A National Epidemic
What I'm about to share with you is a problem of National consequence. I'm not exaggerating! Producing this podcast, acting as Club President, and coaching, I tend to be reaching out and connecting with a lot of people. I'm hearing the same story from all corners of my world. Bad sideline behavior is a having a crushing effect on youth sports!
What is Bad Sideline Behavior?
Bad sideline behavior is typically rooted in good intention, fueled by emotion, unsupported by education, and has a negative impact on the development environment we're trying to deliberately create.
Rooted in good intention: I don't think any parent or coach wakes up on the morning of a game and sets out to ruin the game environment. They might wake up with a mixture of excitement and/or anxiety. They want the kids to do well. They hope for a positive outcome.
Fueled by emotion: it's not rational for a fully grown adult to open their mouth as wide as it will go, to spray spit on the grass and spectators in front of them, and scream "KNOCK HIM DOWN!" at the top of their lungs - as if anything less will result in a gory death of a loved one on the battlefield. Yet, we find fully grown adults doing this every single season.
Unsupported by education: For me, adults who exhibit bad sideline behavior have a big red strobe beacon flashing over their head with a siren that screams "I'm not educated!," "I don't know why we're here!," and "No-one ever taught me how to properly support my kid!!" It's like walking into a fine dining restaurant wearing flip flops and no t-shirt. A part of me feels embarrassed for them and really wants to help, but I realize that in the heat of the moment, there aren't a lot of brain cells functioning right then. If I address an issue in the moment, I have to speak to the amygdala. The rational person inside is still at home - hopefully listening to this podcast!
It has a negative impact: We typically talk about negative impact in terms of what it does to the kids. There is no doubt in my mind that negative sideline behavior affects kids is really bad ways:
It could be argued that even if you don't give a hoot about developing kids and you're focused entirely on winning games (not something that we promote at The Soccer Sidelines), that the following sideline behaviors are not helpful. They are distracting to players, detracting from their ability to play the game, and ultimately have the opposite effect from the way they were intended.
Bad Behavior Further Defined
Coaches Joysticking: Joystick coaches, it is said, imagine themselves as master manipulators of their team. They fancy their job is to tell players where to be and when to be there. Using their voice like a joystick, they will yell instructions to go there, be here, do this or that! The time for this (if there is ever a time for this) is in practice. Kids are in a game environment trying to apply the lessons they've hopefully learned during practice. Kids will learn better by figuring out the problem themselves. They must be free to experiment, make mistakes, and adjust. Joysticking shuts down kid's brains. They stop thinking for themselves and start tuning in to the coach instead. The coach isn't on the field and can not adjust 11 kids at game-speed. Best not to try. Either coach from the bench, use your voice to keep the energy positive, remind the entire team of a play (this needs to be baked into practice), and/or ask meaningful questions.
Parents Yelling Instructions: If you're a parent and want to coach, go get a license and coach. The process is not hard and many clubs help to pay for this. If you do, you'll quickly discover through the coaching education process that there is a difference between a playing skills set and a coaching skill set (former players need to pay attention to this one), that instructions coming from two directions are often countermanding one another and confusing to kids on the field, that the coach usually has a plan for the entire team that may require a kid to do something a parent doesn't want them to, and that parents rarely know the game well enough to be giving any instruction at all - let alone instruction that is specific enough to be useful or fitting with the team strategy for a given game.
Coaches Being a Bully: I truly hope that you never have to experience this, but I have unfortunately. "You're the reason we lost the game today!!" <--I actually heard this coming out of a man's mouth. This guy was coaching a team though an indoor game a couple of years ago. The kids left so demoralized that i sincerely doubt they all came back. Other jewels from bully coaches include "Wake up out there!," "What's wrong with you?!," and "Why are you being an idiot?" Yes... I've actually heard all of the above and it makes me sad. Don't think it's limited to soccer either. Bad coaches are everywhere!
Yelling at Other Kids: I was helping to put on a tournament last year and struck up a conversation with a parent and assistant coach on the sidelines. They relayed a story that happened the night before: parents from the opposing team were reportedly drinking in the parking lot before the game. During the game, they became loud and obnoxious. One of the girls trapped the ball with her chest during the game and the move hurt her. She called to her coach for a break during the next rotation. Parents from "team obnoxious" yelled "What Chest?!" - apparently alluding to the idea that this young girl did not have large breasts. Yeah... I was furious.
