Commentary

Anger is the new normal, but there's no excuse for abuse

While refereeing a youth game this past weekend I sent a player out for a five-minute time penalty following his second hefty foul of the afternoon. His coach then spent the next minute screaming right into his face as the defender sat on the bench, humiliated. The player was 13 years old. His coach was an adult male.

I'm trying to think of any other situation where parents would allow their child to be treated in this fashion. If this happened at school, say, then you would hope that the teacher would be called before a disciplinary panel and then kept under stern observation for future offenses. When it comes to sporting activities, however, there's a strange tolerance for choleric, red-faced, tantrum-tossing team officials. By coincidence, I received a message on the same day from one of the fathers on the boys U-8 team I coach, saying he appreciated that the team was run in a relaxed and calm fashion. He'd been at his older son's U-13 game on Saturday, and seen an opposition coach who'd "spent the whole game yelling." There's a lot of it about. Anger is the new normal.

Much as I was grateful for his message, there should be no need for a father to thank his son's U-8 coach for being calm. There should be no other way of coaching kids. In the city of 700,000 people where I coach and referee (Frankfurt am Main), though, there is a shortage of places on youth teams, despite the fact that there are over 70 clubs within the city's boundaries alone. We have a waiting list of four players whose parents regularly stay in touch to see if a spot on the roster's been freed up (there is no pay-to-play -- annual fees are around $100, including team uniforms).

This explains, perhaps, why parents are reluctant to intervene when a splenetic coach unleashes his demons on a child whose sole crime has been to make a mistake during a game of soccer. As though mistakes weren't part of every sport. As though errors were not something to be learned from, but irredeemable transgressions worthy of nothing but punishment.

If the parents complain, the coach might just invite them to find a new team if they're unhappy with what could generously be termed his "style." I only wish that more parents had the courage to do this, even if it means playing soccer at a lower level, or playing a different sport altogether. It's supposed to be a hobby for fitness and enjoyment. If your child's as upset as the 13-year-old lad getting chewed out on the bench, there's something seriously wrong.

The youngster and some of his teammates weren't the exclusive objects of the coach's wrath (and his assistant was no better). As the referee, I too was being held responsible for the fact this team was losing by a huge margin. They had come out with a game plan to foul the faster, smarter and fitter opponent. Having those fouls called and their game plan torn to shreds had lead to a frustrating afternoon for these two charlatans. Why was I only calling fouls against their team, they raged? The answer to that was simple -- it was almost only their team committing the fouls.

I should stress that such coaches are, in my experience, part of the minority -- and that experience includes seven years as a referee in the USA. But in sport as in politics, it's always the aggressive and hysterical few who set the unpleasant tone, grab all the attention, and exert a malevolent influence on the culture (be it soccer or civic) that is way out of proportion to their constructive input.

That's a roundabout way of saying they need to shut up or stop coaching. Parents, referees, and both club and league officials need to be more vigilant in stamping out such disgraceful conduct among people who are supposed to be role models, not wrecking machines. No one should be yelling at kids, least of all for a poor pass or a mistimed tackle.

If your kid's coach has a temper that's out of control then you should do something about it. There's simply no excuse for abuse.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

7 comments about "Anger is the new normal, but there's no excuse for abuse".
  1. uffe gustafsson, November 12, 2018 at 4:38 p.m.

    This is an example of the AD should step in and address the behaviors.
    seen some of this over the years and always wondered why the parents accept such behaviors.
    and why it’s important for every club to have someone to come incognito to watch how their coaches behave.
    the other part is coach sets the tone for parents as well, you got a screaming coach and generally you get screaming parents.
    thats why so many referees quitting and kids leaving the sport.
    We had one team telling the DOC that they where leaving the club and half of them did, how quickly they got rid of that coach. It hurt the pocket book when all of them left.

  2. R2 Dad, November 12, 2018 at 10:44 p.m.

    I've noticed there is a almost Pavlovian response at work among coaches, even at the highest levels of the sport. The quiet, reserved, more professional coach can only sit for 8 minutes from the beginning of the match (+/-3 minutes,  controllling for temperature and pre-match beer sales) alongside the ranting coach before he, too, is compelled to get up, gesticulate, and "start coaching". Sadly, THAT is what most of our U8 coaches have as their primary  role model and take-away from all their coaching seminars, league meetings and TV watching. Real coaches must make a spectacle of themselves, because it's obviously all about them. *groan*

  3. Joseph Pratt, November 13, 2018 at 7:17 a.m.

    My only nit to pick with this article is that this is not “new”. American coaches too often take as role models their football and basketball brethren. This has been going on for decades. 

  4. John Soares, November 13, 2018 at 10:13 a.m.

    I too have witnessed this type of "behavior" on several occasions and still don't get it.
    These same coaches/parents would never be this abusive at the mall or some other place. It would be assault. What in the world makes them think it is acceptable on or near a soccer field?

  5. Bob Ashpole, November 13, 2018 at 8:50 p.m.

    Emotionally abusive coaches are not a new problem. If parents, referees, and league officials are tolerating abuse, that is a new problem.

  6. R2 Dad replied, November 14, 2018 at 11:42 a.m.

    Bob, leagues are run by coaches, so you can see the conflict of interest. I lost my board position at a local league because the coach(es) refused to punish bad actors with anything more than a slap on the wrist. So if coaches can't manage to punish their own, do we pass laws to prevent coaches from running leagues? Sounds reasonable to me.

  7. Ben Myers, November 14, 2018 at 12:31 a.m.

    I have long remembered what a soccer mentor said to me when I first got into coaching back in the last century, and involved with my kids in the game.  As a coach, parent, referee, league official, and tournament official, I have followed his advice. 

    He said to ask your kids after every soccer event, "Did you have fun today?"  And always ask why. 

    When the no's start to build up, is time for a change, even if that means giving up a one in a million chance at that elusive college soccer scholarship.  This worked well for me as a parent.  As a coach, I have to ask my players the same question.  Maybe as soccer leaders, we all have to exhort parents to ask about the fun in the game, and seek change for the betterment of their kids.  No kid needs to be abused by a sports coach for any reason.  And let's hope parents listen to the advice.

    As for coaching on the sidelines, I usually sit on the bench, encourage, occasionally instruct, speak quietly with players coming off and going onto the field, explaining players' roles going on and asking thought=provoking questions of players coming off.  Same routine, but improved with age since I started coaching. 

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