If you have been around youth sports awhile then there’s a good chance you have personally witnessed a sports parent embarrass, humiliate, or degrade a kid on the field. In some cases, it’s angry body language, in other instances it’s coarse and abusive yelling and screaming, and in worst-case examples it’s actual physical aggression. While it’s understandable that some sports parents become emotionally-charged watching their kid make mistakes on the field, humiliating kids is not only a sign of poor parenting, but it’s not very effective in helping kids improve their sport skills, either. Instead, learn the psychology behind positive sport parenting so that kids can improve their mental health, increase self-confidence, and ultimately play their best.
What’s over the line?
A common psychology question I receive from sports parents relates to acceptable and unacceptable ways to motivate and instruct their kids through the youth sport experience. What’s OK, and what’s over the line? Generally speaking, kids, like adults, tend to respond best to people that offer trust, honesty, and respect, while refraining from embarrassment, humiliation, and physical threats. Regularly saying “good job,” reinforcing effort (even if the results aren’t quite there), and timing your coaching to moments when it will be best received (i.e. not the car right after a tough loss!) are always great ways to parent your child, and will almost always lead to positive results.
When thinking about behaviors over the line, it might be easiest to first examine things that should never happen — physically bullying a child is an obvious first place to start. Pushing, punching, aggressively grabbing, slapping, and kicking should never be used as methods to help your child improve in sports. Regarding language, vulgarities, cursing, intimidation, and humiliation should be avoided, as should language that is designed to scare kids or make them feel worthless and insignificant. Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question might be to think about how you might be best motivated, and what things you would find troubling?
Watch passive-aggressive behavior and hostile body language
Words are not the only way to destroy a kid’s confidence and self-esteem, actions and body language count, too. Passive-aggressive behaviors are indirect expressions of anger and disgust through subtle insults, stubbornness, or deliberate failure to cooperate. An example of this type of behavior might be purposely not buying your child a piece of necessary sports equipment, with the intended meaning being that the kid isn’t good enough to deserve having the equipment.
Body language is another way to send a message (good or bad), and sometimes the body language kids see isn’t very positive. For example, when parents sit in the stands and display negative body language (i.e. looking disgusted, throwing hands in the air, etc.), the actions can be stronger than words. Remember, kids often “check in” and look to parents during games to see how they are being viewed, so be sure to steer clear of sending negative messages.
Kids who are regularly bombarded by parents through threatening language, threats, and physical abuse run a great risk for future mental health implications, including mood disorders, anxiety, poor self-image and self-esteem, academic challenges, and substance abuse. In fact, the reality is that the results kids have on the field are of far less consequence than how they are parented, coaches, and supervised by adults running youth sports — most importantly, their parents. One of the worst things for kids is to feel as though they are failures in the eyes of their parents, and parents who regularly embarrass and humiliate their kids on the field create precisely this kind of feeling.
While it’s easy to become emotional at youth sporting events, it’s even more important to self-monitor behaviors so that kids can maximize the growth and development opportunities sports provide. Make it a point to cheer and encourage, while refraining from behaviors that intimidate, humiliate, embarrass, and threaten kids. Remember, the value of youth sports directly depends on the kind of sports environment parents create — for better or for worse.