Archive for the ‘Abusive Sports Parents’ Category

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Kids Pay the Price When Adults Are Out of Control…

 Idaho Youth Football Program Cancels Games Because of Adult Misconduct

 By Doug Abrams

Late last month, the Coeur d’Alene Junior Tackle League canceled the season’s remaining football games against Post Falls, its nearby Idaho rival. The two leagues each outfit several teams, and the cancellations sidelined about 325 players in the fifth- through eighth-grade age brackets.

No media report suggested that the kids had played dirty. Or that the kids had violated league rules or shown disrespect to opponents, coaches, or officials. The wholesale cancellations stemmed instead from misconduct of both leagues’ parents and coaches.

Coeur d’Alene’s president told KREM about “parents arguing with the refs themselves. Coaches arguing with the refs. Out of line behavior up and down the sidelines.”

“We don’t want a YouTube video of a melee,” the president explained to the Bonner County Daily Bee, adding that many referees were unwilling to officiate the overheated games and absorb the abuse.

Regardless of the circumstances that drove this particular case, the Idaho cancellations invite a renewed look at parental and coaching misconduct nationwide – and at how this misconduct can deprive the players, who are, after all, the ultimate beneficiaries of Youth Sports.

The Familiar Script

The script was written years ago: Most problems at youth league games are triggered by people over the age of 18 because many players display sportsmanship and respect better than some parents and coaches do. This turnabout stains the game because adults, not children, are supposed to set the example.

In 2014, the Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports program released a nationwide Sportsmanship Survey conducted by ORC International. Sixty percent of respondents reported either witnessing or participating in negative or abusive sideline behavior by parents or youth coaches. Twenty-six percent of parents said that they had witnessed a verbally abusive coach, and 16% of parents said that that they had witnessed a physical confrontation between parents. Fifty-five percent of coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at officials or their own children, and two in five coaches said they had experienced parents yelling negatively at other children.

Liberty Mutual’s survey reaffirmed results of a similar survey that the Responsible Sports program had commissioned a year earlier. In the 2013 survey, 40% of youth coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at other children. Fifty-five percent of the coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at their own children. Forty-four percent said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at officials, and 39% said that they had experienced parents yelling at them.

The Liberty Mutual sportsmanship surveys are not outliers. For example, in an earlier Survey USA poll in Indianapolis, Indiana, 55% of parents said that they had seen other parents engaging in verbal abuse at youth sports events; 21% said that they had seen a physical altercation between other parents. In a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey, 45.3% of youth leaguers said that adults had called them names, yelled at them, or insulted them while they were playing; 17.5% said that an adult had hit, kicked or slapped them during a game; and 8.2% said that they had been pressured to harm opponents intentionally.

International Perspectives

In 2010, Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos conducted a sportsmanship survey in 22 nations. The survey ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that they had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials. Runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%), and Australia (50%).

“It’s ironic that the United States, which prides itself in being the most civilized country in the world, has the largest group of adults having witnessed abusive behavior at children’s sporting events,” said an Ipsos senior vice president.

Winners and Losers

We should view these “eyewitness” surveys in context. The National Alliance for Youth Sports has estimated that about 15% of youth league games involve at least one confrontation between a parent and a coach or official. Assuming this estimate, it matters little whether in the typical sports association, only a relatively small minority of adults cross the line into misconduct; that minority can ruin the experience for other families, including ones who find the misconduct distasteful or otherwise contrary to the atmosphere and values they seek from the association.

Last month’s Idaho game cancelations left no winners, only losers. Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls league administrators each recognized that the brunt fell most heavily on the youngsters, who simply wanted to play football.

Beyond northern Idaho, many shortsighted adults overlook the central role that youth league sports can play in strengthening family bonds. When teenagers begin seeking independence from their parents and resisting their influence, organized sports still enables parents to share wholesome activities with their children who wish to play. Most teens want their parents and siblings to attend the games, root for them, and share their experiences. But instead of embracing this opportunity to bring the family together, some parents misbehave in ways that drive their teenagers either to wish that the parents would not attend, or to quit playing altogether.

Youngsters would play just as well, and perhaps better, if their parents and coaches cheered hard for the team, without jeering or taunting one another. And if the adults let the referees or umpires do their jobs free from verbal assault. If officials can hear profanity and other verbal abuse directed at them by parents or coaches, the players on the field can also hear it. Adults should not shout anything from the stands or bench that they would be embarrassed to say in front of the youngsters off the playing field.

Teachable Moments

Wise parents and coaches seek out “teachable moments,” opportunities to educate youth leaguers with positive lessons drawn from negative events. But sometimes the adults can learn as well as teach.

The Idaho youth football cancelations provide yet another reminder that adults can do better for their young athletes who strive to win and perform their best in youth leagues from coast to coast. In a talk reported in the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald earlier this summer, former all-star outfielder Darryl Strawberry delivered this lesson drawn from his 17 seasons in Major League Baseball:

“We need to get back to letting kids have fun and enjoy themselves.  Parents need to chill out. Don’t go to games yelling. Let them play. We just have to get back to understanding that the game is fun. . . . It’s fun. Fun. Remember, fun.”



