Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Over-the-Top Intensity of Youth Sports and Parents Who Make Me Want to Throw My Snow Cone

The other day I received an e-mail from one of our sons' basketball coaches that included an attached letter addressed to all of the parents who have children participating in youth basketball in our community this year.

The letter didn't concern details of practice times, game schedules or appropriate length measurements for uniform shorts (although that would be a super fun topic), in fact, it had nothing to do with our child athletes and everything to do with us parents.

There was no beating around the bush in this letter, no "three positives for every one negative." We were in trouble.  The detailed admonitions written into every line were a shameful slap on the hand. A slap that, I admit, was well deserved.

Say what you want, but if an athletic association has to threaten the dismissal of any parent(s) from a game due to their unsportsmanlike, their un-parent like conduct, then Houston, we have a problem. The letter actually confirmed my heightened anxiety toward the undeniable fact that with every year that our kids play sports, parents are taking the competitive intensity up a notch (in the wrong direction) and their poor behavior is on display for all the world to see.

Then again, maybe I'm the only one who actually read the letter, or felt a little frustrated that it was even delivered to my inbox in the first place.

At any rate, the whole thing has been bothering me, and it's got me feeling like maybe it's time we take a step back and ask ourselves why such a serious lack of self control, a lack of properly ordered emotion is becoming the new normal in many of, if not all, youth sporting arenas.

Let's not kid ourselves or make excuses here, people.
I see the over-the-top mentality all of the time, don't you?

When our boys first began playing sports, I was a bit shocked at the intensity that parents brought to the playing field. This was especially true when our boys started wrestling. No one told me the atmosphere in the gymnasium was going to be that intense - and by intense, I mean one dad literally threatened to beat my husband up after our son defeated his son in a match by points.  After screaming red-faced at the scoring table volunteers, he had to be physically removed from the mat.

After six years of our kids playing a variety of sports in SIX different communities, I've witnessed enough displays of rage and counterproductive upbraiding of child athletes, coaches and referees on the court, the mat and the field, that nothing surprises me much any more. Sad, isn't it?  I certainly don't want that to read as an admission of acceptance of the out-of-control-parents dictating the climate of the environment in which we place our children in for hours upon hours each season.  We strive to set a strong example for other families with young athletes by the way that we support our boys and their coaches, but unfortunately, that example is not going to be embraced by everyone.

Last summer our son, Andrew, participated in a pretty intense three day football camp.  On the final day of camp, parents were encouraged to come and watch their boys scrimmage. At thirty-nine weeks pregnant, I made the two hour trek to the camp to watch Andrew, hoping that climbing up and down the bleachers would stir up some contractions.

The hot summer sun and stair workout didn't induce labor but the scalding tempers of a good share of the parents screaming at their little athletes who failed to catch a pass or nail a tackle nearly did. Maybe you're thinking that I'm being overly sensitive, that yelling is just part of the game and I should accept that.  Well, honey, I can yell with the best of high school or college games when scholarships and championships are on the line, but NOT at little kids' events.

My blood pressure had to have been through the roof that afternoon, because it took Mr. Miyagi like focus to keep me from completely losing it. Every ounce of my preggo self wanted to chuck my snow cone at the haters and scream that real good pregnant scream (oh, you know what I'm talking about) "It's a freakin' camp, people! Chill OUT!!"

Don't get me wrong, I'm just as competitive as the next parent, my husband and I have played a lot sports and love that our sons are now doing the same. But, competition without a standard of respect for others is not the kind of competition that fosters growth in our children beyond the physical and athletic component of competition.
Our family recently watched the fantastic movie When the Game Stands Tall, an incredible story inspired by the legendary coach, Bob Ladouceur who took an average California high school football team and led them to a 151 game winning streak.

Now, I know that competition and parental involvement at the high school level is much different than at the youth sporting level, but certain elements of athletics should be the same at all ages, and one of those aspects is the understanding that sports aren't just about the game or the match or about personal stats and notoriety. Sports should be about the formation of the people who play them.

