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Teaching Parents How To Stay In Control On Youth Sports Sidelines

Combating performance anxiety experienced by parents

Sending The Wrong Message

The stories of parents acting out on the sidelines are all too familiar. The problems range from parents yelling at parents, parents verbally abusing referees, to incidents of physical violence between adults. The unfortunate part of this behavior is that not only does it teach children that abuse and violence are ways to solve disagreements, but it constitutes a form of emotional abuse.

I don't believe that most parents have a personal value system that includes violence and verbal abuse as proper behavior at youth sports events. If asked, most parents would say that they attend their child's sporting events to provide support, and that they want a positive and healthy environment for their children. Unfortunately, I believe a form of performance anxiety interferes with the ability of some parents to achieve these goals. When the competition on the field heats up, the parents on the sideline or in the stands begin to get energized as well. Because they do not know what to do with all of this excess energy, they sometimes act in inappropriate and negative ways.

Performance Anxiety: Parents Experience It Too!

Performance anxiety is a challenge for all athletes, including the youth athlete. Your child may not necessarily know what performance anxiety is by name, but she sure knows its symptoms. She knows when she gets that strange churning feeling in her stomach that makes her feel like throwing up. She is relieved when you tell her she just has "butterflies" in her stomach. She visualizes the butterflies and tries to get them to "fly in formation."

Parents experience a different kind of anxiety on the sidelines. The kind and intensity of the anxiety will depend on the sport. It may depend on the level of contact in the sport or the skill level of the participants, but, whatever the sport, most parents end up experiencing the game with their child in a very personal way. They see themselves out on the field. They can feel the muscles twitch in their body as they feel their child catches a pass and then fumbles, or swings and misses for strike three. And, they feel the elation when their child hits a home run or scores a goal.

The Intensity Web And Tunnel Vision

While it is natural for a parent to identify with her child to some extent while he is playing sports, the more a parent identifies with him the more the parent is getting tangled up in the "Intensity Web." The problem is that a mother can't release the building intensity the same way as her child. She can't go on to the field and block an opposing player. She can't dribble the basketball and focus her anxiety in that activity. Instead, she is stuck on the sideline, caught more and more in the "Intensity Web."

When the intensity level reaches a certain point, parents move into "Tunnel Vision." By that I mean they literally lose sight of what is important in youth sports and focus narrowly on their child, to the exclusion of everything else. Tunnel vision is often the reason parents act out at the game. While in tunnel vision parents often lose the ability to make good decisions. They find themselves saying things they normally would not say. They find themselves confronting other adults to the point of threats or violence. When a parent cannot stay out of tunnel vision during a youth sporting event he is far more likely to act inappropriately.