This summer, two New Jersey fathers standing on the sidelines of a youth softball game got into a fistfight that left them both bloody, and on the hook for assault and disorderly conduct. In a similar incident in southern Massachusetts, two mothers were seen beating each other up in the stands of a Little League game. While that, in and of itself, is horrible enough, the incident escalated when one of the women’s sons ran off the playing field into the stands to help his mother attack the other woman.
These stories have become all too common. These days it is increasingly difficult to find a sport, a school or a parent who doesn’t have a similar story. They have either witnessed an incident, or experienced one firsthand. It’s so commonplace, psychologists are now calling it, “sideline rage.”
But it doesn’t stop there. If you go to YouTube, you’ll have no trouble finding hundreds of videos of parents screaming from the sidelines, either at their kids for making a bad play, or at an umpire for making a bad call.
Last week a youth soccer club in Colorado posted a sign that went viral reading: “Reminders from your child… I’m just a kid. It’s just a game. My coach is a volunteer. The officials are human. No college scholarships will be handed out today.”
“That’s it? A sign?” I wondered. What about an actual conversation with parents? One where you can educate them and help them be better for their kids. If you don’t have the skills, bring in an expert, or a psychologist, or anyone who can explain to parents the damage they’re doing when they rage at their kid’s games from the sidelines. And don’t let them say they are, “just being supportive” because they aren’t, they’re doing the opposite. They are damaging their children as well as damaging the program and the social environment that everyone has to live in.
Study after study on childhood aggression (since the classic Bandura “Bobo doll” studies of the 1970s) has found that (barring an organic or medical issue) children learn aggression, and they learn it from their immediate environment. It’s called “Social Learning Theory,” and it says that children retain behaviors that they see their parents or caregivers doing. So when you say, “Do what I say not what I do” well, fat chance. Children will do what they see. And if what they are seeing is an aggressive parent who is out of control at a youth soccer match, then that is what they will learn.
Look, no one factor explains why children become aggressive, but watching your parent rage at a sporting event, or rage at you while you play a sport, has been found to inform a script a child begins to construct in their heads early in life as to how to handle people in social environments, i.e. aggressively. Observing aggression in your environment and in your family absolutely changes a kid.
A North Carolina State University study found that children will perceive you as being a supportive parent if you pay the fees, buy them the equipment and uniforms they need and drive them to their games — and that’s it. If you’re a person who has aggression issues, you can stop there. Your child will not think poorly of you if you don’t attend games, especially if you can’t control yourself.
Parents who yell at their kids while they’re on the field have children that are higher in anxiety. Those parents need some real education, not a sign. A sign wont do anything because it doesn’t teach anything. The only thing learned from a sign is that the person who wrote it is too afraid to have the real conversation with the parents who need it most.
No matter how much you push your child, they will not be Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters. Professional athletes like these didn’t get good because they had relentless parents, they got that way because they had a natural talent that was superior, combined with a desire to be the best in their sports and, lastly, relentless parents. You put your child’s self-worth in jeopardy when you send the message that playing a sport and (gasp) having fun doing it is valueless unless they can turn it into something material like a scholarship, or a grand slam.
A 2001 study by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 70 percent of kids who sign up for sports quit by the time they are 13. The reason? They said it wasn’t fun anymore, mainly because of how seriously their parents took it. That same study also says, “Small wonder that many youth sports programs lack qualified referees and umpires because they cannot find enough adults willing to endure abuse from parents.”
Programs have had to resort to banning parents altogether or handing out rules of behavior at the start of the season. One program initiated, “Silent Saturdays” to keep the parents in the stands from cursing, shouting at coaches and yelling at the kids. So I guess the Colorado sign isn’t alone in its attempt to stop parents from acting like children, but it leaves me with one question about youth sports: What happened to sportsmanship?