A short while ago I watched as during a close u13 boys game the referee was forced to stop the game. Players, parents, and coaches stood transfixed as the referee ran to one of the coaches and escorted him to where his team’s parents were. After a brief conversation one of the dads left the stands and headed toward the parking lot. The referee waited until he left the field before he resumed play. The spectators were silent as this father made his walk of shame, with his head down, and all I could think about was what his son must be thinking and feeling. Who knows if this was something that happened all the time, or somehow this dad just got caught up in the moment this one time? Regardless, it must have been embarrassing for the boy and his family.
I have no idea what this parent said; from my own perspective the referee was doing a good job. In fact, there was no egregious challenge or anything of note prior to the referee’s decision. Now, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the emotion of sports – be it our favorite professional team or our own kids’ team. In the latter case, this can be particularly true as the kids get older, the game gets more physical, and the games seem to take on more meaning.
All parents have a natural tendency to want to protect their kids and their friends from perceived overt aggression. It is important, however, to control these emotions as we need to let kids grow on their own. Verbal – and sometimes physical – reactions from the touchlines are just basic efforts to shelter our kids. This is an old maxim – as parents, we can’t fight our kids’ battles, as they need to grow on their own. At the end of the day, organized competition – featuring adult supervision (coaches), an objective judge (referee), and a controlled environment (length of game and field dimensions) – is a particularly safe arena to learn some of life’s lessons and grow as a person. Adult efforts to influence the outcome here – even if successful – do a great disservice in terms of long term player (and personal) development.
Think about what happens when parents complain to the referee. Think especially about players’ reactions to their parents’ comments. I’ve seen it countless times. One team is losing and their parents begin to loudly protest every decision by the referee (even if their perception is ridiculously wrong). How do the kids react? What do they do? Typically, they respond emotionally in kind, protesting every call. All too often they completely lose it, and react like spoiled kids. Their parents have given them a built-in excuse, and rather than learn from mistakes they may have made, the result is just a blame game. All the life lessons that could have been learned are lost. It was just the referee’s fault.
While some games seem “bigger” than others at the youth levels, it is important for parents (as it is for coaches) to remember that long-term player development is paramount. In the grand scheme of things, one game – or even one instant in a game – means very little. At the end of the day, kids (and adults, for that matter) learn more from failure than success. They learn a lot – they even learn that referees aren’t perfect. Every single training session and game present opportunities to learn – but the learning takes place within the field of play and NOT from the sidelines. For adults, elevating our response to incidents during the game by yelling negative comments at players or the referee sends the wrong signals to young players. Kids feed off the reactions of their parents, and the result is – more often than not – negative.
Don’t fix the blame; fix the problem!
I’ve always stressed to my teams that we don’t fix the blame, we fix the problem! Parents and coaches can find teachable moments anywhere. Allow the game to teach your child something and see what he learns. Work from his reaction – don’t let your reaction during the game affect his perception of the event.