The hostile, helicoptering parents of youth sports are ruining the game. You've heard about them in the news, or maybe you've even witnessed them at your kid's match — tangling with the ref, screaming at the coaches, and maybe even putting down other people's children.
But when Skye Eddy thinks of problematic sideline behavior from parents, it's not just the belligerents who come to mind.
It's also people like me, a well-intentioned soccer mom who can't help but shout "Shoot!" from a lawn chair to my 9-year-old son when he hovers near the goal. Or my husband, who has abandoned his folding chair altogether and is silently pacing back and forth alongside the field, sometimes with his hands folded over his head.
You might say parents like us are Eddy's specialty.
"My target audience is the level-headed parent who is stressed," Eddy told me.
The Virginia-based organization she founded, Soccer Parenting Association, is teaching appropriate sideline behavior, one overemotionally involved parent at a time. More than 6,000 Minnesota moms and dads have watched her training video, through the Sideline Project, and signed a pledge vowing to honor the players and improve the culture of our kids' games.
It's part of a growing movement to take back the sidelines — across all youth sports. Much is at stake.
"The biggest thing we can all agree on is youth sports is not working," said Eddy, a soccer parent and coach. "Kids are quitting. Kids are frustrated. Sidelines are out of control. There are referee and coach shortages. People are now thinking there's got to be a better way."
In Minnesota, for example, Twin Cities Soccer Leagues says there are only about 2,600 certified youth soccer officials, a 39% drop from 2019.
"That's a crisis in our society," said Matt Tiano, the league's CEO. "We're trying to create a positive environment, encouraging referees to be a part of the game, instead of giving them reasons to leave it."
Parent conduct is one of the factors driving refs out. The league encouraged all of its affiliated competitive soccer clubs to promote the Sideline Project training, even holding a contest to see which club could get the most parent participation. (For those keeping score, Prior Lake Soccer Club took first place.)
We could probably write entire dissertations on the brokenness of youth sports. The extreme end can be found in the recent settlement of a defamation suit in which a disgruntled mom spread lies to harm the reputation of a Woodbury high school girls' basketball coach — all because he couldn't guarantee her daughter varsity playing time.
I vow I will never be that parent. But let's break down why it's not in my child's best interest for me — who, mind you, has never played a single minute of competitive soccer — to coach my child during a match.
My friend Niki admitted she once yelled, "Throw it home!" to her son as he was pitching a baseball game. He obliged, and it ended up costing the game for his team.
But even if you make the right call, research shows that giving instruction to your child in the middle of a game can hinder them from learning the sport.
You may think you're helping. Maybe you timed the command just right, and your child even scored a goal. You might feel immediately gratified: My kid listened to me and it worked! But if we just held our tongues and dared to let our kids make their own mistakes, that is more likely to change their behavior in the future, Eddy said.
And we need to reflect: Why, oh why, do we care so much about our child's performance? Are we trying to live vicariously through them? Are we assuming they will be happier if they don't make mistakes? Are we projecting our own hopes and dreams onto our kids?
After my son let in three goals as the keeper during a match, I figured he would be crushed. But after the game, I asked him how he felt. He still had fun and was able to brush off the loss in a way I wouldn't have been able to. We all need to recognize our kids are not us and celebrate them for who they are.
Our sideline coaching may also distract and confuse the child, pit your instructions against their coach's, and steal your kid's autonomy on the field.
Still reading? Good. Maybe you are the level-headed parent. Here's more advice from Eddy:
Ask your child what they want. Eddy's son told her he enjoyed hearing her encouragement from the sidelines. But her daughter was distracted by the sound of her voice. She asked Eddy, "Mom, can you please just not say a single word at my match?" Eddy complied.
Model supportive behavior. Focus on the process, not the outcome. Refrain from telling the athletes where to be on the field or where to throw the ball. But feel free to applaud good effort and teamwork. Learn the names of their teammates and cheer them on, as well.
So what can we say? "Good job" and "Keep working hard" are supportive statements. I asked Eddy about some of my favorites — "Defense!" and "Pressure!" came to mind. In not so many words, she suggested I chill out. "We are caring too much, so we just start screaming," she replied. The goal is for the teammates to encourage each other, rather than parents controlling the environment.
What if my child's coach isn't saying much during the game? Some coaches prefer to give instruction during training or halftime. Some are quiet; others frankly might overwhelm the child with too much talking. If you're a coach, communicate to parents your teaching style. "My hope is we evolve to the point where we trust one another," Eddy said.
Report hostile behavior when you see it. Eddy doesn't encourage parents to approach a hostile spectator in the moment. Consider recording the incident on video and report it to the club. We level-headed parents should feel a responsibility to help foster a joyful environment for our kids.
But it doesn't stop there. "Club administrators need to step up, and that's where leadership matters," said Eddy. They should have clear policies on how to report bad behavior and consequences for abusive parents.
Across the country, more than 35,000 parents have taken Eddy's course. She is working with other youth sporting organizations to expand the Sideline Project beyond soccer, given that overinvolved parenting is sadly endemic.
Her hope is that sidelines across the country will quiet down, and hostile behavior will stand out even more.
"I talk a lot about 'the crazy soccer parent' and how they've ruined it for the rest of us," Eddy said. "What we're trying to do with our movement is to reach the majority of parents, to give them some agency in this space so they can start to feel like their behavior and their voice matters."