While I understand the idea of parents being more empowered in youth sports can be a confusing statement for parents and a potentially objectionable statement for coaches, I was very intentional in developing this specific language. In fact, the more I work in the youth sports landscape: coaching, coach education, Board development, parent education – the clearer it becomes: Parents will be difference makers when it comes to improving youth sports.
Parents are often advised to "back off," "let your child lead the way," or "don't be a helicopter parent" and so the idea of being empowered to be MORE involved can be counterintuitive. Level-headed parents actually live in fear of being thought of as a "crazy sports parent" so the last thing they want to do is appear too involved. There is a proper way for parents to be involved in their child's sporting experience.
Coaches have unfortunately had to deal with "crazy sports parents" in the past and have walked away from those difficult seasons when they have a difficult parent feeling defeated, worn out, and overwhelmed. When I am doing coach education, coaches often share "crazy sports parent" stories with me. Unfortunately, the "crazy sports parents" have left coaches with a negative opinion of parents, and too often the result has been coaches who don't want to associate or interact with parents. There is a proper way for coaches to interact with parents.
Telling youth coaches they need to help parents feel empowered is "flipping the script." And that is exactly what we are doing at The Sideline Project.
Youth sports has not been working well, and we need to "flip the script" on some of our behaviors to make youth sports better.
At The Sideline Project we believe collaborative relationships between clubs, coaches and parents are in the best interest of player development. And we believe that parents are uniquely positioned to be the difference makers when it comes to improving youth soccer as they play a pivotal role in the attitudes on the sidelines, in the car rides, at team dinners, and when it comes to the motivation and identity development of the player.
3 Ways Parents Must Feel Empowered
1. Empowered to Get Sport Educated
As youth sports has professionalized, the demands that are being placed on our young athletes has increased. The four times a week training I had as an athlete growing up in the 80’s was not as efficient, physically grueling, or mentally demanding as our children’s environment is today. Yes, we were good soccer players – but young players today have higher standards when it comes to skill acquisition and training demands than most (all?) of us did growing up. I never had a summer work out routine for soccer (only Cross Country), I only lifted now and then in high school for track, I didn’t play on turf fields, and the speed of play and decision making was slower than it is today.
With that in mind, parents need to make sure we are educated about athlete development and recovery in order to keep our children safe. Quality coaching matters! Parents need to understand skill acquisition and what a good practice environment looks like so we are confident our child is developing in the proper atmosphere. Parents need to understand the nuances of motivation and how we can support our child in developing autonomy, competence and a stronger connection to the sport, their coach, and their team.
2. Empowered to Make Relationships A Priority.
At the end of the day, we want children to walk away from their youth sporting experience with friendships that will last their lifetime. We want them to have memories that will help them feel confident in the face of future struggle. We want them to discover a level of commitment to team and understanding of solidarity that is uniquely learned and discovered in sport and will apply to their future teams, work and even family relationships.
Too often lost with the professionalization of sport and the roster changes that happen each year is the feeling of a Sense of Community we grew up with on our teams. Pool parties, sleep-overs, birthday parties and amazing tournament adventures matter. Also too often missing from our youth sport experiences are the fun-filled adult relationships between the parents on the team. When my youth soccer team travelled to tournaments, I vividly remember the loud laughter coming from the room where all the parents were hanging out as us players sat in the hallway playing board games and cards. We took extra days to go sight seeing, white water rafting, boating and more on tournaments.
Finding this Sense of Community again is essential. In fact, the research is clear that a strong Sense of Community will lead to higher levels of player and parent satisfaction and player retention. The parents’ role here must not be underplayed. It’s not up to the coach or club to develop this Sense of Community, it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure these memory making activities take shape by forming lasting friendships with the parents on the team and being intentional about having multiple team memory-making get togethers. Parents need to take the time to genuinely enjoy the company of the other parents with no stress or worry about results or performances.
3. Empowered to Protect the Sidelines.
Our sidelines are out of control and parents need to take partial responsibility for this fact. Stronger parent values and team cultures need to be established that make the parent who is screaming at the referee or yelling at players feel like they do not belong. Parents must not tolerate this hostile behavior any longer and clubs and coaches need to have policies in place for not only reporting this behavior, but following through and warning the parent, and ultimately removing them from the sidelines if the hostile behavior does not stop.
Parents, even the well intentioned ones, need to understand the difference between supportive and distracting behavior and realize the harm they are doing to long term skill and tactical development by distracting players as they tell them what to do while they are playing. We discuss this in depth in The Sideline Project Course.
Parents need to talk to their children about what the child wants from the parent during the game. Do they want the parent cheering positively at the appropriate times, or do they want them in attentive silence? This is an important conversation between a parent and a child and will lay the groundwork to a more enjoyable environment for the player. After all, this is their activity, not the parents'.
Parents must stop yelling at referees. Refereeing is hard. Many youth officials and/or referees are beginners. Would it be better to have more experienced referees in our youth game? Yes, but this is a vicious circle. Referees are quitting in record numbers because of the hostile sidelines, and so they are not having the experiences they need to adequately develop. There are many ways referee education and development can be improved, and clearer policies and feedback processes for referees need to be implemented - but parents must control what we can control – and that is ourselves. Yelling at a referee is not going to help.
Our children desperately need an enjoyable match environment in which they can feel safe and confident. Parents must take the sidelines back from the crazy parents ruining it for everyone and not tolerate hostile behavior any longer. At the same time, we need to reflect personally if our behavior is supportive or distracting and eliminate all of the distracting communication.
Parents do play an important, essential role in youth soccer and in order to make youth soccer better, parents must feel empowered to take responsibility to ensure their child feels inspired by the game. Parents must get educated about athlete development, put relationships first to establish a strong Sense of Community, and voraciously protect the sidelines. Parents being empowered in these regards will lead to more players who fall in love with the game, continue playing and therefore are more likely to grow into healthier, more confident and capable adults.