Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Sidelines Parenting

In previous posts, I have offered comments on refereeing and on coaching in the context of youth soccer. Today I wade into the delicate arena of sidelines parenting.

This is prompted by a game I refereed yesterday in which the parents of a visiting team were not only yelling instructions to their teenage daughters but were "assisting" in making calls. The first was useless, the second counterproductive. On a few occasions, they would yell out "offsides" when it was not, and their daughters would stop running towards the ball after hearing this announcement, leading to at least one goal by the opposition. My favorite parental call was a demand for a free kick when two of the opposing defensive players collided and fell in the penalty area near their player, and their girl with the ball maintained her balance, possession of the ball, and even took a shot at the goal. "Hey, ref, when are you going to call it?"

These and other parental outbursts contributed to a feeling among their girls that they were somehow aggrieved by my calls, and then the girls started focusing on that rather than playing their game. Beyond affecting their performance, this attitude led one to commit a bad foul as she was trying to get even for perceived earlier slights, providing, of course, a free kick to the opposing team near the goal.

There are a number of things I advise parents when I am coaching a team. Here are excerpts of a note sent to parents of a U-12 team a few years ago.

A now, a word on our plans and expectations. Under-12 represents a threshold year for these girls. They are developing physically and emotionally in many wonderful and challenging ways. On the soccer front, they have gotten really good at many aspects of the game, but many aspects remain to be trained before they become really competent players. But they are ready for the next step, both physically and socially. Our goal is to foster individual development as players but also social development as team members. We will do this by creating an environment in which they have lots of fun while learning.

Every girl will play every position on the field, including goalie. Every girl will have approximately equal playing time in all games. Please expect that in the fall, I plan that we will lose many games: That is because we will be working on certain skills that are important in the long run and because I will intentionally assign girls to places on the field in which they are less competent.

Your role as parents is to please make sure the girls get to all practices and games on time, ready to play. If a practice starts at 5pm, please be on the field ready to play by 4:50. If a game starts at 10:30, please be there at 9:45 for a really thorough warm-up.

We expect each player to be at all games and practices unless the player, herself, has called me to explain why she will not be there. This is important. The girls are old enough to take personal responsibility for their commitment to the team: It is not your job to call on their behalf. If your daughter must miss a practice or a game, she should call me and talk to me directly or leave a complete message as to the reasons for her absence.

Your role as parents, too, is to encourage all the players during a game. Please do not engage in sideline coaching. No instructions. Feel free to say, "Good play, Suzie", but do not say, "Kick the ball, Suzie." You will see that I barely talk to the girls who are on the field during a game. Most coaching takes place during the practice sessions or while the girls are on the sidelines during a game. Giving instructions during a game is counterproductive and confusing and robs the girls of the most important developmental tasks: learning to think and communicate for themselves during the game.


Becca said...

Hi Dr. Levy-

I am very happy to have just discovered your blog. My MBA class on leadership is studying your roll in the transformation of BIDMC after you became President and CEO. While I agree with your previous posting on refereeing that this is just a game, I can’t help but see the parallels that make you a great leader and teacher, whether as a coach, a referee, or a CEO. Your honest, clear, direct communication style rings true and lets parents and children alike know your values and expectations. You have established a system that requires that team members take ownership of their responsibilities, on and off the field.

One lesson which the teams in yesterday’s game can learn and will serve them well throughout life, is that, although we should always keeps our ears open to everyone’s opinion, we need to ultimately take direction from the person who is actually calling the shots. I played field hockey throughout high school and college and have seen more than one goal scored (or opportunity missed) because someone on the side line was calling out commands and the players listened to them instead of the referee.

Thanks for setting such a great example of good leadership values and practices and recording your experiences at BIDMC (and on the soccer field) so people can learn from them!

Michael_Flint said...

Ah - competitive parents living through their kids. How about handing out "tickets" with clearly defined expectations of coaches, parents, as well as the players. If the main message focus on the benefits of the players, most parents will respect that.

I coached little league for 2 years, and the league made it clear that parents could be barred from attending games if they became too vocal or violent. Perhaps gently suggesting this as well could serve at the very least a warning. Certainly, it would show how serious the rules are and how important it is to respect the coaches and refs for the ultimate benefit of the players.

