Parents Gone Wild

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


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.

“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.”

Categories: Parents & Kids