The Worst Thing About Kids Sports Is The Parents

While other families traveled, partied and picnicked, our Memorial Day Weekend was taken up almost entirely by a lacrosse tournament, and I was reminded once again of the inverse relationship between parents who are good and decent and parents who really, really care about their kids’ sports teams.

I see this every year with each sport my son plays, and it never ceases to blow my mind.

Most of our sports shuttling and spectating revolves around our youngest boy.  Our youngest is one of those kids who is unusually gifted athletically and excels at any sport he attempts – and he attempts a bunch of them.  (Given the combined athletic talent of his parents and grandparents, we attribute this to some highly recessive gene that lay deeply, deeply hidden in his mother and I.)  All of this translates to a lot of kid sports throughout the year.  Soccer, basketball and lacrosse dominate our falls, winters and springs, and the summer is filled with sports camps and individual training.  Because of his skill level, our youngest is usually on at least two teams at any given time – one of the “regular” teams that feeds into our neighborhood high school, and the “select” teams that rope in the best of those teams to play the best players feeding into other high schools.  He’s also in high demand for other rec leagues, and so on those rare occasions where he does not have a practice or game with one of his two teams he’ll often “sub” for other teams.  The complex, byzantine carpooling arrangements we make with other parents isn’t just nice, it’s a necessity.

So I know of what I speak when I say that the more emotionally involved parents get in kid sports, the more they seem to be terrible human beings.

Over the years I have seen parents scream at the top of their lungs, and I have heard them shout obscenities.  I have witnessed them taunting young, lesser skilled children on opposing teams, as well as attempting to physically intimidate teenage referees.  Once, I watched as a father smacked his own son as the boy was coming off the mat at a wrestling tournament, for the crime of being pinned by a girl who outweighed him by twenty pounds.   And on more than one occasion, I have cringed as especially zealous parents cheered young children being hurt so badly on the field that they needed to be taken away to the hospital.

Mind you, most parents I see are really great.  These parents are supportive of their own kids’ efforts, win or lose – and they even clap at great plays made by the other team. They never “boo.”  They cheer especially loudly when those kids on the team with lesser skills have a good game; they certainly never yell at the coach to take those weaker players out of the game.  Still, even though they’re in the minority it’s those other, terrible parents that stand out.

Over the years, I’ve made some observations about the phenomenon of the terrible sports parent.  It is, as far as I know, the only such amateur anthropological study of this American subculture.  I present my findings here in no particular order:

  1. Bad sports parents are almost never lone wolfs; instead they tend to run in packs.  About one out of every five or six kids’ sports teams has a group of parents who are all terrible sports parents – both as individuals and as a group.  It’s almost never just a few people; it’s almost always all of the parents of a particular team.
  2. In almost every case I have seen, the coach of these teams is as bad or worse than the parents on the sideline.  Yelling at players out of anger usually starts with the first whistle and continues until the last; so, too, does yelling at the refs.  I cannot say for certain if the parents pick up on the coach’s poor behavior and mimic it, or if boorish coaches are just chosen by boorish parents.  Chicken and egg, best I can tell.
  3. Bad sports parents like to win, and because of this they gravitate toward really strong teams.  I have never seen a poor or mediocre team backed by terrible parents.  However, it should be noted that not all strong teams have bad parents.  So the relationship between winning and being an obnoxious parent is by no means a causal one.
  4. Teams that draw bad sports parents tend to draw a lot of them.  One of the best ways to identify a group of parents that will behave childishly once the game starts is by their sheer number.  In many cases, the number of parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles and aunts who show up to cheer on bad sports parent teams will outnumber the opposing parents and the players on both teams combined.
  5. Another good clue: Bad sports parents tend to live for being bad sports parents.  And so when you arrive at your kid’s game and the opposing side’s bleachers is made up of adults wearing knock-offs of the team uniform (and tiny siblings having been dressed similarly by those same adults), it’s a pretty good sign that you’re in for some teeth gritting.
  6. There does not seem to be a socio-economic relationship between bad sports parent teams.  They can come from poor working class neighborhoods and privilege alike.  Likewise, they come from all types of religious, political and cultural backgrounds.  In my experience, however, they are always all-white – but I suspect this varies based on your location.  Portland is a fairly white city, so I would guess parents of minority-dominated teams here feel like that’s a kind of PR they just don’t need. I suspect in most communities bad sports parents are usually made up of the dominant groups, whatever they may be.
  7. The behavior of the parents rubs off on the kids, but this seems to happen over time.  At ages 8-11, kids on bad sports parent teams cringe when their parents shout and act up.  As they get older, however, these same kids will be the ones who will feel free to mouth off to the refs while on the field.  By 13 and 14, these players seem to look for opportunities to hurt opposing players.
  8. Once the game is over, bad sports parents whose team has won instantly transform back into self-respecting adults; they gather their things and their family and exit in a courteous manner.  If their team loses, however, continued childlike behavior ensues.  You have a sense that the men in particular are kind of hoping things might come to blows with the other team’s fathers.