Sources: KREM, Taylor Viydo, N. Idaho Football League Cancels Games Due to Parent Behavior (Oct. 21, 2016); Ryan Collingwood, CA’A Cancels Youth Football Games with PF (Oct. 21, 2015); Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports, New Survey Identifies Decline of Sportsmanship in Youth Sports According to Parents and Coaches,;  (June 2, 2014 press release); Parents and Coaches Express Conflicting Opinions Regarding Priorities in Youth Sports,; US, India Parents Seen as Worst Behaved at Kids’ Sports, Reuters, Apr. 7, 2010; Jeanie Tavitas-Williams, Play Ball (Not Brawl): Adults Often Forget To Be Good Sports, San Antonio Express-News, Apr. 27, 2004, p. 1C; Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, 39 Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, p. 1 (2012); Patrick Ochs, Darryl Strawberry Has the Best Advice For Baseball Parents, Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald, June 28, 2016.


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ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Why Are So Many HS Coaches Quitting? A National Epidemic

We have known for some years now that sports parents have become an increasing issue for HS coaches as Moms and Dads often intervene or meddle with the coaches upon behalf of their youngster. Coaches would often remark to each other that the “best kids to coach were those who were orphans.

But the problem with meddling parents has only escalated. And what is happening is that more and more coaches are simply, well, quitting. They just don’t want to deal with this issue anymore. As one long-time athletic director observed recently, “it used to be that a HS coach would last at the school for a career….but these days, the average stay is about 4-5 years, tops.”

According to a stunning survey of 227 HS coaches that was conducted by a local newspaper in Syracuse, NY, (, the reason why coaches are quitting is simple:

The coaches get tired of dealing with the parents….”

That’s right. Coaches leave because of the parents…and unfortunately, many times, it’s the good coaches who leave.

There are reports from all over – not just Syracuse  —  that the friction between parents and their kid’s HS coaches has only gotten worse. And that’s not good.

You know what I’m talking about. We live in a time where sports parents have invested SO much of their time, energy, and money in their kid’s athletic career that when a youngster plays for a coach who doesn’t happen to share the parent’s opinion of how good their kid is, well, the parent thinks that they have every right to confront the coach and demand more playing time…or to make their kid All-League…or to make them a starter….or whatever the parent feels their kid is entitled to.

The problem is at a point where something needs to be done. In fact, when I do speaking events to local communities, the number one complaint from coaches and athletic directors continues to be the “out of control parents who meddle.”

We clearly need to do something to stop this interference by parents. … so what can we do?


On today’s radio show, we had a number of callers who all shared this growing concern. It was pointed out that, traditionally, at pre-season meetings, the HS AD often makes a statement to all attendees “to please let the coaches and leave them alone to do their job.” Parents hear this, but clearly the warning goes in ear and out the other. Too many parents either feel that the rules don’t apply to them or that, somehow, they are entitled to talk to the coach when it involves their kid.

In other words, this approach doesn’t have much of a lasting impact.

One caller this AM – Jack from New Jersey – said he had coached at the HS level for 35 years, and he had some specific suggestions that worked for him to counteract angry parents. Specifically:

Keep your roster of players deliberately small. 

His point was that if you kept just the bare minimum of kids on the team, then it was much easier to get them all playing time in the games. If you have a larger roster, then all those at the end of the bench (including their parents) are going to grouse and complain about not enough playing time.

Make sure all your kids play at least a little each game.

Not all the kids can play equally or a lot in each game, but as the coach, if you get every kid into the game – again, having a small roster helps — than every kid is going to feel that they contributed in some way.

Have each kid and their parents sign a contract at the beginning of the season.

Jack had every youngster on the varsity come into his office before the season with their parents, and Jack would outline the expectations for that kid, and then would also have to sign a contract that made clear that 1) the parents would not at any time during the season talk to the coach about their kid’s playing time, and 2) that they would never bring up any other player’s name in their conversation.

Did such an approach work? Yes, Jack says that for the most part it did work.

Jack went onto agree with a statement that was made earlier in the show – that a generation ago, HS varsity coaches were seen as the top of the pyramid in sports in town. But these days, with the advent of travel programs, it’s the travel coaches who now have ascended to the top of the pyramid and they seem to have much more clout with the athletes and parents than the HS coaches do.

Routinely these days, a talented player will inform their HS coach that “my travel team coach thinks I should play this position — not the one you want me to play” and make other such demands. HS coaches are often lost as to how to make their players abide by their wishes, not the travel coach’s.

Bottom line? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any clear way to correct this issue. And until a real solution is found, HS coaches will continue to come and go on a fairly regular basis.

What a shame.


ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Growing Shortage of Sports Officials

 How Referee Shortages Threaten Player Safety

 By Doug Abrams

On March 27, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published a thoughtful article by Tim Stevens, “Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs.” The article led with this troublesome forecast: “Irate high school sports fans . . . are heaping so much abuse on referees that it is becoming hard for North Carolina and other states to recruit new officials as the current group edges toward retirement.” Because refereeing has “become so unattractive,” the article continues, interscholastic leagues may need to reduce game schedules for lack of officials.

