The Age of Sideline Rage

 – by Walt Mueller
©2001, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

I’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. Sideline Parent. I was standing near them while watching a youth soccer game. Mr. Sideline Parent was making it hard for me to focus on the game. I wasn’t the only one he was bothering. His constant yelling at the players and refs was making it hard for the players to play the game and the officials to call the game. At one point, his never-ending stream of demeaning, high decibel, verbal outbursts prompted the ref to stop the game to issue a rather pointed warning “Sir, I must ask you to be quiet. If you can’t control yourself, I’ll either have to ask you to leave the area, or I’ll be forced to forfeit the game.”

The only one who didn’t seem to be aware of her husband’s shouting fits was Mrs. Sideline Parent. Perhaps she was so used to it that she didn’t even hear him. While he was verbally fixing and critiquing the action on the field, Mrs. Sideline Parent was involved in a serious discussion with several other mothers about fixing the growing problem of youth violence. The catalyst for their discussion was a vicious student assault that had taken place in the community just two days before.

Seconds after Mr. Sideline Parent launched his especially noisy and obnoxious round of verbal scuds towards the soccer officials and prompted their warning, I witnessed a display of perfectly timed irony. Mrs. Sideline Parent – still locked in discussion and unaware that the game had been halted by officials to issue a warning to her husband – looked at her friends with an expression of frustrated confusion and asked, “Where do kids learn that screaming, yelling, anger and violence are the way to handle conflict?” Hmmmmmm. I wonder.

Welcome to the world of 21st century American culture, where we voice concern and alarm about the violent behavior of kids without ever considering the powerful role our own example might play in the decline in civility and related rise in violence among today’s children and teens.

Perhaps nowhere is our questionable example more powerfully displayed than outside the white lines surrounding our kids’ fields of play. A quick look at some recent sideline incidents might give us a clue as to where today’s 33 million American children and teens involved in recreational and competitive sports are learning that anger and violence are the best or only ways to handle conflict. In just the last few months:

  • a Pennsylvania midget football game ended in a brawl involving over 100 coaches, players, parents, and fans.
  • a hockey practice for 9 and 10-year-olds in Massachusetts turned deadly when a father became enraged over his son taking an elbow to the face. The angry dad complained to another father and after they began arguing, the enraged dad killed the other man by banging his head repeatedly on the concrete floor.
  • a Florida soccer referee suffered a broken nose after he was head-butted by the angry coach of a team of 13-year-olds.
  • in Texas, a baseball coach who had been ejected from a game returned in his police uniform. He followed the umpire out of the parking lot and cited him for a Aspurious illegal turn.
  • a disappointed Maryland father knocked down and kicked his son’s coach for leaving him off the All-Star team.
  • a Florida baseball game for 7 and 8 year-olds ended with the parents brawling.
  • in Oklahoma, a 36-year-old coach had to be restrained after choking a 15-year-old umpire who was making a few extra dollars umpiring a tee-ball game for 5 and 6 year-olds.

The list goes on and on. But while these high profile and newsworthy incidents may be few and far between, there’s plenty of alarming sideline behavior that takes place every day of the week in every community across the country. Perhaps it’s not as noticeable to us because it’s become the norm. But there are little eyes, ears, hearts and minds for whom it is “high profile.”  They notice. And like little sponges they absorb it all until, sadly, it becomes a part of who they are.

This decline in sideline decency has driven communities to police parents who have long forgotten their responsibility to police themselves. All across the country, more and more youth athletic associations and school districts are requiring parents to sign a “Code of Conduct” in an effort to stem the tide of inappropriate sideline behavior towards coaches, officials, players, and other parents. In some cases, parents are required to watch an instructional video or attend a seminar before signing any papers. It’s been so long since we’ve behaved ourselves that we now need someone else to intervene and tell us how to act. Other athletic associations have adopted “zero-tolerance policies” – if Mom or Dad act up, Junior is off the team. And in a measure indicating just how out of hand negative fan behavior has gotten, “Silent Saturdays” are popping up all over the country, where fans stand on the sidelines in total silence.

