Well Shut My Mouth!

Mama to MamaWe all knew it was just a matter of time before the loud, unfriendly soccer parents who curse and scream at the referee during their kid’s games got a serious time-out. But it was a sad day, none-the-less, when it finally happened. Last month, the parents of the Bethesda Maryland’s Legacy travel team had to watch their seventh grade daughters from a distant hill using binoculars. All the parents from the entire team were banned from the first two games of the season because of their nasty behavior at the end of last season.

Yep, that’s right. Even though their league’s motto is, “Lasting Friendships Through Soccer,” some of these parents were so angry about a ref’s call that they berated him for it after the game and became openly aggressive. One parent even shouted at the ref’s daughter that her father should be fired. I wonder how that little girl felt? Embarrassed? Humiliated? Scared?

And how about the Legacy players? I wonder what it was like for those middle-schoolers to know their parents couldn’t sit and watch their game because they were in big trouble with the league’s disciplinary board? Must have been weird for them to see their parents being watched by a ref armed with a cell phone to get help if they tried to move within 100 yards of the field or got out of hand again.

Think this could never happen to you? Better take a look around. This trend towards parents getting way too invested in youth sports is strong and growing these days. And it starts really early. Lots of moms and dads seem to care so much about how their child’s team is doing that they end up placing enormous pressure on their own kids and the team as a whole. “Winning” has taken on a level of importance that is unrealistic, unhealthy and ripe with negative consequences for the kids.

One of the things these parents don’t seem to understand is that the players on the field can hear the shouts and nasty remarks; the brothers, sisters and parents of the one being targeted can also hear them; and so can all the other kids who happen to be there. Can you imagine being a little kid there to see your big brother or sister play and then hearing a grown-up call him names or shout angry words at his coach? Might take some of the fun out of it, no? May be a little confusing too. Aren’t grown-ups supposed to mind their manners? Aren’t they supposed to be nice to kids?

Apparently, the parents who shout and yell feel justified in making their opinions about the shots or the calls known to all and may even think they are being supportive of their child or his team. But what kind of impact are they actually having? Well, to put it mildly, not a good one.

According to a study by Duke University this kind of parental behavior distracts the players, interferes with their ability to concentrate and can eventually ruin their enjoyment of the sport and lead them to throw in the towel and quit.

Richard Keefe, a sports psychologist from Duke who has studied this trend reports that 50% fewer kids are playing sports today than a couple of decades ago. The number one reason cited by kids for why they don’t want to play is that “the parents make it no fun.” And a Michigan State Youth Sports Institute survey found that 70% of young athletes will drop out completely by the age of 13. The kids claim that the pressure put on them to succeed is just too much.

Ouch.

We want kids to enjoy being active–to run, play and exercise their little bodies. And since organized sports can, under the right circumstances, offer wonderful opportunities for learning how to win and lose with dignity and how to cooperate and be part of a team, we’ve got to learn how to back off if we want them to participate openly and joyfully. It might be time to remember that famous old adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts.” And our part of the game is to zip our mouths, kick back with our diet cokes or coffee, and watch our children have some fun out there.

Years from now we want them to remember those soccer or baseball or lacrosse days as happy and fun ones, right? Surely not as stressful, embarrasing or filled with resentment. So start early and teach your children, through your own all important example, how to be a good sport and citizen by honoring and respecting every single person–child and adult–on and off the field. And don’t forget–monkey see, monkey do.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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