Parents Gone Wild

When Mom and Dad lose their cool on the sidelines, no one wins.

When Mike Miranda’s youngest child, Michael, showed a serious interest in hockey at an early age, Miranda did everything he could to support his son’s passion. He researched the area’s top hockey programs; developed an off-ice workout for Michael; and signed him up for private skating lessons with Wendy Marco, one of the country’s top skating instructors.

The problem was, Miranda wouldn’t let Marco and the other coaches do their job. Instead, during lessons, he screamed through the Plexiglas when he thought his son was “goofing off,” not hustling, or making mental errors.

“I would look at Michael and think that he could be doing so much better,” Miranda says, “and it would drive me crazy.”

At one point while watching one of Marco’s drills, Miranda lost patience and started banging on the boards, bellowing, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

“This was supposed to be a fun race,” recalls Marco. “He was running faster than the kids were skating, just yelling, ‘Go faster, go faster!’ ”

As soon as the race was over, Marco picked up the microphone and announced, “Mike, you need to leave now.” Then she turned to his son and said, “Mikey, your daddy is getting a time-out.”

Miranda, a stay-at-home father of three who grew up in the area and attended George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, is not the only local parent in need of an intervention. Go to any field, park, rink or court around town, and it won’t take long to find the others.

“What? Do you have cement in your shoes?” barks a mom, hovering just a few feet off the basketball court at Swanson Middle School.

“Keep trying it your way and see how well that works,” yells a father just after his son swings and misses for strike two at Barcroft Park. His son takes the next pitch for strike three.

“C’mon, you call that aggressive?” shouts a dad who is straddling the sideline of his daughter’s soccer field at Arlington Hall West Park.

“Shoot.”

“Pass.”

“Rebound.”

“Hustle.”

“Pay attention.”

“You gotta make that play!”

“What’s wrong with you?”

For parents who can’t seem to control their emotions from the sidelines, 12-year-old Brendan, a local hockey player, has some advice that isn’t exactly sugarcoated:

“Shut the f#@* up.”

While there may be more appropriate ways to verbalize that sentiment, he’s not the only one thinking it. In researching this story, we asked more than 100 coaches, professional athletes, psychologists and kids, “What advice would you give to parents who watch their kids play sports?”

Their nearly unanimous answer? Stop yelling from the sidelines.

“It’s one of the worst things a parent can do,” says sports psychologist Neal Bowes, a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “The ‘Johnny do this, Johnny do that.’ We’re learning that that kind of behavior is extremely destructive.”

A former professional soccer player from England who now lives in Arlington, Bowes understands what it takes to succeed at the highest level of competition. He has provided psychological training for athletes at the past three Olympic Games. He also trains coaches and parents on the psychology of youth sports through his McLean-based company, Simply Performance Group.

Being a child athlete is like being in a fight for survival, Bowes explains, especially when kids are trying to learn in an environment where their parents are constantly correcting every mistake they make.

“Yeah, I saw that a lot [as a kid],” Chicago Bulls All-Star point guard Derrick Rose says during an interview in the visitors’ locker room at the Verizon Center. “My first thought was always, why are parents doing that to their kids? It’s embarrassing.”

In fact, it’s more than embarrassing. Research at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University suggests that parents who provide running commentary during games tend to breed dependency, anxiety and a lack of creativity. As a result, their kids struggle to develop critical “adaptive behaviors”—such as working hard and problem solving—because they’re never allowed to make mistakes, learn from them and then recover on their own.

“If you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, that might not be good for most kids, but my kid can handle it,’ it’s just not true,” warns Bowes. “Those are the types of parents who don’t talk to their kids. Their kids are probably terrified of telling them the truth.”

Marco, who has coached more than a few players who went on to the National Hockey League and American Hockey League, agrees. “I just know that I’ve never seen it work,” she says one Friday after a full morning of lessons at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “Not one single time.”

In Miranda’s case, his son, Michael, became so focused on his dad’s feedback during games and practices that the comments stifled his progress. Michael became distracted on the ice and was often a step behind. The pace of his improvement slowed. Stress ultimately marred an activity that was supposed to be fun.

“Michael was way more concerned with what I thought than actually playing the game,” his dad confesses. “He shouldn’t have been looking over at me, and he did that way too much. Unfortunately, I created that.”

To be fair, experts say that parents are only part of the problem. Coaches, clubs and youth organizations also play a significant role in pushing a culture that encourages extreme competitiveness at an early age.

“Parents have this idea that if they don’t sign up for travel soccer by the time their kid is 7, they’re going to miss the boat,” Bowes says. But this kind of pressure can backfire.

