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An Open Letter To Youth Sports Officials

Parents Want To Learn

I write this letter to youth sports officials from the point of view of a parent who has been involved in youth sports for 15 years. I have been on the sidelines with all kinds of parents. These are some of these things that as parents we want officials to know.

As parents we have a lot to learn about the youth sports our children play. Most of us have not played the game with age appropriate rules and therefore we are learning on the job what our children are doing on the field. Some rules are new to us and, of course, have little in common with the rules we see professional athletes use while we watch them on television.

It is clear that as officials you have the most training when it comes to the rules of youth sports. We know them as rules but you are the one who enforces them. In the United States, playing and watching youth sports is different because of this ignorance level of the spectators who are usually well meaning but misguided parents. We do lots of stupid things to make the youth sports environment not as healthy as it should be.

  1. We yell at referees as if to intimidate them into calling the game in our favor. This does not work and tends to embarrass the young player.
  2. We yell at the coach. We believe we are trying to help our child but usually we are just making the situation more difficult for the coach and players.
  3. We yell at the other team's coach and players. This sets up more tension and the likelihood of retaliation. None of these actions are healthy to the development of young sports players.
  4. We even get into altercations with other parents or players.

Most Parents Are Not Intentional In Their Bad Behavior

We do not set out to be problem parents. We do not go to the athletic field looking to go home in a police cruiser. We are there to support our child. We are there because we believe youth sports are a great experience for our child. We want our child to be part of the healthy environment of teamwork, hard work and self-improvement. We want to see our child develop a love for the game they are playing. We want to see our child be physically fit and mentally sharp.

Yet our actions and our beliefs are often out of sync. What we believe we want for our child and how we act often does not match. Most of us do not understand how we are a negative contributor to the youth sports culture we barely comprehend.

Parents' misbehavior is often fueled by our lack of knowledge of how to handle the anxiety of watching our child perform. We get caught in performance anxiety in a way similar to that which players are vulnerable as well. When the anxiety level rises in the us, (move into tunnel vision) we are more likely to say and do things which we know aren't the role model we want for our child. If we are not taught the skills to contain and focus this anxiety, then all the education in the world we receive will be for naught. If, under pressure, we cannot remember what we have learned then our behavior will not change.

Here are some requests we have for the referees of youth sports. We know that these requests go beyond the technical responsibilities of the referees. But we understand that referees have the most influence to help shape a positive youth sports culture where young players will want to play and develop their skills to the highest level. When the youth sports culture creates a positive contagion, then the young player will more likely to want to keep playing and be involved in the game.

Take Control Of The Whole Game

The laws of the game are focused on what happens on the field. However, some other very manageable actions will help to transform the youth sports culture.

  1. Be proactive in what you expect in the game. Referees are very good at letting players know what they expect and consequently players have learned to play to the referee's level of expectation. When the referee does not make this clear, the ref spends significant time in the game establishing the level of play that is acceptable.
  2. Be proactive with the coaches. Make it clear at the beginning of the game how you want the coach to communicate with you. It is much easier to keep coaches at the level of interacting you want when the standard has been stated clearly at the outset of the game. It is easier to intervene the first time the coach tests the limit because it has been clearly stated before the match. When it has not been clearly stated, the coach often responds negatively because they feel they are being picked on and the standard is not the same for both coaches.
  3. Be proactive with the coach concerning the role of parents at the game. Make it clear that the coach is responsible for the action of the parents. If parents are being negative, you will approach the coach to have them take care of the situation. If the coach does not take care of it then you will have the parent leave the field.

    • In order for this to be effective-the parents of the team must be on the same sideline as the coach so that it is clear which team the parent belongs to.
    • The coach wants to be focused on the game and not distracted by the parents. The coach will help the parents stay in a contained manner in their cheering and communication about the play on the field.

The Ref Has Style

While we ask you to be in control of the game, we don't want you to be a dictator. We want your style of the game to positively influence us to create a better athletic environment and enjoyment of the game.

Please do not fall into the American myth that the louder you yell, the more people listen. When people are yelled at it feels like the ref is taking things personally which usually escalates participants who do not understand the goals the ref is trying to achieve.

Performing in the zone of optimal performance is a learned skill. One must work on dealing with performance anxiety. This is particularly important for the youth sport referee. When the referee is able to stay calm and deliberate in the game it helps the players play within themselves. When players are playing within themselves, they are less likely to make mental and physical mistakes. They are more likely to let their skill do their talking than their mouth. The referee is able to set the tone by the way he prepares for the game, prepares the players and coaches for the game, and maintains an aura of calm control throughout the game.

The referees will be tested because players are used to testing the ref to see how far he can be pushed. When the ref is able to calm players down by voice and calming actions then the players are less likely to escalate to being out of control. Performance anxiety becomes a performance issue when the referee starts to notice that the game seems to be getting faster and the decisions are more difficult. Officiating "in the zone" means that the play feels like it is going slower because the ref is able to pay attention to the right things on the field. When the ref has done the preparation and set the boundaries it is easier to have the game played at the right perceptual speed.

Refs Have The Opportunity To Make A Difference

Some refs will balk at taking on more responsibilities at the game. Yet the younger the players, and less experienced the parents, the more important it is that the referee feels confident setting up the match the way they feel will benefit the development of the players. It may take a little more time. It may take a little more preparation to make sure the coaches and parents understand what is expected of them at the game. It may take a little bit more effort to start to change the youth sports culture in our country. Referees have the opportunity to improve the youth sports culture in the United States.

Every youth sport in America is in crisis because of the pressure that adults are putting upon the sport and the participants. Every week there are confrontations and embarrassing situations that young athletes should not have to endure. The adults involved in youth sports have the opportunity to make a difference. As parents, coaches and refs work together, the players will benefit. When referees are willing to take the lead to change the youth sports environment, the coaches and parents will follow because they want their children to have fun, develop into skilled players, and continue to play and be involved in sports for the rest of their lives.