The rise of overbearing parents and coaches in youth sports is a growing concern

Ken ReedI was at a sixth-grade girls’ basketball game last weekend. I saw a lot of adults yelling and screaming at both referees and 11-and-12-year-old kids. Let’s just say a lot of what I saw and heard wasn’t positive.

Virtually every youth sports league is plagued by adults who are pathologically focused on winning. Yes, most parents and coaches keep youth sports in perspective, but it only takes a few crazy adults to ruin the sports experience for a bunch of kids.

Of course, the issue of overbearing parents and coaches in youth sports isn’t new. However, things are getting worse. For example, the number of incidents of physical violence and verbal abuse at youth sporting events has increased significantly in recent years.

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Photo by Jeffrey F Lin

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According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports in the United States, more and more youth sports events involve a confrontation between parents, between parents and officials, between parents and coaches, or between coaches and officials. The National Association of Sports Officials says the primary reason game officials give up the job is poor sportsmanship by parents.

Nearly three out of four kids quit competitive sports by the time they are 13 years old. The reason most often cited is that it’s no longer fun. The primary reason they say it’s not fun anymore is over-the-top coaches and parents.

Today, by the time a lot of kids reach the age of 12, they’ve been involved in some type of adult-organized youth sport for six or seven years. They’ve witnessed numerous incidents of “grown-ups” yelling at players, officials and coaches. They’ve probably experienced several gruelling post-game critiques of their play by Coach or Mom or Dad. They’ve survived many seasons of adults screaming at them to “stay in position,” “get back on defence,” and “be more aggressive.” More and more kids – some as young as eight – are now being encouraged (read: forced – in some cases) to specialize in a single sport by “well-meaning” adults.

Coaches are supposed to be like teachers. But, too often, they are like drill sergeants. For some reason, our culture glorifies jerks like Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi. As such, we have parent coaches all over our youth sports system berating kids in the mode of General Patton. As a whole, our society believes good coaches have to “kick some tail” in order to be successful.

What total nonsense! Kids shouldn’t have to endure boot camp to play the sport they love.

For too many kids, what began as fun is now a pressure-filled exercise.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with adult-organized youth sports. They can be the source of wonderful, healthy and happy experiences for children – if adults can balance their desire to win with the holistic development of kids and having fun. Striving to win isn’t the problem; the win-at-all-costs mentality – and the actions it spawns – is the problem.

Winning, in the best sense, isn’t just about wins and losses. Nor is it just about an individual or team performance. There are so many positive benefits from sports participation that are worth doing, even if you are a poor athlete and rarely win on the scoreboard.

When it comes to youth sports, let’s all relax, and let our kids relax, so they can get back to having fun.

Ken Reed is the sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader. Reed’s work involves advocating for what he sees as positive changes in the sports world, focusing on issues like safety, equity, ethics and fair play. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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