by Dr. Michael Oberschneider of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services
Male Emperor Penguins will stand guard to protect their baby eggs by covering them and balancing them on their feet in the freezing cold for a two-month incubation period. And Emperor Penguin mothers will travel up to 50 miles to the ocean to retrieve fish for their offspring, which they keep warm in their pouches for long periods of time. Elephant mothers travel in herds and encircle their youngest member to protect them from predators, and orphan children elephants are adopted by the herd. After octopus moms lay thousands of eggs, they stop eating and will not leave the area and will guard their offspring for as long as needed; it’s documented that octopus moms have waited up to four and a half years before the eggs hatch. Cheetahs, orangutans, polar beers, kangaroos are also known to be fiercely protective of their offspring.
And then there’s the soccer parent, arguably the most protective parents of all in the animal kingdom. When these parents are encountered by a threat or challenge, like other mammals, they will inherently defend their children, and there is a myriad of threats to defend against – a bad referee call, struggles with other coaches, players, or parents, not being on the best team, not being able to play a preferred position, not getting enough playing time, etc.
Okay, okay, so not all soccer parents are overly protective, and certainly behaving poorly as a sports mom or dad can happen with any sport. But to keep from being “That guy” when it comes to your child’s soccer experience at Revolution, I offer the following “Dos” and “Don’ts” to consider:
Do encourage and support your son or daughter’s efforts. Research has shown that parents who praise effort bolster their children’s perseverance and performance for challenging tasks. Research has also shown that children do better when their parents demonstrate their involvement and interest in activities in supportive and encouraging ways. Our children want us to be proud of them, so smiling widely, cheering positively, and helping your child develop a strong work ethic on the field as they have fun is good medicine.
Don’t pressure your son or daughter to play better. Don’t over focus on output, as that can put a lot of pressure on your kid. Your child’s success on the field shouldn’t be measured by the number of goals they scored or assists they had in a game, but rather, their success should be based on their effort to play well and to learn and grow. As the saying goes, “Teamwork makes the dream work,” so being a helpful, patient and kind teammate are important ingredients for success that you want to encourage as a parent.
Do promote sportsmanship. In addition to supporting your child’s sportsmanship with other players, speaking respectfully as a parent about other parents, officials, coaches, teams/organizations, and players is also recommended. Speaking positively is always a good thing; whether you’re on the sidelines during a game or driving to or from a practice or a game with your kid, focus on the good, and try to avoid negative statements or comparisons.
Don’t become overly competitive and reactive. As a psychologist that works a lot with child and teen athletes, I’m often asked, “Why do parents become so upset at sporting events?” The reason is that we as parents want the best for our children, and we also want them to be happy and successful. Our children are an extension of ourselves, and thus we identify with them. When we perceive that something or someone is a threat to our child or that something is unfair, it’s normal to feel badly with and for our kids and to want to jump in to protect them as much as we can. However, problems occur when we over identify with our children as they struggle to manage unavoidable real life challenges. Sure, there may be times a parent needs to jump in to help their child during a practice or game, but those moments are far and few between. If you find yourself becoming angry or overreacting emotionally in relation to your child’s soccer experience, it’s more likely the case that something triggered you and that you need to make sense of what that is; screaming, taunting, or cursing at parents, officials or players during a game will likely only lead to more problems. It’s okay to be angry, but how you manage your anger as a parent – on and off the field — is what’s most important.
So, when faced with an upsetting or triggering moment, being aware of your tone/voice level, being careful with what you say, turning to other parents for support and disengaging to regroup, if necessary, are a few things to try when you find yourself becoming too angry.
Do communicate. Revolution is a great organization, and the coaches and staff are committed to making sure your child has a great soccer experience. However, no soccer club or organization is going to get everything right for your child (or you as a parent), and they will likely not manage your expectations at times. In my opinion, if your child is old enough to work through a problem on his or her own (e.g., resolving a conflict with a teammate, asking the coach if he or she can play a different position), it’s best to encourage that. If your child is younger, or a problem occurring for you as a parent is more complex, it’s best to communicate calmly and respectfully and at the right time. I always recommend that parents wait 24 hours after an upsetting event or problem before emailing or calling your child’s coach; that extra time will give you the space to cool off, and it will in turn allow you to focus more sensitively and logically on the issue at hand when you do communicate.
Don’t keep things inside. Often problems in soccer, as is the case in other areas of life, go away on their own, but avoiding problems that don’t go away could make things worse for your child and/or you over time. There’s a very old idea in the field of psychology that strong, negative feelings turned inward can cause depression. Not addressing a problem that needs to be addressed can lead to a host of problems such as, talking badly about a coach or others, quitting the team or feeling badly are a few things that unfortunately can happen when parents don’t communicate directly and effectively.
Do volunteer. Parent involvement helps to make a team soccer experience more enjoyable. When you volunteer or help as a parent on your child’s team, you’re building connections and modeling the importance of cooperation and giving back in relation to others. These sorts of socialization moments are important for your child to observe and internalize, both on and off the field. By making yourself more available to the team, you’ll also get to know more parents, which is good since you will be spending time together at practices and games.
Don’t be a stranger. In my opinion, when your child is on a team, you’re on a team. And while you may not agree with some of the things you hear other parents or players on your child’s team say, or some of their behaviors, when we’re on a team we’re in it together. I’ve yet to meet a Revolution parent that I didn’t like or didn’t enjoy spending time with; we all want our children to have a great time and to get the most they can from the sport and the experience, and that’s a shared and universal reality for all soccer parents. So, the next time you have a little free time, don’t sit in your car and wait for practice to end, instead, get to the sidelines where you can connect with other parents and watch your child play and have fun.
I hope you enjoyed (and benefited from) this article, and please keep an eye out for next month’s article, “Grit is Good: How to Foster Emotional Resilience In Youth Soccer.”