Coaches and parents berate the referees and yell at their children and each other. Physical assaults have broken out. Lateral behavior by adults at youth sporting events has gotten so bad that there is a nationwide shortage of referees, not to mention it has taken the fun out of the game.
“Let’s not call them adults, okay?” advises Brian Barlow, a longtime college football referee. “An adult is responsible. An adult understands that it is no longer his time, it is his son’s time.”
According to the National Federation of High School Associations, about 50,000 high school officials (about 20%) resigned between 2018 and 2021.
“Misbehavior from fans (especially adults) continues to be a serious problem at high school sporting events, making it difficult to recruit and retain high school officials in every state,” NFHS writes on the site. for his campaign, Bench Bad Behavior.
Becoming a referee is a hard sell these days, says Barlow. For matches that last about an hour, “They’re making $25 to $45 to $50,” he says. “And at that point, coaches and parents are extremely disrespectful. So we never get a chance to really shape these refs because they say, ‘I don’t want that $50. I’ll go.’ flip a hamburger. ”
For children, it can be galling.
“I’ve had my fair share of incidents,” says Joshua Nimley, a 15-year-old competitive soccer player from Washington, DC. He remembers a game when he was 8 years old. “Parents, you almost got into a fight because I didn’t agree with the decision, and it was just silly. It shouldn’t be that serious.”
As for his teammates, “We were all surprised because we weren’t discussing it, so why are adults doing this?” Nimley shakes his head.
Why are adults arguing in youth games?
One reason: Too much focus on winning, says Skye Eddy, a former professional soccer player, mother, coach, and founder of an educational program called The Sideline Project. “Sometimes parents worry too much about the outcome, so they get too involved in what’s going on and don’t let the game belong to the child,” she says.
Peter Guthrie, a longtime youth soccer referee and referee mentor in Maryland, says he sees parents who seem to be “living their youth through their children.”
Guthrie has also been a youth soccer coach. “In some cases, they think this is going to be the path for their child to get to college, so they have to do well as a 10-year-old to get that college scholarship.”
Guthrie, a retired National Institutes of Health neurologist, counsels teens who recently completed a referee training program run by the Maryland SoccerPlex in collaboration with three other organizations.
He says that most fathers are well behaved. “It’s only that small percentage that causes problems. I’m here so that if something like this happens, I can reinforce that he did the right thing and, if necessary, I’ll go to the other side to talk to the scoundrels.” ,” he smiles.
Adults lose their cool at games partly because they can, says Tim Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.
“We need to empower referees and referees to kick them out of games and hold coaches and teams accountable for parental misbehavior,” says Farrey. “Right now, there just aren’t a lot of disincentives for parents to do this. If the parents knew their behavior was going to harm their team or their child in some way, then maybe they would reduce it.”
Farrey believes youth sports in general need more oversight. “We are one of the only nations in the world that does not have a federal Sports Ministry or Sports Department to coordinate the development of sport, set a national agenda, advance this incredibly important space, and hold individuals accountable to standards.” .
Solutions include Silent Soccer… and shame
For years, young soccer professionals have tried to control bad behavior. One exercise is Silent Soccer, where adults (parents and coaches) agree to remain silent during games.
“He’s unbelievable,” says Pierre Hedji, Nimley’s coach at DC’s DCXI youth soccer club. “I think it’s the best way to teach a child. You’re not going to do [games] Player-focused when parents are yelling from the sidelines giving instructions to players and coaches are giving instructions to players. That’s why we have practice.”
Barlow uses shame unapologetically. His Offside Facebook page includes dozens of videos of adults losing their temper at youth games, sent to him by people from all over the country.
He thinks it’s working. He says people who have seen the videos tell him, “I’ve changed because of some of the content you put out. I don’t want my kids to think of their parents… that way.”
Distracting behavior is also a no-no
To help parents behave better during games, Skye Eddy designed a 15-minute video course for The Sideline Project. But she does not insist on hostile behavior. Instead, she focuses on something that is much more prevalent.
“Distractive behavior is communicating with a player while they are trying to perform a task or while they are trying to think, be aware and make a decision on the field,” Eddy says.
Walking through the large Maryland SoccerPlex on a recent Saturday, where multiple games were being played simultaneously, the distracting behavior was relentless. Parents telling their kids to “take it”, “turn it”, “pass it” and, of course, “Shoot it!”
Eddy says that many sensible parents do this: “We think we’re helping a lot of times, but in fact, we’re distracting players from learning.”
Of the 9,000 people who took his course, Eddy reports that 60% say their behavior on the sidelines is better.
“The most exciting thing to me is that over 40% of the parents who take the course say their relationship with their children improved as a result of taking this 15 minute course where we finally stepped in, educated the parents and gave them some moments to reflect and some guidance on how children learn and how sport is learned,” he says.
Barlow is pretty sure that kids don’t want to listen to their parents or be coached by them.
“The most powerful thing you can say to your young athlete at the end of the game: It’s not what you did right, what you did wrong, how you’re going to play better next game,” says Barlow. “It’s just walking out to the car, getting in the car and saying, ‘Hey, I loved watching you play today.'”
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