Being an optimist, I believe that most parents mean only the best for their kids as well as the others on the field, and would respect a gentle reminder.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I had my daughter read this. The only expression on her face was one of a smile. Knowing that familiar smile, I knew she was acknowledging it as true.

Anonymous said...


Mind if a copy this and change it to fit my figure skaters I coach?

The problems are the same no matter what the sport.

Mary Lu Wehmeier

Anonymous said...

Go for it, Mary Lu!

Howard Luks MD said...

These are the same parents who bring their child to my office on Monday for a note clearing their child to practice. They ignore the elbow/knee or shoulder swollen to the size of a grapefruit, painful to the point of withdrawl--- the pain their children show in their face (but are afraid to mention)---and they don't understand why I insist on talking to the child.

Michael Grose - Parentingideas said...

I am based in Australia and we have sideline parents here too. Only they are sometimes dubbed 'ugly parents'. Quite a problem amongst all age groups.

Anonymous said...

Your suggestion that the parents are there to encourage ALL players is wonderful. This is a terrific opportunity for players and parents to experience the influence of TEAM. Possibly the parents could have an informal organization with "supporting the team" as their mission. Thanks for the ideas.
Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed

Anonymous said...

Good post. I thought of your postings on this subject several times recently during my daughter's senior varsity volleyball season - while I was yelling at the refs for overruling their own linesmen or making inconsistent calls. (Yes, I am guilty of that,though not of the other stuff you mention.) For me, it's difficult to quietly watch the girls working so hard for a win, only to be knocked back by more than one bad call in a hard fought game. I say that while recognizing all you have said about reffing.

My conclusion is that team sports is a somewhat Darwinian experience - the players who can tune out the distractions and overcome the adversities, both fair and unfair,
and persevere to obtain their goals, while remaining ethical themselves, will be best prepared to survive modern life itself. So be it.

Anonymous said...

My daughter's coach when whe was 11, in addition to the positive aspects you enumerated, told the parents and the kids that if during the game, any parent engaged in sideline coaching, the kid would be substituted for. We had one occurrence the next game (from a multi-year sideline coach). It shut him down and we had no further occurrences the rest of the time my daughter played for that club.

Anonymous said...


When we teach our boys in U-11 how to play soccer, one of the most important things is to repect the other team, each of their players. That is why hand shaking is one of the most important part of the game. Unfortunately, these days some parents should also be taught how to respect the other (usually loosing) team`s young kids and advise them not to laugh at the kids when they miss a ball or fall on the ground. Beleive me, it happens.

Anonymous said...

Try being a parent of an Amherst College soccer goalie while they are playing Williams College. Comments flow from the sideline, goood intentions seem to stay home.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Seeing your post made me think of a recent game my 10 year old daughter played. The parents of both teams cheered each time a goal was scored or when a good save was made. The comments were all positive (at least the ones I could hear!), and the biggest round of applause came from our team's parents when a girl on the opposing team got up from a nasty fall to walk to the sidelines. If we can instill that same positive feeling in all parents and players, I think we will teach our children what it's all about-having fun, learning life long skills and sports(wo)manship!

Anonymous said...

hmmm...I remember a little of that during my playing days. As for parents trying to act as ref's and do your job(?), I think that is what discouraged me from every wanting to be a ref...despite the temptation of a little $ and being able to hold up a red card!

eeka said...

This is really intriguing to read, considering that I usually hear the opposite complaint. On my caseload, I have maybe two or three kids whose families I'd say learn toward the overbearing side (and not surprisingly, are seeing me for things like eating disorders and anxiety disorders). I much more commonly see kids whose parents don't seem to take any interest in the kid's hobbies or schoolwork or friends or anything, other than several of them who will threaten that they "better be doing your schoolwork" still without taking an interest. Some of this has to do with cultural backgrounds in which child-raising has a focus mostly on obedience. Some of it has more to do with parents' personal limitations and/or socioeconomic struggles. When I read your depictions, I almost feel like it would be fabulous if my kids' parents had enough internal and external resources to have their kids participating in activities at all and having interactions with them sometimes besides just those in reaction to something the kid had done wrong. Yet at the same time I know that the opposite end of the spectrum is harmful for kids too.