The media regularly reports about chronic referee shortages, not only in school sports, but also in many community youth leagues. Just last year, for example, the associate director of the Minnesota High School League told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that an array of “’sportsmanship issues’ causes most officials to quit and presents ‘a major hurdle when recruiting new officials.’’’ The associate director pointed to “a sometimes hostile game environment, chiefly created by critical coaches and parents.”

The Deseret (Utah) Morning News explains that “[b]rand-new officials often suffer through their first season of abuse before deciding that refereeing just isn’t worth it.” Among the officials I have known, most signed up not primarily for the relatively modest stipends, but to remain active in the game while serving young athletes and their families. Most officials are family men and women with personal obligations and reputations. Most can find other ways to participate in community life free from public abuse dished out by other adults, sometimes within earshot of the officials’ own families.

In the younger age groups, many community youth leagues recruit teens to replace departed adult officials. In my last few years coaching 9-10-year-old squirt hockey teams, I cannot recall seeing a referee over the age of about 15, except occasionally in the playoffs. Teen referees typically seek to earn a few dollars, assume a leadership role, and demonstrate community service on their college applications. In my experience, the teens take their responsibility seriously and generally do an excellent job. But they too are often chased away, once they or their parents lose patience with parents and coaches who may tag the adolescents as even easier marks for harassment than adult officials.

Verbal and Physical Assault

Adult “referee rage” can grow vicious. In my final few years as a youth hockey coach, I frequently heard parent spectators showering officials with obscenities and other insults that the parents would not have directed at the family dog. But aural pollution does not end the story because, as Positive Coaching Alliance executive director Jim Thompson explains, “officiating a youth sports game is becoming an increasingly risky job . . . . “Youth Sports officials are under attack – literally” from physical assault. Parents and coaches have reportedly made officials run a gauntlet to leave the field, followed officials to their cars, and threatened them and their families. Parents and coaches have also punched, kicked, shoved, slapped, choked, head-butted, spat on, and stalked youth league officials during and after games.

Compromising Safety

What negative effects does this adult “referee rage” have on the players? Even casual observers notice when games may have to be postponed, rescheduled or even canceled for lack of available officials. Or when abusive parents or coaches deliver unwholesome messages about sportsmanship and respect to the athletes who watch or hear about their antics.

But another especially harmful result can escape the untrained eye. Particularly in contact and collision sports, the shortage of experienced officials can increase the risk of injury to players on the field, including players who follow the rules of the game.

“To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” Parents and coaches assume important enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

This essential control suffers when so many veteran referees quit each year. Many replacement refs are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.

What Can Be Done to Promote Safety?

Some of my prior columns have discussed measures that, amid the pressures that characterize the typical school or community sports program, can help counter adult “referee rage” that may compromise player safety. In written rules distributed during preseason parents and coaches meetings, leagues and teams should state their expectations for adult civility. Leagues and teams must discipline parents or coaches whose verbal or physical assaults on officials violate these rules. Unenforced rules remain merely words on paper.

Criminal prosecutors should take physical assaults more seriously than they sometimes do. In extreme cases when parents or coaches verbally or physically abuse teen officials, authorities should contemplate child endangerment charges.

Most parents and coaches do not cross the line into verbal or physical abuse of officials, and most adults may find such abuse disgusting. But the majority’s disgust does not diminish the harmful influence of the errant minority who do cross. Leagues and teams often get the quality of officiating that they deserve, and player safety may depend on the outcome.


Sources: Tim Stevens, Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Mar. 27, 2016; David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), July 31, 2015; Jim Thompson, The Double-Goal Coach, p. 4 (2003); Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News, Apr. 26, 2005; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clin. J. Sport Med. 451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, 125 Pediatrics 410 (Feb. 2010).

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Why It’s Becoming Increasingly Difficult to Recruit More Referees

How Adults’ “Referee Rage” Imperils Youth Leaguers’ Safety

By Doug Abrams

Under the headline, “Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect,” the New York Times ran an article late last month about the acute shortage of experienced youth sports officials in many communities. The Associated Press reported that “[b]y all accounts, finding and retaining referees is becoming more and more difficult” because of “growing animosity and poor behavior among fans and coaches.”

The article is the latest one about veteran officials who are driven to quit, unwilling (as the Times and the Associated Press put it) to be “yelled at, threatened or insulted” game after game. Newspapers regularly run similar articles about “referee rage,” the verbal and sometimes physical abuse that parents and coaches inflict on game officials. This summer, for example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune rans a similar story, “Help Wanted: High School Officials.” A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about a Deseret (Utah) Morning News article which explained that “[b]rand-new officials often suffer through their first season of abuse before deciding that refereeing just isn’t worth it.”

Some results of the nationwide shortage of experienced referees are readily apparent to anyone who pays even glancing attention. Games might have to be postponed, rescheduled, or even canceled. Seasons may have to be shortened so that league schedules do not outpace the roster of available officials.

