How to Deal With “Out-of-Control” Sports Parents 

Bad behavior from parents disrupts the experience for all involved. Here are ways to prevent trouble.

How to Deal With “Out-of-Control” Sports Parents 

The U.S. men’s national soccer team is in turmoil as a rift between a star player’s parents and the coach spilled into the open. While not all the details are public, the dispute centers on Gio Reyna’s limited playing time during the 2022 World Cup.

Even in a country with a reputation for overzealous sports parents, the case stands out. Reyna’s mother, Danielle Reyna, admits to reporting a past incident involving coach Gregg Berhalter, who is suspended while a U.S. Soccer investigation plays out. Claudio Reyna, Gio’s father, a former U.S. national team captain, says he complained to top officials about his son’s playing time.

Experts agree such complaints are not unusual in youth sports, particularly in this country. The fact it manifested itself on the grandest soccer stage is unusual, though.

“The extraordinary case of Berhalter and Gio Reyna's parents may seem to be unique, but in a way, it's not,” says Rick Wolff, host of WFAN Radio’s “Rick Wolff's Sports Edge,” the nation's longest-running sports parenting radio show.

“The biggest complaint that sports parents usually have is one of playing time for their kid.”

Hard feelings are one thing, but how emotions manifest themselves during games can be disturbing. Ashleigh Bachert, vice president of tourism operations for Tulsa Regional Tourism, has “so many stories” from watching her daughter’s softball games. Among the most notable incidents:

  • A parent physically assaulting the grandmother of an opponent (leading to charges being filed)
  • A head coach and parent were ejected for bad behavior and the tournament’s head referee monitored the remainder of the game.
  • Coaches and parents cursing at each other across the field
  • Parents removing kids from the dugout in protest of lack of playing time

“I hate it,” says Bachert, “because [youth sports are] really not about the parents and I feel like the parents continue to forget that.”

Such concerns are why John O’Sullivan founded Changing the Game Project, which is dedicated to promoting better environments for young athletes. The Project’s website suggests that as money has become a bigger factor in children’s sports, much of the fun has been lost. It adds that not only do the adults set a bad example for the youth, but the over-the-top behavior contributes to the decline in physical activity and increased obesity. 

Referees are often caught in the middle of the quibbling, and feel some of the harshest wrath. The New York Times reports 50,000 high school refs—or roughly 20%—quit between 2018 and 2021. Without officials, many games have been canceled and the referees who man the games are often overworked and underpaid.

Poor Sports

O’Sullivan says it only takes one or two parents acting out to detract from a game, which is what makes youth games so vulnerable. “It’s widespread but I don’t think it’s the majority of people,” says O'Sullivan, estimating 98% of parents show the proper perspective.

Poor sportsmanship can be considered an offshoot of helicopter parenting. As guardians, parents are looking out for their children but not necessarily considering the entire team’s needs.

“Most bad behavior is done out of love,” acknowledges O’Sullivan.

Bachert, one of the three sisters in her family to play college sports, understands the demands on coaches and players as they progress in age. That experience also informs her parenting style with her 12-year-old, walking in Bachert’s footsteps in softball. 

At her daughter’s age, Bachert says the games are meant to be fun and teach life lessons. Her fellow parents, however, are already thinking about college scholarships, and some coaches risk injuring the athletes with the demands on the kids. Pitchers in baseball and softball are particularly prone to arm damage when pressed too far.

On the flip side, a child warming the bench has the potential to irk parents paying hundreds of dollars to be part of a travel team. That financial component “100%” contributes to the unruliness, says Bachert.

Zero Tolerance

Overbearing parents are a universal issue, but youth sports troubles are more common in this country. “The American reputation in sports is parents are out of control,” says O’Sullivan.

The ugly American stereotype, in this case, is shaped by the different approach taken to children’s athletics. 

Much of the world relies on Academy systems financed by overarching sports organizations. Here, parents pay the brunt of the costs—hundreds per tournament, thousands per year—and expect to get their money’s worth, says O’Sullivan. 

Ironically, the big money that leads to unrealistic expectations and enhanced reactions could also be the necessary motive for parents to tone down their actions.

Wolff advocates for tournament directors to forgo leniency. The first offense leads to an ejection from the game; a second offense is punished with banishment for the remainder of a tournament or season.

“That might seem harsh, but more and more youth leagues demand this kind of ‘zero tolerance’ approach, and it works,” says Wolff. “Quite honestly, there's no need for parents to act like jerks. They are not entitled to be obnoxious at their kids' games.”

O’Sullivan encourages planners to bring in sideline monitors to act like bouncers as soon as the comments cross boundaries.

Something to Talk About

After the incident in which one parent attacked an opposing player’s grandparent, Bachert assumed the coaches would discuss the incident with the team and adults. After all, such actions reflect poorly on the team, families and specific individuals involved. Bachert was wrong.

“There was never a conversation,” she laments.

Adults involved in youth sports must remember they are role models for the children playing, Bachert reminded the coach. “My daughter is learning from you every time she steps on the field, and that includes how to handle conflict,” she said.

O’Sullivan adds coaches could shy from offering those coveted scholarships if they sense troublesome parents.

The experts Connect Sports interviewed agree conversations between coaches and parents should be ongoing, beginning with a preseason email setting expectations. 

“It's essential for coaches to address this issue with the moms and dads right at the start of the first practice, and then throughout the season from time to time,” says Wolff. “And the coaches also need to be emphatic about what's the best way to communicate directly with the coach.”

Wolff suggests a 24-hour cooling off period before talking through conflicts so level heads prevail. 

Silence after an ugly moment only allows future incidents to occur, says O’Sullivan. “When you don’t condemn, you condone,” he warns. 

Bachert, who transitioned into sports tourism after her college career, says tournament directors and planners need to be direct with teams before traveling to events. “It’s about being very transparent with what the expectations are and how to properly lodge a complaint,” says Bachert.

Better behavior would benefit all, especially the kids playing the games, notes O’Sullivan. “Have you ever come across a kid who said, ‘I love it when my dad yells’? No, of course not. It’s not helpful to your kid. It's usually just super embarrassing. It doesn't make them play better. It makes them worse.”

Tips for Combatting Unruly Parents

Below is a compilation of ideas from the sources quoted in the story.

  1. Coaches need to set expectations with parents before the season and maintain communication.
  2. Tournament planners and facility management should include a code of conduct in all messaging before an event.
  3. Set up patrols to warn parents right away if their language crosses the line and remove offenders if the behavior continues.
  4. Give teeth to warnings. Don’t be afraid to kick a team off a game or tournament for bad behavior regardless of the registration and travel costs.
  5. Humanize referees by letting them introduce themselves before a game. It should cut down on abusive comments.
  6. Remember adults are role models—do you really want children speaking the way “out-of-control” parents do?

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