“What are you doing!? Don’t you see the ball over there?” The players on my son’s fifth grade soccer team ran back and forth anticipating their coach’s demands. “I said to stay left!” Words flung from his mouth, angrily, spraying across the field and covering the players’ exhausted faces with self-pity.
I sat on the sidelines, wanting to counter the negativity by hugging my son and telling him he’s doing a great job at a sport he’s only played for two seasons. I wanted to remind him that his worth is far greater than any move on the soccer field. I was inclined to inform the coach that recreation leagues are played for fun. It took everything in me to not shout, Hey! They are just kids! There’s a problem with youth sports culture—and it’s not the children. It’s toxic sports culture.
As the coach screamed at ten and eleven year olds, condescendingly while shaking his head in disappointment, my already diminished faith in youth sports culture crumbled. Sadly, the coach wasn’t alone. Other parents chimed in, loudly expressing dismay in their children’s performance. My family seems to be in the minority, using sports as a weekly exercise, a lesson in teamwork and a form of enjoyment. In that moment, as I watched other parents express disapproval, I couldn’t help but be proud of my son for being a great friend, a caring brother and a dedicated student.
Playing well on the sports field should be celebrated, but being an imperfect athlete is simply being human. My intelligent, artistic, friendly, happy-go-lucky fifth grader was being singled out for not playing to the coach’s satisfaction. As I sat along the sidelines hearing his name shouted over and over, I felt helpless. But I wasn’t.
Studies have shown that parents who are overly involved in their child’s athletic life tend to do more damage than those who simply show up for the game and offer encouragement. One study considered parental support as not becoming overly involved with their child’s participation in youth sports and, instead, offering emotional and tangible support. Over involvement in sports leads to increased stress in children; a stress that is unnecessary and damaging.
Children need space, acceptance and encouragement to improve.
Coaches who teach through negativity or intimidation may deteriorate children’s confidence. This method of coaching is thought to toughen players, better preparing them for the game. However, it’s quite the opposite. Coaches who bully can hurt young athletes’ self-esteem, undermine their social skills and make it hard for them to trust. These coaches are generally focused on one aspect of the game: winning. But no child truly wins under these circumstances.
I see my son’s departure from the soccer field clear as day. The anxiety initiated by the coach’s words and body language will be the reason he chooses to leave youth sports altogether. Giving up his uniform should be a decision he makes solely based on his own desires and not a result of stress, bullying or the coach’s need to win a game.
But if we continue allowing negative coaching on our fields, it will be the reason they quit. We’re teaching our children that winning is everything, that they’re only worth their ability on the field, that perfection is attainable and that bullying is an acceptable way to lead.
As a mother, I’m not OK with this toxic atmosphere of youth sports culture. My son will know he’s loved despite his athletic abilities. He will be reminded that sports should be fun and not anxiety producing. My son will learn that in certain circumstances, leaving a team is not quitting; it’s removing yourself from an unhealthy situation.
Because he is deserving of huge amounts of self-confidence and self-respect, no matter how many goals he scores. My son will know I’m proud of him for being kind, accepting and for doing his best. I won’t let him believe it’s OK for an adult to take his anger out on him or any other child. Because it’s not.
“That was a terrible game! What was that out there?” I listened as the coach berated the team after they’d depleted every ounce of energy they had. They’d been emotionally bullied despite giving it their all. My husband and I could not ignore the toxicity any longer.
We informed the coach that our son is playing for fun and the moment his enjoyment is gone will be the moment he leaves the team. We reminded him that using an increased volume to coach from across the field is not equivalent to yelling persistently, expressing anger and treating children like professional athletes. Children need space, acceptance and encouragement to improve. They need us to set an example of mature, appropriate behavior. They deserve nothing less.
We’re teaching our children all the wrong things. Youth sports culture needs to change, and I won’t let my son be a victim of its toxicity in the meantime.
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