Parents Gone Wild

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

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.

Categories: Parents & Kids