Misbehaving Parents Can Be A Distraction

Player’s Focus Should be on Their Coach and the Game

By P.K. Daniel

To the horror of his son and the surprise of the surrounding spectators, a frustrated parent descended the stands and came onto the court during a basketball game between 10- and 11-year-olds in Marietta, GA., last year, to inform the coach that he wasn’t doing a good job.

Probably not the best tact to take. It led to the humiliation of the child and the disdain of other parents.

This type of behavior has led some youth sports teams or leagues to require parents to sign code-of-conduct contracts, attend sports etiquette classes and to post signs at sports fields encouraging good behavior.

A quick Google search of keywords “parents behaving badly at sporting events” yielded nearly 200,000 results, including many in graphic living color. One hit described how two parents were accused of attacking high school officials after a hockey game in Vancouver earlier this year. In a separate incident, five parents were banned after allegedly verbally abusing referees and opposing hockey players.

It doesn’t take a child psychologist, a coach, or even a player to understand the negative effect parents can have on the very participants whose best interests they’re supposed to have in mind when they become better known for their sideline antics than their support of their aspiring athlete.

But the reactions in the Georgia gym did result in the parent realizing his major misstep.

“The response of everybody in the audience as well as his child made him realize that was a bad decision,” said John Thomas, a former Division I basketball player and parent of an AAU boys basketball player. “He got caught up into wanting to win. Parents have to understand that it’s not about the parents. It’s really about the kid.”

Officials, coaches, opposing parents and even opposing players have been on the receiving end of unruly parents’ ire for years. However, most parents’ misbehavior doesn’t involve nose-to-nose confrontations, fisticuffs or handcuffs. It’s usually a lot subtler, although the effect can still be negative, resulting in an adverse sporting experience. To complain about playing time or to question the coach’s lineup or play-calling, or to blurt out directions to your kid is a distraction to the player and an annoyance to the coach.

When a player flubs a groundball at short and immediately looks at his dad and not the coach, then there’s a problem.

Steve Dagostino, owner of Dags Basketball, is a former two-time NCAA Division II All-American who played for five years professionally in Europe. Through his East Coast camps, clinics and workouts he has worked extensively with players, coaches and parents.

“For our parents, we don’t ever want them to be in a situation where they’re hindering their player’s performance,” said Dagostino. “They might think that they’re helping in the stands when they’re yelling at their kid to do this or to do that, but … that becomes a distraction.”

Kids are taught early on to ignore and not engage with hecklers, because to do so takes the player’s focus off the game. That’s the same thing with parents, said Dagostino.

“The player shouldn’t have to be looking up at his (parent) in the stands, which happens a lot,” he said. “That means they’re not focusing on the game. Furthermore, there should be only one voice in that player’s ear and that’s the coach.”

Dagostino said the parent effect becomes very apparent when a parent misses an AAU tournament and their kid ends up having the best game of their life. “We’ve had parents recognize their impact and have subsequently toned it down,” said Dagostino.

Dagostino addresses with parents the purpose of youth sports from a development standpoint. “Youth sports, as a whole, should be about the experience,” he said. When Dagostino was growing up he learned how to deal with a ref making a bad call or being benched after making a mistake. “You start learning life lessons through things that happen in real time during the game. But what happens nowadays is the player makes a bad play, the coach sits him and the coach is an idiot. The ref makes a bad call – a charge, not a block – the ref’s an idiot. Everybody is getting blamed. Instead, the kids should be saying: ‘I threw a bad pass and I didn’t get back on defense. I need to do better,’ not ‘Coach Joe shouldn’t have taken me out.”

Today’s youth athletes, Dagostino said, are getting shortchanged of that experience to grow as a person and a player.

Dagostino often asks parents and players why they’re playing youth sports. “If you’re playing youth sports to get a scholarship for college, you’ve already lost,” he said. “If you’re playing AAU basketball for exposure, you’ve already lost.”  His goal is to help players develop better physically and mentally – to become a better, stronger person.

He said one of the problems with parents is that a lot of times they are also coaches or former coaches so they have a hard time putting the proverbially clipboard away. Thomas had first-hand experience with that issue.

Youth sports, as a whole, should be about the experience. You start learning life lessons through things that happen in real time during the game.

He is the father of a 13-year-old AAU player. After identifying a blurred line between father and coach from the perspective of his son, Thomas decided to become just his father. He then went out to find a new coach but someone similar in his skill level and approach. “It worked out well,” he said. “Now I can be his dad and co-sign a lot of things that the coaches say.”

Thomas runs The 411 Brand, an Atlanta-based nonprofit youth development company that teaches the fundamentals about sports – lacrosse, golf, soccer, track and field, dance and basketball. “We teach life skills through the sports,” he said. Over the course of the past 25 years, close to 25,000 kids have gone through Thomas’ programs.

He said that, by design, he decided his company wouldn’t be involved with coaching teams, thereby eliminating the obstacle parents can present. “A lot of parents try to live through their kids, which is unfair to the child,” he said.

Thomas has observed parents chasing after the top AAU teams in the hope that their child will travel to many tournaments and be seen by a lot of college scouts. But that’s not typically what happens, he said. “A lot of those kids may not get a chance to play if they’re not the top five or the top seven on the team. Saying you’re on a No. 1 AAU team doesn’t translate into a scholarship.”

Parents need to sit down with their children and have a realistic discussion about their goals and their future. Thomas said he notices today that a lot of the kids aren’t willing to put in the work on a daily basis. And they don’t have the passion. Aside from the many distractions that today’s kids have, part of that may be because this isn’t their goal but rather their parent’s goal. Even with Thomas’ own son he realized playing basketball “had to be more important to him than to me. Sometimes if we’re in the way, it becomes blurred.”

When Thomas was growing up it wasn’t about being seen. “It was just trying to get better,” he said. “Where a lot of kids now want to be seen first.”

He also echoes Dagostino about the purpose of youth sports being the journey not the destination. “It’s really about the work and the talent on the journey and through that you can build a great kid in understanding everything that sports has to offer,” said Thomas. “Put more emphasis on the journey, not so much the destination.”

P.K. Daniel is a veteran journalist based in Southern California. Her journalism journey includes a stint at the Los Angeles Daily News as a sports desk editor followed by 15 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune as senior news editor and reporter, as well as contributions to Baseball America, SB Nation, CBS Sports Digital, Lower Extremity Review and Allergy & Asthma Today.

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