Youth sports in 2011 is full of way too much anger, selfishness, win-at-all-costs attitude and poor sportsmanship on the part of players, coaches and parents. So says Andrew Zitoli, principal of Millis (Mass.) Middle School, who was on a mission Friday morning at the Athletic Business Conference in Orlando, Fla., to change the culture of youth sports by addressing bullying. Stopping bullying, he reasoned, would go a long way toward eliminating some of the other problems facing youth sports today.
"Remember the old saying, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me'? " Zitoli, who also is active in coaching, asked a packed room of youth sports administrators. "I'll take the sticks. I'll take the stones. The names are what are killing our kids. I'd rather be punched in the face than get punched on Facebook."
Youth sports is a prime breeding ground for bullying and cyberbullying, and Zitoli has seen first-hand how it can literally destroy young athletes. One of the 90-minute session's most memorable anecdotes was about the time he yelled at a fifth-grade football player in front of other players at a camp, which led to the boy being bullied by older players. They beat up the young player and left him permanently disabled, and the boy eventually killed himself. Zitoli paused to let that chilling story sink in, as attendees wiped their eyes and even excused themselves from the room for a few minutes.
He then explained how he should have been a "beacon of light" for that boy; instead, he spent a long time coming to terms with the player's death. "Talk to your coaches and tell them to be a beacon of light for their own players," Zitoli said, reminding attendees that bullying peaks in grades five through nine. He cited surveys indicating that 15 percent of kids in those grades are "regularly bullied." And any bullying by coaches essentially guarantees a hasty exit from the sport by the victim.
What's more, adults say they only see 20 percent of all bullying behavior - which means they probably aren't doing enough to address it. "If you are the leader of a youth sports organization and you take action against bullying, you'll see results," Zitoli said. "I want you to create an environment in which kids have the courage to interrupt the cycle of bullying. Explain that there will be no repercussions for informing a coach about it. Tell them to tell an adult, and they will."