Chris Annunziata, an orthopedic and sports medicine specialist with Commonwealth Orthopaedics at Virginia Hospital Center, says that focusing on a single sport too early can often lead to unintended consequences such as “burnout.” About 85 percent of kids who play competitive sports end up quitting all forms of organized sports by high school. Some get funneled out of the competitive system. Others simply stop enjoying it.

Intense competition can also lead to overuse injuries that require surgeries—procedures that, until recently, were typically needed only by older athletes.

“A good example is the increased number of [Tommy John] surgeries in the throwing arms of young pitchers,” explains Annunziata, who lives in McLean and has two sons who participate in McLean Little League. “It’s because of the yearlong pitching and the concentration on one sport [at an early age]. When you change sports with each season, you naturally give certain bones and certain joints a rest.”

Parents tend to push their kids for a variety of reasons. Some admit they take too much personal pride in their children’s accomplishments. Others believe that their child will be among the 0.32 percent who will make it from high school hockey to the NHL. Some are frustrated by a perceived lack of effort in their kids and assume they need to take a “tough love” stance. But almost all are simply trying to help.

“Even parents with the best intentions need to keep in mind that they can be doing more harm than good,” says Shirlington resident Phil Juliano, who has been coaching youth baseball in Arlington for 15 years and sits on the executive board of Arlington Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken Baseball. “The goal is to create an environment where kids have the opportunity to have fun, learn and reach their potential, whatever that is. They can’t do that if their parents are criticizing everything that happens during the game.”

Sometimes that criticism isn’t just directed at the kids.

Photo by Rebecca Danzenbaker“If these parents are not yelling at their kids, they’re yelling at the officials,” observes Marta Cahill, a sports programmer for Arlington County.

Cahill, whose four children grew up in Arlington and played sports through college, is also a liaison to the adult and youth soccer leagues, and a commissioner of the winter basketball program. She acknowledges that officials make mistakes sometimes. But it’s just as common to encounter parents who “don’t understand the rules” and are just “too protective of their kids.”

“One or two bad calls are almost never the reason you lost the game,” she says. “By arguing, you’re teaching your child that they don’t have to take responsibility for what happens during the game. If you lose, just blame the ref.”

Adults who routinely rant at the officials often fail to realize that they are modeling poor sportsmanship.

“I’ve lost a lot of respect for grown-ups,” says 15-year-old Alexandre Fall, a rookie basketball referee for Arlington County. “There were times when it seemed like a hostile environment, and this is third-grade rec basketball.”

Fall, a sophomore at Washington-Lee High School, says he plans to ref again next year. But other young officials aren’t so forgiving. After a while, the $20 to $30 they earn per game just doesn’t seem worth the abuse.

“I got turned off towards umpiring when I was 13 and 14 [because I] got yelled at by so many parents,” says Cory Lipman, a Wakefield High School alum who recently graduated from the University of Virginia. “I suppose I could handle it a little [better] now, but I’m not sure I want to.”

Lipman isn’t the only one. Last year, Arlington Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken Baseball had 20 umpires. Only six returned for the 2012 spring season. League officials cite scheduling conflicts as a reason, but they also acknowledge that inappropriate behavior from parents has been a significant factor in the low retention rate.

“We have kids just starting out [as officials], and obviously their experience level is low. For them to get better, they have to keep umpiring,” says Charlie Binns, who has been coaching Arlington baseball for more than 25 years. “But it’s very difficult keeping the same kids coming back, because they get berated and they just don’t want to do it anymore. I’ve seen parents come out of the stands to take on these young kids who are umpiring. It’s absolutely insane.”

Why are so many well-meaning and otherwise reasonable parents prone to fanaticism at the field?

“Parents give a lot so that their kids can have an opportunity to play sports, whether it’s time, money or emotions,” says David Maher, commissioner of Arlington Travel Basketball. “The problem is that emotions are sometimes difficult to control.”

And that’s when they get in the way. Many parents say that intellectually they understand they shouldn’t be yelling. But they can’t help it.

“I have my scarf over my mouth, which reminds me to keep my mouth shut,” says Alissa, an Arlington mom sitting in the bleachers at Kenmore Middle School during her son’s travel basketball game. “But then I’ll hear the parents from the other team start ratcheting it up, cheering and yelling, and I can’t contain myself. I have to respond.”

Some leagues, like McLean Youth Soccer, have taken steps to mandate good behavior. José Ochoa, who serves as director of sportsmanship for the league, acknowledges that coaching from the sidelines is part of the culture of youth sports. But that culture can be changed, he says, through education (so parents understand the negative effects of what they are doing) and a contractual component that requires parents to sign a code of conduct that the league strictly enforces. Parents who fail to comply with the code of conduct may be asked to leave the field or, in some cases, to stay home for a number of subsequent games.

