On an early summer morning with a light breeze blowing, a girls’ club soccer game in North Texas was in full swing. Parents cheered on the sidelines—Jenny’s team was winning by several goals, and their star player, Sarah, had just scored again.
Jenny’s dad, Brad (their names have been changed to protect the innocent), remembers that the opposing team’s coach was red-faced and screaming at his goalie. As Sarah walked away from the goal area, Brad says he saw the coach lock eyes with his goalie and quietly give an order to “take her out.” The goalie body-checked Sarah, who went down and had to be taken out of the game. In the commotion of the moment, the referee only saw and called a technical foul against the goalie.
Brad winces as he recalls, “These girls were only 6 years old at the time.”
If you’ve been to even a handful of children’s soccer or baseball games, you know that it’s not just coaches who engage in bad behavior on the sidelines. According to a survey by Reuters and Ipsos, 60 percent of American adults have witnessed a parent attacking a coach or official—verbally or otherwise—at a kids’ sporting event. (That’s the highest percentage among the 22 countries in the survey, by the way.)
Most parents and coaches want the best for their kids by being supportive, interactive role models, helping children have fun while reaping the benefits of playing sports.
And that’s what children want out of sports too. In a 2014 George Washington University study, players, coaches and parents brainstormed a list of 81 things that contribute to having fun and ranked them—“trying your best” and “when a coach treats a player with respect” were deemed most important. Winning ranked 48th.
But sometimes, adults get carried away with the excitement of a big moment—whether it’s a drive toward the goal, a shot that doesn’t go in, a controversial penalty or their child getting benched. You’ve seen that parent, shouting instructions to their kid, telling the ref where he can stick his penalty card. Maybe you’ve been that parent.
At best, parents’ emotional outbursts from the sideline can embarrass their kids. At worst, all the yelling and screaming can cause long-lasting harm.
PARENT, NOT COACH
The Toyota Stadium and Soccer Center in Frisco is home to professional soccer team FC Dallas as well as a youth program that comprises 3,000 players on teams across Dallas-Fort Worth (and beyond). Chris Clarke, director of player development, reveals that the
FC Dallas youth program has a code of conduct for players—and their parents—that everyone has to acknowledge and sign.
“This is a training and learning environment where we teach, watch, teach, correct and teach again,” he says. “Nowhere in the code does it say ‘we must win.’ The outcome we strive for includes fun, skills development and relationships. Winning isn’t mentioned.”
Though parents are integral to the youth program, the code of conduct helps them understand what their role is—and isn’t. The section for parents starts with this summary: “The role of the parent is very simple. Be a parent, not a coach or referee.” Rules include “Support your son/daughter in a positive manner” and “Do not coach from the sideline.”
“The game belongs to the players,” Clarke says. “We need them to focus at practice and on game day. A parent yelling at a player breaks the child’s attention.” Therein lies the irony: Yelling at players, coaches and refs won’t help their performance.
During his coaching years, John O’Sullivan saw many examples of kids losing concentration mid-game thanks to their parents shouting directions. O’Sullivan is a former professional soccer player, dad of two and author of the bestselling book, Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes, and Giving Sports Back to Our Kids.
“There was cognitive interference and slowed reaction time when a parent was yelling instructions over a coach to a player during a game,” he recalls via Skype. “The child tuned out the game and his own decision process because of the parent’s intrusion.”
O’Sullivan is so convinced of the importance of a healthy and fun environment in athletics that he’s made it his passion project. His organization, Changing the Game Project, was founded in 2012 and is dedicated to helping parents and coaches be positive influences and provide constructive guidance to young athletes.
“All organizations have to create an environment where parents, players, coaches and officials are each held accountable,” he says. “There’s a difference between being demanding or being demeaning. Parents should not be afraid of intervening in a timely, appropriate manner [when their child is being mistreated]. And coaches need to be an advocate for their athletes in the same way.”
But parents should not confuse advocating for their child with abusing a coach or official, nor should they confuse enthusiasm with unproductive yelling.
OUT OF CONTROL
“At times, some adults don’t even recognize the difference between guiding a child and verbally mistreating them,” says Jana Swart, a Dallas psychologist (and mother of four) who has treated both adolescents and adults in her practice for over 25 years
She explains that contrary to some parents’ and coaches’ perception that being hard on players toughens them up or improves their play, the physical response in a child during and after being yelled at negatively affects their performance. This is because the stress hormone cortisol is involuntarily released in the body, which inhibits executive functioning.
“It leads to a mental restriction with their focus,” Swart says. “Then, when the cortisol levels fall, the child feels physically shaken.”
Research published in the Journal of Sport Behavior in 2009 suggests that being regularly exposed to angry confrontations as a bystander (called “background anger”) is distressing to kids too, meaning that when there’s a lot of verbal aggression emanating from the sidelines or the bench, athletes who aren’t the targets may suffer as if they were.
Over time, these effects compound, and not just on the sports field.
“Pushy parents can create an internal conflict with their child that may lead to anxiety, depression and rebellion,” Swart says. Multiple studies agree: Kids who are regularly yelled at or placed under stress have an increased risk of mental health problems, including depression, in the long run.
