Sports Parents: Do You Need a Time-Out?

Soccer team huddle

Sports Parents: Do You Need a Time-Out?

Luke James loves soccer. Through the years he’s been passionate about playing it with his kids, watching the World Cup and coaching youth teams in the San Francisco Bay Area. But one thing he doesn’t love are loudmouth, abusive soccer parents.

A former touring rock musician from England, James says that rowdy music fans have nothing on some sports moms and dads.

“The venom from parents of ten-year-olds when a decision goes against their kid is pretty shocking,” he says. “It sets a terrible example for children to see their parents in such a rage.”

ACEs and sports

This is especially disheartening because sports can help protect the mental health of children with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as abuse or neglect. A recent study found traumatized kids who play sports are significantly less likely to develop mental illnesses than children with ACEs who did not.

But seeing angry parents argue or lose control during a game could be triggering for kids with ACEs, researchers say. “Don’t spend the time arguing with the coaching staff about how often your child is playing; it is embarrassing and stressful for your child,” writes Brandon Capaletti of Cisco Athletic. “Bleacher coach” parents add still more stress to the game, he says. “You may think coaching from the sidelines is offering your child extra support or help, but it really is just confusing them. Should they do what the coach is telling them, or should they listen to their parent?”

And verbally abusive parents can make the game miserable for both players and coaches. Small wonder experts have been calling foul on the threat to youth sports posed by out-of-control parents.

One study documented more than 100 assaults a year on youth referees and umpires by parents and other fans, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. Attacks on coaches range from razzing and insults to physical assault. And though assaults are relatively rare, parents who scream at coaches and players, try to micromanage them or threaten to have coaches fired are not.

In some cases, coaches may be part of the problem. In one Minnesota study cited in a national report, more than 45% of youngsters surveyed said they had been called names, yelled at, or insulted during sports. Another 8% said they had been encouraged to intentionally harm others.

“The disgraceful behaviors of a growing number of adults are polluting youth sports and poisoning the fun,” according to Fred Engh, founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. “It’s sending ugly messages to millions of kids.”

What parents can do

Here are some tips from coaches and other experts on how parents can help keep the fun in sports:

Give yourself a time-out. Do some “low and slow” breathing before the game, if necessary, and remind yourself to stay calm.

Cheer, don’t jeer. That’s the advice from Jim Thompson of Positive Coaching, who told USA Today he thinks “it’s beautiful” when parents cheer good plays by both teams. To encourage better sportsmanship, many youth teams have already banned jeering and insults from the sidelines.

Focus on the game, not the results. Don’t make the first question “Did you win?” Ask more open-ended questions, such as what your child enjoyed most, what she contributed or might do differently next time, and so on.

Leave coaching to the coach. Your job is to model good sportsmanship. If you have a problem, approach him or her privately (and politely) after the game. Don’t rag on the coach or other players in front of your child.

Look for a league that puts good sportsmanship ahead of winning. Coaches should have a code of conduct from the players and the audience. If the coach abuses and belittles players, find another league.

Practice letting go. “Parents shouldn’t try to drive everything – young people need to have a voice, feel valued, and get practice making their own decisions,” says Megan Bartlett of the trauma-sensitive sports organization We Coach.

Consider a therapist if necessary. If you’re parenting with ACEs, the stress of sports may be triggering for you. If you have trouble keeping your anger under control, seek professional help.


Capeletti, B. (2014, August 19). 10 Ways You’re Causing Your Child Sport-Induced Stress. TeamSnap.

Recommendations for Counties: Examining the Violent and Abusive Behavior Plaguing Youth Sports. National Alliance for Youth Sports.