After achieving outstanding levels of success, countless accolades and press attention from around the nation, Coach Ladouceur still believed his purpose in coaching football was to help his athletes to understand and love much more than just the game. He wanted them to understand what it means to be a team, to have faith in your brothers, to believe in yourself and to offer your perfect effort in honor of the team, a team who is like family.  One of my favorite quotes from the movie is:

“Growing up is painful. It’s not easy. 
But that’s what our program is about, in case you haven’t figured it out. It ’aint about the football. 
It ’aint about scoring touchdowns. It ’aint about the win streak. It’s about moving you in a direction that will assist you and help you grow up, so when you can take your place out in the world and out in our society and out in our community, you can be depended on.” 

The contrast in the movie to Coach Ladouceur's strong character commitment is a father who's singular focus is the success and recognition of his son, a star senior player on the team.  The dad's constant verbal tirades toward his son, the coaches and officials, on and off the field, might leave one questioning why parents like him are becoming not the exception, but the norm in sports today.

Have we forgotten that sports weren't created for adults, they were created for the youth?

Local wrestling clubs and football teams, along with about a dozen other athletic opportunities, weren't established so that parents could relish supreme bragging rights on Facebook or so that kids could become community celbrities.  They were created to provide a platform from which coaches and parents together might teach kids about the bigger lessons in life in a fun and healthy way.

I know, seems a little crazy, doesn't it?  You know, letting your child shoot hoops so that he can make friends, strengthen his or her body and learn a little perseverance at the same time.  What value is there in all that if it doesn't include a little fame, right?

{Um, for those of you who reject sarcasm, the literal answer to my question would be "WRONG."}

I've seen kids cry over everything from being defeated to not getting the playing time they feel - yes, feel they deserve. They curse the refs for a "bad" call and speak disrespectfully toward teammates and coaches, and they do so NOT because they are "passionate" about their sport, but because they truly believe the essence of what we parents have drilled into their minds, and that is that sports and winning means recognition and recognition is EVERYTHING.

We have an insatiable need to be recognized for EVERYthing in this country. Social media is filled with proof: Look at this, it's a picture of my supper, my cat rolling over, my Christmas tree (same as last year), my pedicure, and myself, myself, my little selfie self.  If we as adults want to be seen, heard, appreciated, acknowledged, liked, admired and emulated, then naturally our children follow suit. With so much focus on self, there's just not much "we" in the experience of daily life and activities anymore unless it involves the share of blame or problems.

We, us, team that's what sports are supposed to be about.  Cooperation, dedication, encouragement, virtue....the sharpening of the interior, not just the exterior. This is also true of sports that look like individual sports, such as swimming, wrestling, gymnastics or track.

Our kids' coaches, as well as those who officiate their sports, are mostly volunteers who don't get paid.  But, they believe in the greatness of sports and are committed to helping make our kids' opportunities to play their favorite game on Saturdays possible.  I believe they deserve our support and encouragement, regardless of whether or not their able to call a perfect game or match.

If the coaching and officiating in your community is less than admirable, then you might consider volunteering yourself to coach.  If you're not qualified to coach or referee, find someone who is and recommend them to your community athletic association.

Here's the thing - poor coaching and bad officiating may seem supremely unfair, but hello, LIFE is unfair. So, how are you teaching your kids to deal with the challenges of life when things don't go their way? Screaming? Cursing? Pouting? Crying? Belittling others? Because, I see a lot of kids doing the very things they see their parents doing when it comes to facing personal loss or team defeat.

Our kids are watching us...they learn from us how to handle upsets, victories, setbacks, and unfair shakes. What are we teaching them from the stands, from the sidelines??

Little kids who are just trying to learn the skills required to play a sport, who are also just wanting to have FUN, cannot hide the disappointment they feel when they look up into the bleachers and see their parents freaking out over a missed foul. Suddenly something that wasn't even upsetting in the least to them becomes a huge deal because their parents showed them with their words and actions that this or that "unfair" call was some sort of crisis.

People ask me all the time how I feel about youth sports and whether or not I think they are good for kids and family.  I usually give a nice reasonable answer centered around the temperament of the child, the importance of parental involvement, keeping the focus on having fun, and connecting that all to the development of the person...not just the athlete.

But, now I think I'm gonna tackle the questions with a different set of answers:

If there's any chance you think that your child playing sports has any thing to do with YOU, then no, I wouldn't advise that they play.

If YOU expect your child to become a super-star at any cost then, negative on that one too.

If YOU are not capable of zipping it when your child loses or when the rulings are unfair, then I'm gonna have to go with NO.