This column concerns a more serious result that can escape notice as leagues scurry to recruit and train replacement officials. Many of the replacements are less experienced, and they are unprepared to maintain control of fast-paced games. Particularly in contact and collision sports at the older age levels, inexperienced officiating can increase the risk of injury to players, including ones who play clean.

Enforcing the Rules

“To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” The American Academy of Pediatrics reports agreement among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

Particularly in contact or collision sports at older age levels, essential enforcement of the rules and control of the game can suffer when so many veteran officials hang up their whistles each year. But for the veteran officials’ premature departure, many of their less experienced replacements would not yet be on the field.

“They Can’t Figure Out Why”

In suburban Chicago in late 1999, rabid parents and coaches had overwhelmed the outmanned referees throughout an entire junior varsity hockey game, whose final score meant nothing in the big picture of things. At the final buzzer or a second or two afterwards, a player skated full speed across the ice, blind-sided a 14-year-old opponent who had scored a three-goal hat trick, and body-checked him head-first into the boards. “That’s what you get for messing,” the player glared at his victim who lay prone on the ice, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

The victim could have been any parent’s child. No news account suggested that the victim played dirty. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the target of impulsive violence at the end of a game that was out of control from the opening faceoff. If the referees, parents, and coaches had maintained control as both teams tried their best to win within the rules, the victim would likely have walked out of the rink because players supervised by responsible adults do not race several yards to drive opponents’ faces into the ground at the end of a game.

A year after the ill-fated JV hockey game, a veteran referee told the Chicago Daily Herald that “nothing” had changed in Chicago-area high school hockey. “It’s just as bad as it ever was,” the referee said. “There’s kids being carried off the ice every night.  “You have parents acting like animals in the stands, coaches acting like animals on the bench . . . “[b]ut when their kid gets hurt, they can’t figure out why.”

For the sake of their own children, parents and coaches need to “figure out why” by identifying a relationship between adults “referee rage” and players’ safety. Then, the adults need to maintain self-control, even during heated games. Connect the dots.


Sources:  Assoc. Press, Referee Shortage Tied to Lack of Respect, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2015; David La Vaque, Help Wanted: High School Officials, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 31, 2015;  Dan Rasmussen, Referee Shortage Hurting Soccer, Deseret (Utah) Morning News Apr. 26, 2005; Chris G. Koutures & Andrew J. M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, Pediatrics, vol. 125, p. 410 (2010); Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, Clinical J. of Sport Medicine, vol. 19, p. 451 (2009); Barry Rozner, One Year After a Hockey Tragedy, What Has Changed?, Chi. Daily Herald, Nov, 3, 2000, at 1. Tony Gordon, Plea Deal Ends Emotional Hockey Case, Chi. Daily Herald, Aug. 8, 2000, at 1; Dirk Johnson, Hockey Player, 15, Is Charged After Seriously Injuring a Rival, N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 1999, at A21.

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Latest Update from Australia

More About Australia’s Ugly Parent Syndrome: Post-Game “Debriefing”

By Doug Abrams

 Australians have a label for the negative influence of some adults in that nation’s youth sports leagues. Aussies call it the “ugly parent syndrome.” Most often, the label describes acts of parental violence, particularly acts that are serious enough to reach the headlines. Periodically on this blog, I have written about media accounts of these acts in Australia, and in other western nations whose youth sports systems resemble systems here in the United States.

Spurred by a new study by Dr. Sam Elliott at Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia), the Australian media reports yet another, sometimes less apparent manifestation of ugly sports parenting – post-game “debriefing.” Australians use the term “debriefing” to describe parents’ sometimes strident post-game criticisms of their player’s performance. With the game’s pressures still weighing on the player’s mind, criticism begins while the player is a captive audience in the family vehicle on the way home, or it begins soon after the family arrives.

Here in the United States, I have heard Rick Wolff and others call this parental criticism “station wagon syndrome,” or more recently “SUV syndrome.” By whatever name, the new Flinders University study reemphasizes the harmful effects that well-meaning sports parents can have on the fun their children seek from sports. The Advertiser, an Adelaide daily newspaper, warns that debriefing is “killing children’s enjoyment of sport with post-game grillings on their performance, making it more likely that youngsters will quit.”

Declining Enrollments and High Dropout Rates

American parents, coaches, and league administrators should pay attention to troubling reports from nations whose youth sports systems resemble our own. Globalization and the Internet media have left the world a smaller place, so nations can learn plenty from one another about how to overcome common economic, political and cultural stresses.

The new Flinders University study, which interviewed 12- and 13-year-old youth soccer players and their families, plausibly links pressurized debriefing to two serious concerns that plague youth sports in the United States and Australia. Both concerns — declining enrollments and high dropout rates — raise red flags.

In the United States, between 30 and 35 million boys and girls — nearly half the nation’s children – enroll in at least one youth sport each year.  The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently reported that about 1.7 million boys and girls — about 63% of Australian children – enroll in at least one organized sport outside school hours.