McLean Youth Soccer also initiated a team sideline liaison program in 2006 requiring all travel-league teams to appoint a parent whose job it is to deal with disruptive sideline comments. As a result, the league that once had one of the worst reputations for parent behavior now has one of the best.

“It takes time,” says Ochoa, noting that formal hearings for parents who fail to comply with the code of conduct have decreased dramatically since the problem has received greater attention. “If you approach it from the top down and bottom up and say, ‘We’re all in this together,’ you can see a change.”

Washington Redskins wide receiver Anthony Armstrong, who coaches his girlfriend’s kids’ soccer team in Maryland, believes that coaches can help by setting the right tone early on.

“I explain at the beginning of the season that when it comes down to it, kids just want their mom and dad to be supportive,” says Armstrong, who received that gift from his mom.

Other coaches find that actions speak louder than words. Cahill recalls one of her kids’ travel soccer games against a team from Williamsburg, at which the opposing team’s parents were remarkably calm and polite. When she asked for their secret, a mom from the other team told her: At the start of the season, the coach warned that any time a parent yelled at his or her kid, he would stop the game and send the child across the field to publicly ask the parent to stop yelling.

“He only had to do it once,” Cahill says, quoting the other mom.

Being supportive doesn’t mean parents must sit on their hands and button their lips at all times. Experts and coaches agree that clapping and general cheering are perfectly fine—so long as parents cheer for all the kids, not just their own.

Also, there’s a time and place for critique. Former Georgetown University men’s basketball coach Craig Esherick, who lives in Westover, says it’s OK to talk to your child on the drive home or to work on drills the next day at the park. But he makes a point “never to say a word” during his 15-year-old son Zach’s basketball games at Yorktown High School. “And I certainly know plenty about basketball,” he says.

Esherick, who is an assistant professor of sports management for George Mason University and color commentator for the Patriots’ basketball games, says he’s seen parents who were so outspoken during games that college coaches didn’t want to recruit their kids.

“When I was coaching, over the course of 25 years, I saw many kids who would have had more scholarship opportunities had their parents been less vocal,” he says. “Parents do the most good when they just blend into the crowd.”

That’s pretty much what Mike Miranda wanted to do after the “time-out” incident with skating coach Wendy Marco. “She called me out in front of all the moms,” he says. “She embarrassed the crap out of me.”

Once banished, Miranda headed to the lobby and was quickly met by his friend, Chris Amolsch, who had overcome similar problems watching his son, Connor, play.

“It’s really about surrender,” says Amolsch, a criminal defense attorney and self-proclaimed type-A personality. “I needed to surrender the control. And it’s hard because I’m a control freak. But there’s a real danger in slapping a 44-year-old brain on a 7-year-old kid. I [realized] that if I didn’t stop acting like an ass, there would be a point where Connor wouldn’t want to hang out with me anymore.”

Amolsch’s experience caused Miranda to consider how his actions had affected his own son.

“I had to admit that my son was embarrassed when I yelled at the referees, the coaches or especially him,” says Miranda. “He never did say it, but I could see it in his face. The eyes tell you when you’re being the best dad in the world, and they tell you when you’re not.”

Miranda showed up at the rink the next day with a piece of duct tape over his mouth.

“All I could do was say, ‘You’re right, I know, my fault, sorry, my bad,’ ” he says. “It was humbling; I’m not going to lie. But it was done in a comical way. I took it exactly for what it was. It was me being me, and I needed to change. So that’s what I did.”

Change came slowly and was stressful at first, he admits. He started by watching games and practices with Amolsch from the lobby or other locations in the arena where the kids couldn’t see them. They still cheered, but they tried to avoid singling out players and made a point of acknowledging good plays by the opponents.

They continued skating lessons with Marco, encouraged off-ice training and held their kids accountable for reaching their potential. But they tried to leave the coaching to the coaches.

“These are great dads who were just a little too involved when their kids were on the ice,” says Marco. Since the dads “chilled out,” she adds, both Connor and Michael are “thriving.”

“It’s because I stopped being that dad,” acknowledges Miranda. “The one standing right there at the glass, watching, yelling, coaching. Once I backed off, my son exceeded beyond everything I could have imagined.”

Gary Karton is a speechwriter, author and former Washington Post reporter who lives in Arlington with his wife, dog and two sons. He has been coaching youth sports in the area for nine years.

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