Examining Why Parents Lose their Cool at Youth Sports
If you are a sports parent you have likely witnessed a parent outburst at a game – perhaps it was a rude comment you overheard, a direct threat screamed at an official or coach (or player), or worse yet – a physical assault on the field or court. Of course, none of these things are appropriate, especially when you think about how much these outbursts and assaults take away from the great experience kids should have while competing in youth sports. Still, not a day goes by in America where we don’t hear about a story detailing one of these crazy stories, prompting many to wonder why there is so much anger and hostility at youth sporting events??
Obviously the sport experience is a very emotional one, not only for the kids competing, but also for parents watching the game in the stands. Positive emotions and support are always appreciated, as this provides for a fun experience for kids and makes the sport experience one they will look back and cherish later in life. Sometimes, however, adults temporarily lose their cool and act out in negative and hostile ways, which in turn ruins the experience for everyone (especially the child of the parent who acts out). Are these just bad parents who do these things? Or are we all at-risk for an outburst because of how serious youth sports have become? Unfortunately, the field of sport psychology doesn’t supply us with an easy answer to this question, but it’s likely a hybrid of many different reasons that lead to fan violence, including the following:
- Youth sports have become more serious. Today more kids than ever compete year-round, and many specialize in one sport. As a result, game intensity is high, and increasingly more parents sit in the stands on edge watching to see how much their time/money investment in youth sports training will pay off. In some cases when a kid performs under his ability, it sets off frustration in a parent who then hurls out an obscenity – or worse yet, psychically acts out in rage.
- Unreal expectations of making it to the “next level.” When parents don’t understand the odds of playing college or pro sports (very small odds indeed), they often over-estimate the chances for their kid to make it. In these instances it is understandable (though certainly not excusable) when parents act out spontaneously when they believe their kid is losing his or her future opportunities in sports.
- Coaches not setting the standard for fan behavior. While some coaches are explicit about their expectations for positive fan behavior, many others don’t say anything and instead simply hope that no problems will occur. Unfortunately, this approach of doing nothing is antiquated and no longer the best approach when it comes to keeping parents in check. More coaches need to raise the bar when it comes to pro-social behavior of fans, and enforce the consequences when fans act out in negative or dangerous ways.
- The copycat effect. As our level of tolerance for unruly fans sinks to new lows, it’s quite possible that more parents scream obscenities because they have seen others do it, and they know they can do it and get away with it, too.
- Group effect. Similarly, there are group effect considerations to examine, including the fact that when individuals are a part of a larger group of people, there is often a diffusion of responsibility and an increased chance for people to do things because they feel a sense of anonymity. If everyone else is yelling out obscenities at the referee, why not me?
Youth sports can be a lot of fun, both for the kids on the field and their parents in the stands if people are held accountable and to a reasonable standard of appropriate conduct. Unfortunately, we have gotten away from that model over the years, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to get back to a better place again.