Is there a cure for this phenomenon?  If so, I have yet to find it.  Pulling one of them aside and suggesting better behavior always results in the opposite reaction.  Other parents’ leading by example is ignored.  Responding with similar obnoxious behavior just seems to throw fuel on the fire.

At my son’s tournament this weekend, we were lucky enough to encounter only one bad sports parent team; we were unlucky enough that they were the worst group of parents I have encountered in years.

The team name was The Maniax.  It is not a team we’ve come across in our years of doing this, so I was pretty sure they weren’t from the Portland area.  It was the one game of the tournament with no bleachers, so parents for both sides were standing on the side of the field. Since they were standing right there, as the game was starting I asked one of the Maniax fathers where they hailed from.

“Why, you see some men you want to get dates with?” he snarled.  The other parents around him laughed as if this was the wittiest thing they had ever heard.

A while later, on a different part of the sidelines, I watched as our team’s top scorer put the ball in the net with a wicked backhanded fling.  This young man is fast and highly skilled, but he’s also pretty short for his age.  As he scored, one of the father’s from the other team called his toddler over.  “Look at that kid,” he yelled, pointing the player out to his kid.  “He’s like you!  He’s six years old!  He’s a little six year old, just like you!” On the field, the player just shook his head and tried to ignore the bizarre taunts, as the other Maniax fathers laughed along.

The refs let the kids play, which resulted in an especially ugly and violent game on both sides.  The worst play by far happened right in front of where I was standing, when a frustrated player took the butt of his stick and thrust it at an opposing player.  It was, regrettably, well targeted – it went right through the spaces in the facemask and connected with the kid’s jawbone.  The sound was sickening. Along the sidelines, you could hear gasps of horror from the parents on our team – and cackles of amusement from the others.  Up until that moment I had been lumping in the Maniax players with their parents, but right then and there I was just overcome with sadness for those boys.  What the f**k does having a parent like that do to a kid over time?

This fall my youngest goes into high school.  That means another four years of watching him play sports as a youth.  He might well play after that, as an adult at college, but it won’t be the same.  There’s something pure and free and magical about watching him and his friends on the field or court at this age, something that will begin to fade even as high school sports begins.  Youth sports has been a royal pain in the ass as a parent, but now that it’s beginning to come to an end I am realizing I’m going to miss all of it.

Except the terrible parents that come with the package, of course.  Those I’ll be happy to wash my hands of forever.

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37 thoughts on “The Worst Thing About Kids Sports Is The Parents

  1. I used to umpire little league baseball when I was in high school. When drawing assignments, the amount of negotiating that went into avoiding the “bad sports parents teams” was intense, with our understand of which teams were which largely predicated upon what we knew of the coaches. The odd thing was, kids were assigned largely at random, so the distribution of bad sports parents should have been random. But it wasn’t. Sure, each team had at least a few bad ones and a few good ones. But the teams with the bad coaches (and by bad, in this sense, I mean those who act as described here… there were other sorts of bad coaches who were apathetic to the point of encouraging uninspired play and a lack of development for their players) always seemed to have more. Which mean that there was indeed some sort of relationship between how the coach acted and how his parents acted.

    I largely ignored it, but seeing as how I was umping games played by kids between 7 and 12, even a teenage Kazzy felt deeply for both boys and girls. There are plenty of things that are going to happen on a youth sports field that could lead even the strongest kid to tears… being berated by an adult, whether it be on your team or another, should never be one of them.

