Why do kids get involved in team sports? Probably to have fun, to run around outside, to play with their friends. Maybe even to get a break from doing homework. But when the fun turns into a stressful situation, they often quit the game and move on to something else.
I'm fairly new to the world of youth sports -- and sports in general for that matter. My son started playing soccer in the spring, and as a people watcher, it was hard not to notice the loud, obnoxious parents screaming at their kids throughout the game. I understand that people are passionate about sports, but geez. Calm down a little. This is not the World Cup.
I couldn't help but wonder if all the pressure coming from the sidelines might cause some emotional distress for the young players. Turns out my suspicions were in line with what local coaches are seeing out on the fields.
There's a fine line between encouraging the players and criticizing them. To me, there's a difference between shouting, "Go, Eli! Great job!" and "Come on! What are you doing? Kick the ball!"
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I'm pretty sure children can tell from the tone of our voices whether we are being supportive or critical. And when they're out there doing the best they can, it probably doesn't help their self-esteem to be criticized in front of all their teammates.
Bluffton mom Stacey Sacha has two sons who are active in sports. Six-year-old Brady is playing baseball now, and Jackson, 9, is playing soccer. She said she has seen parents make children cry at games. At one game she could hear parents' rude comments from across the baseball field.
"Kids can hear," she said. "Kids know what's going on, and kids are going to act the same way that parents do. If your mom is up in the stands being a bully, then (the) child is going to be a bully on the field."
And the opposite is true as well. She said if you're a good parent on the sideline, then your child will be a good child on the field. If you show poor sportsmanship, then your child will have poor sportsmanship as well.
"When you're at a child's ball game, it doesn't matter if it's your child or somebody's else's child, you always want to encourage them," she said. "I don't want to hear snide remarks coming from the sidelines about your child or anybody's else's child."
Dan Waymont, Hilton Head Island director of soccer for Storm Soccer Academy, said parents coaching from the sidelines is a huge problem.
"It can be very confusing," he said. "They're listening to their parents telling them to do this, and they might not have a soccer background so they don't understand the game. But even if they do, they have to put trust in the professional coach."
He said he has seen parents running up and down the sideline, screaming at players.
Waymont said Storm's philosophy is to create a positive atmosphere by sharing the curriculum with the parents so everyone is on the same page. He said they've found the more they communicate with the parents, the better the environment on the sidelines and the more successful the children.
He said words of encouragement go a lot further than the harsh commentary. He encourages parents to educate themselves on the psychology of sports. He said there are plenty of good books and articles on the subject.
He said at one game the parents and coaches were screaming at the kids and at half-time the boys said they didn't want to play anymore.
"That, to me, is just unacceptable," he said. "You know, when they're frightened of the other coach shouting or of the parents, that's really sad."
Chris Larkby coached soccer through Parks and Leisure Services for several years and said some of the parents' expectations were extremely high. And when they failed to meet their parents' expectations, it was tough on the children. He has seen kids cry at the end of games because of all the pressure.
But Larkby said on the other end of the spectrum, parents can be too positive. He said he had one parent who seemed to cheer when his child did things wrong. So the child got positive feedback for doing what he wasn't supposed to do.
Storm CEO Brad Nein has been coaching soccer for about 16 years and is working on his doctorate in sport management. He has done a bit of research on the effects of parents being too tough on their children on the playing field. What he has found is heartbreaking. He said about 80 percent of children who start playing soccer at age 6 will quit by age 12 because of all the pressure.
He said what parents say before, during and after a game makes a huge difference for their young athletes. Before the game, they should tell their children to try their hardest and have fun. After the game, they should say two things. First, they should ask if they had fun. Then they should tell them that they really love watching them play the sport.
"If it's not fun for those kids, they're not going to do it," Nein said. "They're going to find something else to do that is fun. ... We suggest to our parents to cheer effort, cheer trying hard, cheer successes."
Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.