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 > Little League Online > Learn More > Newsletters > Coach's Box Newsletter > 2011 > Coach's Box - September > Dr Burnett Article

Dr Burnett Article

Volume 6, No. 6 - September 2011

Parent Rage in Youth Sports: Why is it Happening?

By Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D.

Over the years I have been interviewed by Sports Illustrated, CNN, ESPN, and others on the topic of parent behavior in youth sports. While the behavior of the vast majority of youth sports parents presents no problems, there are, nevertheless, a certain small percentage of parents who "lose it" at youth sports events.

There are some who say the percentage is increasing. Regardless, I think we need to understand why some parents are "losing it" in youth sports today. To do that, I think we have to "get into the shoes" of parents who have kids in sports.

Off hand, I can think of six aspects of a parents' world today that may shed some light on why some parents get over involved, or tend to overreact in youth sports.

1. Youth sports are no longer "Just a game."

Media barrages parents with the lure of publicity for their kids in sports on TV, in newspapers, in magazines. Kids' names and pictures are in local newspapers, with scores, statistics of teams, etc.

Travel teams and club teams are growing, because parents are being told that if their kid doesn't play on a travel or club team, the kid will have less of a chance to make it on a good high school team, and less of a chance to get a college scholarship.

All-Star teams are becoming more important in parents' eyes because it's the "All Stars" on a kid's resumé that gives him/her a better chance to make the club or travel teams.

Scholarship talk gets parents excited about the possibility of having college paid for. Professional contracts are talked about and written about in the newspapers, noting the local kid who is now playing pro ball.

With all these things going on, it's hard for parents to see youth sports as just a game. Instead, they see youth sports as a step toward scholarships and a life as a professional athlete.

2. End Product vs Process

Adults tend to emphasize end products, rather than process. So, when they go to a game, they emphasize hits, runs, errors, and of course, winning. For some parents, there is no room for second place.

This is also reflected in our society. In a recent Olympics, when the USA women's soccer team won the silver medal, the headlines read "Settling for Silver." That's why, when a mistake occurs, some parents can't see the big picture, only the negative end product. They're also thinking, "What if a scout is in the stands?"

3. Misplaced Self Esteem

Some parents relate to their athletic children in such a way that their child's self esteem is totally connected to his/her athletic achievement. So, at a game, if the kid makes an error, some parents see it as tragic because they don't relate to their kid as a person who happens to be an athlete.

They relate to their kid solely as an athlete. An error or a bad call is tragic in the eyes of parents if they see their child's worth only in terms of a sporting event.

Also, some parents' self esteem is tied in with having an athletic son or daughter. Her victory is their victory. Her mistake is their mistake. His lack of playing time is their lack of playing time.

4. The Myth of Anger

I think some parents "lose it" at games because they somehow believe they have to "let off steam" when they get angry. They believe they shouldn't hold it in. And yet, research (Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion, by Carol Tavris) shows that the more we express anger, the angrier we get.

5. Retaliation vs. Negotiation

Many parents are living in a world where retaliation is seen as the only option when someone irritates you.

"Don't get mad, Get even!" bumper stickers abound. There's very little talk about negotiating solutions to problems. So, when someone gets in their face or irritates them, they automatically think in terms of retaliation. Take a look at all the arcade games, with names like Intimidator, Terminator, Avenger, Warrior, etc. Ever see one called the "Negotiator?" I don't think so.

6. No Negative Consequences.

In motivation studies, it is clear that behavior is a function of its consequence. That is, if you want to increase a behavior, make sure a person experiences something positive afterwards. If you want to decrease a behavior, make sure a person experiences something negative afterwards.

But. the key word is experience. At the present time, parents don't seem to be experiencing any significantly negative consequences for their out of control behavior at youth sports games. They know that acting out in the workplace or on the highway can result in significant legal consequences. Not so, at youth sports events.

Parent Rage: What Can We Do About It?

I think there are three components when it comes to helping parents to avoid "losing it" in youth sports: 1) Parent Education 2) Behavioral Expectations and 3) Consequences for Behaviors.

Parent Education

Parents need to be educated as to the value of youth sports just as a game. They need to understand how youth sports can help build a child's self esteem. They need to relate to their athlete as a person first, an athlete second. (See my book, It's Just a Game! Youth, Sports, and Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents, published by Authors Choice Press, at iUniverse.com).

Parents need to understand the odds of athletic scholarships and professional athletic career, not to discourage them from hoping, but to help them set realistic expectations. Parents need to understand that top athletes don't concentrate on trophies. Rather, they focus on developing skills, regardless of their win-loss records.

Finally, parents need to understand the mechanics of anger, and to learn some techniques for anger management.

Behavioral Expectations

Parents need specific lists of examples of Good Sportsmanship (see the websites, www.internationalsport.com. National Sportsmanship Day), & www.littleleague.org).

In addition, parents need specific lists of misconduct.

Consequences for Behaviors

Parents should be praised and noted for their good sportsmanship. In some leagues, sportsmanship awards given to teams include parental behavior at games.

Parents should be given a specific list of consequences for misconduct: removal from premises, removal from league, legal consequences for abusive and/or assaultive behaviors, etc.

Ideally, parents should sign an agreement before the season begins. (Contact the National Alliance for Youth Sports, www.nays.org, or Positive Coaching Alliance, www.positivecoach.org., for samples.)

Finally, leagues should have a "game plan" for following through with consequences for misconduct.


Youth Sports coaches and administrators would do well to understand the "why" of parent overreaction in youth sports, and they would do well to set up a system of behavioral expectations, with consequences, for all parents involved in youth sports.

I think this process is well underway in organized youth sports.

Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice in Laguna Niguel, California for more than 20 years. He was listed among the "Top 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America" by the Institute for International Sport. His book, It's Just A Game! (Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents), and his Sportsmanship Card Game, Good Sport! are described at his website, www.djburnett.com, along with his other books, booklets, and CDs on youth sports and family life.

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