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Coach David Hilgendorff allowed clapping from the sidelines, but not cheering or yelling, at Wednesday's game of the Aurora Youth Soccer house league in Aurora, Ont. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)
Coach David Hilgendorff allowed clapping from the sidelines, but not cheering or yelling, at Wednesday's game of the Aurora Youth Soccer house league in Aurora, Ont. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

Sports

Silent running: Soccer league tells parents to pipe down Add to ...

No yells, screams or even cheers are to be heard from the sidelines and benches at house-league soccer games in Aurora, Ont., this week.

Instead, only clapping is allowed.

So-called silent soccer has been embraced by the Aurora Youth Soccer house league and has taken hold with a handful of clubs and leagues in Canada and other countries.

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The week of silence in Aurora began on Monday and allows for only clapping from the stands and coaching instructions from the bench. The idea is to stop parents and coaches from screaming from the sidelines so that kids and referees can focus and enjoy the game.

David Hilgendorff, a father, coach and vice-president of the house league (for boys and girls between the ages of five and 18), pitched silent week to the league's board of directors earlier this year. Players, he said, are being confused by shouting coming from all directions while they're trying to learn what to do with a soccer ball for the first time.

"The poor player sometimes doesn't really know what to do then," Mr. Hilgendorff said. "This is an effort to allow the players to think for themselves and communicate amongst themselves and just enjoy the game."

There wasn't one specific incident where a parent or coach went too far, Mr. Hilgendorff said, but his general disappointment with coaches and parents prompted him to look for a solution.

Reaction was mixed at the Aurora soccer fields near Stronach Boulevard and Magna Drive on Wednesday evening when at least 10 teams met to play games for an hour.

"To me, it doesn't make sense," said Cristina Romero, as she arrived for her 13-year-old son's game. A night earlier, she was at the same soccer fields for her daughter's game.

She said both parents and coaches are looking forward to next week, when regular games will resume. "All the girls were saying they prefer when everyone is yelling because they feel like they're alive in the game," she said.

Only about 10 per cent of the comments [during regular games]are negative, she said, and the rest encourage and direct the players.

Her daughter, Angela Diaz, said her mom's cheering and suggestions help her out during a lot of games. "It helps encourage me to score and pass and play the game," she said. "Even though some of the comments [from the stands]can't be nice, I prefer the sound."

Before a boys' game started, parents unfolding lawn chairs on the sidelines reminded each other about keeping quiet. As the match began, those who broke the rule and cheered or made positive remarks were hushed.

It was a year ago that Mr. Hilgendorff first heard about silent games, being held by the Westchester Youth Soccer League in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Eight years ago, Westchester past president Rip Fisher introduced the practice for one day each season. Even now, they're held one Sunday per season and called Silent Sunday. Before putting the program into place, his experience had been similar to that in Aurora: some kids were stressed and confused by all the yelling from the sidelines.

Reaction has been consistent among kids, Mr. Fisher said.

"They think it's great when mom and dad is not yelling the entire game and they can just go out and play the game," he said, adding the response among parents hasn't been so consistent.

"A very small minority, but the vocal minority, object strenuously and they think we're taking away their civil liberties by having them not able to shout at the games," Mr. Fisher said.

In Aurora, Mr. Hilgendorff said the problems aren't isolated to Ontario, or even soccer.

"Parents sometimes can be overenthusiastic and might say some kind of negative comment towards players or towards referees in the heat of the moment," said Mr. Hilgendorff, who has been coaching for 15 years.

"This is something you'll see in any town, anywhere, in any sport almost."

He was prompted to act when he saw a report about soccer's influence on youth development, released this month by Queen's University's school of kinesiology and health studies and BMO Financial Group. The report points out that there are 800,000 registered soccer players in Canada, making it the largest participatory sport in the country.

The document outlines situations within a game that can lead young people to display poor sportsmanship, poor moral reasoning or acts of aggression. It suggests that coaches and parents step back and put more emphasis on fun and support rather than competition.

Mr. Hilgendorff said taunts from coaches and parents can also affect referees, often young teenagers, and meddling from afar only makes their job more difficult.

Referee Rebecca Skolud, 17, said she knows some kids and coaches don't enjoy the silent games as much as the regular variety. Still, for her, the positives outweigh the negatives. "It was quiet, for sure," she said. "It was a lot easier as a referee to concentrate and make calls. It makes you more confident when the parents aren't putting in their little two cents."

Since Monday there have been about 40 silent games within Aurora's league. The last four days have been positive so far, said Mr. Hilgendorff, but some parents have difficulty trying to keep quiet while they watch.

There's a chance the league will move to make the week an annual event, but Mr. Hilgendorff said the point is to remind parents and coaches what the game is like when no one is shouting.

Parents and coaches aren't punished in any way if they break the rules, but it's widely understood that this week is supposed to be about letting kids play without any of the usual noise.

"We're not out there to punish people or try and kick people off the field or sidelines or tape peoples' mouths shut," he said.

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