Sideline Sportsmanship

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Brad Boarman has worn many hats—and skates—in ice hockey: player, coach, official and parent. His dad founded an ice hockey club in 1973. In 1975, 3-year-old Brad was already playing. As a teenager, he joined high-performance programs. After college, Boarman began coaching and became an official. He’s now in his 22nd year officiating games from U8 to collegiate levels. He’s seen the sport from every angle and can testify that parent behavior plays a major role in fostering healthy youth sports culture. Sideline manners matter.

Positive Role Models

“Sports participation is an avenue for a child to not only develop physical skills but also enhance social behaviors such as teamwork and fair play,” says Deepak Prabhakar (MD, MPH), medical director of outpatient services at Sheppard Pratt. Parents are influential.

“It is crucial for parents to not only encourage their child to be a good sport but model it themselves,” adds Greg Bach, vice president of communications for the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). “Parents can set a good example by cheering for players on both teams, congratulating players on the opposing team or acknowledging a youngster who made a great play. Their child will adopt those behaviors. Children can’t win every game. They will be winners in a bigger sense if they are good sports. Those are life skills that lead to becoming respected citizens of the community as they transition into adulthood.”

When Emotions Run High

Some parents can’t help but interfere from the sidelines. “I believe it occurs in all youth activities now, from hockey and baseball to chess,” says Boarman. “The intensity of the parent increases with the level of play.”

“Parents often are under the impression that how a youngster performs is a reflection on their parenting abilities,” says Bach. “Parents begin applying extra pressure, and this results in a stressful experience for the child. Children at the beginning levels of sports need supportive parents so that they will embrace sports and physical activity. It’s a shame that so many children are driven away from sports because of overbearing parents.”

Some parents simply get caught in the moment. Or, in some cases, we see a manifestation of parents living vicariously through their child,” says Prabhakar. “Public display of outcry related to a child’s play may not set a good example for how to effectively handle adversity or negative outcomes in life.” When a parent’s problematic conduct is directed at other children, families or coaching staff, “a child may learn that bullying works, a lesson that we shouldn’t be imparting,” he warns.

Children Pay the Penalty

“I think parents struggle because of the amount of time, money and energy that goes into sports these days,” says Boarman. “Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. You don’t have to go to every camp, lesson, team tryout or showcase. Those businesses prey on fear.” He’s seen many players affected by their parents’ unruly sideline behavior. “Performance of athletes decreases when their parent acts as coach from the stands, screaming about what to do or where to go. When mixed with messages from the coaching staff, it creates a timid player.”

“Children don’t want to listen to their parents yelling from the stands to go after the ball, tell them what they’re doing wrong or hear them berating officials for a call,” says Bach. “What they want is to have fun playing a game.” Agitated parents become a distraction to everyone.

Establishing Expectations

Coaches should establish boundaries from the start. “It should be discussed prior to the season and revisited often,” says Boarman.

“When concerning behaviors are observed, coaching staff should approach this subject with sensitivity and maintain the privacy of the concerned parent(s),” advises Prabhakar. “They should discuss the valuable tenets that fall outside of a win and loss column. They should acknowledge that during a competitive event, it can be difficult to control emotions. However, bullying or disrespectful behavior is not acceptable.”

“Coaches must live up to these expectations as well, whether it’s a big win or difficult loss,” adds Bach. “During post-game talks, coaches should recognize players that really stood out with good sportsmanship as a way to reinforce how much they value being a good sport.”

Redirecting Interest

Bach suggests that parents channel energy into the following helpful outlets:
Attend practices. You may be tempted to use practice time to get errands done, but being present shows that you value the work your child is putting into the sport. Observing can also point out areas where your child may struggle. If the child is receptive to extra help with a skill at home, and if you’re open to making it fun, the experience can be a great bonding opportunity for you and your child.
Offer to assist the coach. Provide assistance only if given the green light from the coach, if no preferential treatment is expected, if you’re willing to help every child and if your own child is OK with it.
Enjoy the experience. Remember that kids can’t control the outcome, just their effort. Be a source of support and acknowledge that they are doing their best. Never let the scoreboard dictate your mood on the ride home.

Encourage and Enjoy

An NAYS poll notes that 70% of kids stop playing organized sports by age 13. Not every kid can bank on sport scholarships and fame. Healthful habits, self-discipline, confidence and lifelong passions are excellent rewards of positive sports participation.

Boarman recommends that parents have honest discussions about the future of their children’s athletic endeavors. Encourage them to diversify. Encourage them to take responsibility for their game. Tell them that you just love to watch them play.

Then you can, literally, sit back and spectate—keep some distance if distancing allows you to more easily self-regulate your actions. “Enjoy your children and the game,” Boarman says. “If they still want to play as adults, you’ll know you made the right choices when they were little athletes.”

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Keep Your Cool

Greg Bach of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) advises parents to ask themselves the following questions when watching a game:
• Do I yell instructions to my child or their teammates?
• Do I make comments about the officiating when a call goes against my child’s team?
• Do I behave like I am watching a professional sporting event?
“Yes” answers are a warning sign to get your emotions
in check and regain your composure.

Recommended Reading

“Changing the Game: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids” by John O’Sullivan (Morgan James Publishing, 2013)