There are certain things you expect to see at a kids’ soccer game. Gatorade bottles and orange slices. Coaches’ clipboards and cans of spray sunscreen. Here’s what you don’t expect to see: A 9mm handgun.
Michigan dad James Sherrill was arrested recently after pulling a pistol on another player’s dad at a high-tension soccer match between—get this—6- and 7-year-olds.
We’d like to gasp in horror. We’d like to grimace in shock. But anyone who’s ever schlepped a folding chair to a field knows adult tempers percolate vigorously at kids’ sporting events. All too often they boil over.
“Coaching seven years of Little League has left me believing that parents at all games should be muzzled,” says a dad I know. “I had a guy threaten to not only kick my ass but have his son kick my son’s ass. Over playing time! It was a sad sight to behold.”
He once saw a father spit on an umpire. “Parent ejected, kid embarrassed,” he says.
Another friend once saw a shoving-turned-punching match between two dads at a soccer game. “One of the wives joined in and took a swing,” he says. “The kids came running off the field, then the guys’ kids went to blows. A lovely lesson to teach your 10 year-old.”
Parent violence at kids’ athletic events quadrupled between 2000 and 2005, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports. “Almost every day you see some pretty outrageous stuff,” says Blake Dorfman, an area journalist who founded PresidioSports.com, which reports on kids sports. He’s seen parents shouting at each other, at coaches—even at their own kids. “I think this all sprouts out of a good thing, which is the fact that parents are involved. But sometimes that leads to over-involvement.”
He blames the rise of club sports, which demand a lot from moms and dads: “It costs thousands of dollars to put a girl through club volleyball, for example, and there’s a sense of, ‘Hey, I invested so much time and money, I have a right to give my opinion and have this play out how I want.'”
Many parents have grand aspirations that, if coached right, their child will earn athletic scholarships and maybe even a spot on a pro team—a near impossibility, statistically speaking. The rotten economy only fuels such victory-fixated desperation.
Some parents are more prone than others toward sideline squabbles and bleacher brawls. “Parents who have been athletes themselves seem to understand competition better,” says sports psychotherapist Susan Farber. “The parents who always wanted to be a star athlete (but never were) have a more difficult time and can sometimes try to get their unrealized dreams met through their child.”
Another factor feeding this phenomenon is the inherently combative culture of athletics. We urge our kids to “Get him!” and “Block her!” We impel them to “Get in there!” and “Don’t hold back!” And then we wonder why mom and dad are raring to rumble by half-time.
Some leagues now require parents to attend pre-season training classes, where they learn how to be boosters—rather than embarrassments—to the system. My friend Jonelle Bruno, a longtime coach and former Little League president, made her team parents sign a Code of Conduct contract. If they hollered at umpires or berated players, they were unwelcome at future games. “I’d bench the parents!” says Bruno, who believes that youth sports have more important things to teach kids than how to behave like idiots: “Conflict resolution, teamwork, operating within rules, and learning how to fail and fail and then finally succeed,” she says. “Those are the lessons they should be getting.”