These are hefty numbers, but they appear to be falling in both nations. And among boys and girls who do enroll, about 70% drop out by the time they turn 13, and nearly all quit by the time they turn 15. When researchers ask youngsters the reasons for quitting, the answers given most often are that practice sessions and games stopped being fun because parents and coaches imposed too much pressure.


The Flinders University study suggests that fun and pressurized post-game debriefing do not mix. When a player dreads swift criticism in the car or in the living room, victory can produce not the thrill the player has earned, but only relief that the team avoided defeat. This fear of failure diminishes the fun and fulfillment that youngsters deserve from the games they play.

Immediately after a loss or a bad game, reassurance from a parent or coach may signal unconditional support. In the back seat on the way home, youngsters deserve to ride in peace without being an unwilling audience for parental criticism while memories of the game’s pressure remain fresh. Like adults, youth leaguers need time to decompress from competition.

After the passage of time, young athletes can take constructive correction delivered in positive tone and language by supportive parents and coaches. Dr. Elliott says that “if children experience a win or loss, played well or not well, parents are instrumental for support – they can talk them through that and it’s the advice that children crave.”

But even after the passage of time, adults need to remain patient with their children’s mistakes on the field. Particularly at the younger age levels, players trying hard will often do as many things wrong as right. They are children, not seasoned adult professionals providing popular entertainment for salaries in the millions.

In fact, parents should encourage players to welcome mistakes, which are invitations to learn. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden coached adults, but he tolerated his players’ mistakes as part of the game. “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” he would say. “A doer makes mistakes.”

 Opportunities Lost

Professional sports holds a firm grip on the United States and Australia, and adults in both nations regularly tell pollsters that wholesome athletic competition benefits children physically and emotionally. Amid these powerful cultural forces, declining enrollments and steadily high dropout rates suggest that something is wrong about the way adults manage youth leagues.

As the new Flinders University study intimates, debriefing done wrong is doubtlessly one factor contributing to both negative trends. The ultimate losers are boys and girls who miss out on opportunities to thrive in sports through childhood and adolescence. Organized sports can do nothing for a boy or girl who does not enroll, or who drops out prematurely.


Sources: Tim Williams, Positive Test for Critical Parents, The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), Apr. 18, 2015, p. 7; Sheradyn Holderhead, Flinders University Study On “Ugly Parents Syndrome” Impact On Falling Sports Interest, The Advertiser, Apr. 3, 2013.

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: What’s the Best Way to Handle Them?

Sparing Youth Leaguers Punishment For Their Parents’ Misconduct

By Doug Abrams


The Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association has had its fill of verbal and physical abuse dished out by unruly parents. Last month the association’s president told the Canadian Press that “F-bombs from mothers and fathers in the stands can fly faster than pucks on the ice.” Like other Canadian and American youth sports programs, the Vancouver association has suffered an exodus of veteran coaches and referees who are unwilling to continue corralling a few parents and absorbing their insults.  Headlines also report periodic acts of physical violence by Vancouver minor hockey parents. The father of one Vancouver pee wee hockey player says that “some of the parents are just nuts.”

The Vancouver association recently announced that next season, out-of-control parents will face sterner sanctions, including the family’s dismissal from the program in extreme cases. The Canadian Press reports that the association’s tougher stance has already won support and approval, both from other youth hockey programs, and from youth programs in other sports such as lacrosse and soccer.

Dismissing a family from a youth sports association is strong medicine because it removes the child from the roster, perhaps leaving the youngster no place else to play the organized sport. The Vancouver news story reminds us why associations, when they discipline disruptive parents, should make every effort to spare their children.

Individual Accountability and Concern For All

During my 11 years as president of a mid-Missouri youth hockey association, our relatively few parental disciplinary cases applied two guiding principles – “individual accountability” and “concern for all players and their families.” These principles would have supported a family’s dismissal from the association, but only as the last resort in the most serious cases. (Fortunately no such “last resort” cases happened.)

The first guiding principleindividual accountability holds each parent responsible for his or her own wrongdoing. Particularly at younger ages, children may mimic their parents or remain silent, but the child normally bears little or no responsibility for the elders’ misconduct. Sports associations should strain to discipline wayward parents without affecting a blameless player’s eligibility. Youth sports programs serve the youth; they do not serve the adults.

The second guiding principleconcern for all players and their families recognizes that relatively few abusive parents can ruin the experiences of the majority of families and increase the risk of avoidable injury to their children. I know some civil, sportsmanlike parents who hesitate to bring their younger children to games in various local sports because of what other parents do or say in the stands. When a few parents lead disgusted coaches hang up their whistles prematurely, all players also stand to lose valuable instruction drawn from years behind the bench.

What about the injury factor? In an earlier column (linked below), I explained that when parental abuse leads disgusted veteran referees to quit in droves, their less experienced replacements may not yet be ready. Particularly in contact or collision sports at older age levels, risk of injury increases when control of games depends on replacement referees who would not yet be on the field if more seasoned refs remained active.

The “Least Restrictive Remedy”

Faced with a parent’s violation, a youth sports association should strive to fashion an effective remedy that sanctions the wrongdoing in the way least restrictive on the family, and particularly on the young player.

