I recently completed my 16th season as a head high school girls lacrosse coach. After wining four straight state championships, this season, our squad lost in the state finals by one goal. The mood at our end-of-season banquet was somewhat more somber than it had been in the past. However, even if we had won that final game, there is always some melancholy that comes with the end of a successful season. No matter how the final game ends on the scoreboard, the players and parents are sad when the season is over for the simple fact that the team will never be together in that way again.
In my final team address at our banquet, I thanked the parents for being supportive throughout the season and allowing me to work with their daughters. I am fortunate to work in a place where the large majority of our parents are supportive of the mission of our athletic program and see it as a part of their child’s total educational experience at our school. I am fully aware that is not the case in many schools and that parents are a big reason that high school sports are becoming increasingly stressful for coaches and administrators.
During my banquet speech, I told the story of a game earlier this year where a player from the other team had been called for offsides, a relatively common violation in both boys and girls lacrosse. As soon as the call was made by the umpire, a parent from the other side of the field screamed, “That’s on YOU, Coach!” The implication, of course, is that their child could not be held responsible for their mistake. It was the coach that should be blamed. Unfortunately, I could have told several other stories of games where I saw parents heckling coaches or even the teammates of their daughter’s own team, which of course, leads me to the title of this piece. As a coach with over 20 years of experience in a variety of sports, I can say unequivocally, more than ever before, parents are ruining youth and high school sports.
There are several reasons I believe this problem to be more true today than ever before.
1. Parents are placing way too much importance on winning. Winning games has become too important at the high school level, but it is not just the games that parents want to win. Winning awards has become too important. Setting school records and being recognized in the local paper has also become too important. Parents are taking it upon themselves to keep stats and report their child’s accomplishments to the local media. I received an email this year from a parent of a player at another school lobbying for all-state votes for their daughter. Parents have lost perspective on the educational value of sports that can teach life lessons that extend well beyond the athletic fields. They have also lost the ability to properly teach their own children how to deal with setbacks and disappointment.
2. Because of their drive to win at almost all costs, parents are stripping the fun out of high school sports. Parents often embarrass their children by coaching from the stands or berating the officials during their contests. They confront coaches at inappropriate times or in inappropriate manners that make the student-athlete the target of ridicule or resentment from their own teammates. The pressure they put on the athletes makes the sport much less enjoyable for them, and the pressure they put on the coaches are making retention of high-quality teacher-coaches much more difficult.
3. Parents are living vicariously through their children. When student-athletes are successful on the field, their parents are taking more and more credit for that success. They are also receiving social praise and admiration from their own peers. A successful student-athlete increases a parent’s own social status within their school community. Conversely, the parents of an athlete that does not have on-field success is denied those extrinsic social rewards. Parents also live vicariously through their sons and daughters when they are pushing their children into club sports or other activities without the input of their own child. When the student-athlete feels that they have lost control over their own involvement with an athletic activity, their enjoyment in that sport drops, leading to increased chances for burnout.
I know that aggressive over-involvement of parents in today’s world is not unique to athletics. Parents are becoming more and more of a nuisance for teachers in the classroom which they are in school and even future employers once their child graduates from college. While attending a teachers’ conference last summer at the New York Stock Exchange, I heard several horror stories from the head of human relations and personnel at the NYSE regarding parents who had called into speak on behalf of their children to get a job. This phenomenon is also not new to classroom teachers who receive calls from parents complaining about matters of discipline or grades.
The bottom line for coaches (and teachers) is this. Far too many parents no longer support the service of coaching (and teaching); they are only supporting a desired outcome. When the desired outcome is not achieved, the parents are overstepping their bounds and not allowing their sons and daughters to learn how to cope with setbacks and disappointment in a more socially and psychologically healthy manner.
Going forward, we need more parents who will support coaches in a positive way, supporting coaches’ service to their children and appreciating that not every contest and event can end with a victory on the scoreboard. We need parents who put athletic involvement in perspective as a piece of a larger educational puzzle that develops the whole child. We also need more parents to speak up when their peers deviate from the desired supportive path. Because much of what parents do is fueled by social affirmation, parents must realize that their preference and favoritism of the star athletes may only perpetuate the problems discussed here.