I coached in suburban youth basketball leagues for seven years, which meant picking up and dropping off kids, entering them in tournaments, buying them pizza, asking about their grades, learning about their lives.

They were a joy, for the most part, well-mannered kids who respected authority. Sure, there'd be the occasional heat-of-the-game confrontation between players, sometimes requiring adult intervention. Every now and then, I'd have to admonish a kid for trash-talking on the floor. But basically, all the kids wanted to do was play and have fun.

They were there for love of the game.

Unfortunately, too many grown-ups have forgotten the purpose of youth sports (though, thankfully, none of my players' parents ever did). At neighborhood fields and gyms, kids can learn early about sacrifice, discipline, the link between practice and improvement, conquering their fears. Isn't that enough for youth sports to accomplish? Somehow, though, adults have turned children's contests into proxies for their own.

I've seen moms curse rec league refs in front of their toddlers, heard dads instruct their sons to play dirty, watched coaches berate players to the point of tears. Once after a game, a man whose son was on the opposing team barreled down from the stands to get in the face of one of my players. The kids had just finished the traditional postgame handshake, but here was an adult still railing about a 16-year-old's (appropriately) aggressive defense. What makes a grown man get so upset about a Saturday rec game loss that he wants to fight a teenager before heading home?

Of all the ailments afflicting sports, the one most in need of a national cure is bad sportsmanship, which starts in peewee leagues and continues to the pros. No high school team should enjoy thrashing an overmatched opponent by 70 points. No parent should bite a coach because his 7-year-old lost a wrestling match. And we shouldn't need laws in 16 states to deter crazed fans from attacking umps and refs.

According to the National Association of Sports Officials, there are more reports of unsportsmanlike episodes in amateur athletics than ever. The association, which represents 19,000

officials, gets two or three reports a week of physical assaults on officials at amateur events -- just a fraction, spokesman Bob Still believes, of what's happening nationwide.

"Certainly, if you're a recreation department," Still says, "you don't want to have it out that you have incidents, or it will drive people away. There is no security at youth events, so the opportunity exists for parents and coaches to confront officials."

Kevin McNutt, a District native who played basketball at George Mason University and has been a referee for 19 years, says many parents see sports as a lottery ticket to scholarships and wealth. "I call it the Tiger Woods Syndrome," says McNutt, whose book, Hooked on Hoops, examines the pressure on black youths to succeed in basketball. "Parents think, 'Tiger started at 3, and if I can get Johnny specialized training, he can be next.' "

Such training comes in the form of nonstop concentration on a single sport. Kids today play competitive soccer, basketball, baseball year-round. There are national tourneys for

9-year-olds; recruiting services rank the nation's best sixth-grade hoopsters. Parents get caught up. "Sportsmanship becomes secondary," McNutt adds. "All you want is for Johnny to be seen, to get to the next level."

Recently, I had lunch with Jack Abramoff, chairman of the Washington-based Capital Athletic Foundation, and the group's spokesman, NFL player Brian Mitchell. The foundation's mission is "to foster character development by promoting the American ideals of sportsmanship in all endeavors."

The foundation works with YMCAs, Girl Scouts and other youth programs, distributing materials about leadership and ethical behavior, and sending pro athletes to talk to kids -- and parents -- about the meaning of sports in their lives. Abramoff hopes the still-developing foundation can put "a national focus" on sportsmanship. "It's just as important to have good sportsmanship as it is to be well-conditioned," he says. "And I don't think the country's there yet."

The foundation has an engaging spokesman in Mitchell, the fearless kickoff-and-punt returner who thrilled Redskins fans for years. Now a New York Giant, Mitchell lives in Centreville in the off-season and makes a point of finding time for metro-area kids. A vocal, mess-with-your-head competitor, Mitchell says, "I play the game in your face, but everything stops on the field. Sportsmanship is learning when and when not."

It's the "when not" that impressionable kids have trouble with. The behavior that can give players an edge in pro football can be disastrous on a Pop Warner field. It's a tough distinction for kids to make.

Especially if their parents and coaches don't make it.

Kevin Merida's e-mail address is meridak@washpost.com.