Healthy Parental Participation in Youth Sports: The Good News and The Better News

By: Porter-Starke Services Last Updated: January 29, 2010

Written by Bob Franko, Vice President of Development and Marketing

With old man winter down in the count, and as spring takes a few warm up swings in the on-deck circle, many communities have already started – or will soon begin – sign ups for spring sports. Little League officials are meeting, soccer league boards are sketching plans for the upcoming season and optimism runs high for hot fun under the summer sun.

One topic on their agendas over the past few years has been the issue of violence and harassment on the part of spectators, most prominently super-charged parents. And who could blame them – there have been numerous stories in the news about a hockey parent assaulting a referee, or a riot at a Pop Warner football game or a YouTube video of wrestler’s father attacking his kid’s opponent on the mat. It’s an easy assumption that based on the reports that spectator violence is on the rise.

Here’s the good news: There is no credible evidence or data to substantiate the belief that violence in youth sports is epidemic or even rising.

The better news: There are still millions of volunteers and parents involved in youth sports that are doing all the right things, teaching valuable skills and lessons, and providing fun and healthy environments where young athletes can compete and create lifetime memories.

That’s not to say there aren’t isolated problems or room for improvement, but there certainly is no data to suggest that youth sports have become a haven for hooligans.

The Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council recently completed a study of over 5,000 publications keying in on the phrases “youth sports” and “violence.” Going back over 20 years, the results yielded over 1,000 citations, but many were “false positives” that focused on an unrelated topic and only passively mentioned violence in youth sports. “The investigation failed to produce any evidence to substantiate the belief that violence in youth sports had reached epidemic proportions in recent year,” wrote study author Gregg S. Heinzmann, Director of the Youth Sports Research Council (Parental Violence in Youth Sports: Facts, Myths, and Videotape; Heinzmann, G.).

It can’t be ignored, however, that it doesn’t take too many games into a season before you run into a parent shouting at an official, loudly criticizing a coach or engaging in hostile exchanges with opposing fans.

What motivates a parent to get that deeply invested in a child’s game?

What is their emotional attachment to the outcome?

Indiana University professor and chair of the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies Lynn Jamieson agrees that while the data doesn’t suggest any epidemic of violence, the negative influence of financial pressure has.

“I know a woman who worked two full-time jobs so her child could compete with a traveling team,” said Jamieson. “When your life revolves around the sport and competition, the stress and frustration can manifest itself in the player and parents.”

Over 99-percent of high school athletes will complete their athletic career on the prep stage. A tiny percentage will be able to leverage their athletic prowess into a scholarship or professional contract; yet there remains an unreasonable pressure by some parents to push their children beyond a logical point in pursuit of athletic greatness with hopes of financial gain.

Jamieson suggests a better alternative for parents is to leverage a portion of the dollars spent on athletics in a college savings plan. “Every dollar spent on leisure could be saved for higher education,” said Jamieson.

What if you’re reading this and you’re identifying with the traits? What if it’s you who can feel the blood pressure building the minute the first pitch is thrown or the ball is tipped into play? What if you have an almost out-of-body experience at a game where you can see and hear yourself angrily yelling, and then sink remorsefully back into the bleacher - or not, and continue to rev up?

Jamieson referenced stress. Stress in itself is not a bad thing. Sport, by its nature, creates a healthy level of stress. It puts participants into challenging situations where they are forced to make quick decisions, act decisively and exhibit strength, dexterity and speed. This type of healthy stress is internally generated and applied. It is experienced by the participant based on his direct experience, and results in fine-tuned physical attributes and mental clarity.

However, an angry voice from the stands, or a threatening taunt or berating banter creates another kind of stress, a stress that is generated and applied externally. This type of stress is unhealthy. It can create anger, hostility, aggression and other physical responses that can cause an athlete to react negatively to the game, the officials and her opponents. It clouds her ability to make good decisions and elevates respiration, heart beat and encourages impulsivity. Children, by their nature, do not enjoy this type of stress; it is not fun having it applied and creating environments where they are expected to deliver positive outcomes under the condition of negative stress. Ask many gifted athletes why they walked away from the games in which they excelled, and you’re apt to hear that it simply wasn’t fun anymore.

And more than likely, it is because of external stressors.

You might think that your shouting and “sticking up” for your team or kid is helping them – when in fact, it clearly is not.

Authors F.L. Smoll and R.E. Smith in their book “Sports and your child: A 50-minute guide for parents” challenge you to ask yourself these important questions when it comes to your role as a parent/spectator/supporter:

  • Can you share your son or daughter?
  • Can you accept your child’s disappointments?
  • Can you show your child self-control?
  • Can you give your child some time?
  • Can you let your child make his or her own decisions?

You should be able to honestly answer “yes” to every one of those questions. Smoll and Smith also keenly identify the parent’s role in the “athletic triangle:” coach, athlete, parent. Each participant is held to criteria of accountability, but it tends to degrade when a parent “fails to see the importance and value of allowing the child to experience sport on their own terms, for their own sake,” said Heinzmann. Over-identification is a term psychologists use do describe parents who live vicariously through their children. Heinzmann builds on that description by saying “the parents’ self worth is liked to the child’s athletic success.”

So back to you, if you’re the one we’re describing here; or you if you have influence on someone who fits the bill.

It is important to remember that as a spectator, you have no influence on the outcome of the contest. None. Zero. Zilch. There is no “sixth man,” no “fourth phase,” no “tenth player” when it comes to youth sports. Your role is to encourage. To support in both wins and losses.

  • If you feel yourself revving up, remove yourself from the situation. Go to the concession stand for a bottled water, give yourself a timeout.
  • Distract yourself by chatting with another parent – one who is a positive influence.
  • Think of your yelling and anger as a “stress dart” – and every time you throw one, it strikes your child and causes distress and lets a little fun leak out.
  • Detach yourself from the outcome, and allow yourself the enjoyment of watching your child perform, having fun and creating a memory.

Just as its important for young athletes to physically prepare and practice for the upcoming season, it is important that you take a honest look at how you are prepared to make the season fun, productive and a positive experience for your child. It is all about him or her. Ask your young athlete how you can be of the best help to them at the games – there’s a real good chance they’re going to say “just show up and cheer.”

Just do it!