In another example (I have dozens of these), a young boy took a pretty hard hit to the side of his head. He dropped to a knee immediately from the force or the blow. He stayed down for a moment while he was trying to regain his bearings. I heard loud a clear a father from the opposing team bellowing "Next time, KNOCK HIM OUT!" Yeah... I was disgusted.
Coaches Cheating: There are a number of ways for coaches to cheat if they are so inclined. Teaching kids to fake injuries (love this one for teaching integrity), for example, is something I've seen pretty regularly.
Last season, I caught a coach putting an unregistered player on the field. He actually had two unregistered players on the field, but I didn't let on that I knew that. I asked him about the one player and he agreed to remove him right away. I asked if there were any others and this coach said "no." I talked with the young man who got pulled and told him that we would love to have him play, but that he couldn't play unless he was properly registered and covered by insurance. He understood and everyone seemed okay.
I found out later that the coach put the benched kid back in the game as soon as I left. The second player stayed on the field.
The lesson that was taught to the players and the parents as a result of this coach's action was exactly the opposite of what we want our kids to learn. It's okay to cheat and to ignore authorities. It's okay to not respect the integrity of the game or of the club your part of. And it's okay to put the organization you play for at risk. Again... I was not happy.
Yelling At or Being Critical of Officials: This one is killing youth sports in many ways and is probably one of the most prolific forms of bad sideline behavior I see every week. Referees are going to miss calls and make bad calls. That's life. 22 sets of parents and 2 coaches are all going to have different perspectives and different levels of understanding of the game. The simple fact is this: The referee is in charge and calling the game.
I've tried to referee friendly games myself. This is an unbelievably difficult thing to do - and I know the game pretty well. View angles, fitness levels, game dynamics... it all plays a role in how an official is going to call a game. If a referee senses that a game is waxing aggressive, for example, he or she may do things to redirect the energy and settle the game. A call made by a referee on one place on the field may not be visible to a person watching from the sidelines. And don't even get me started on making offside rulings... Most people don't truly even know what this is - or all four conditions that need to exist for a foul to have occurred. If you're interested, check out episode #18 - The Offside Rule Explained.
As President of a Maryland State sanctioned club, I either attend the annual Maryland State Youth Soccer Association Annual General Meeting (MSYSA AGM) every year, or get fined. So I was sitting in the audience two weeks ago when the State Commissioner for our Referee associations got up to speak. Pretty much the entire focus of his presentation was about bad sideline behavior. It's that serious!
He talked about our referee shortage and cited some numbers for how many referees we (the state) trained this past year. According to the United States Census Bureau, there were 21,100 umpires, referees, and other sports officials in the US in 2016. According to our State commissioner, the state of Maryland has about 3,000 soccer referees. They trained about 2,700 new referees in 2017. The most interesting fact he hit us with was that we also LOST 2,700 referees in that same year!!
Some simply fade away, but the number one reason cited by referees for leaving the sport: bad sideline behavior.
If we consider the fact that many youth sports referees are kids between the ages of 13 and 18, we should be outraged when fully grown (physically at least) parents and coaches are attacking them verbally during games. The age of these young referees is one point to consider, but add to this the fact that their whole purpose of being out there is to keep the games safe and fair. These referees are walking the fields before games to make sure there are no hazards to our kids. They check cleats, shin guards, and jewelry to make sure no one is going to suffer slips/falls, scratches, blows, or other injuries. Many try to help players AND coaches AND parents understand the actual 17 laws of the game. And they are doing their best in a position that really no sane person would want to volunteer for.
We cannot allow bad sideline behavior to ruin youth sports.
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What Can We Do About It?
No good rant should be released without at least a starter pack of solutions to go with it. These may not be the final solutions and they may not be effective in all situations, but they do represent some ideas and actions that are alive and well in our community for combating this destructive phenomenon. These ideas will evolve and get better as thought leaders ponder them and come up with better ones. One of the best ways to contribute to what we're doing here is to leave a comment in the comment section below or start a discussion in our Facebook group.
The first step, I believe, is just to become aware of what's out there, why this is such an issue, and how we can become involved.