    Personally, I’d like to see the governing bodies of leagues do more to control fan behavior*. Make parents sign a code of conduct agreement as part of registration. Forfeit games by teams whose parents do not abide. If necessary, hire security to remove parents who continue to demonstrate non-compliance and charge them for the service (you’d also have to include language to this effect in the registration agreement).

    Youth sports leagues are for the youths. We wouldn’t tolerate some random whacko running on the field and stealing the ball; the police would be called. We shouldn’t tolerate out of control parents verbally, emotionally, or physically abusing players.

    * I’d extend this to include collegiate and professional leagues, when necessary.

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  2. Badly-behaved parents have always been one of the two worst thing about kids’ sports. Badly-behaved coaches (at practices and not just games) are a close second. Even though you’re unlikely to change them, thanks for hammering away at this.

    One of the memorable experiences from when I was a kid in a small/medium town was my third (and last) year of little league baseball. The high-school guidance counselor asked to coach a team — I think he may have played minor league ball when he was young. When asked about which kids he might be looking for, he told the league organizers, “Give me the kids the other coaches don’t want on their teams.” Man, what a bunch of oddballs we must have looked like to the other coaches. It would have been fun to listen in on our coach’s meeting with the parents before practices started. All of the fathers made every practice they could. They and the coach ran drills that none of us had ever seen before, and gave a bunch of misfits a lot of confidence that they could play this game. One of the teams in the league seemed to always get more than their share of the natural athletes and was expected to dominate; we split our two regular-season games with them, and lost to them by one run in the league playoff finals. Whatever the school district was paying that counselor, it wasn’t nearly enough.

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  3. Sports parents need to bestow upon their children that kind of competitive, never-say-die edge that will be the key to their crushing TPS reports later in life.

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  4. 1) I am entire certain that the Venn diagram showing bad sports parents and the people who are pointlessly rude to my office staff but sweet as pie to me is a solitary circle.

    2) I can already tell that the Critter will be good at sports. I don’t know if he’ll be as good as your youngest, having little sense of these things. But he is very, very enthusiastic about kicking, throwing, and catching, and seems to have a knack for it. I do not know how I will deal with bad sports parents (whatever my defects of character may be, I do not see myself becoming one), but I suspect it will be Not Well. God help the person who laughs if my kid ever gets injured.

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  5. My parents watched two or three of my basketball games when I was older, and a few more when I was younger (only because they had to drive me; they usually chatted or read a book). It taught me that the game wasn’t that big a deal. It was for me to have fun at, not to prove I could do something that my parents wanted me to do. That was huge for me.

    Personally, I don’t think parents should be that involved where they act as if they have to go to the games. It is a kid’s game like hide and seek. It doesn’t need to be watched by anyone, except for safety. Kids get cheered too much and jeering kids is insane. Let them play by themselves.

    I might have a rule: “No more than 8 spectators per team” at any sporting function of kids under 15. And spectators would be strongly encouraged not to cheer. Kids 15 and over 15 who are good enough to compete at a level where you might want crowds watching them play will need to be helped by coaches and parents to deal with being cheered and jeered.

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    • I respectfully disagree. I liked having my parents be there for my games. In much the same way a parent would attend a ballet or piano recital or school play, watching a game, the culmination of my work and practice, was important. I valued having them there. They generally weren’t big cheerers… my dad because that wasn’t his style and my mom because she largely didn’t know what’s going on (“They all say ‘good eye’ when the ball is thrown over your head. Even someone with a bad eye knows not to swing at that.”).

      Now, we still ought to have standards to which we hold parents with regards to their cheering. There are ways in which competition can be healthy and good for kids. Sports allows an outlet for that and being cheered when you succeed is a good thing. When success alludes you, depending on your age, support of varying degrees is in order. We need not reduce ourselves to cheering for everything all the time or nothing at all. The problem is, we’ve really lost sight of how to lose graciously, of how to recognize struggles as the times in life during which we learn most, and the value of facing obstacles.

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  6. I wonder if it tends to happen more with parents of boys. My daughter’s been playing travel soccer for years and I’ve never seen it. We just got home from a tournament this weekend and everyone was pleasant and supportive, as per usual. Luck of the draw? Or is it partly driven by the whole fantasy that “my boy is going to be a huge star and make me rich and be the star that I failed to be”?

