Coaches and parents berate the refs and yell at their kids and each other. Physical assaults have broken out. Adults’ sideline behavior at youth sports events has gotten so bad, there’s a national referee shortage, not to mention it’s taken the fun out of the game.
“Let’s not call them adults, OK?” advises Brian Barlow, a longtime collegiate soccer referee. “An adult is responsible. An adult understands that it’s no longer their moment — it’s their child’s moment.”
According to the National Federation of High School Associations, some 50,000 high school officials — about 20% — quit from 2018 to 2021.
“Bad behavior by fans (especially adults) continues to be a serious problem at high school athletic events—making it difficult to recruit and retain high school officials in every state,” NFHS writes on the site for its campaign, Bench Bad Behavior.
Becoming a ref is a tough sell these days, says Barlow. For matches that are about an hour, “They’re making $25 to $45 to $50,” he says. “And in that time, the coaches and the parents are over-the-top disrespectful. So we never get a chance to really mold these officials because they’re like, ‘I don’t want that 50 bucks. I’ll go flip a burger.’ “
For kids, it can be mortifying.
“I’ve had my fair share of incidences,” says 15-year-old Joshua Nimley, a competitive soccer player in Washington, D.C. He remembers a game when he was 8. “Parents, they almost had a fight because they didn’t agree with the decision, and it was just B.S. It shouldn’t be that serious.”
As for his teammates, “We were just all surprised because we weren’t arguing about it, so why are adults doing this?” Nimley shakes his head.
Why are adults arguing at youth games?
One reason: too much focus on winning, says Skye Eddy, a former professional soccer player, parent, coach and founder of an educational program called The Sideline Project. “Sometimes parents care too much about the result, and so they then get too involved in what’s happening and don’t let the game sort of belong to the child,” she says.
Peter Guthrie, a longtime youth soccer referee and ref mentor in Maryland, says he sees parents who appear to be “living their youth through their kids.”
Guthrie has also coached youth soccer. “In some cases they believe that this is going to be the path for your child to get to college, so they have to do well as a 10-year-old in order to get that college scholarship.”
Guthrie, a retired neurologist with the National Institutes of Health, mentors teens who’ve recently completed a referee training program administered by the Maryland SoccerPlex in collaboration with three other organizations.
He says most of the parents are well-behaved. “It’s just that small percentage that cause problems. I’m here so that if something like that happens, I can reinforce that he did the right thing and, if necessary, I’ll wander over to the other side to talk to the miscreants,” he smiles.
Eric Lee for NPR
Adults lose their cool at games partly because they can, says Tim Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.
“We need to empower referees and umpires to kick them out of games and hold coaches and teams accountable for the bad behavior of parents,” says Farrey. “Right now, there’s just not much disincentive for parents to do this. If parents knew that their behavior was going to hurt their team or hurt their child in some way, then maybe they’re going to dial it down.”
Farrey believes youth sports in general need more oversight. “We are one of the only nations in the world that does not have a federal Ministry of Sports or Department of Sports to coordinate sport development, set a national agenda, move this incredibly important space forward and hold people accountable to standards.”
Solutions include Silent Soccer … and shame
For years, youth soccer professionals have tried to rein in bad behavior. One exercise is Silent Soccer, where adults — parents and coaches — agree to keep quiet during games.
“It’s amazing,” says Pierre Hedji, Nimley’s coach at the D.C. youth soccer club DCXI. “I think it’s the best way to teach a child. You’re not going to make [games] player-centric when the parents are shouting from the sideline, giving directions to the players, and the coaches are giving direction to the players. That’s what we have practice for.”
Barlow unapologetically uses shame. His Facebook page Offside includes dozens of videos of grown-ups losing it at youth games, sent to him from people around the country.
He thinks it’s working. He says people who’ve watched the videos tell him, “I have changed because of some of the content you put on. I don’t want my kids to think of their parent … in that way.”
Distracting behavior is also a no-no
To help parents behave better during games, Skye Eddy designed a 15-minute video course for The Sideline Project. But she doesn’t dwell on hostile behavior. Instead, she focuses on something that’s much more prevalent.
“Distracting behavior is communicating to a player while they’re in the middle of trying to perform a task or while they’re in the middle of trying to think and be aware and make a decision on the field,” says Eddy.
Walking around the vast Maryland SoccerPlex on a recent Saturday, where multiple games were taking place simultaneously, distracting behavior was unrelenting. Parents telling their kids to “get it,” “turn it,” “pass it,” and, of course, “Shoot!”
Eddy says lots of level-headed parents do this, “We think we’re helping oftentimes, but in fact, we’re distracting players from learning.”
Eric Lee for NPR
Of the 9,000 people who’ve taken her course, Eddy reports that 60% say their sideline behavior is better.
“Most excitingly to me, over 40% of parents who take the course say that their relationship with their child improved as a result of taking just this-15 minute course where we’re finally stepping in and educating parents and giving them some moments to reflect and some guidance about how children learn and how sport is learned,” she says.
Barlow is pretty confident kids don’t want to hear their parents or be coached by them.
“The most powerful thing that you can say to your young athlete at the end of the game — it isn’t what you did right, what you did wrong, how are you going to play better next game,” says Barlow. “It’s just to walk to the car, get in the car and say, ‘Hey, I loved watching you play today.'”
Eric Lee for NPR