Silent Sidelines: A Band Aid Approach To Controlling Youth Sport Parents

sideline parents arm around_iStock_000002126386XSmallMany strategies are commonly discussed to help change parental behavior on youth sport sidelines. Such strategies include: developing and enforcing a code of conduct; appointing a volunteer sideline monitor; leveling fines for inappropriate spectator behaviors; restricting spectator interaction with athletes (e.g., fans are required to sit on the opposite side of the soccer field from the coaches and team); restricting attendance (e.g., parents are not allowed to attend competitions or practices), and/or encouraging parents to suck on a lollipop if they feel like screaming at the referee or coaching from the sidelines.

Another strategy that gets quite a bit of attention is restricting spectator behaviors—i.e., “Silent Sidelines” or “Silent Sundays” (see the 2009 Toronto Star article or the 2004 NYT article). After reading yet another article lauding Silent Sidelines I felt compelled to give a critique of this and other strategies. In short, putative parental strategies are a terrible idea and provide a Band Aid solution to a deeper internal, chronic wound—the problems which arise on sidelines as youth sport becomes increasingly professionalized (Note: poor sport behavior of parents is not a new phenomena. For a balanced historical account, read Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports by Mark Hyman and read his blog on youth sport parents). While reversing the professionalization of youth sport is beyond my capabilities (for now at least!), changing parental sideline behaviors IS possible.

BandAidsMany of these Band Aid strategies are employed without any research-based evidence of effectiveness or consultation from the sport science community. For example, barring parents from competition is not an optimal or effective solution because research indicates that a majority of children and adolescents enjoy when parents attend and watch competitions and parents are a vital source of support for children. The mere act of signing a “code of conduct” does not change behavior because it does not address the underlying or preceding feelings or thoughts of parents. To change behavior, parents must be provided with evidence of how their sideline behaviors—what a colleague and I call “background anger”—affects not only their child, but everyone else in the sport landscape. This information can provide motivation that increases the likelihood of behavioral change. Research seems to indicate that potential negative outcomes from exposure to youth sport background anger may include—anxiety, stress, decreased performance, loss of focus due to distraction by parents, confusion, embarrassment, frustration, less enjoyment, burnout and perhaps even dropout of sport altogether.

The important point here is that a Band Aid approach to changing the climate of youth sport sidelines addresses only the behavior (i.e., don’t yell = complete silence or silence by lollipop). An effective strategy promotes change through education and provides parents with research-based information as to what triggers angry parental responses, why it is important for example, not to yell on the sidelines, and how this behavior can affect everyone. For an exemplar educational program visit the University of Notre Dame’s Play Like a Champion Educational Series website and stay tuned for new research on the emotional experiences of sport parents and background anger from myself and colleagues of the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.

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