A friend of mine recently asked to bounce a concern off of me in regard to his grandson who, at 11 years old, is crazy about basketball. He loves to play, practice, and watch games on TV. My friend sometimes takes him to see NBA games in a nearby city. Ben plays in a rec league on weekends and loves it. He’s pretty good too, my friend told me, but there’s a problem during games.
It seems that Ben’s dad gets pretty animated in the stands when Ben’s on the court, and yells out a lot of critical comments. Other parents notice of course, and the boy gets very embarrassed and often comes close to tears by the time he leaves the floor. Ben’s mom, my friend’s daughter, also is embarrassed by the father’s behavior, and actually sits some distance away in the stands. My friend has seen eye-rolling and disapproving looks from others and is embarrassed himself at his son-in-law’s carrying on. Mostly, he feels awful for Ben.
We’ve probably all witnessed overly zealous parents at baseball games, swim meets, and any other sports event you care to name, whether it’s competitive or recreational. When I was a kid, I remember one dad yelling at his son to “swing like a boy.” And while most of the other people present find this behavior annoying and rude—sometimes fights even break out in the stands!—the real victim is the child.
It’s ironic that, while the parent is there to cheer the child and his or her team on, it’s the kids who are hurt the most.
The parent may feel sheepish afterward, but it’s the kid who will remember it for a long time. Sometimes a parent’s loud, public criticisms are enough to drive a child away from that sport. Maybe away from all sports. Sometimes it can actually drive a wedge between parent and child that affects their relationship for years.
What motivates a parent to behave in such a reckless way? Does a mom or dad really think they’re helping the child to perform better by criticizing from the cheap seats? Maybe they feel they’re expressing support. Do they think they know more than the coach about what their child should be doing, or what the team should be doing?
I think that in many cases the parent simply sees the child as an extension of themselves and wants to vicariously succeed. Maybe the father wants the son to perform as well in the goal as he did in his youth. Or maybe the mother wants her daughter to be a better point guard than she ever was. Maybe there are dreams of a professional career and lucrative contracts in the future.
Whatever their motivations, these parents fail to realize that they’re not helping. In more extreme cases, like Ben’s dad, they’re hurting and can’t see it.
So, what to do?
Many sports leagues have rules these days for the supporters, and those rules can be enforced by the games’ officials, including ejection. That seems harsh, I know, but it can be appropriate. However, a lot of rec leagues don’t really have enforceable rules and count on parents and others to behave like adults and show some respect for the kids and each other. Sometimes that’s wishful thinking.
In young Ben’s case, I counseled my friend to perhaps discuss the situation with Ben’s mom, pointing out to her how her husband’s behavior is impacting the boy. This would keep my friend out of it and tee the issue up between the parents where it belongs. If the mom could gently explain her observations of the boy’s reactions, which needs to be the focus, maybe the dad could realize the negative impact his “coaching” from the stands was having on their son.