Overbearing parents toxic to young athletes

Aggressive sideline behavior robs kids of the lessons sports provide
April 16, 2019

In a past article I wrote about the importance of allowing kids to enjoy youth sports and the problems that arise when too much emphasis is placed on performance and the impact that can have on a child at a young age.  

In this article I would like to discuss another sensitive topic in youth sports: overbearing or aggressive parents on the sidelines.  If you have been to any youth sporting event and have not seen this behavior, please read the entire article because you are probably the type of parent I’m describing.  

The reason I say that is because it has gotten to a point that you can’t go to any type of youth sports game without seeing a situation where a parent is screaming at the referee, badmouthing the other team’s players or parents, or overly critiquing their own child’s play.  This can be a toxic environment for our kids. What are we really teaching our kids when this behavior is tolerated or, in some cases, even encouraged?

Let’s first look at parents yelling at the referees.  In sports, there are two authority figures, the coach and the referees.  A team’s authority figure is the coach, but on game day, the referees trump the coach.  The referees’ calls on the field are final, no matter if they are right or wrong.

As players, we are taught to accept the result and move on, but many parents feel their child was deprived on the field, and they scream their dissatisfaction from the sidelines.  

In my opinion, parents who act this way are showing their kids it is OK to disrespect authority when they disagree with a situation.  So when their kids get a little older and they have no respect for law enforcement or their boss at their first job, these parents don’t understand their child’s behavior all stems from watching the parents’ displays as children. It’s not what we should be teaching our kids.

Youth sports should teach our kids sportsmanship, teamwork and working toward a goal.  However the biggest takeaway for many kids these days may be that it’s OK to be disrespectful. The harassment has grown so rampant that more than 70 percent of new referees in all sports quit the job within three years, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. 

As a result, there is a growing shortage of quality referees in many sports.  This is adding to the problem, as more inexperienced, younger referees will make more mistakes. Many of these referees are kids themselves, under the age of 18.

I challenge parents to explain to their child that mistakes will be made on the field; it is part of the game.  You don’t have to like it, but you need to accept it and move on. It is a great lesson in life; there will be things that will happen that negatively impact your kids as they get older that they will have no control over: illness, not getting that job, death in the family.  How do you want them to react? Complaining and being negative, or moving beyond it and focusing on the present?

My two kids are actively involved in numerous youth sport leagues throughout the year.  Like many families, we spend most of our weekends traveling to tournaments across the mid-Atlantic region.  

It can be a big commitment, not only for the kids but for the parents as well.  The amount of time required to transport kids to practices and games is almost a full-time job. The financial cost can be quite significant as well.  Once you add up equipment costs, team expenses and travel costs, the financial commitment can be very high.

However, even with all that, we look forward to the experience and the challenges of the season.  The overbearing and aggressive parents can create a toxic environment for the team which can dampen the excitement of the season.  I guarantee a child with aggressive parents is embarrassed by the parents’ behavior, but it is also embarrassing and uncomfortable for the other parents because that behavior represents how others see the team.   

These overbearing parents scream at their kids for every mistake they make or tell them every move they should be making on the field.  This is uncomfortable to be around, and it is not fair to the child.

A kid is coached during practice with their teammates about what to do and what not to do on the field.  Game day is an opportunity for that child to fail or succeed. Allow that to happen on its own. Your child will learn more from their own actions than from a parent constantly yelling about what to do.  

There will be days when your child is outmatched or when they underperform. That’s part of the whole process of sports and life.  

I hope more parents can stay parents on game day. Embrace the successes and failures, but just be supportive and positive for your kid.  Allow the coach to coach, respect the game and the team, and respect the players and referees on the field.

That is a good life lesson we should be teaching our kids with youth sports.

  • Kevin started Tricoach in 2007 after racing professionally for eight years. An endurance coach and personal trainer with a master's degree in exercise science and coaching, Kevin works with athletes of all ability levels, novice to professional. Contact Kevin at

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