Aggressive sports parenting hurts everyone

First Posted: 3/7/2015

The 6-year-old was “playing up” in baseball that year. His skills were so good for his age, he was allowed to be put on a team of 8 and 9-year-olds — his big brother’s team, where dad was the coach.

His parents didn’t just talk about college scholarships. They talked about him going pro. This child wasn’t out there just to learn and have fun. He had a job, and he had better deliver.

He was always able to keep up and sometimes even out-skill the bigger kids. That day, though, he struck out. His father walked him from home plate to the dugout, a tight grasp on the back of his collar. I had seen the way the coach talked to all the kids and I paid close attention to the cues. This was a man who barked orders, who showed his disdain at errors with a grimace and a shout, who stomped on the clay with disappointment.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” I could just barely make out through his gritted teeth and controlled tone. “Haven’t we practiced this a thousand times? Now sit down and think about what you just did.”

It was the regional championship in competitive dance. The 8-year-old girl had worked for years leading to this moment. She was the best on her team for her age. She took the required 10 classes per week at the dance studio. Her parents spent thousands of dollars every year on tuition, private lessons, costumes, choreography and travel to competitions.

As she took the stage, I watched her parents’ faces out of the corner of my eye. They stood, steel-faced, in the back of the auditorium. Her performance was lovely but she had done a double instead of a triple pirouette and there had been a tiny misstep leading up to her aerial. When the crowd applauded, her parents did not.

She didn’t make it on to the podium that evening, taking fourth place. I watched her mother throw away the bouquet they had brought for her. The family left the venue in silence, with no eye contact between them. Her father’s jaw was set and the tension was clear.

In another instance, I was told of a father creating a frightening situation when he angrily charged the baseball dugout to confront the coach regarding how much playing time his 8-year-old was getting.

In the past month, police have been called to several of our area’s most popular youth sporting venues after altercations between parents.

This kind of aggressive behavior by parents of young athletes was showcased recently in the national news when the United States Little League champions were stripped of their title after it was determined their managers had recruited from outside their district to form a super team. Even the White House weighed in, sympathizing with the players who surely just wanted to play ball, while these “dirty-dealing” adults applied their own win-at-all-costs mentality, creating an unfair situation.

The majority of sports parents are decent, fair people, out to give their children a healthy and fun learning experience. They hope their child learns how to be a team player, to enjoy the camaraderie of a shared goal, to lose gracefully and to win humbly. They wish for their child to feel the joy of physical fitness and to come to understand the value of practice.

This small group of aggressive sports parents has their own agenda. Whether they are feeding their own ego, needing to believe their kid is extraordinary or living vicariously through their child, their behavior is selfish and destructive. Some may be playing to their own overly competitive nature, trying to show their own parenting prowess versus others. They may be protecting their investment, the thousands being spent with the goal of a return in lofty scholarships and salaries.

What they don’t realize, unfortunately, is that the cost may be their child’s self-esteem, their innocence and their love of the game. Only 1 percent of high school athletes end up playing for a Division I college team. The scholarships obtained almost never come close to the investment by parents.

Experts agree that in order to continue in any achievement activity long-term, children must feel a sense of enjoyment, ownership and self-motivation. A child’s self-confidence is ruined by a parent’s over-involvement and external pressure.

What these bully parents don’t know is that they, too, are providing the rest of us with teaching tools. They are giving us something to discuss at the dinner table: how not to act.

The unfortunate fact though, is that their children are the collateral damage. I’ve looked at their little faces. They are broken-hearted, and they tend to go one of two ways. They either leave sports altogether, beaten down and damaged by the pressure, or they become the bully themselves, using aggression and unfair tactics to win at all costs.

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