The situation between the mother of American football star Gio Reyna and his coach, Gregg Berhalter, has raised eyebrows in the sports world, not only because of the tactics used, but also because of what it represents about the dark side of sports parents.
This type of parental involvement is prevalent in youth sports and even occasionally occurs in college, said Jason Sacks, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit founded 25 years ago to change the culture of sports.
“It’s very surprising that it’s happening on the World Cup stage,” Sacks said. “This is, at the highest level, a microcosm of what youth sports has become in our country.”
Youth sports have grown into a behemoth in the US. The industry is a $19.2 billion market, according to a 2019 Wintergreen Research report. That’s $4 billion more than the NFL.
Tournaments bring income from tourism to cities. For parents, scholarships can ease the burden of skyrocketing tuition. But kids can start to feel like what started as a game in the yard is now a job.
“In the sports environment of young people in our country, there is a lot of pressure, a lot of focus on winning. There’s a win-at-all-costs mentality,” Sacks said. “There has been this change in parents who feel that their status is equated to how good their child is in sports. I don’t know how we got here, but that’s the unfortunate side of things.”
Videos of extreme incidents, like the parents of a 7-year-old hitting a baseball game because they disagreed with a 13-year-old umpire’s call, surface every few years. In September, two at a youth soccer match in El Paso, fights broke out involving both parents and coaches.
But the countless stories of misbehavior that don’t go viral lead to the loss of volunteers who keep organized youth sports running every weekend. Referees are hanging whistles from the plunger, creating a shortage of enforcement personnel across the country. A Massachusetts high school football coach has quit after 19 seasons, saying parental harassment was so severe that he needed an escort to his car after every game.
For Nina Johnson-Pitt, Little League’s executive director of strategy, the wake-up call came when her then 11-year-old daughter was a freshman on a travel softball team. In the last game of the tournament, the team acted like they didn’t want to be there, she said. Then her daughter messed up the game and the team lost.
“I remember just feeling so angry. We got into the car and I just unloaded on her. She was in shock and crying,” she said. “At that point I thought, ‘Woman, what’s wrong with you?’ I didn’t understand why this little kid’s sport could do this to me.”
Johnson-Pitt turned it into a teachable moment for both.
“As adults, we are allowed to make mistakes and show children that you can apologize. I had to sit down and evaluate why I would have that horrible reaction,” she said.
Clarity came for Asia Mape, a former college basketball player and sports journalist, after interviewing a youth sports awareness coach. The woman suggested that you pay attention to how it feels inside when your child plays sports.
Mape used to get nervous before her daughter’s games and get upset if she didn’t play well. “It didn’t feel healthy on the inside,” she said.
She realized she needed to take a step back and make sports fun again. Mape founded the website I Love To Watch You Play eight years ago. Contains blog posts and videos with inspiration and advice for parents trying to find the right balance between support and pressure.
“When parents interfere in ways that cross the line, children lose interest. They are retreating. That’s what happened with my oldest, she said. “If you don’t own your journey, even as children, it’s demotivating. It takes away from the fun.”
Parents playing sports were so out of control that Little League introduced a parent-volunteer pledge back in 2002.
“I will teach all the kids to play fair and do their best. I will positively support all managers, coaches and players. I will respect the judges’ decisions. I will praise the good effort despite the outcome of the match”, it says.
The pledge is said before every Little League World Series game as a reminder of what should probably be common sense. But a 2012 survey by i9 Sports, a multi-sports provider for youth, found that 31 percent of children surveyed wished their parents didn’t watch their games.
Johnson-Pitt wonders if advances in technology have contributed to the extreme involvement of parents. Back in the day, students came home with paper certificates and grades were a bit of a surprise.
“Now I can track every paper my child submits. I can follow everything they do. I try not to. I try to get my kids to come to me with those conversations, but knowing it’s available, it’s hard not to check,” she said. “I think just being able to do that made us want to be more of a helicopter. This also applies to sports.”
She said the role of a sports parent evolves as the child gets older. When they start preschool age, parents should encourage the child to be part of the team and listen to the coach. And as they get older, parents should be there as a support system, not critical. One thing she asks her daughters is how involved they want her to be. The answer has changed over the years and strengthened their relationship, she said.
Getting parents and kids on the same page is something Positive Coaching Alliance does in its thousands of workshops every year. Parents often fill out a questionnaire ranking what they want their child to gain from the time they spend in sports. Things like college scholarships, leadership skills and making friends are on the list. Then the child does the same.
“When a parent looks at their goals against their child’s goals, it becomes a great conversation starter,” Sacks said.
And, Sacks said, when issues like playtime arise, letting your child take control gives him an advantage in future situations.
“This is a great time to teach a kid to talk to the coach and say, ‘What do I need to do to get more playing time? What do you need to see from me in practice?’” Sacks said. “I hope that these children will one day work professionally somewhere. It would be great if they had experience talking to someone in authority.”
Mary Beth Gahan is a freelance journalist based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He has two small children.