Parenting from the stands

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September/October 2016.

Toward the end of an u14 girls’ soccer game, a father yelled to his daughter, “Don’t forget to have fun.” The comment stood out because it was the first positive comment from a parent during the entire game. I turned to another player standing near me, and asked, “How are you supposed to have fun when you are yelled at constantly?” She rolled her eyes and said, “Tell me about it.” 

From the opening kickoff, the parents coached their daughters relentlessly and continuously. There was hardly a silent moment, as parents yelled at their daughters. Most knew of soccer only through watching their daughters, and often the parents contradicted the instructions of the coach. How is a player supposed to have fun, or even perform, in such a climate of constant directions and criticism? Children’s perceptions of parental pressure and criticism have been linked to performance anxiety, burnout, and players choking under pressure (Laborde et al., 2015; O’Rourke et al., 2011; Sagar & Lavallee, 2010).

The parents’ behaviors became a vicious cycle: A player made a mistake, causing the parents to yell at the player, which increased her performance anxiety and ultimately led to another mistake. The team missed several chances when a forward was one on the goalie, and the team conceded its goal when a fullback and the goalkeeper ran into each other. Despite the constant instructions and criticism from their parents, the players failed to make relatively easy plays. After the game, several girls were in tears. How long will these players persist in such a negative environment created by their coach and parents? Will the constant yelling from their parents in the stands lead to emotional burnout?

Amazingly, the above parents represented the winning team. The losing team had fewer parents in attendance (traveled a much further distance). When their players made mistakes, one mother on the sideline laughed good-naturedly. Their coaches continually reassured the players, even when they missed their shots when they were one on the goalie. When the players made mistakes, they did not yell at each other. One girl who shot wide when she had a wide open goal threw back her head and laughed at herself, putting her head in her hands with embarrassment before running back on defense with an embarrassed smile on her face. Players have been shown to enjoy their experience more when coaches responded to mistakes with fewer punitive responses and more encouragement and technical instruction (Smith & Smoll, 1991).

When a player on the winning team laughed off a mistake when she kicked a clearance out of bounds near midfield, her coach screamed at her and threatened never to play her again if she did not take the game more seriously. This game of ultimate importance was a pool play game at 9:00 A.M. in the first tournament of the spring. Should children have to be that serious about playing a game on the weekends? Do the players have to be serious for their own good or for the coach’s or parent’s appeasement? Is multiple girls leaving the field in tears, after winning, a positive experience for the players or a signal that something is drastically wrong?

When I was a young athlete, I felt lucky to have my parents attend virtually every game. The parents of my teammates attended occasionally or sometimes not at all. It was rare to see both parents at every single game. Between work commitments, the busy schedules of siblings, and the distance to games, attendance was difficult. When my parents attended, I felt their support. I was the lucky one.

A child’s perception of parent support has been linked to enjoyment and commitment in various sports and across ages (Sagar & Lavallee, 2010). Regardless of whether my team was good or bad, I had a positive experience in every sport and season of my childhood (pre-high school) athletic career, and in retrospect, much of that enjoyment is attributable to my coaches and parents. They may not have known sports such as soccer as well as coaches now because of the greater exposure to the sport, and the Internet and dozens of dedicated sports TV channels, but they created a great environment for our participation and enjoyment of the game.

I never felt pressured by my parents during a game; my mother never yelled at me from the sideline, and my father, who was often my coach, never screamed at or threatened any of us. As I referee these games, and listen to the parents, I feel that a parent’s absence would be a blessing for these athletes because of their negativity and stress. Parent pressure is “directive and controlling parental behaviors designed to prompt athlete responses and outcomes that are important to the parent” (O’Rourke, et al., 2011). These parents clearly want to win, and they clearly want to save their daughters from making any errors. Is that what is most important?

Parent pressure often manifests as criticism, punishment, and/or love withdrawal in response to performances that do not meet the parent’s expectations. As I walked to my car after a recent u15 girls’ game, I saw and heard a father yelling at his daughter because of her performance. The game was another meaningless tournament contested between two non-elite teams in front of maybe 25 parents and friends in 95-degree heat. It was not great soccer; the players did not appear to be enthusiastic about playing. Coaches had to force their players out of the shade to warm up for games, and players constantly looked to their coaches to substitute out.

The player was partially responsible for the goal that her team conceded in a 1-0 loss. Truthfully, it was a great individual effort by the best player on the field, and one of a handful of standout plays from the entire tournament, but the player was a fullback, and the goal was scored in her vicinity. The father yelled and yelled about the daughter’s play. She tried to look away and get into the car, but the father continued to berate her. What is the point? How is that going to motivate her to play harder, his major criticism, in the next game? Will she perform better after such criticism from her father or will she adopt even more conservative, defensive behaviors to prevent a mistake and further scolding?

Parent support has been positively associated with children’s sport participation (Hoyle & Leff, 1997) and linked to adaptive developmental outcomes such as child enjoyment and enthusiasm, autonomy, and greater self-perception of sport skill (Gagné et al., 2003; McCullagh et al., 1993; Scanlan & Lewthwaite, 1986; Power & Woolger, 1994). Enjoyment, enthusiasm, autonomy and improved self-perception are outcomes that will enhance motivation, especially internal motivation. I certainly benefited from these outcomes. Motivated and enthusiastic athletes are more likely to engage in more focused training to improve skills and more likely to try new skills because of the positive environment and support. When these athletes exit the competitive stream, they are more likely to pursue other recreational or competitive sports because of the enjoyment that they derived from the sporting experience.

Ultimately, this should be the minimum for youth sports participation. All children should expect to develop in this supportive environment where enjoyment and enthusiasm are nurtured rather than extinguished.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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2 Responses to “Parenting from the stands”

  1. Mike says:

    A large difference I see between this generation of parents and the previous one is the increased level of parental involvement which can be both a blessing and a curse. I remember playing Pop Warner in 5-8th grade and getting dropped off at practice by a parent and then picked up. Almost no parents stayed to watch practice. We used to tease one of our players because his Mom would stay and watch. Tonight I drove by a field near my house at which 3 or 4 youth football teams were practicing and the field was ringed with parents. I would imagine it was the complete opposite ratio of when I was playing 25-30 years ago. It almost brought out my inner Allen Iverson.

    Again, I don’t know if it is necessarily a bad thing to have more parental involvement but I wonder if parents feel like they are owed a certain level of performance because of the time invested. There has always been Little League dads and soccer moms but it does feel like there are a higher number in this generation.

  2. BrianMcCormick says:

    Mike:
    I agree, and it’s more than pure presence. It’s involvement. But, not involvement as a coach; just as a critic. My friend coaches his son’s soccer team, and the parents are around at practice and games, but none is willing to help. He didn’t choose to coach; he was chosen because nobody else would. There’s a lot of that; seems harder to find parents to be assistants, but everyone in the stands acts like a coach. I agree that part of it is the expectation of something because of the growing costs associated with youth sports and the increasing competitiveness.

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