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Out-of-Control Parents In Youth Sports: Symptom Or Disease?

Symptom or disease

It seems to be popular these days to blame the parents for their out-of-control behavior at youth sports events. There is probably no way to completely eliminate the emotional pressure a parent feels when they are attending their child's athletic event (pressure that naturally increases as the child moves up the competitive ladder), but are parents who act out a symptom of what is wrong with youth sports or the disease itself?

I think it is a bit of both: part of the blame lies with the parents themselves, part can be blamed on the way youth sports is organized and run. There will always be adults who act inappropriately; however, if we can shift the focus from the current adult-centered to a child-centered philosophy we will see the bulk of the bad behavior eliminated.

Part of the problem stems from parents who:

  • Use youth sports to gratify their egos. Seeing your child compete arouses strong emotions. You experience a flood of positive emotions when she wins, an emotional letdown when she loses. For men, the male hormone testosterone magnifies the positive effect of winning and the negative effect of losing. Because the boost in testosterone men experience when they win creates a feeling of euphoria and exhilaration, men who compete and win, even if they are just coaching or watching (winning by proxy), have an incentive to compete not enjoyed by women (whose testosterone levels goes up most regularly if they feel they have played well, whether or not they have won). Whether as parent or coach, most men want to see that their team/child wins. Because they are so intent on experiencing more emotional highs (and trying to avoid the emotional letdown when their child loses), such parents literally let their emotions get the better of them, with just about any kind of behavior justified in their minds if it helps the child or child's team win. They imagine that they identify with their child but in fact they end up ignoring their children's real feelings, goals, and dreams and focusing instead on their own.
  • Are unable to cope with the emotional ups and downs of youth sports. It isn't easy being a parent of a child playing sports. The ups and downs of competition not only challenge a child's coping skills but a parents' as well. Some parents lack the skills to handle the emotional roller coaster and end up acting in inappropriate ways.
  • View youth sports as a zero sum competition with other parents. All parents want their children to be successful, but, increasingly, many see parenting itself as a competitive sport in which success as a parent depends on their child winning and the children of other parents losing.
  • See the time and money spent on their child's youth sports as an investment. Parents these days seem willing - indeed many feel compelled - to make enormous sacrifices of time, money and emotional energy to give their children the best chance of succeeding in an increasingly winner-take-all society. Because youth sports demands the two things that most parents have in shortest supply - money and time - too many have come to view their sacrifices as investments which, like any investments, they want to monitor and to protect. When that investment is made in the name of the thing they cherish most, their child, and when that investment is made in a market (youth sports) that arouses strong emotions, and, in the case of contact sports like hockey, soccer, basketball, and football is also intense, fast-paced, and inherently violent, the desire to protect the investment often causes parents to act in inappropriate ways.
  • Believe that lower standards of behavior apply to youth sports. Parents wouldn't yell out at a child's piano recital "Eric, you bum, you can't play the piano to save your life." Why do they feel the right to loudly criticize their child's sports performance? Research by sports psychologist Brenda Bredemeier and her colleagues shows that adults and children tend to suspend their normal level of moral reasoning when entering the sporting arena and adopt a form of "game reasoning" that allows them to be more willing to accept unethical and unsportsmanlike behavior simply because it is sport.
  • Have a hard time giving up control. As one Canadian journalist wrote recently, Youth sports are "an arena ... to which parents who are themselves competitive, ambitious and frequently controlling by nature are drawn. And, vexingly for them when they take to the stands, it is an arena in which control must be yielded: to the coach, to the kids on the ice, to the officials." Sometimes, such lack of control leads a parent to act inappropriately to try to get back the control they have lost.

Expressing frustration

But sometimes parents who act out at youth sports contests are simply expressing their frustration over larger, more structural problems in the youth sports experience itself, some of which can be fixed. Consider the following examples:

  • A mother, seeing her child riding the bench, screams at her child's coach to give everyone, including her child, a chance to play. She might be screaming at the coach because he isn't following league rules regarding minimum playing time, or because the coach failed to make clear to the parents that his philosophy is to play the "best" players. The problem could have been avoided had the issue of playing time been addressed at the pre-season meeting so that the coach, players and parents had the same expectations.
  • A father yelling at the coach for poor decisions may be yelling because he is caught up in a winning-at-all-costs mentality, but he could be criticizing the coach because he hadn't been adequately trained. The problem could have been avoided had the coach been properly trained.
  • A mother admonishing the referee for making a bad call may be doing so because she is overly invested emotionally in the game's outcome or because she or the referee doesn't know the rules. I remember a mother of a player on one of my soccer teams who told the referee that he made a "stupid call" when he issued her son a yellow card for unintentionally head butting another boy as they were both going for a "50-50" ball. Had I gone over the rules at the preseason meeting, had she understood that it was a violation, unintentional or not, she would probably not had yelled at the referee.

Setting Expectations

In other words, some of the misbehavior by parents on the sidelines of youth sports contests could be avoided in the first place if expectations were set before the season started about playing time, if the coach had been adequately trained, if the parent had been educated about the rules, or if the program itself was more child-centered.

While I am not a huge fan of parents' codes of conduct because they don't address the root of the problem I see with today's youth sports (that it is adult- instead of child-centered), setting expectations through the use of a code of conduct or designating a parent to be an "ambassador" to receive training on dealing with out-of-control parents are ideas at least worth exploring.

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench.

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