Swart also wants adults to think about what they’re inadvertently teaching their kids through their sideline outbursts. “The behaviors children observe on the athletic field, they [might] emulate in the workplace one day,” she says.
It’s safe to assume that most parents don’t want their kids to believe that an angry tirade—or verbal abuse—is the appropriate response when something doesn’t go their way. So why do parents and coaches continue to set a poor example?
“Often an adult’s issues from their own childhood are a part of their unconscious behavior,” Swart explains. Losing a job, having a critical medical diagnosis in the family or other events might also affect a parent’s behavior.
“When something is missing in an adult’s life, they may try to fulfill or compensate for it through their authority in a child’s life,” Swart continues.
“This can lead to intimidating and embarrassing the team they are coaching or … their own child.” Overinvolved parents and out-of-control coaches sometimes coincide with the increased proficiency of a child beyond their peers (or at least a belief that the child has better-than-average talent). Words like “scholarships” and “endorsements” enter the conversation, and parents might want to provide more competitive experiences and higher levels of coaching. Some parents see the fees they pay as an investment in their child’s future, and as a result, they may become overly emotional about their child’s performance during a game or perceived setbacks such as undeserved penalties and poor coaching decisions.
“Some parents tend to try and live vicariously through their kids,” says Jonathan Clarke (no relation to Chris Clarke), a veteran coach for under-12 recreational soccer in Allen. His 11-year-old son, Adam, is on his team. “I’ve seen some parents push their kid long and hard to make them a ‘star,’” he continues, “and the kid is miserable. The parent is angry the skills they are paying to develop haven’t been mastered. So they pull the kid out of the club and put him in another one to get what they think their child needs while never asking the child what he wants.”
At a local indoor soccer arena on a Sunday afternoon in January, several recreation teams are playing against club soccer teams. The games are scrimmages and don’t count in the standings for any contest. The difference in parent sideline involvement is as pronounced as the difference in the cost of the two programs: Registration for the spring season of the Keller Soccer Association was $125 and included a uniform for new players; club registration cost $545 and did not include the required named-brand uniform package.
Terri Ford, mother of 11-year-old Kaylee, says she enjoys her daughter’s recreational soccer games because of the family atmosphere.
“We yell positive cheers no matter what,” Ford says. “Good scores, mistakes or losses—we are here to support all the girls.” She adds that team spirit is bolstered through activities outside the arena and believes this contributes to the positive atmosphere come game time.
“Pizza night fun goes hand in hand with the coach’s ground rules and open communication with everyone to act responsibly,” she says.
Meanwhile, parents of one club soccer team are sitting huddled at the center line. A dad is cheering for his son, Frankie (whose name I’ve changed for privacy). He is also yelling continual instructions: “Don’t wait!” “Go to the left, Frankie! Faster!” At one point, Frankie actually stops playing and says to his dad, “What? I can’t hear you.”
PLAYING BY THE RULES
While reviewing any sports program to enroll your child in, there is more to consider than whether their friends play on the team and whether your family can meet the time commitment. There will always be “that parent” who chooses to believe that their instructions are better than a coach’s. There will always be “that coach” who chooses to believe that being hard on players builds character and gets results.
But choosing a program that promotes—and enforces—a positive environment can decrease the chances of exposing your child to damaging distress.
Jonathan Clarke, the Allen coach, works to educate new parents about the game while communicating to them that multiple instructions are confusing and hurt their kid’s performance. “The longer I have the same kid on my team, the easier it gets because I’ve also taught their parents respect about the boundaries in the game and on the sidelines,” he says.
Chris Clarke emphasizes that responsible conduct for parents, players, coaches and referees should be a written commitment in every athletic program regardless of the level of the sport. “One idea I would encourage parents to look for in assessing a coach and team for their child is to evaluate the whole activity like they would a teacher in a classroom,” he says. “If words and actions are not tolerated in a classroom, they should not be tolerated on the field.”
Enforcing good behavior starts with good communication, he adds. “Having regular contact with the parents in team meetings can often preempt an unpleasant situation on the field.” And having a written agreement that parents, kids and the athletic organization all promise to uphold has a subtle, yet powerful impact on holding people accountable for their behavior. It prepares everyone for their responsibilities and outlines the consequences for actions that are not acceptable.
“Presenting a parent with their signed commitment to abide by the code has been very effective in dealing with outbursts towards coaches and referees,” Chris Clarke says of the FC Dallas youth program.
The organization has actually built into their code of conduct a timeout period for adults: Parents must wait a full 24 hours before contacting a coach about issues that arise on gameday.
“A cooling-off period is helpful to give some parents a more relaxed perspective and assess what is or is not important,” Clarke explains.
Even with clearly stated parameters, at times a written commitment is not enough. “When there is an extreme situation with a parent, we ask them to take a sabbatical from coming to games,” Clarke reveals. “We then try to re-educate them on conduct, recommend they read up on the rules of the game, and increase their understanding of what the coach is teaching their child.”
In more than 20 years of coaching, O’Sullivan recalls, “only two times did I have to ask a parent to leave a program after multiple meetings about inappropriate outbursts. It was sad to see both times how the release from the team impacted the child because of his uncontrollable parent. The child lost his friends, his team and his social network.”