Although more than 26 million children ages 6 to 17 played team sports in 2017, the totals have been dropping. In the past there were pick-up games with friends and leagues at neighborhood parks, with the focus mostly on fun. All of the kids in the neighborhood played together: the stars, the stalwarts and the daisy pickers.
There has been a shift to elite competition over the past two decades and it has taken a growing toll. Seventy percent of kids quit sports by age 13. These children drop out mostly because adults, particularly their own parents, have turned playing sports into a joyless, negative experience. Parents have contributed largely to the “winning is the only thing” attitude in youth sports.
Many child athletes now struggle to succeed to please their parents, not to achieve personal goals. This struggle for perfection is causing anxiety among young athletes and their parents. Parents traditionally attend their children’s sporting events to avoid missing an opportunity to interact with their children. Today, however, parents are more involved in structuring their children’s lives to ensure that their children become successful athletes.
Consequently, because of all they have invested in their children’s success, parents become emotionally involved. It is very easy for parents to participate excessively in sports competition when their own children are the players. Parents are susceptible to “a great deal of narcissistic appeal” of sports competition when their child is involved.
Parents can lose perspective on the point of playing sports and are viewing the game through their own eyes, rather than from their child’s point of view. Also, parental instinct to protect their children during a game may cause parents to lose control of their emotions and temper. This can lead to parents behaving badly at kids’ sporting events.
There are numerous reports of parents directing verbal and physical abuse towards the officials working the games in which their children participate. The National Association of Sports Officials receives more than 100 reports of sporting event violence per year but believes the number of non-reported incidents is much higher. Reports involve parents, coaches and players physically assaulting referees, umpires and other game officials. (NASO, 2017)
It is imperative that adults involved in youth sports control their violent behaviors because rage has no place in recreational sporting activities for children. Unfortunately, parents and other adults have committed senseless violent acts with little or no consequence, inadvertently transmitting an example to children that violence wins.
Coaches, parents and older athletes are common role models for children. The examples set by these role models mold children’s ideas about what constitutes acceptable behavior in society. When they witness their heroes engaging in violence in a sports setting, children learn that this is not only acceptable, but also applauded in some cases.
How can we handle ‘parents behaving badly’ incidents?
- First check your own behavior. Keep your comments quiet, positive and only towards behavior not towards the person. (“Ump that was not your best call!” rather than “ Ump you’re awful!”) Officials are people with families just like you. They are most likely doing their best to call the game fairly.
- Instruct your children to respect the managerial/authoritative position of the game official. Teach them to empathize with the difficulty of the job of officiating.
- Remove children from situations where there are abusive patterns. There’s no reason to put yourself in a situation where there are no choices. Protect your family. Later discuss with your child all the elements of the situation. Be curious how it impacted your child a bad experience, undiscussed, can have a long-term effect on how children view themselves, adults and sports.
- Be vigilant about unsportsmanlike behavior before it escalates to violence. Don’t ignore it, listen to your intuition. Do not try to stop an unruly parent with words or actions. The fan (short for ‘fanatic’) may not be in a stable state and may be further incited by your efforts.
- Sometimes if the coach is informed he/she may have more of a calming influence. Certainly call the police if there is imminent danger. Prevention is best. Meet with league administrators to help set policy to handle disruptive spectators with realistic consequences.
For more information or to contact a therapist at the Birmingham Maple Clinic go to www.BirminghamMaple.com.
National Alliance of Youth Sports (www.nays.org )
Sports Violence in North America by Jerry M. Lewis, 2007
Fanaticus-Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan by Justine Gubar, 2015
More About the Author:
Dan O’Neil is retired from sports officiating. He spent 40 years working little league and high school baseball, little league and high school football and little league, high school, college and international basketball. He is a member of the Detroit Catholic High School League Hall of Fame. He watches his 14-year-old grandson play baseball in an elite travel league.
Dan O’Neil is also a Masters prepared psychologist who works with adolescents and adults. His great passion is helping people resolve past traumas that are impacting their current life. Dan works with sexual addiction, sexual abuse (victims and perpetrators), PTSD, anxiety and depression. Dan knows that no single approach is the right one for every client. He uses Cognitive- Behavioral therapy, EMDR therapy (EMDRIA certified therapist) and Internal Family Systems therapy. Dan is a long-time clinical member of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA). He performs evaluations and risk assessments for those involved in the criminal justice system for sexually related issues.
Photos courtesy of Birmingham Maple Clinic