If YOU do not see yourself as an encourager and teacher to your child in their sporting adventures, then, let's see....NO.

If YOU do not value the importance of showing respect to your child as an athlete, to their coaches and officials then how about another big fat NO.

If YOU, as a parent, DO NOT understand that it is YOU who set the primary example for your child when it comes to displaying positive behavior rooted in strong character, sportsmanship and self-control, then please, for the sake of the rest of us who are trying to make sports a positive, encouraging and reasonable enviornment for our kids, consider an alternative activity for your child.

C'mon parents.  Let's get it together for our kids, before we cheat them out of experiencing the best things that sports really have to offer.


  1. Oh my goodness. I am right with you! I wrote a post about this and a book that changed my perspective on kids sports! My kids play soccer and it was also crazy intense, even from a young age. I will admit that in the early years I found myself getting involved and worked up. It all came to a head when my 9 year old son decided he wanted to leave competitive soccer because he wasn't having "fun". I actually argued with him about it! Wow. He was so right but I couldn't see it at the time. I am happy to report that a few years later I am now typically one of the mellow parents on the sidelines of my son's recreational and my daughter's competitive league soccer games. I'm back to enjoying them rather than stressing for them. My job is cheerleader, not anything else. Great post! There are so many of us who need the reminder and parents who need to hear it for the first time.

  2. We haven't had much experience with competitive sports, but I can still appreciate this. I hope lots and lots of parents read this and take heart.

  3. I completely agree that the kids athletic scene is out of control way too often. It should be fun for everyone and that part has been lost.
    Great post, Susan!

  4. I could not agree with you more. I am so, so tired of having to endure out-of-control parents on the sidelines. Of course, there was one team that was really bad. The parents actually called a meeting with the coach and director of coaching to basically chew the coach out. An hour in, I finally couldn't take it any more and let the 4 biggest perpetrators have it. For a week afterwards, every coach at the club and many parents approached me to thank me for speaking up. And it worked. Those parents were much quieter after that.
    For one of our boys' teams, when parents start getting out of hand, we start passing out suckers, hoping putting something in their mouths will help them keep from using their mouths to shout. If nothing else, it is a signal that they need to cool it.
    I feel terrible for so many kids these days, who have so much pressure on their shoulders to be the absolute best. Fun isn't even part of the conversation in many families.
    Oh, I could go on for days on this topic. I'll stop now. :)

    1. Wow, Christine - good for you for standing up and saying something. Sometimes I feel like parents just choose to take their kids out of sports because they don't want to have to deal with the craziness that comes with all of it. But, really if we want things to change, we have to stay in the game and work for a better environment for our kiddos.

  5. I had my first experience with youth sports last fall when my son was on a 5th and 6th grade football team. I agree with most of this article. I wrote about my experience here. Tell me what you think.

  6. Well said. Thank you for the movie information. I plan on having the family watch it.

    1. Sara, I hope you enjoy the movie. It sure gave us a lot of things to talk about in terms of sports, life, faith and character.

  7. So crazy and sad. My boys haven't started community sports yet (3 and 1 yo) but we're thinking we'll get my 3 yo in something this spring. He loves all things sports so I'm sure he'd have fun but I have a feeling it will be interesting to say the least. I pray it's not but I feel like parents are getting stranger about sports and kids younger and younger these days! I played tennis and remember *those* parents and was always embaressed for them and felt bad for their kids.

  8. Very well said. We aren't at this point yet, my youngest is just getting into teeball, so we haven't experienced it full force yet, but I have seen it happen. It's like the parents are trying to make up for their own experiences when they were kids. I get that we all want our kids to succeed, but we shouldn't let our past shortcomings effect our kids. I was terrible at sports when I was a kid, but I would never put that much pressure on my kids to do well in sports. Would I be happy if they excelled, of course, but that much pressure from a parent can be really detrimental to a kid and their self confidence. We need to raise them up and not tear them down. On that same note, there are parents out there that think their kids need medals or trophies for just doing their homework...but that's an entire different topic :)

    1. Oh, don't EVEN get me started with the whole "every child deserves a trophy" issue. Uugh!! We, as parents, have to help our children develop a healthy sense of self-confidence, overindulging them with false affirmations of accomplishment is never going to work!


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