The least restrictive remedy might require an apology from the parent, sometimes informally without the player’s knowledge.  A more restrictive remedy might suspend the offending parent from attending one or more practices or games.

The most restrictive remedy – the family’s dismissal from the association – might be appropriate in extreme cases because of the magnitude of the offense, its effect on other players and families, or the offending parent’s continuing failure to respond to the association’s pre-season sportsmanship seminars and similar preventive measures. But sports associations should handle dismissal gingerly, lest the normally blameless player be left as collateral damage, innocent but effectively forced to share accountability for the parent’s misconduct.


Source: Camille Bains, The Canadian Press, Put Abusive Parents in Penalty Box: Minor Hockey, (Mar. 15, 2015); Doug Abrams, “How Adults’ Abuse of Officials Endangers Player Safety” —

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: American Moms and Dads are Still “Number One” in the World

 The “Main Street Test”

By Doug Abrams

 The November 1 issue of The Australian Magazine carries a thoughtful feature article by Natasha Bita about out-of-control youth sports parents and coaches. She reports recent confrontations at soccer and rugby matches Down Under, but similar incidents happen regularly almost anywhere boys and girls play organized sports, including the United States.

Reports of adult confrontations in children’s games create a prominent role for a “Main Street Test”: As adults cheer for their child and support the team effort, they should not say or do anything that they would be embarrassed to say or do in front of the child on Main Street.

The Main Street Test leaves plenty of room for partisan, but positive, enthusiasm because rooting for the team marks the best in sports. Games are meant to be fun for the whole family, and cheering is part of the fun. Parents and coaches should want the team to win within the rules, but the adults should not let their language or conduct descend below levels that they would tolerate from their own children.

Australia and the United States

Among other recent Australian embarrassments, Ms. Bita wrote about Brisbane U-11 rugby parents who spent an entire game “hurling instructions and insults from the sidelines,” and then used vulgarity to accuse the winning team of cheating. She also wrote about a boys’ youth soccer game in North Ipswich that saw police use tear gas and Tasers to break up a brawl among 100 spectators.

Ms. Bita described a Sydney U-13 girls’ soccer coach who allegedly sucker punched and head butted a parent who asked him to stop swearing at his players. A U-15 rugby match in New South Wales was marred by a brawl between players that, according to an official on the scene, “start[ed] with banter from the parents.” In Canberra, kids played a U-12 soccer game before empty stands because officials banned parents for hooliganism at a prior game between the two teams.

Now, for the United States. . . . In just the last month and a half, two U-11 youth football teams in Washington State were banned from the post-season playoffs after their parents brawled. In New Mexico, two high school girls’ soccer games ended prematurely, one because an angry parent went onto the field and the other because a parent instigated a shouting match. An angry New Jersey father allegedly ran across the field and tackled his son’s youth football coach after a game.

I suspect that in Australia and the United States alike, unruly adults in youth sports are actually more numerous than they appear because the media covers only a small fraction of verbal assaults and other disruptive incidents. A dust-up tends not to reach the newspapers unless someone is arrested or injured. Mere loud incivility, even in the presence of onlookers, may not qualify as newsworthy.

 “Worst Behaved”

How common are unruly adults in American youth sports, and how important is the Main Street Test as a self-control measure? A 2010 poll of 22 nations, jointly conducted by Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos, ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” sports parents. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that they had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials; runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), and Canada (53%). As bad as the confrontations that opened this column were, Australia registered a relatively low 50%.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll confirmed earlier estimates of adult excesses in the United States. In a Survey USA poll in Indianapolis, Indiana, for example, 55% of parents said that they had seen other parents engaging in verbal abuse at youth sporting events, and 21% said that they had seen a physical altercation between other parents. In a Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission survey, 45.3% of youth leaguers said that adults had called them names, yelled at them, or insulted them while they were playing; 17.5% said that an adult had hit, kicked or slapped them during a game.

The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that about 15% of youth league games see a confrontation between parents or coaches and officials, and a national summit on Raising Community Standards in Children’s Sports called youth sports a “hotbed of chaos, violence and mean-spiritedness.” In a survey of youth athletes conducted by Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine, 74% had watched out-of-control adults at their games; 37% had watched parents yelling at children, 27% had watched parents yelling at coaches or officials, 25% had watched coaches yelling at officials or children, and 4% had watched violence by adults.

Setting the Example

Too many parents and coaches fail the Main Street Test during games by baiting referees, berating adolescent opponents, and unleashing profanity that they would deplore if it came from the mouths of their own children. Referees and other participants can hear these verbal assaults only when the adults yell so loud that their own children on the field or the bench can also hear.

When parents or coaches physically confront one another, anyone nearby can witness the bullying. The adults’ physical abuse would not win their children’s respect on Main Street, so there is no reason to believe that the abuse wins respect at the game either.

Most adults do behave themselves as their children play, but many youth athletes display better self-discipline than their elders. This turnabout stains the game because adults, not children, should set the example, on Main Street and at the field.