The losers in our win-at-all-costs age of sideline rage are the impressionable young hearts and minds running around on the field. At a time when athletic activity should be directed towards the end of children and teens having fun, the end result appears to be something completely different.

For starters, they’re learning powerful lessons about how to view and treat others. Few kids are growing up to see opponents as human beings created with value in the image of God. Instead, they are enemies to be conquered without regard for personhood.

Writer D’Arcy Jenish says his 14 year-old son’s ice hockey games are increasingly less and less enjoyable to watch. After writing a letter to the editor decrying the rise in thuggish and violent play in his son’s league, he found himself falling out of favor with many other parents. He writes, “Several parents approached me. A mother called me an a__hole. A father defended the on-ice rough stuff and another threatened to punch me in the face. In one game, his son’s feet were kicked out from under him. The fall caused him to have to leave the game with his seriously injured arm in excruciating pain. All the while, players on the opposing bench laughed. Their goalie shouted, ‘Go home you fa*&*@!'”

These on-field behaviors are overflowing beyond the white lines and into neighborhoods, playgrounds, school hallways, and backyards. Jane Middleton-Moz, a psychologist who studies anger and conflict resolution, found that in a survey of hundreds of kids ages 8 – 18, all believed violence was an appropriate way to handle differences. They’ve learned these lessons by example.

We should be concerned about the fact that more and more kids are getting tired of our pressure-filled sideline behavior. What kid in their right mind enjoys spending a Saturday morning or cool spring evening trying to play a game with their peers while parents scream and yell on the sideline? For some kids, it’s just plain embarrassing. For others, it’s wearisome. The pressure is so great that when the final whistle blows, their psyche and spirit are more out of breath than their bodies. With all that pressure, it’s not surprising that 7 out of 10 kids quit organized sports before reaching their 13th birthday.

With four of my own kids involved in organized sports on a year-round basis, I’ve had to consider the role I play as their dad. In light of that powerful role and our current cultural situation, I continue to go back to the following directives as imperative guides for being a responsible parent while I stand on the sidelines. They serve to keep me in line. Think about them. They really do make sense:

  • Winning isnt everything.
  • Playing hard while maintaining Godly character is everything.
  • Win or lose, the final score will soon be forgotten.
  • Games are to be played.
  • Play is to be fun.
  • Let them play.
  • Let them have fun.
  • If you cant say anything constructive or encouraging, keep your mouth shut.
  • Let the official call the game.
  • Live your life in your shoes. Let them play in theirs.

I was recently watching my oldest daughter compete in a high school field hockey game when the referee closest to the stands blew his whistle to stop play. Many of the parents voiced their disapproval of a call that could have gone either way. Within a matter of seconds, he blew his whistle again to make another close call against our team. The same group of vocal parents jumped all over him. Their harassment continued as play went on. It was embarrassing. I wondered to myself, “Even if he made the wrong call, are we really that graceless that we wouldn’t allow him to make a mistake? And even if it was a mistake, is it really that important in the larger scheme of things that we yell about it? And if we are yelling about it, what are we teaching our daughters who are out there on the field?”

Before long, what was a bad situation got worse. Continued harassment prompted the referee to blow his whistle, issue a warning to the parents in the stands, and call a brief conference with the coach and athletic director at mid-field. Several angry parents disapproved while defending their right to question his authority.  “AW, COME ON. IT’S (disagreeing with and harassing the ref) ALL PART OF THE GAME!” shouted one parent. It was very discouraging. You see, if we really believe that incivility is a part of the game, then it’s no wonder our kids have problems telling right from wrong.

Plato said, “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a lifetime of conversation.” A twist on Plato’s words ring true today: we can learn quite a bit about a parent in a few minutes of observing them watch their own child play. What do you see when you look in the mirror? If we’re going to scream anything, it should be words of encouragement, praise, and acceptance.


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.