiral.”

Martin thinks the proper punishment can depend on what specific behavior you are trying to punish.

“As coaches, we keep grade sheets on kids,” she said. “We’ll send those around (to other teachers), and we’ll look at comments. If a kid has a ‘D,’ we’re not going to pull the kid right away. Instead, we’re going to try to work with him or her. If that means instead of practicing today, they sit down with one of the coaches or teachers and work with them, they do that.”

Anthony DeNunzio, athletic director at Jeannette City School District in Jeannette, Pa., agrees that punishments should be handed down to athletes on a case-by-case basis.

“There are a lot of different things to take into consideration when you try to formulate an opinion,” he said. “I think there’s a very fine line between totally turning someone away from something that they look forward to doing, but yet you have to establish a punishment. You can’t have a student be permitted to do whatever. There have to be rules and regulations and guidelines, and if those are broken, then you’re going to have ramifications.”

DeNunzio says there are plenty of things to take into consideration before handing down a punishment, such as patterns of misbehavior.

“If you have someone who is a repeat offender and does this all the time, then OK, fine, see you later,” DeNunzio said. “High school sports are something that kids live for in our district. And as a high school athlete in Jeannette, you must maintain a certain standard. They know that.”

There are also the spoiled athletes who consider themselves above the basic rules.

“(It) tends to be the kids who are the more talented athletes,” Martin said, “that sometimes feel as if because they are talented, they should be able to get away with anything. I think with those kinds of kids, on the coaching end, we try to crack down on a little more in hopes of teaching them that sports is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. There are consequences to your behaviors.”

Martino suggests that perhaps the rising popularity of travel teams convinces young athletes that team sports are more about themselves, leading to them acting out when things don’t go their way.

“We lost that team concept,” Martino warns. “Sometimes, the kids can look at the repercussions and think, ‘What did they just do to ME?’ instead of, ‘What did I just do to my TEAM?’ You let yourself down. You screwed up. But you also had a whole bunch of people who were counting on you.”

Martin’s status as both teacher and coach has given her a unique perspective.

“I think that a lot of teacher/coaches have that flexibility to work with kids,” she said. “Even the kids who don’t have that full-time athletic commitment, when they have somebody that cares for them in that coaching capacity, I think that really helps to give them that structure that they need. 

“So many kids need the structure of something to keep their mind occupied,” she continued. “Most of the time, it’s the kids who most people would assume can’t handle it who need it the most. I think it’s just stressing to kids in general that sports are a tool that help get you to where you want to be in life. It’s just another avenue to practice those things and make sure they all work together.”

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