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    • The worst coach I’ve ever experienced was in middle school rec league girl’s basketball. He thought he was Pat Riley, taught his team to trap aggressively on every single possession, and whined every time one of his little muggers was called for a foul. His team finished first, of course, since it’s a great tactic against a player who’s still learning dribbling and passing skills.

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  7. I wonder if you did detailed biographical studies whether these bad sports parents would consider junior high school and/or high school to be the best years of their lives? Do they remember rulers of the roost back then?

    Everything you said about bad sports parents can be translated to stage parents including the heard mentality.

    Though I don’t think it stops after high school. I heard faculty at my alma mater complaining about getting calls from irate parents when their kids were not cast well or not cast at all. I was shocked by this.

    I guess this kind of bad behavior is a form of hostage taking because most people are reasonable and do not want to make a scene or get involved in a long and drawn out fight so they just give into the bullies.

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  8. If there were more – or *any* – opportunities for adults to play team sports, some of these “bad parents” could channel their energies into their own activities. Or at least they wouldn’t be living vicariously through their children. Unfortunately, in most places there are very few adult team sports leagues, especially for people over 30 or so.

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    • I wouldn’t want to do roller derby with any of the parents that Tod was describing. I’ve seen adult tennis, roller derby, softball, etc. In small towns, too. Maybe I’ve just been lucky? Maybe you’ve just got to know where to look?

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    • And, in my experience playing Hispanic League soccer as an adult, bad sports parents will probably tend to be bad sports participants. Which translates into the same amount of jawing and trash talk, but also means a greater ability to do physical harm to the opposition.

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  9. We’re at the stage now where we’re starting to see inklings of this, at Jack’s level.

    I suspect within two years, we’ll have an actual real problem. I have a solution, though!

    I have a friend who is 6’1″, 203, built like a pissed-off fireplug, who is tattooed and plays death metal and rides a motorcycle. He has several friends who fit the mold, as well. He’s a really nice guy, but he doesn’t mind playing Scary Dude at all.

    If we have a problem with a team in one of Jack’s leagues, I’m just going to ask Aaron to come to the next game with that team and stand behind home plate, between both groups of parents, with his buddies. And if someone starts jawing, to have him suggest that they ought to shut up and let the kids play.

    It’s the “Hell’s Angels sit between the Westboro Baptists and the funeral” ploy.

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    • My ex-husband fits the mold as well, in case Junior is ever interested in sports. How do I solve the problem of keeping girls away from him though? He’s going to be a very handsome young man and I already want to protect him from any girls who might draw his attention away from school. My ex-husband is not so on board with that idea.

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      • I already want to protect him from any girls who might draw his attention away from school.

        If he’s like every other boy, ever (at least the ones of heterosexual bent), the girls will be sufficient to draw his attention away from school regardless of any direct interventions applied by either parental unit.

        Just focus on making sure he’s paying enough attention to school, that’s about all you can hope for, really. If you focus on that lesson, there’s a chance they’ll take it with them to college/adulthood, where direct interventions are off the plate anyway. Get your work done first, then fool around but try not to be too foolish about it.

        That’s my current inkling of a game plan, anyway.

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  10. Is there a cure for this phenomenon?

    Yes, a simple one, but it requires the league to be committed to stopping it. It also requires an adult who represents the league to be present at each game. (It can be a ref, if there are adult refs.) Before each game, this representative explains what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior from parents and other spectators. Violations result in warnings; repeated violations in ejections and (this is the killer for the bad parents) forfeits. This is entirely feasible if the majority of good parents feel strongly enough about the bad ones to make it happen.

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  11. We had a bad family that talked smack when I was in Little League. The wife was the worst. She’d insult the Ref, the opposing team, her kid’s coach, and her kid’s teammates. It was never he kid’s failing, always someone else.

    I seem to recall that we had a rule that the umpire could eject ANYONE for unsportsmanlike conduct (parents included) made sometime during my game years. I think that eventually shut her up.

    It really sucked too, since she had several boys and was at the fields all day “rooting” her kids on in sucession. Ugh.

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