At the National Level
Organizations like US Youth Soccer must set the national agenda for defining bad sideline behavior as well as good sideline behavior. Articles like the one to the right of this section are a good starting point for getting the word out there.
I don't believe it's enough to stop here though. This issue is serious enough to warrant member state and club legislation. Every state, for example, should be responsible as part of their membership, for having a written policy pertaining to sideline behavior. As a condition of membership, all clubs should be required to have a policy and something for all parents for acknowledge.
At the State Level
The state is basically a trickle down from the national level. Every State should have and post a parent code of conduct. As kids register for state sanctioned events like tournaments or club leagues, this parent code of conduct should be incorporated into registration forms and sent out as part of the welcome package to each event. We can't have enough of this material floating around and educating parents and coaches alike.
At the Affiliated Organization Level
Many organizations exist to help parents, coaches, and clubs get a handle on this message. I've provided a few of them below that I subscribe to and would recommend anyone interested in this subject do the same. Some costs money to participate in. Others are free. Whatever works best for you, have a look!
Click on any of the above logos to be taken to the site you're most interested in.
At the Club Level
The rubber really starts hitting the road at the Club level. Clubs, in theory, are patrolling the sidelines - doing what I call my "culture walks." This means that some club officials are walking the sidelines with the explicit purpose of communicating with parents, promoting club values, and putting a stop to bad behaviors as they come up.
All parents should be exposed to a club policy that addresses sideline behavior. This should include clear expectations and reference to policies that address grievances and penalties or not following the policy.
Our club sideline behavior policy includes:
- Avoid 'coaching' from the sideline while watching you child's game
- Do not criticize the referee
- Focus on the benefits of the game rather than the score
- Think when interacting with opposing fans
- Don't stress out over the game
- Save issues with the coach for the next day
These rules were taken directly from the article published above by US Youth Soccer and make great sense.
At the Coach Level
Coaches are often at a disadvantage on game day. They have their hands full with players and game-day strategy. They have an eye on safety, an eye on the clock, and eye on morale... and they are usually on the opposite side of the field from parents.
Coaches can, however, send out reminders of club sideline policy in their welcome aboard emails and at parent meetings. They can address bad behavior that they notice in the week following a game, and maybe even send reminders just before a game.
A coach has the most day-to-day contact with parents and is in good position to highlight and reinforce club policy.
Best of all, coaches can show through their own behavior what it means to have positive sideline behavior. They should refrain from yelling at referees (it never changes a call anyway), from yelling out on the field with inappropriate or poor messages, and check on the kids mental state when they return from the field.
I've used after game speech time to address poor sideline behavior from parents and other coaches. This can also be a good thing to do if the coach is calm and clear headed about the issue. If stress is high, it's better to walk away and address the behavior at a later time.
At the Family Level
Poor sideline behavior provides good teachable moments. They are examples of what not to do. By having meaningful conversations with kids (including siblings watching the game) about good vs bad sideline behavior, families can do a lot in the fight against bad sideline behavior.
If a family recognizes a member who simply has a hard time controlling his or her behavior during games (some people simply lack the discipline), a family might have a discussion about staying home or watching the game from a distance.
At the Individual Level
Individuals can feel bullied or can get so worked up that they want to erupt in anger themselves. It's important to recognize the warning signs. When emotions run high, it may be time to go for a walk. If you end up being one of those people who do make the mistake of yelling out onto the field, bullying a child (your own or someone else's), or yelling at referees, addressing the issue and apologizing goes a long way! Don't be afraid to go up to a referee after a game and tell him/her "sorry for giving you a hard time today. I know you ref'd the best game you could. I was just a little too passionate out there today." Referees will appreciate this kind of feedback!
The same goes for other parents and coaches. I have frequently walked the sidelines (as a dad watching the game) to the opposing team parents after a game. If they were well behaved, I'll say something like "Thank you for bringing a great game today. I'm impressed by how well behaved the sidelines were. You guys are a great bunch of parents!"
The Bottom Line
Bad sideline behavior is affecting everyone in youth sports from kids to referees. Youth Sports does not exist to entertain the sidelines. It's meant to be a development tool for helping young players grow into good citizen adults. As such, it's important that everyone involved with the organization model positive behaviors and give our kids some examples to follow.