How to Be a Supportive Parent of a Sports Kid

Several years ago, a mother in
hired a hit man to kill the mother of her daughter’s cheerleading rival. In 2000, Thomas Junta, a hockey player’s father, beat another father to death in front of their children over a squabble after a pick up game. In
New Bedford, Massachusetts
this summer, two little league mothers got into a fist fight in the stands. In a father is alleged to have spiked the drinks of some of his son’s tennis competitors with an anti-anxiety drug called Temesta. As a result, one player spent several days in the hospital and another fell asleep at the wheel due to the drugs and was killed in the wreck.

These may be extreme examples of parents gone nuts over kid’s sporting events, but more than likely you or someone you know has gone at least a little nuts while watching the kids play ball. The problem of bad parent behavior has unfortunately become the norm in kids’ sports. There are countless examples of parent’s acting poorly, under the guise of trying to support their child in their sport.

Coaches at all levels, from little league tee-ball, up through high school varsity sports, report being inundated by unruly parents. They constantly find themselves justifying their coaching decisions and explaining why one kid got to play while another sat on the bench for part of the game. Coaches receive threatening phone calls and letters, are called names and are generally harassed by parents who disagree with them. Some actually have had things thrown at them from the sidelines during games. Parents will even go so far as to band together to create a negative smear campaign to try to oust the coach they don’t like. They contact other parents, administrators, school board members, athletic directors, and other community members, complaining about the coach and asking for his or her dismissal.

During sporting events rowdy parents take the game so seriously that they are known to keep score, even in the youth leagues where no official score is kept, clap when a child on the opposing team strikes out, and throw things at referees. And perhaps the most hurtful act of egregious behavior is when they hurl insults at the players during the game – they are children!

It is no wonder that according to Parade Magazine 70% of all kids abandon organized sports by age thirteen. It can’t be much fun to play when the stakes are so high and the pressure from parents is so great. Kids report that they are embarrassed when their parents cause a scene from the stands during a game or when they chew out the coach on their behalf. Furthermore, they often feel terrified to fail in front of their overzealous parents, so it’s easier to quit than fight what feels like a losing battle.

So, what went wrong? How did little league moms go from baking cookies for the coach and team members and cheering little Johnny on while he ran the bases – often in the wrong direction – to having fist fights in the bleachers? Some may argue that our whole society has become more driven by competition, so it is natural that it has trickled down to parental competition. This is probably true, but some other factors seem to also be at play here.

According to Athletic Insight, an online journal of sports psychology, parenting styles, in general, have shifted over the previous decades. Parents have come to believe that being a responsible parent means doing everything for their child, rather than teaching the child to do it for them self. Parents may think that by standing up to a coach or ref or even another parent, they are showing that they are committed to their son or daughter. Unfortunately, what they are really doing in most cases is embarrassing the child (and themselves) and, more importantly, they are teaching their child that throwing a public fit is an effective way to problem solve.

Other parents may be looking for the monetary payoff that comes with their child’s athletic achievement. College costs are soaring and parents see an athletic scholarship as the ticket to a free ride after high school and then maybe even into the pros. They believe that if they push their talented children, and fight for them when necessary, the scouts will come and their child will be recruited to the school of their choice and then if they keep doing well, they may even get a shot at the big time professional sports. The hard news for these parents is that fewer than 2% of all high school athletes earn a college scholarship and only one in thirteen thousand winds up going pro. Those are sobering facts for parents counting their child’s chickens.

High school students have a much better chance at financial success by earning an academic scholarship, getting college degree and then finding a job in the profession of their choice. However, many parents seem to hang onto the belief that the easier or faster route to success for their child is through athletics.

And finally, there are simply a lot of parents out there who are trying to live out their own unfulfilled sports fantasies through their son or daughter. For whatever reason, they didn’t get the chance to reach the level of success they dreamed of, so they push their kid to get there instead, whether it’s the child’s dream or not.

Whatever the reason for bad parental behavior, the end result is always the same. The kids get hurt one way or another. They are either embarrassed or they suffer from pressure to do more than they might be capable of doing. Sadly, they often wind up taking cues from their parents and become difficult and uncoachable. If their parents only model poor behavior, how will they learn to be positive team players? How will they ever learn that playing a game is not just about winning, but about learning life lessons?

If you are worried that you are or could become a bad sports kid mom or dad, there is hope for you. Like in the twelve step programs, one of the first steps for enacting change is recognizing that there is a problem. Ifyou are still reading this article, you are probably ready to make achange for the better for the sake of your child or children. Followthe tips and suggestions outlined below and you can become a great,positive role model, not only for your child but for other parentsstruggling on the sidelines. And also, your kid will probably love having you come to his or her games!


