It’s fair to say that it’s time to discuss the topic of parents’ roles in the culture of youth sports.
There’s no denying, across the board in all youth sports, there is a faction of parents who are creating a toxic culture. Routinely, either on televised news or on the world-wide web, one will come across a story and/or video of a parent(s) misbehaving at a youth sporting event. It has reached a point, that the trend needs to be shifted in the opposite direction for the greater good of youth sports.
You may be thinking to yourself: “how did we get to this point” or you’re questioning this argument’s validity. But, youth sports have become a foundation of culture across the world, particularly in youth baseball and softball in which organized leagues and teams are now spanning more than one generation. According to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, over 45 million children participate in youth sports in America and millions more worldwide.
Unfortunately, according to Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), some 70% of U.S. children quit sports by age 13, often due to parent pressure in which the emphasis is more on winning than it is on having fun. According to East Zone Vice President and Chairman of the Board Terry Faust, who has more than 45 years of experience as a player, coach and director with PONY Baseball, parents today, more so than ever before, fall victim to the fallacy that their child is going to the Major Leagues.
“Back in my day, when I was playing, parents didn’t really have the time or the money to spend the kind of time like they do now with their kids,” said Faust. “Parents stayed out of everything, other than maybe coaching. My mother used to go to the games, but she never complained whether I played or not, as they do now. My dad didn’t complain whether I played or not either. As a matter of fact, if I didn’t play, my dad would tell me: ‘If you get better, you’ll play because they don’t sit kids on the bench who can play.’ Parents have money today and they’re willing to spend it on their kids – not only with equipment, but trying to make them better. There’s a whole new philosophy today with parents.”
This conversation is important to have because youth sports are sacred. Statistics prove the impact youth sports make on children’s lives in the areas of making friends, getting physical activity and finding structure so that later in life, they can be productive citizens and contributing members of society. PONY’s first President Joe E. Brown famously said: “Teach them to play by the rules, and they'll learn how to live by the rules.” These words even go beyond that. Players learn how to respect others and respect themselves.
Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor of sports management at George Washington University, says that parents can get a certain kind of “high” from watching their child play sports and that in American culture, Americans are becoming obsessed with it. The first youth baseball and softball coaches created the culture and now, one or two generations later, issues that were never addressed have manifested and perpetuated. For example, watch the 1976 edition of The Bad News Bears, and consider how many of the same problems in that movie exist in youth sports today.
It is interesting when you consider that parents don’t all band together in the back of classrooms to watch their kids solve math problems, but they’ll do so when they attend youth sporting events. By nature, organized youth sports have evolved to become parent-centric, but when parents spend too much time with their children, it can lead to problems in the future regarding a child’s cognitive, social and emotional behavior. In leyman’s terms, parents need to learn when it is a right time to let go.
Youth sports settings have not become the Roman Coliseum by any means, but some parents have come to believe that lower standards of behavior are acceptable at sporting events compared to anywhere else. Brooke De Lench of momsteam.com makes the claim that parents wouldn't yell out at a child's piano recital: "Eric, you bum, you can't play the piano to save your life." So why do they feel they have the right to loudly criticize their child's sports performance?
Research by sports psychologist Brenda Bredemeier and her colleagues show that adults and children tend to suspend their normal level of moral reasoning when entering the sporting arena and adopt a form of "game reasoning" that allows them to be more willing to accept unethical and unsportsmanlike behavior, simply because it is sport.
Unfortunately, there is a small faction of parents out there who are trying to feed their own egos by vicariously living through their kids and they think that their child’s successes are their successes. These folks are missing the entire point of what youth sports are supposed to be by trying to live out an unfulfilled goal or dream from their past through their child. Most times, it is these children who suffer the most.
But, what is practically criminal is that there are parents out there who use their child’s natural athletic gifts for their own financial benefit, either during their youth sports career, or these parents see a youth’s sports career as a means to an end that results in fame or fortune.
Now, there is a fine line between appearing too much and appearing too little at sporting events. If parents are always on the sidelines, children get distracted, either always looking for approval or consolation. Or maybe they’re just thinking that a parent’s presence means fast food after a game. On the other hand, a child may feel neglected if his or her parent never comes to see him or her play. Plus, there is enough pressure already put on players to perform well and win, so a child will feel more confident having someone there who they know is in their corner for support.
There are many different types of parents in the world, but two types of parents have evolved out of this culture. There is the “helicopter” parent, who fears their kid won’t succeed and they just can’t let go, so they become over-protective and thus, try to create an environment in which their kid always wins or is taken care of. Then, these children suffer because they can’t act independently. There are also the overly-stressed, over-worked parents who put sports over everything – family time, their child’s education, their own career, their own health and being financially responsible – because they fear their kid will get left behind if they don’t put this type of effort into their child’s early playing career.
Below, PCA discusses a third type, the "bulldozer parent."
All of this is to say that the reset button needs to be pushed with it being the start of a brand new PONY season. As part of this series of articles, we will discuss how parents and coaches (who, most times, are parents themselves) should approach their child’s youth sports career.