We have all been there...letting ourselves be sucked into “that parent” behavior during a particularly tense sporting event. Some of us visit occasionally. Some wander into it more often that we are proud to admit. Some…well, some just live there. What on Earth is it that makes a typically rational, professional, level-headed human being turn into a raging lunatic during a youth sporting event??
There are legions of bad sports parents around. We know what they look like. And on varying levels, we usually know when we ourselves have become one, whether temporarily or on a routine basis. I’m not asking you to admit it out loud, but search your soul and ask yourself…have you ever felt that deep shame after a game or tournament about your behavior at the rink or the field or the gym? Have you wondered what others must have thought about the way you acted? Have you mentally berated yourself and said, “This is the LAST time I’m going to let that happen!”
There are lots of articles written about obnoxious sports parents, identifying their behaviors telling you that you shouldn’t behave that way. Yup. We know we shouldn’t act that way. We nod our heads and tell ourselves, “Next time, I’m not getting sucked into it!” But then next time comes around, and there you are again….screaming at the refs and exchanging barbs with parents from the other team. You just can’t HELP yourself….you get into that rink and you lose your ever-loving MIND!
So how do you stop yourself from allowing this to happen? Are you simply admonishing yourself and then hoping it doesn’t happen again when the heat of the moment hits? News flash, Clark…that ain’t gonna cut it. In order to change an ingrained pattern of behavior, you must actively do something about cultivating change!
Below are some tips on how to start gaining control of your outbursts and transforming yourself into the kind of sports parent that your child can be proud of and that reflects who you are in every other aspect of your life.
1. Hard Conversation: Population, 1
Like any 12-step program will tell you, the first and most critical move toward change is admitting that you have a problem. That statement is not meant to marginalize the struggles of those battling addiction, rather, to impress upon you that the tendency toward this type of behavior is powerful and, left unchecked, will continue to devolve.
Think back through the last few weeks of games and tournaments. Can you look yourself in the mirror and say that you have behaved in an appropriate manner at all times? That you’ve never said or done something you really wish you could take back? If the answer is yes, then you can stop reading. This article isn’t for you. You’re the type of parent we all aspire to be. Give yourself a pat on the back, get yourself back out there and keep on setting examples for the rest of us. We admire you.
However, if you dig deep into the honesty barrel and come up with a big fat NO, then ask yourself this: Is this who you really want to be? Are you willing to just keep hoping that the next time a ref misses a call or an opposing parent is chirping your kid, you’ll somehow tap your inner Chi and find peace and calm in the moment? Or has the time come to take a proactive approach to become the better version of you? Read on, my friend….read on…
2. Preparation Work: Mental Coaching
First, know that there are volumes of research on behavioral change that will tell you that this kind of transformation of thought and behavior isn’t going to happen overnight. Despite your best efforts, you’ll have lapses in judgment and regression of your behavior from time to time. It’s ok. Jump back into that saddle of righteousness and try again. In the famous words of Dory the Fish…”Just keep swimming.” This is a process. A marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to change behavior, but it is worth it in the end.
The first and most important element of initiating change is learning how to mentally prepare yourself. Just like your athlete takes time before the game to get into the right frame of mind to compete, you must do the same. In the days leading into a tournament, you should begin to mentally coach yourself on how you’re going to face the pressure in the heat of the moment.
Before every single game, you should take a few moments to get your head right. As you gather your coffee, your blankets, your sunscreen or your soccer chair, take a few minutes to also gather your wits about you. Step inside your own head for a minute and remind yourself of your own expectations for your behavior in the next hour or two. Run down a mental checklist of the points below as a reminder to help you keep things in perspective and keep yourself under control.
3. Reality Check: Consider the Source
Take a minute to think about the actual PEOPLE involved in youth sports. Don’t depersonalize them into “ref” and “coach” and “player”. Keep in mind that every single character on the playing field of sports is an actual human being. They have parents and wives and real jobs and feelings, too!
That coach dedicates countless hours of his or her time to develop practice plans, oversee practices, communicate with parents, schedule tournaments, and a multitude of other behind-the-scenes tasks involved with coaching that no one ever sees. He doesn’t do it for the glory or the praise…he does it because he loves the sport and he loves kids and he wants to give back.
That referee may be someone who has played the sport since she was a child, has coached her own children who are now adults, and still has something to give to the sport, so she stays involved and continues to share her expertise with yet another generation of kids.
That “goon” of a player from the other team is just a 10 year old kid with an abusive father who lashes out on the ice because it’s the only place he can exert any control and doesn’t know any other way to vent his emotions.
These are real people. Please don't forget that.
4. Phantom Oversight: Your Imaginary Authority Figure
Think of someone you respect. Someone who would have high expectations of your level of behavior. Someone who would be aghast at even the slightest glimpse of tomfoolery from you. Perhaps it’s your boss or your grandmother or your pastor. Doesn’t matter who it is…just conjure the single person in your life who expects the best from you. Now plant that supernatural supervisor in the seat right beside you and keep them there throughout the game. Pretend that they’re watching every move you make and every sound you utter. You’ll be surprised by the powerful effect that the presence of someone you don’t want to disappoint will have on you…even if they’re imaginary! And if you’re feeling REALLY brave…invite the actual person to be there, live and in the flesh!
5. Audio File: Listen and Learn
Another great tool to keep you on the straight and narrow is to create a record of your hijinx. Set your smart phone to audio record and let it record you during the game. Tell yourself you’re going to let your kid listen to the recording when the game is over. Or sit close enough to the dad who is videotaping the game so that everything you say is captured for posterity. There’s nothing like having a physical record of your own bad behavior to cause you to want to curb it!