[Sources: Natasha Bita, Children Brawling at Footy Match is Bad Enough. But When the Parents Join In, It’s Time to Blow the Whistle, Australian Magazine, Nov. 1, 2014, p. 18; James Yodice, Unruly Parents Force Girls Soccer Matches to be Stopped, Albuquerque Journal, Sept. 25, 2014, p. D3; Douglas E. Abrams, Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy, Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, vol. 39, p. 1 (2012).]

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Worst Things That Parents (and Coaches) Say to Young Athletes

“For crying out loud! How could you miss that easy pop-up? You’re a real embarrassment out there!”

“How come you’re not as good as your older brother?”

“When I was your age, I could make that play in my sleep!”

Sadly, you get the idea. I don’t know you about you, but over the years, invariably when I watch a youth league game, or travel team game, or even HS kids play, I invariably find myself cringing when I hear a loud-mouthed coach or parent yell out something totally inappropriate to the youngsters.

At first, I feel so sorry for the kid – I’m sure he or she wants to crawl under a rock to get away from the humiliating taunts of a coach or parent. I mean, how could a grown-up be so cruel as to scream at a kid? And then I begin to realize that often times, this kind of verbal abuse has nothing to do with the youngster, but rather everything to do with the parent/coach trying to save their own face; that is, trying to show all the others in attendance that it’s not his fault that the kid made an error or mistake.

I always ask: “Just show some sensitivity to the young athlete. Clearly kids make mistakes, errors, and miscues – that’s entirely part of the process of learning and mastering the sport. What good does it do for you, as an adult, to highlight and draw attention to their error?”

In short, if there is one thing I would ask parents and coaches to change, it would be to try and think first before you open your mouth. That is, kids already know when they have made a mistake – they really don’t need you to point it out to them. Secondly, this is the exact right time to offer encouragement and exhibit patience. The kid is looking for any support they can find: wouldn’t it be nice if the coach or the parent stepped up and offered that – instead of leading the charge to humiliate the poor kid.

And yet, as several callers pointed out on my show this AM – this kind of verbal abuse happens all the time and all over the country. What can we do to get the coaches and parents to think ahead of the consequences of their words?

Just yesterday, I was watching the Yankees against the Minnesota Twins in an extra-inning game tied 1-1. In the bottom of the 11th inning, the New York catcher Francisco Cervelli – who ironically had driven in the only run for the Yankees – make a throw that sailed widely over the first baseman, and as a result the winning run scored for Minnesota. Game over. New York loses on that error.

The camera immediately focused on Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi. Did he scream and yell at Cervelli? Did go through a series of painful gestures to show his displeasure?

No, Girardi simply packed up his notes from the game, and quietly headed back down the runway from the dugout to the clubhouse. Was he upset? Of course. Did he show it? No.

Did Cervelli feel bad? Of course. After all, he just lost the game for himself and his teammates.

Chances are that Girardi, in a quiet moment later on, probably spoke to Cervelli in private and explained to him why it was a poor throw to have attempted. But again, that was not done in public. And I doubt there was any screaming from Joe.

My question is this: if Cervelli had been 12 years old and was playing in a LL game, do you think his coach would have handled his poor throw in the same manner as Girardi?

Again, parents and coaches…if you want to be the best instructor and motivator to your players, always think first before you say or anything. That “think first” approach will go a long ways to getting rid of the verbal abuse we inflict on our kids.

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: The Unforeseen Fall-Out from Fans Screaming at Young Refs





by Doug Abrams

On June 10, the Bakersfield Californian reported that all Kern County high school sports leagues experienced a shortage of referees and other officials again this year. The chronic shortage affected both varsity and sub-varsity games in more than half a dozen sports.

The president of the Kern County Officials Association (KCOA) pinpointed a major reason for the steady attrition. “If you officiate,” he says, “you’d better have a thick skin because you’re going to . . . get yelled at. It goes with the territory.”

A former KCOA president, a longtime baseball umpire, explains. “Nobody wants to umpire because most people . . . don’t want to go out there and get yelled at, screamed at, and shown up.” He correctly calls the shortage of youth sports officials a “national problem.” From coast to coast, interscholastic conferences and youth leagues report a steady exodus of veteran officials who have grown disgusted with the verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse inflicted on them by parents and coaches.

A National Problem, Indeed

 Some results of this exodus are readily apparent to anyone who pays even glancing attention. The media reports that games sometimes may have to be postponed, rescheduled or even canceled. Seasons may have to be shortened so that league schedules do not outpace the roster of available officials. It is sometimes said that the best referees are the ones people hardly notice during the game, but people notice when referee shortages complicate the game schedule itself.

 This column concerns another, especially harmful result that can escape the untrained eye when veteran referees prematurely hang up their whistles. Particularly in contact and collision sports, the shortage of experienced officials can increase the risk of injury to players, including ones who play clean and follow the rules of the game.

 Compromising Safety

“To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” Parents and coaches assume important enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of thegame . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

Particularly in contact or collision sports, this essential control suffers when so many veteran referees are driven to quit each year. Many replacement refs are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.

