Keeping it about the kids: Falmouth trains parents, coaches to behave at sports events

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FALMOUTH — The wind-up, the whoosh of the pitch, the crack of the bat, the clang as the bat hits the ground, the scuffle of small feet as they rush around the field, the smack of ball into gloves – all sounds of summer youth sports.

But angry parents, coaches and umpires arguing and swearing at each other are often also part of youth sports.

Matt Gilbert thinks they should not be.

Gilbert is the athletics coordinator for Falmouth and the person in charge of training the town’s youth sports coaches. When he took over as coordinator 11 years ago, Gilbert implemented mandatory training for all coaches through the National Alliance for Youth Sports.

In 11 years, Falmouth has trained 772 coaches.

“The general principal is that the sport is for the kids, not for the adults,” Gilbert said.

Matt Rogers, who organizes the Falmouth Little League, agrees.

“Coaching isn’t a right, it’s a privilege,” Rogers said. “That privilege comes with a lot of responsibility.”

The first part of the training includes general safety and first-aid information, how to organize practices to be fun and safe, and how to make sure emotional and physical well-being is always more important than winning.

The second part is sport-specific, helping coaches understand issues that relate directly to the sport they will be coaching, such as how to treat and spot injuries.

Rogers said he sends all his coaches extra materials, including online classes specific to the particular age group or sport they are coaching, and also organizes training days at local training facilities.

“The emphasis throughout the training is on creating a safe, fun place that kids want to come back to,” Gilbert said.

Many towns struggle with arguments and aggression between parents and coaches.

“We hear from hundreds of communities about the trouble they are having managing their volunteers and the parents involved in their leagues,” NAYS Chief Operating Officer John Engh said.

Engh said 78 percent of parents polled by the organization reported having witnessed an argument between a coach and another coach, parent or official at a game.

However, in Falmouth, Gilbert said, this doesn’t happen nearly that often. He said a big part of that is the training coaches go through, but also a system they’ve put in place to maintain good sportsmanship in the stands.

“We have a purple card that’s handed out to a parent on the sideline,” Gilbert said. “They can raise the purple card when they hear swearing or someone yelling at a child or a coach, and the game is stopped.”

Gilbert said that at that point the coaches of both teams are asked to go talk to the parents in the stands. If the purple card goes up again, the game will be stopped.

With 18 teams and 300 children participating, Falmouth did not have a single problem last year.

In addition, the town has an ordinance that requires any organization interested in using the town’s sports fields to have coaches complete the NAYS training.

“I works because it creates consistency from one coach to the next,” Gilbert said. “The kids just come in and play their sports. They’re not worried about their parents or their coaches.”

It’s that kind of success that NAYS is hoping for.

“We know many well-meaning adults get involved as volunteer coaches and most are coaching their own children,” Engh said. “But the fact is most are unprepared to deal with the challenges that coaching presents.”

Engh said the company believes that just like employees, coaches should be screened, trained, evaluated and accountable.

“Our program provides communities with all the tools necessary to make that happen,” he said.

Rogers emphasized the importance of community sports teams as a positive experience for children. He said the Falmouth Little League teams are headed to all-stars and playoff games over the next several weeks, and that he has reminded them that it should be about fun, not just about winning.

“If they come home with a sportsmanship trophy, that stays with you the rest of your life,” Rogers said. “Winning is great, and it’s fun to look back on, but if you’re a good sport it’s going to spill over into the rest of your life.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or