6. Taking the High Road: Choose Class over Crass
You’re in the moment and it begins to happen around you. Your fellow team parents are starting to complain loudly. The frustration levels are high. Opposing parents are making rude comments within earshot of your side of the stands. And the temptation creeps in…… You want to join in the fray. You can’t find the strength to let that rude comment go without a biting retort. You feel that mounting sense of anxiety and frustration starting to build.
You have to be able to recognize it when it starts. Be acutely aware of exactly what sorts of things set you off. Once you’ve identified those triggers, ELIMINATE THEM. If certain parents tend to suck you into their antics, sit with someone else. If overhearing the opposing parents’ banter drives you nuts, sit far enough away from them that you don’t hear it. And if you can still hear it in the stands, go stand on the glass. Sit alone on the far side of the rink. Do what you need to do to remove yourself from the urge to join in. It is your responsibility to be proactive about eliminating triggers.
Keeping yourself occupied during a game is a great distraction. Tweet updates on the team account during the game. Count shots on goal. Keep plus-minus stats or keep track of what lines are out and how much time they get. Do anything that allows you to watch the game while focusing on something constructive rather than getting sucked into the destructive negativity.
Whatever you do to eliminate temptation, remind yourself that choosing to rise above the ridiculousness proves that you’re better than that. Don’t succumb to the weakness…be the bigger person and choose to class the joint up a bit rather than to contribute to its decay.
7. Distance Yourself: Keep it in Perspective
This is youth sports, folks…not the NHL or the MLB or the NBA. Youth. Sports.
An important part of your mental checklist before a game should be the reminder that the goals of youth sports are to teach kids teamwork, athletic skills, and the importance of sportsmanship. You are a critical part of that last one…sportsmanship. When you’re losing your mind in the stands and screaming insults at the coaches or refs or other parents, take a moment to shoot a glance at your kid. I will almost guarantee that he’s mortified. He's probably sitting far away from his teammates and not making eye contact, hoping that no one else has noticed you and points out that you’re HIS mom or dad. Is that the kind of role model you want to be for him?
Being emotionally vested in the outcome of the game makes it very difficult to distance yourself from it and to stay above the insanity. In order to understand what that means, you must experience watching a game in which you aren’t vested and do a little self-analysis. Compare and contrast your behavior and your mindset when you watch a game in which you’re not emotionally invested with the way you think and act when you watch your own kid play. Go watch a game some day between two teams unknown to you and really THINK about how you watch that game. What do you focus on? Do you make positive comments about nice plays or saves by both teams? Do you become enraged when a questionable call is made by the official?
Take that emotional distance you experienced and do your best to translate it to watching your own kid’s game. Focus on the same sorts of things. Approach the game with the same sense of balance and fair criticism.
8. Assume Good Intent: Nobody’s Perfect
One of the root causes of nearly every adverse interpersonal interaction is the assumption by one party that the other party’s actions were intentionally evil. In reality, that is rarely the case. The ref or umpire did not arrive at the sports venue with the expressed intent to miss calls or to hose down one team over another. He simply made mistakes. He can’t see everything that happens on the ice or the field at all times. He’s human. Once you can let go of the expectation that every ref will be perfect every time and will never make a mistake, it is quite freeing.
Questionable calls and less-than perfect reffing is part of the game. It is going to happen. It’s one of the downsides of youth sports, but you can’t eliminate it, so let it go. Unless you sometimes wear the stripes and know the game well enough to ref it, keep your mouth shut and let the coaches deal with the refs. Here’s a little tip: Remember when I said the ref is human? Guess what effect a whole grandstand full of parents who are screaming obscenities and insults at him is going to have? Think that’s helping your team out? Think he’s going to be compelled to call the game your way after that assault? Not. A. Chance. You’re only hurting your team, so knock it off.
Similarly, that 13 year old defenseman didn’t prepare for the game by intentionally planning to haul down your star player on a breakaway. He’s 13, and he has poor impulse control. He reacted in the moment and made a bad choice. He lost his temper when the ref called the penalty and slammed his stick. You shouldn’t be surprised by this adolescent display of anger. It doesn’t make his behavior right, and that behavior should be dealt with, but that’s his coach’s job and his parent’s job, not yours. Unless you want another parent screaming at your kid, don’t scream at theirs.
Assume that everyone arrived at the venue hoping for a well-coached, well-officiated contest full of hard play and good sportsmanship. Do your best to do YOUR OWN part in that and understand that human nature will get the best of every single person some of the time. Understand it, have some compassion, and try not to judge.
The decay of morality in youth sports environments is a troubling trend and it will only change if we actively pursue solutions. Each and every parent, coach, player and official has a personal responsibility to behave appropriately. Are you doing your part? If not, why not?
CHANGING THE GAME IN YOUTH SPORTS: JOHN O'SULLIVAN AT TEDXBEND
ON APRIL 26, 2014 I HAD THE HONOR OF PRESENTING A TALK AT TEDX BEND OREGON ENTITLED “CHANGING THE GAME IN YOUTH SPORTS.” THE POWER OF THE TED PLATFORM, AND ITS INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION AS A BRAND THAT BRINGS “IDEAS WORTH SHARING” TO THE FOREFRONT OF CONVERSATION, WAS SUCH AN INCREDIBLE PLATFORM TO BE ABLE TO PRESENT THE 14 MINUTE VERSION OF THE CHANGING THE GAME PROJECT MISSION. YOU CAN SEE IT HERE: