Pace on the pitch is fierce, as two football teams try to outrun and outmanoeuvre their opponents. In the first half of play, a left back is stomped and shoved to the ground. "Get the f*** up, you p****," says a player in blue.

This isn't Barcelona versus Manchester United or France versus England, where some stars have inflated salaries with matching egos.

These players are ages 11 to 13, battling for bragging rights at Papamoa's Gordon Spratt Reserve during last week's Anchor AIMS Games. The 15th edition saw its largest turnout yet of nearly 11,000 athletes from 326 schools.

My 12-year-old son recounted the stomping/swearing incident. I told him the behaviour was disgusting, then encouraged him to shake it off. I've contacted the Auckland school the player attends to let them know they have work to do - at least where that boy's concerned.

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It wasn't the only incident of lewd language during five days of AIMS football. I watched 11 boys' games, mostly free of pubescent profanity. Swearing may be fine for sailors, troopers and soccer mums who, among adult friends or alone, drop an anchor, cannonball or hot flat white on a foot. It's not okay for children, especially when they're representing their school during the Southern Hemisphere's biggest intermediate school sporting competition.

I watched a goalie from another Auckland team throw a tantrum when our boys scored early in the game. A second goal minutes later sent his sour face to the sidelines, flinging off gloves as he stomped away. He returned to the game minutes later, where he hit the goalpost with his fist and tried to shove one of our players. He then disputed a referee's call, saying, "What are you, blind, you fat b****?" She ejected him from the game.

The problem is, many instances of swearing and other examples of poor sportsmanship go unnoticed by officials, like when a player from Hamilton yelled to a teammate he was "f****** stupid".

Hostility isn't confined to soccer. One of my son's friends who played AIMS rugby sevens says an opposing player was red carded (thrown off the field), after punching another player.

Where does this behaviour begin? With parents and coaches. Seemingly normal individuals can morph into maniacs when the starting whistle blows. Combative coaches tell players to get physical, leading to pushing, shirt-pulling and tripping. Sometimes it's unintentional, but you can often tell when a player has crossed the line into calculated aggression.


A parent from my son's team says a parent from another local school cornered an opposition goalie after a goal for his son's team was disallowed. The guy apparently bragged he had told the goalie he'd "have to live with what happened". Imagine being 12-years-old when some blowhard pulls you aside and snarls at you for doing your job.

What about coaches who harangue officials or other coaches? They've mistaken AIMS for the World Cup. The sporting stakes aren't that high, but the possibility to lead by example is infinite. I watched one coach bully a young referee into changing his call. I felt bad for the ref and wanted to rinse the coach's mouth with sludgy black liquid congealing in the Wairakei Stream.

Referees need to eject players, managers and coaches for bad behaviour. AIMS organisers might consider sending extra officials to sidelines to reward excellent sportsmanship and punish misconduct, in addition to encouraging reporting of swearing, bullying and intentional physical harm. One ref can't catch every infraction.

AIMS competitors sign a document stating they'll play fair and be good sports. Most abide by the code. Many go beyond it, like two multisport friends and competitors who cheered each other during their race and hugged at the end.

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I've heard of similar displays of sportsmanship at rock climbing, and a Mount Maunganui parent tells me boys' hockey matches she watched were civilised.

Games are exciting because their stories are unlimited; outcomes unclear. Sports is an exercise in conflict. Sometimes, the conflict is between fair play and an urge to win, resulting in foul play.

Despite incidents of stomping and swearing, I loved being an AIMS parent. We saw dry, sunny weather, and I was more present this year than the past three, foregoing billable hours to watch all but one of my son's games. I was proud of him and his teammates - they were gracious in victory, resilient in defeat. I cheered and fidgeted beside parents who showed restraint in the face of unfortunate calls. Our guys finished 5th of 64 teams - possibly the best AIMS Games result in boys' football ever for the school, and a big step up from last year's 22nd place.

Our coach has modelled good behaviour and instilled a culture of competition, co-operation and respect. He didn't screech, berate refs or belittle players for mistakes.

That's how winners are made, regardless of the final score.