The Problem with Parents in Youth Sports

Politics, competitiveness, machinations in youth sports—and that's just the parents! Our 'Patch In' columnist asks: Is that true in other towns? Darien, too?

Rivals competing in a matchup for the season-ending big game. Coaches making headlines because of off-the-field behavior. Leagues competing for players with commissioners needing to get involved.

Think this is about Major League sports? Think again—it’s what’s happening our towns’ youth leagues every day.

If I had a dollar for every time someone approached me and said, “You should write an article about sports in town and how awful it is!” I’d be a wealthy woman and wouldn’t have to write opinion columns anymore.

Yes, I have children that play in my town’s athletic leagues. And trust me, I do give thought to how writing about sports will impact how my kids are viewed when it comes time for tryouts. I had to think long and hard about how to approach this one.

I wasn’t a competitive athlete growing up, at least not when it came to team sports. While I did have to try out for cheerleading to make the squad (ack! can’t believe I’m admitting that one in public), back then it was a ‘club’ rather than something viewed as being athletic, and we certainly weren’t gymnasts or dancers. So I’ve had a sharp learning curve to navigate the world of youth sports.

My husband competed in swimming, and he grew up overseas, so I have a hard time believing his experience was similar to what it’s like being a competitive athlete in communities like ours, where the emphasis is so much on sports as the be-all-end-all kind of thing for our kids to do.

Parental politics

Regardless, viewing the phenomenon of organized team play as a parent brings being part of it to a whole new level. The politics, competitiveness and machinations are larger than life for something that should be, in its purest form, something our children simply enjoy. Linguistically, at least, sports are play. But it’s a whole different story when it comes to what sports really are in everyday practice.

In , where I live, there’s been a recent controversy that broke out when parents of younger field hockey players formed a separate booster organization to promote and focus on players not yet in high school. When the news broke that the Wilton Youth Field Hockey group had splintered off from the Wilton Field Hockey Association and there was a split in the parent leadership ranks, the proverbial stuff hit the fan. The finger-pointing and accusations ensued, including letters-to-the-editor and, I’m sure relationships that are now casualties at both the adult and kid levels.

Wilton’s not alone. In the last year we’ve seen stories like the ; coaches who had their youth football teams to teach them not to be satisfied with a third-place finish; a team disqualified for keeping ineligible players on the roster; a coach hitting an umpire; and the list could go on.

People perturbed

I’ve had people suggest I write stories about coaches who use abusive or inappropriate language with kids, or who pit them against their friends, all in the name of the win. Others have recommended I write something about the cliquey nature of sports parents, like the moms of your kids’ teammates who ignore you when you walk onto the sideline. Most parents have experienced the disappointment of a tryout that resulted in a child being the only one excluded from the team, so that could have made a potential story too.

But almost to a person, no one was willing to use their name to talk about it in print. The mark is too long-lasting.

What pushes parents to get over-involved in the sports leagues in which their children compete? What happens when some parents try to re-live their own gloried years on the gridiron or in other arenas and inflict the Freudian fingerprints of unfulfilled fantasies on their own kids? What happens to the children who can’t take the pressure, pain and disappointment?

Anytime I’ve been in a discussion with someone about sports in town, it inevitably leads to someone saying, “Sports in this town, it’s just unbelievable!” It’s usually followed by someone else countering, “Yeah, but it’s like that in every town.”

I’d love to hear your horror stories, frustrations or thoughts on the subject. I know we all fear the repercussions of retribution, so this will be the one time I’ll look the other way about anonymous comments. I’m curious if that is what it’s like in every town. Will you have the courage to play this game with me in print?

This is an opinion article reflecting Heather Borden Herve's point of view, not necessarily Patch's opinion.

Correction: Heather Borden Herve wrote this installment of her regular column. I (David Gurliacci) mistakenly left my own name up there, where it remained until I saw it just now at 7:34 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012. Sorry, Heather. Sorry, everybody.

Editor's note: About a year ago, a Darien student, Peter Barston, surveyed kids in town on why they play sports (the most popular answer: "for fun"). Here are links ...

... to a Darien Patch article about the survey ("");

... to a New York Times article about the survey ("A Survey of Youth Sports Finds Winning Isn’t the Only Thing"); and

... to the website Barston set up to show his survey results.

Maddie January 24, 2012 at 02:39 PM
Sometimes we ALL forget that youth sports mean different things to different people. We should acknowledge that if you want your child to just be active a recreational league is wonderful. If you believe your child needs a more competitive atmosphere than youth sports leagues are the way to go. Be mindful of what Your child needs first and it should work out, its when we as parents project our past experiences that there are issues. Let's look in the mirror and decide to see the truth.
Brooke de Lench January 24, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Having researched and written about this for years, I encourage you to join me in looking at the situation in a different way. My take and approach when consulting at the national youth sports level is: "Parents are not the problem--they are the solution to the problems in youth sports." In short (very short--this is a complicated issue), every town has unique sets of challenges, that when handled the correct way will resolve themselves. The key to this is communication--communicate often and effectively and openly encourage disgruntled parents (and kids) to communicate. Coaches, leagues and schools with the macho-"I coach-you Jane" attitude fosters very serious problems with parents. Brooke de Lench Author: HOME TEAM ADVANTAGE (Harper Collins)
Anthony Fiorino January 25, 2012 at 03:54 PM
anyone who thinks these issues are specific to any region, class, religion or race, you're NUTS. This stuff happens everywhere and thank goodness it does or I'd be out of a job. Idiot parents and coaches are what keeps my show alive and strong heycoachtony dot com
ADT January 26, 2012 at 05:10 PM
The best thing my basketball coach of a husband does is take all of the parents of his teams (girls basketball) to a top 25 D1 game and let them absorb that level of play. In D.C., every parent's insanity seems to come from the delusion that their kid is going to be the next Maya Moore...once they see for themselves D1 athletes up close, they tend to readjust their expectations and attitudes for the better.
Kirk Mango January 30, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Having experienced the sports and youth sports scene from all angles (coach, teacher, parent of athletes, and former athlete), the problem is very much multifaceted. You cannot place blame in any one place, nor can you expect the solution to come from any one group. It is a combination of attitudes, perspectives, and variables that have our sports and youth sports culture not producing the type of attitudes that it should. Yes, there are parents who have completely lost perspective on what it is all about, but there are coaches and organizations that are also representing that same loss of perspective and winning at all costs attitudes that help to destroy the positives a solid youth sports experience can give. And yes, the issues brought up in the article, and more, are common in almost every community and at just about every level of competitive sports. No one person, or one answer will fix the problem. It will take a combination of many different groups of people to make a difference. Lets ALL be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Blame can be placed just about everywhere. Kirk Mango Author: Becoming a True Champion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)


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