Before parents and coaches criticize less experienced officials for not controlling high school and youth league games, the adults need to consider whether their over-the-top misbehavior helped create the very situation that draws their criticism. All too often, parents and coaches get the quality of officiating that they deserve. All too often, their children are the losers.

 [Sources: Jeff Evans, Kern County Association Faces Referee Shortage, Bakersfield Californian, June 10, 2014; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, 19 Clin. J. Sport Med. 451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, 125 Pediatrics 410 (Feb. 2010)]

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Visiting the Sins of the Parents on Their Child


                 Disciplining Violent Youth Sports Parents

                                      By Doug Abrams
Earlier this month, Hockey Winnipeg banned a mother and father from watching their eight-year-old son’s hockey games for three years. The suspensions, the most severe ever imposed by the city’s hockey governing body, banish the two parents from city-sanctioned games in any arena.

The parents’ suspensions arose from a February 8 confrontation that marred the end of a hard-fought Fargo, North Dakota tournament game between their son’s River East Royals white team and a crosstown Winnipeg-area rival. The mother and father allegedly stormed the opponents’ locker room, began yelling, and threw punches at coaches who sought to escort them out. CBC News reported that the Royals squad was ejected from the tournament. The locker room fistfight happened in front of the eight-year-olds inside, some of whom reportedly still suffer nightmares about it.    

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hockey Winnipeg’s president said afterwards. “There were eight-year-old children stuck in a dressing room with no way out that were subject to this against their will. . . . The husband took a swing at the coach and all hell broke loose.”

The two suspended parents have filed an appeal with Hockey Manitoba, contending that they were defending their son, who they say has a medical condition. The provincial body will hear the appeal late next month, with a further appeal possible to Hockey Canada.

Balancing Act

However the Hockey Winnipeg story turns out, the suspensions demonstrate the balancing act that youth sports associations must sometimes perform when they discipline unruly adults, the troublesome few who threaten to spoil fun and fulfillment for the many.

On one side of the scale, a stern disciplinary response seems appropriate if the Canadian governing bodies find no justification for the conduct of the two Winnipeg parents. The incident left the locker room strewn with child victims – every eight-year-old who witnessed the fisticuffs.

On the other side of the scale, however, banning the accused parents from watching their son’s hockey games for the next three years may also banish their eight-year-old son, even though no media account suggested that he bore any responsibility for what his parents allegedly did. Hockey Winnipeg specified that the three-year suspension does not affect the boy, who may continue playing. But unless cooperative teammates’ families pitch in, or unless the suspended parents may suit up the boy before leaving the rink area, he may end up as collateral damage because it is unrealistic to expect suspended parents to drop off a boy that young at the rink in the middle of winter and leave him to his own devices for three years.  

Individual Accountability

During my 11 years as president of a mid-Missouri youth hockey association, our protocol for disciplining disruptive parents depended on two related (but admittedly sometimes irreconcilable) principles – individual accountability for wrongdoing, and concern for all players and their families.

“Individual accountability” meant that parents remain primarily responsible for their own wrongdoing. A child may mimic the parents or remain silent, but children normally bear no responsibility for their elders’ misconduct.

Unless the player deserved a share of the blame in the particular case, our youth hockey association strained to discipline a wayward parent with measures that would not threaten the player’s participation. Sanctioning a wrongdoing parent is one thing; hurting the blameless child is quite another because youth sports serves the youth, and not their elders.

We stood ready to suspend or dismiss the family from the association only as a last resort. The magnitude of the offense, its effect on other players and families, the parent’s past failures to respond to less restrictive measures, or the parent’s continued non-cooperation had to leave no alternative. With the nearest youth hockey association more than 100 miles away, making a youngster pay the price for the parent’s antics would likely have ended the player’s career.

Concern for All Players and Their Families

Our youth hockey association’s second principle – “concern for all players and their families” – recognized that a small number of troublesome parents can destroy the experiences of the majority of players and their families, and even drive some of the majority from the game altogether. The well-behaved majority deserves protection from the troublesome minority, even if protection means a parent’s long term suspension or removal in an extreme case.

In his excellent Macleans cover story last week, Charlie Gillis attributes falling Canadian youth hockey enrollments partly to “parental obsessiveness” that frequently erupts into the sort of publicized violence that besmirched the Fargo tournament. The “level of obsession,” he writes, “is exacting an enormous toll on the minor hockey system.” In hockey and other sports, parents’ serious (and sometimes criminal) misconduct may warrant a strong response.

No Winners

Disciplinary proceedings are the least savory aspect of being a youth league coach or administrator. I much preferred to teach and lead players while enjoying harmony with parents who respected sportsmanship and got along with one another and with me. For the sake of families who seek a wholesome experience from their children’s sports, however, disciplinary proceedings carefully calibrated to the offense and the offender are important to youth sports.

Calibration often does not come easily because for at least one of the parties, a disciplinary proceeding normally cannot make the sports experience better; the best the proceeding can do is to make that experience less worse. Media accounts of this month’s Fargo locker room brawl and its aftermath do not suggest that any winners will emerge.