SportsLife is a new YouTube series and recurring feature which looks at issues that impact young athletes and their families, and most of the topics will come from YOU.
In theory, youth sports should be about kids having fun, being physically active, learning resiliency and developing social skills that can lead to friendships, some that last a lifetime.
Spend some time on the sidelines or in the stands at a travelling soccer, hockey or basketball game, however, and it immediately becomes clear that some sports parents have far different agendas. There is screaming at officials, backseat coaching, trash talking the opposition and perhaps worst of all... whispering critical comments about the teammates of their own children.
"Parents have been part of the problem in youth sports," reflects Dr. Nicole LaVoi, Director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. "We’ve seen over the past couple of decades parents becoming more involved, more engaged, more at practices, more resources invested, more opinions about what should and shouldn’t be done, and really not wanting their children to fail."
Lavoi says with more parents dealing with the increased demands of work and busy schedules, there isn't as much time to spend with their children. To compensate they use sports as a way to invest in their child's future, to further achievement or perhaps even win that elusive full-ride college scholarship.
"The children’s success in sport, then, reflects upon the parent," LaVoi reasons. "So the better your child does at sport, the better parent you’re going to be."
Increased emotional investment - not to mention the time and money parents spend to have their kids play on traveling teams, and work with personal coaches and trainers - can negatively impact the judgement of normally rational adults. The result can be what LaVoi calls the "Toxic Tornado," behavior that young athletes often begin modeling themselves.
"Yelling at the ref, screaming at the kids, yelling at the coach, jumping up and down, swearing, showing up drunk, criticizing, just creating a toxic environment on the sidelines," LaVoi says. "And what we know is that the more children perceive this kind of behavior on the sidelines, from adults, they will experience negative outcomes. Anxiety, stress, they’re more likely to be aggressive, win at all costs, they trash talk, they disrespect the referees."
"I don’t know any sports parent that wakes up in the morning and says 'you know what honey, today lets go and make Johnny stressed, anxious, embarrassed, frustrated, want to quit sports.' But sometimes that’s what they do inadvertently."
If all this sounds... or feels familiar, perhaps you're a toxic tornado... or at least a toxic thunder storm. LaVoi says it's not a lost cause: There are ways you can learn to take it down a notch, do what’s best for your child and see sport from a young athlete's perspective.
"When I do sport education workshops, and we walk through 'what does good parent behavior look like on the sidelines, and how does that affect children when you don’t adhere to those guidelines,' the light bulb for many of them goes on," she says. "'My gosh, I never realized how my child perceives what I do, and how that impacts their experience.'"
LaVoi suggests using what she calls the ABC model when it comes to being a better sports parent.
"Go home and ask them… 'what do I do on the sidelines that you wish I didn’t?, and then believe them… and change your behavior."
"The ABC model. Ask... believe… change."
What if you're not the poison parent, but your friend or someone you know IS? What can you do so the experience isn't ruined for everybody, without getting punched in the nose?
"I get this question a lot. What do I do with that sport parent? Well, as good Minnesotans we sort of don’t want to deal with this directly, so we get up and move down to sit somewhere else and remove ourselves from that person," LaVoi explains. "What I want to challenge parents to do is have a parent meeting, probably with the coach because we want everyone to be on the same page, and say 'how can we together make a better, more positive atmosphere for our kids, for our opponents, and for us together so we all can enjoy this.'"
Additional resources on being a better sports parent
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