You’ve heard the stories and seen the videos: A parent of a 13-year-old player in a youth football game didn’t like a penalty flag so he grabbed the referee and body-slammed him onto the ground; parents at their 8-year-old’s soccer game verbally abusing (to put it mildly) officials; and parents and coaches who were behaving so badly in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, that one organizer of a youth soccer tournament went so far as to mandate that both parents and coaches watch the games from 30 feet away from the sidelines.
These examples aren’t the norm and the majority of parents are well behaved at youth sporting events. Still, parents’ sideline behavior is bad enough that a recent study by the National Federation of State High School Associations shows that 75% of all high school officials quit due to adult behavior and 80% of new officials step away after only two years of officiating.
If parents’ sideline behaviors — whether over-the-top or more garden-variety yelling — do that to the officials, think what they do to children and teens on the teams.
Putting the Spoil in Sports
According to David B. Soma, M.D., a pediatrician and pediatric sports medicine specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a former college athlete who’s heavily involved in youth sports, most parents want to help guide their kids to happiness and success in a positive way. But sometimes parents lose sight of what really matters. That is when trouble hits and parental behaviors can squash a child’s enjoyment of a sport, cause anxiety and a lack of self-esteem, and make it likely the child will stop playing the sport altogether. “In some instances, parents are either putting a lot of pressure on their child because they’re screaming and yelling at the players and their own child or they’re yelling at other parents, coaches or officials, ” explains Dr. Soma. “That can really create a negative environment.”
“Sometimes parents even go so far as to sign a child up for a sport that the child doesn’t want to participate in. These kinds of behaviors are recipes for burnout. ” Then, often, a child simply walks away from all the fun and physical, social and mental health benefits that can come from playing a sport.
There are also off-field situations in which parents risk alienating their child from the game he or she once loved. “Sometimes parents will talk to or scold their kids about their ‘performance’ in a way that takes the fun out of playing, ” says Dr. Soma. “Parents want the best for their children and want them to succeed, ” says Dr. Soma, “but it is also not uncommon for parents to try to live out their dreams through their kids — not just in sports, but in many arenas.
“As the ages go up and as the competitive nature of the sport goes up, the stakes may be higher and therefore emotions tend to increase,” adds Dr. Soma. “But I wouldn’t say that youth sports are completely immune from this. I have seen kindergarten or first-grade teams where parents are really getting critical of their children and coaches. “
Instead, he suggests parents send a note to the coach saying, “Hey, I would like to work with Jimmy at home on his pitching or work with Sarah on her soccer skills. Do you have any ideas or suggestions on how I can do that?” Then a parent can help their child improve in a supportive, constructive way — and improve the child’s relationship with the coach and parent.
Assess Your Sport and Parenting Style
If you have been cautioned by coaches, other parents or even your child to cool it during or after games and practices, you may want to take a couple of minutes to assess your sport-parenting style. And if you are honest with yourself and acknowledge that you are not behaving in a way that helps your child enjoy — and become more skilled at — the game, it may be time to bench yourself until you can learn to act more positively.
According to Max R. Trenerry, Ph.D., L.P., a psychologist at Mayo Clinic, “It’s a proud moment for parents when their child wins in sports, but too much pressure to win could be problematic. “
The smart approach for a parent is to be the child’s safety net — not a cattle prod — says Dr. Trenerry. That means helping kids develop good sport habits when they’re young. It also means letting children talk about how they did in a practice or a game on their own terms; letting them compete when and how they choose; and making sure they feel connected to something bigger than themselves in their teams. It’s not all about them — and that is the message they are receiving from over-hyped sports parenting, even when the message is relentlessly critical.
Dr. Soma has an insider’s view: “From personal experience, I think it’s important for sports-parents to assess their child’s and their own mood/energy before, during and after each game.
- In your child, if you are sensing fear or anxiety and less excitement before the game, this could be related to pressures you are putting on your child.
- During the game if you find that your child is not having fun or is constantly looking at you, this could be a sign he or she is focused more on you (worrying) and less on the game/coach than is conducive to good play and enjoyment.
- At the end of the game/practice, it is important to notice if your child is upbeat, energized, filled with joy at having played the game. Even a loss should offer the chance for the child to bring up good and bad points about the team play — in his or her own time and style.
- At game’s end take time to recognize your response, too. If your first reaction is to critically evaluate what your child did or to provide negative comments, you are likely spoiling your child’s enjoyment of the game.
How to Voice Legit Complaints
The “Mayo Clinic Guide to Raising a Healthy Child” suggests that there may be legitimate issues in a practice or game that you want to discuss with the coach. Maybe you feel your child is sitting on the bench too much or is somehow being treated unfairly.
- Consider contacting the coach the next day to set up a time to discuss the issue. This allows time for emotions to settle and ensures that you’ll be able to talk about the problem uninterrupted, without your child or other players and their parents overhearing.
- In addition, avoid speaking negatively about the coach or the team in front of your child, which can decrease morale and enthusiasm.
- Take the long-term view — sport seasons are relatively short in the grand scheme of things. Choose to model mature behavior for your child.
Making sure your child can retain a love of the game and gain all the benefits that come from accepting the challenges, hardships, victories and defeats is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child as he or she prepares to step into adult life.
The Benefits to Children of Consistent Physical Activity
Only 5% of children ages 5 to 18 get the recommended 60 minutes a day of physical activity/exercise according to a 2018 study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and a 2020 study found that 60% of U.S. kids have poor cardiorespiratory fitness. That means they are not gaining all the physical and mental benefits of exercise.
- Kids in kindergarten through fourth grade have been found to develop better self-regulatory behaviors — more self-discipline and consequently better learning habits — if they participate in structured physical activities.
- Another study found that higher overall participation in leisure-time physical activity at age 6 was associated with better teacher-reported grades in language and math at age 12.
- High school athletes are more likely than nonathletes to go to college and get their degree.
- Physical activity in children and teens helps fight depression, improves body image and increases self-esteem. In fact, a 2019 study found that children who said they got no exercise were twice as likely to have mental health problems — especially related to anxiety and depression — than their peers who got the minimum recommended amount of activity a day (60 minutes).
The CDC says that kids ages 6 to 17 can gain the academic and emotional benefits mentioned above, if:
- Every day they get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity, including daily aerobics
- Three days a week they do activities that strengthen bones (like running or jumping)
- Three days a week they do activities that build muscles (like climbing or doing push-ups)