  • Take a day off. Yes, it is important that you support your child’s athletic interests by going to the games, but you don’t need to go to practices too. Maybe when they’re little, you stay and watch them learn to kick the soccer ball around occasionally, but even keep your distance. Do not coach from the sidelines during practice and do not grill the coach afterwards. Additionally, if you need to miss an occasional game, it’s ok. You are teaching your child that some things come before sports and that’s normal. Finally, if your daughter is on the volleyball team and also on the school debate team, you must split your parental viewing time evenly between the two activities, so you show her that all activities are important, not just the sport.
  • Let the coach be a coach. We all think we could do a better job, and maybe we could, but unless you are going to put your money where your mouth is and volunteer to be the coach, leave him or her alone. You will not agree with many decisions the coach will make and neither will your child, but these are life lessons. When your son is grown he will probably not agree with everything his boss says, but sometimes you just have to deal with it. Teach your child to abide by what the coach says, even if he doesn’t like it; he will learn how to respect authority, even when it does not seem fair. Only if a coach is doing something dangerous or morally wrong should you step in – and this should be done only by going through the proper administrative chain of command.
  • It’s ok to fail. Failure is part of life. We cannot win every competition, get every job or promotion or ace every test. Sometimes we will fail, so kids must learn to actually believe the adage, “winning isn’t everything; it’s how you play the game.” According to the Sports Done Right web site, “75% of both males and females say they would rather play on a team with a losing record than sit on the bench of a winning team.” So, apparently, playing is more important to our young athletes than winning. Parents need to learn that winning is not the only reason kids play. Remember that they are learning life skills, like coping with loss and failure. If you look back on your own life, probably you could agree that you have learned more from your failures than your successes. When you ask your daughter how the game went, don’t ask who won first off. Ask if she had fun, if she learned anything, if she worked hard and then ask about the stats. Let her know that the whole picture is important, not just the final score.
  • Get real. Again, only 2% of ALL high school athletes earn scholarships and only one in thirteen thousand will make the pros. It is nearly impossible that your child will get a scholarship or make the pros. It’s ok to dream big, but make it plan B. Plan A should include academic achievement. If parents today would spend as much time sideline coaching their kids in academics as they do on athletics, we would see a drastic increase in Ivy League school admissions. Academics must be a greater priority than athletics and not just so players can stay eligible, but because they must learn that the stuff in the books is as relevant as the stuff on the court. After all, you really cannot argue with the fact that being proficient in reading, writing and mathematics matters more after high school than winning the league basketball tourney. Think about the long range implications of how you prioritize your child’s academic and extracurricular activities.
  • Keep it simple. Today kids are going way beyond the sports programs offered by local school districts by joining elite traveling teams. Experts advise against this, saying that forcing kids to specialize in only one sport too soon, will actually hinder their athletic development. Remember that Deion Sanders played in both the World Series and the Super Bowl. Star quarterback, Joe Montana was a star little league pitcher, and was offered a scholarship to play basketball before playing for the 49’ers. These amazing athletes were given the opportunity to test out a variety of sports before finding their true passion. Kids may find their favorites early, but encourage them to try other things too because they will learn different athletic skills from each sport, which will only help them develop as an athlete in the end. It will also prevent them from burning out on a sport by age thirteen.
  • Follow the rules. It is great when parents support their kids, but do not throw a fit if your child gets in trouble at school or practice, causing him to have to miss a game. You may believe that your son is innocent, but even the best teenagers are prone to lie even when they are caught red handed doing something naughty. Again, you must teach your child that rules come first. You must let him suffer the consequences of his actions, even if that means missing the big game with the rival team this week. You must help him learn from the mistake, and not teach him that having a hissy in the principal’s office is the way to deal with his lapse in judgment. Kids make mistakes and it is up to the adults to show them how to handle those mistakes, so that they can cope in the real world someday.
  • Lighten up. Let the kids have some fun. Remember how much fun you had with your friends when you were playing high school ball? It is called PLAYING a GAME for a reason. There is play, which denotes fun is involved and game means that is not real life. Sure, at the varsity level, the pressure is on to win, but before they get there teach your child that participating in sports is an enjoyable activity and they should have fun while they’re doing it. Have fun watching the games. Cheer wildly, but only say positive things – never negative. Clap and stomp and do the wave. Ignore the mistakes – they are young and still learning and are supposed to make mistakes. Buy pizza for the team after the game, even they loose by a thousand points. Join the booster club, buy the trinkets the players have to sell to raise money for new uniforms, or sell burgers in the concession stand. Just try to have a little fun and chances are your child will too.

Many schools and athletic organizations have had to adopt policies to try to reign in unruly parents of athletes. Some have instituted a parent’s code of conduct where parents have to at least agree to behave properly. A
school system requires parents to take an online course on how to behave at athletic events. Still other schools appoint a parent ambassador to monitor parent actions during activities. And in
, a program called Sports Done Right has been instituted to help define and promote positive school athletic programs. If you think the problem at your child’s sporting events is bigger than you, suggest implementing some of these measures.

Every parent can do their part in creating a healthy environment for children to learn positive athletic ideals. It is up to the adults to model the behaviors we want to see in our children.

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