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Impactful Research by a Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Professor Aims to Change the Culture of High School Hockey

By Keith Morelli

Janelle Wells

TAMPA (July 27, 2020) -- A new study by University of South Florida researchers found that while players and parents alike agree about the importance of good sportsmanship in youth hockey programs, the culture change many hoped would accompany such awareness programs has not yet occurred.

Keeping a culture of sportsmanship, inclusivity and diversity within youth sports has proven difficult in these times of trash talking and fights among players and their parents in the stands. An exhaustive study spanning two years of a Tampa Bay area high school hockey league by Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program researchers lays clear the problems that exist. It also suggests how remedies can improve the culture of youth sports everywhere.

Researchers attended 58 games between February 2018 and February 2020, observing 16 high school hockey teams playing in five venues, including the Brandon Ice Sports Forum, the Florida Hospital Center Ice, the Clearwater Ice Arena, the Tampa Bay Skating Academy and the Ellenton Ice and Sports complex. One-hundred-and-ninety observations were logged and categorized.

It seemed that the family-friendly, fun-filled culture envisioned by the Lightning High School Hockey League, which took over administration of the league a couple years ago, had become a rancorous affair, laced with profanity from players on the ice and parents in the stands. Researchers found that there was a lack of respect for officiating and the escalation of verbal abuse to physical altercations outside of regular play

“Some of the biggest issues surrounding youth sports today are related to sportsmanship, inclusivity and diversity within the specific sport itself, and the Lightning High School Hockey League is no exception,” said the summary of the report. “As we continue to see an expansion of the sport of hockey, character development must parallel that growth and collectively … we can help educate and shape a positive culture.”

The purpose of the study was “to research, identify, implement and elevate programs to positively educate and begin changing the Lightning High School Hockey League’s culture to create a respectful and inclusive environment,” according to Janelle Wells, associate professor in the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program who spearheaded the project. Researchers did that through observations, athletic trainers’ interviews, surveys data and a social media audit.

Among the findings:

  • Deviant behaviors from all stakeholders, particularly players and parents, are present in the LHSHL environment.
  • There are misinterpretations and contradictions on what the culture of hockey has been, is, and should be.
  • Inconsistent rule enforcement, particularly from officials, exist and heighten the frustration of all stakeholders.
  • Sportsmanship awareness has increased, yet the tolerance and enforcement for unsportsmanlike conduct has not been elevated as quickly.
  • The cultural change cannot happen in a vacuum. Wells said the involvement of partners such as the NHL, the national and local Tampa Bay chapter of the Positive Coaching Alliance, PRESS PR + Marketing and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality was critical in formulating conclusions and implementing changes.

One of the problems that sparks unsportsmanlike conduct is the player and parent response to inconsistent officiating, the report said. The league is addressing that through training of players, coaches, parents, administrators and referees. First, players, parents and fans must familiarize themselves with the rules of the game. Second, parents and fans need to honor the purpose of youth sport, not loudly object their frustration to the calls of the officials.

The league is establishing communication protocols, so the communication to the referees is limited to the coaches. The data shows that coaches have the least number of incidents among all groups of people. The league should also implement significant penalties for any verbal abuse or profanity directed towards officials.

“Every kid feels like the call against them is the worst one ever” the report quotes one athletic trainer as saying, “So they are more likely to curse at the refs because of that.”

Youth Sports: From Fun to Not-So-Fun

Wells acknowledged that the youth-sport experience has dramatically changed over the past two generations from fun player-controlled contests (think sandlot) to organized pay-to-play adult-run leagues (such as AAU).

“Essentially, amateur youth sport has begun to mirror the highly competitive culture present in professional sports,” Wells wrote in the report, saying that in youth sports, the landscape has shifted to such a degree that “touting sportsmanship as an ideal is now seen as a sign of weakness in sports circles.”

Jay Feaster, president of the Lightning High School Hockey League, in an address to league participants and supporters, is fully behind the initiative and the research.

“As we looked at our league,” he said, “we recognized we could do more – we had to do more – to create then environment we want that is welcoming, inclusive and family friendly.” The initiative for players and parents is called, “Check yourself, stop and think before you act.”

Wells agreed. She believes the findings likely apply to other sports.

“This research typifies the impactful and relevant work being done by the faculty and students at the Muma College of Business that has an immediate and direct impact on our community partners,” she said. “Our findings go beyond just dealing with the problems of a local high school hockey league. They can apply to youth sports across the nation.”

Wells said the research might spark innovation beyond the local high school hockey league, and “… spearhead the progressive inclusivity character development initiatives that youth sports across North America are trying to accomplish.”

She said the league, comprised of some 18 teams from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties, has already noticed some improvement, including a heightened awareness of unsportsmanlike conduct and even a reduction in on-ice penalties.

“While these successes are meant to be celebrated,” she said, “the work is just beginning.”