An eleven year-old batter steps up to the plate. He swings and misses at the first two pitches. The third pitch looks low and outside, so he watches it sail into the catcher’s mitt. The umpire makes a surprising call. “Strike three! Batter’s out.” As the batter’s head slumps in frustration, he hears his dad screaming from the stands, “Come on Blue! Get some glasses!”
The player’s face turns red with shame and embarrassment. The only thing he dreads more than his next at-bat is the ride home.
By many accounts, the pressure has never been greater on young athletes than it is today. Within many youth sports activities across the U.S., momentum is surging for kids to join elite teams rather than lower pressure recreational leagues. “It’s the wild west out there,” says Bernie Paul, longtime coach and board member with Zionsville Little League. “Travel used to be just for elite players. What we’re seeing now is everybody’s forming travel teams.”
Dawn P., a mother of three young athletes, is concerned about parents’ responses to the increasingly competitive elite youth tennis scene. “I’ve seen a nine year-old girl pinned up against the wall after losing,” recalls Dawn. “Her father was telling her, ‘You choked!’ The director told him to take his hands off her or they would call the police.”
While the trend toward elite travel teams can provide great opportunities for young athletes, it also increases the potential for parents to get carried away by the pressure.
Rule #1: Coaches coach, players play, parents cheer
One of the most common issues youth sports coaches face when it comes to their athletes’ parents is “coaching from the stands” which coaches say can be confusing and distracting. “It’s always better for the kids if they’re only hearing a limited number of messages during the games,” says Paul. “The parents should be cheering and encouraging their kids, not reminding them, ‘Get your hands back!’ or ‘Your weight’s too far on your back foot!’”
There’s a better alternative if you see your child making a mistake that could be easily corrected: talk to the coach, and let him or her deliver that message. Paul says he does his best to take off his coaching hat when watching his son play soccer and baseball. “When I watch his games, I just yell encouraging things.”
As Dawn says, “I’m never going to let my child feel that her love from me is determined by her athletic ability.”
Many coaches prefer to have face-to-face discussions with parents about their concerns, rather than discussions over texts or emails. Timing is important too – approaching a coach at the field right before, during or after the game isn’t usually the best way to have a positive, productive discussion.
Referee and umpire etiquette
Youth sports advocates say this one rule is simple: parents should keep their criticism to themselves. That rule becomes even more critical when the umpires are kids themselves. “It is inevitable that people are going to groan or something when they disagree with a call,” explains Paul. “But anybody who actually uses words to criticize a youth umpire, that’s unacceptable in my mind.”
Twelve year-old “Matthew,” a basketball and baseball player, says parents who cross the line can be just plain embarrassing. “I remember one time a parent yelled, ‘Come on, Blue, get the sleep out of your eyes!’” to a young umpire recalls Matthew. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I feel bad for that kid.’”
When to step in
What should a parent do when they see other spectators – or coaches – crossing the line? Paul advises using the “chain of command” approach when possible, and talking one-on-one to a coach first. “But if they don’t feel like that would be successful, or they try it and it doesn’t work, they’re always welcome to bring their concerns to a board member.”
There are times when a more immediate approach might be necessary. “My dad actually had to step in front of a coach once to tell him to calm down,” Matthew says, recalling the coach’s aggressive verbal attack on a youth umpire. Seeing a child in immediate physical danger is a rare circumstance, but that’s when youth sports advocates say parents should intervene if necessary.
After the game
Even after a sporting event is over, parents can easily make the mistake of being overly critical. Rather than getting into “coaching mode” during the drive home, Paul advises a different approach: keeping the discussion 100% positive. “I used to say, ‘What happened there?’ Now I say, ‘That was a fun game, I really enjoyed watching.’”