There was a time when a person could walk into the Houston (Minnesota) High School gym during a varsity volleyball game and hear a pin drop. The fans were lifeless – even when we were winning. Of course, the parents had their token claps for their daughters when they served the ball or made a great play.
The students were spread out and many were on their phones, sometimes watching pro football games during a volleyball match. There was also “the one” parent who knew all the rules for the game and would let the entire gym know what call the referee missed.
Then we moved to basketball season, and the gym was a little louder. The students were still on their phones and complaining about how slow the WiFi was. They were dispersed around the gym in their own groups discussing whatever teenagers talk about.
The parents, on the other hand, had full attention on the game, or rather their child. Many parents only watch their own child and see every bump that happens to him or her, and they let the referee know. During the season, we had reached a point where a game was stopped at a visiting school so the sportsmanship code could be read aloud to remind parents how to conduct themselves at an event. We received verbal and email complaints about our parents’ conduct at away games.
Change was needed, but how? We needed a sportsmanship intervention or a cure of the culture. With assistance from our principal, we decided to work on it in waves, which actually took two years to implement.
We started with the Student Council, with the goal of creating a student section, and we needed the Student Council’s buy-in for this to work. Since our mascot is the Hurricanes, the student section was named Category 5 (this is the strongest level of a hurricane). The Student Council picked theme nights, and students who dressed in the theme were eligible for prizes during time-outs. We also implemented a “Fan of the Game” picked by an unknown judge. This person would win a free pizza at the next game to share with others.
We had some bumps along the way, however. First, we had to define “good cheering” and how to make that happen at our sporting events. Once again, we involved the Student Council. Change finally occurred and it was great to have a loud gym of cheering students and the phones becoming a non-issue.
The next issue was dealing with “Parents as Fans” drama. After our issues with parents at away games, each parent of an athlete got a letter stating the expectations of being a Hurricane fan. The letter also informed each parent that we would be implementing yellow cards. If a parent received a yellow card, this would be his or her warning, and the next step would be removal from the contest. This really helped at home events (they could see the threat as I always had the yellow cards sticking out of my pocket). It impacted parents at away games too, even though the yellow card was not in effect.
We also asked two officials to talk to parents at our all-athletic meeting at the beginning of the school year. To keep on the education of parents, we began thinking of ways to make this long term and ongoing.
We also hosted the first Hurricane Summit, involving all coaches fourth grade through varsity, and invited summer adult volunteers and anyone else interested in being a coach to come to the event.
A total of 58 coaches were invited for dinner and a working meeting. Each coach was given the book Inside Out Coaching by Joe Ehrmann, and a local caterer provided the meal. We dove into why we coach, why kids play and the best way to meet the needs of today’s youth. We also challenged our varsity coaches to share “why they coach” with their student-athletes.
Our hope was to involve youth coaches and demonstrate education- based athletics, so that when their children grew up, they would be better fans. The youth coaches appreciated having a say and being a part of the big picture. We had a great turnout of our on-staff coaches and thanked them for the great work they do. The coaches responded favorably, and we hope to make this an annual event.
We have seen a change in culture overall, and the journey continues. At the elementary school level, we hosted pep-fests to show students how to cheer positively. We shared rules on how to act at a game (remain seated, don’t run, stay out of the hallways).
One night we host a “Category 4” section where the elementary school students have their own spot in the gym. This is done in conjunction with a dance night – a night where students are invited to dance during time-outs to give the kids movement. There is still “babysitting” in the hallways, but we ask kids to return to the gym, and they go because they know the expectations.
Other aspects that were helpful to promote a positive change to our event culture were a Positive Behavior Intervention Program and an Adaptive Bowling team; we sent two kids to the state bowling tournament our first year. Students also started an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) club to meet before school. Our school was reaching kids that may not have been a part of previous activities.
The key factor in changing the culture was to get overall buyin. Students had a chance to say what they wanted to happen during a game, and we made it special for them by giving them the middle section of the gym. By providing the Hurricane Summit, parents worked with coaches to be invested in making experiences great for kids. Through these changes, the students’ pride in being a Hurricane became evident. All of this supported the coaches in their endeavor to do what they do best – coach in a supportive and fun atmosphere.
Lisa Myran-Schutte is the activities director of the Houston Public Schools in Houston, Minnesota, and she is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.