More About Teaching Youth Leaguers Courtesy and Respect
By Doug Abrams
This column is about courtesy and respect, two virtues that parents and coaches can teach children through sports. The lessons do nothing to enhance physical prowess, and they will not help make a player a standout collegiate athlete or a pro. But sensitivity to these virtues can help make the player a better person, and citizenship education remains a central goal of youth sports programs.
Like other citizenship lessons that pass from parents and coaches to children, lessons about courtesy and respect pass most effectively from the adults’ actions and not merely from their words. The adults carefully watch the children compete, but children also carefully watch the adults. Children learn from what they see.
At Home and On the Road
In early 2012, I wrote a column about how parents and coaches should treat custodians and other local service staff. “Youth league and high school sports programs usually depend on custodians, maintenance staffs, grounds crews, security guards, grass cutters, and other employees who go to work every day but frequently toil in anonymity, routinely ignored by team members who do not even bother to learn their names. Sometimes these employees face outright insults and discourtesy.” Conferring respect on service staff who help sustain the team’s home schedule, I concluded, “is simply the right thing to do.”
This column resumes where the 2012 column left off. The discussion here concerns how parents and coaches, at road games, should treat custodians and other service staff they will likely never see again. Remember, the players are watching, and parents and coaches are on display all the time.
A Personal Experiment
One Saturday morning a few years ago, I tried an early-season experiment before a few of our hockey program’s home games. I was the program’s president and a law professor, but none of the visiting teams’ parents or coaches knew me. I “dressed down” – a flannel shirt, a baseball cap, an old sweater and windbreaker, and jeans. As the visiting teams arrived, I remained in the ice arena’s lobby pushing a broom.
For all that the visiting teams’ adults knew that morning, I swept the floors, emptied the waste baskets, kept the plumbing and heating operable, and performed similar tasks that often went unnoticed but made the ice arena a safe, clean place for them and their families.
Hockey people who knew me had always conveyed courtesy and respect, which I had always tried to reciprocate. But I wanted to see whether parents and coaches would react differently when I didn’t look or act the part of a league official or a professional.
As they asked me directions to the locker rooms or the pro shop with their children at their side, a few of the visiting teams’ adults punctuated their requests with “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you.” Most did not. The interchanges had little eye contact, and little hint of the respectful tone of voice that I had heard from people who knew my roles in the league and the community. With her boy in tow, one mother even called me “Son,” though I was clearly older than she was.
The changed content and tone of voice seemed unfortunate because some of the visiting teams’ parents and coaches could have done better. The change was likely unwitting because these adults were nice people who meant no animosity from talking down, and they remained well behaved in the stands later as their teams played clean. With their children watching in the lobby, some of the adults simply missed opportunities to deliver a wholesome lesson through actions and words.
Watching and Learning
What is the lesson for youth leaguers? All persons are entitled to courtesy and respect as they perform their assigned roles, including persons who may never cross our paths again. This entitlement extends to strangers who cross our paths on road trips, such as restaurant waiters, hotel service workers, and retail store clerks. Each role has worth, and none should be taken for granted.
For someone perceptive enough to sense the other person’s circumstances, it doesn’t take special effort to treat the person with the same dignity that the person delivers in return. Road trips enable parents and coaches to send children the lasting message of “one standard for all.”
After my law school graduation, I served for two years as law clerk to New York Court of Appeals Judge Hugh R. Jones. Judge Jones taught his staff that a person can become a good lawyer only after becoming a good person. I think that the same order of priorities should prevail in other occupations. First things first.
Judge Jones reinforced his words with actions. Whenever someone approached his office while my attention in the outer room was diverted within earshot, I could not tell whether the visitor was the Chief Judge or the custodian who emptied the wastebaskets. The Judge’s high official position did not obligate him to give everyone the same courteous and respectful welcome, but he always did. He treated everyone right, and I watched and learned. Nearly 40 years later, I still remember the lesson.