Sports Parents: Stop Acting Like Assholes

Sure, it’s difficult to remain cool and collected at your kid’s sporting event. But some parents today take it to the next level.

My 18-year old-daughter was active in sports throughout her childhood and now is on the club swimming team at her college. My high school freshman son has swum for most of his life and began playing water polo in the seventh grade. I love a lot of things about my kids being involved in sports—it’s good exercise, they are part of a team, their coaches have taught them about goal-setting, positive mental attitude and good sportsmanship.

As they progressed into middle school and high school and their physical mastery increased, they made the connection between practice and excellence and getting better at something slowly but surely increased their physical self-confidence. Water sports are notorious for their toughness. (Have YOU tried treading in seven-plus feet of water with your arms above your head, holding a chair? That then someone puts weight on? Welcome to a water polo workout!) My kids have learned to show up on time and give their all. Sports also offer a great channel for their energy after sitting all day at school.

But there is also a dark underbelly to youth sports, and I think we’ve all either seen it in action or read about it. We’ve all heard about the woman who hired a hitman to kill a rival in her daughter’s bid to be a cheerleader but there is also the much less severe but still very sad statistic that 75% of youth involved in organized sports quit by the age of 13. And while data is sketchy because sometimes the reason a kid gives for quitting a sport isn’t the real reason they are quitting, a large portion of kids who quit stop playing because their parents are acting like assholes.

I have witnessed a swimming parent who wouldn’t let his daughter stand up to receive her award (even with her relay teammates) if she didn’t get first place in that event. This parent would get in his daughter’s face and scream at her if she didn’t get her best time in every event. Spit from the dad’s mouth would land on the girl’s face as he screamed. All I could think of when I witnessed that was “OK, that’s child abuse” and “hope you’re saving for her therapy bill.”

At a recent water polo tournament our high school hosted, a middle-aged man had to be physically escorted from our facility because he was yelling obscenities at the refs and chanting “losers losers losers” to the teenagers on the opposing team.

At the last state water polo tournament our school co-hosted with another local school, someone called 911 because three parents got into an altercation that was escalating quickly.

At the less severe end of the asshole spectrum is what I call “the expectation parent.” These parents expect their children to perform well so the parent can bask in the glory of that performance. Every parent is guilty of this to some degree. I certainly am. We (hopefully) are all proud of our children and their accomplishments and in my case, it is hard not to burst with pride and enthusiasm when you see your child reach a goal and you remember them at their polliwog class at the Y when they were 4 years old.

One version of the expectation parent withholds love and praise when the child doesn’t achieve. Another version goes over what could have gone better in the game under the guise of helping. These two versions can be especially harmful to children who might be prone to anxiety anyway.

It is very difficult to remain cool and collected at a sporting event. Humans are hardwired for tribalism and if you then throw your precious child (your DNA that will hopefully continue in this world when you are gone from it) in the pool or on the field or court, you have ramped up the primate part of the parent brain for sure. I am a pretty positive swim parent, cheering with enthusiasm, but when water polo rolls around, watch out. Both of my kids are goal keepers and at least once a game they get challenged for the ball. Another teenager—sometimes bigger, much bigger, pressing them, attempting to dunk them, etc. in a pool where they cannot touch the bottom. Nothing fires up the mama bear neurons like someone trying to drown your beloved offspring. I have found myself yelling at the ref, “REALLY, that’s not a foul? REALLY?” I am not proud of this. But I know how hard it is to sit on a bench and watch your child not only lose but potentially be physically harmed.

My 14-year-old son went to USA Water Polo’s Junior Olympics this year. It consumed his entire summer. He practiced four and sometimes five hours a day. He played with the 16U team and was the youngest player on the team. This had all the makings of something that could have been a too intense experience both from an athlete and parental perspective. It ended up being a great experience for both of us because the athletes had fun, tried hard, learned a lot, and the parents wanted the kids to improve and to have fun.

I try very hard once a game is done for it to be done. I can always find something my kids did right in the meet or the game and that’s what I praise. I leave everything else to the coach. If my kid wants to talk, I try to listen. I am not perfect. I enjoy watching them win more than lose. But I try to remember how lucky I am to GET to watch them play. I try to remember that they have good friends on their team and they all enjoy doing goofy things together. That’s part of the sports experience, too.

I try to remain aware of how my comments might sound to other parents sitting around me. That exasperated sigh when there is a turnover or when a kid misses a shot might be taken personally by the parent next to me, who might see it as criticism of their child.

I try to remember every child is going to have good games and bad games just like adults have good days and bad days. They are out their striving to do their best. And up in the stands, we as parents can strive not to be assholes.

Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and an assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She runs a film review blog Catch Up Films with fellow Role Reboot contributor Chelsea Cristene. Eriksen lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, her teenage son, her teenage daughter (who comes home occasionally to get groceries and do laundry), a Sheltie, a pit bull, and a cynical former barn cat.

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