With recent stories that participation in youth sports is declining because of the parents and of two Pop Warner football leagues cancelling their seasons due to parent behavior, one because of a fistfight between parents in the stands and the other due to threats of violence (someone left bullets with names of league officials printed on them outside the field gates?!?), calls for banning parents from games are increasing. Then comes news a Buffalo, NY Pop Warner league is charging admissions to its games. Seems likes everyone wants to keep the parents away. It’s not the answer.
I tell this story often. I told it as part of the eulogy at my dad’s funeral. Until I went away to college, my parents only missed one of my games. One game across all those baseball and basketball seasons and one wretched Pop Warner football season. It was a high school baseball game in Virginia Beach. I was flying back with my team that afternoon, and they had to drive home during the day so someone could fetch me at the airport. The fact they were always there is among my fondest memories of family and of playing.
My wife thinks I’m insane for prioritizing the kids’ games over my own activities. She couldn’t always make the games. No judgment from me, but occasionally my son asked if Mamma was coming. He noticed. I think it’s really important kids see their parents are interested, are there to support them and think the things they do matter. It was to me. It is to my son. I’m guessing it is to most kids.
I can’t imagine not watching my kids play. It’s a large chunk of why I coach. Last year, my son tried out for a soccer team. The tryouts were closed to parents. My first thought was I don’t want to be part of a program which excludes the parents.
Yes, I said I. Youth sports is an arrangement between the team, the player and the parents. He plays; I pay and schlep and therefore I get to watch. It isn’t I pay and schlep and therefore I have a say in what goes on or I can act like a horse’s behind. But parents do pay and schlep which means they are part of youth sports for better or for worse. Without them there are no youth sports.
As a coach, it’s my job to make it “for better.” My tryouts and practices are open to the parents. I have nothing to hide, plus if my parents are reinforcing the same messages then my players can only get better. And if they feel like they are part of the program, they just might be more inclined to behave.
At the beginning of last season, each player, his parents and I signed a contract regarding participation, sportsmanship and behavior. I also laid out three ground rules for the parents. If they didn’t think they could abide, no hard feelings, this isn’t the program for you. I have a great group of parents. Even so, I had to step in a couple of times to remind my parents to cheer for our team, not against the other team or to step away from my dugout and let his kid play. I had no qualms about it because it’s my job to create a positive environment for the players. It was easier to do so because I kept the parents close to the team. I didn’t push them away.
We’ve all seen when coaches don’t step in. Opening game of the travel season. We’re in the field when the umpire completely misses one. Inning over. In between innings, an opposing parent berates the umpire nonstop to the point where I wanted to eject the guy. I should have stepped in. I didn’t, my bad. But really the opposing coach, who had handled the blown call graciously, should have stopped it. What message is he sending his parents and his players? It was embarrassing, and by letting it continue, he was condoning it and letting it potentially escalate. Luckily it didn’t.
I don’t have an answer on how to cure the parent mentality which produces the bad behavior and poor judgment. Education regarding what the games are supposed to be about is a start. Leagues expend so much effort on educating the coaches, why not the parents? But there is no simple answer. One part of the solution completely within my reach as the coach is establishing the right parental environment and stepping in when necessary. It’s my team after all. I think a lot is up to me as the coach to do everything possible to stop the insanity before it happens and to shut it down if I see it happening. The answer isn’t keeping parents away from the games. It hurts the kids, it hurts the parents, it hurts the program and, ultimately, it hurts the sport.