Youth soccer would be better off without the parents

"Referee! What on earth do you think you're doing!?" A fair enough question, under certain circumstances. As it happened, though, not under these circumstances. Not from the sideline of a girls U-11 game, hollered with an outrage suggesting an injustice of the highest degree. The source was a middle-aged male, robustly built, prominently tattooed, top buttons undone, with the cross of Jesus hanging around his neck on a silver chain. We'd already met before the game. He was driving his SUV up and down the driveway to the sports facility, and wanted to know if he was at the right place. I'd just arrived on my bike, and I told him that this was indeed the venue he was looking for, and I welcomed him to our home. His daughter's team was playing the girls team we've just founded, the very first all-female lineup in our club's 65-year history.

The gentleman wasn't interested in small-talk, which is fair enough. He just wanted to know where he could park his bulky vehicle.

Unlike super-pop, the referee didn't show up. It happens quite often, especially with younger refs. In my email to the referees' association later that day, I suggested that referees who don't show up should perhaps send the clubs they've let down an explanation, and maybe even apologize. I've not heard back yet.

So I stepped in to referee the game, even though I should have been coaching from the touchline. Many of the girls were playing their first ever game, and we'd had only a week to prepare since the end of the summer holidays. Needless to say, most of them were over-awed by the large field, and couldn't yet grasp the mechanics of positional play. I'd told them to enjoy themselves anyway, and that even if we fell several goals behind it didn't matter, we'd still learn plenty, and would certainly improve over the course of the season.

Sure enough, we soon found ourselves several goals behind -- our opponents boasted a very good striker who hit the target every time. With the score at 1-5 in the middle of the first half, our goalkeeper handled the ball outside the penalty area. She didn't realize this wasn't allowed. I stopped play, and told her to take two steps back and kick the ball out from the penalty area. The opponent's prolific striker pointed out that it should have been a free kick. I replied that was right, but this was our first game and not all our players were sure of the rules. She gave an understanding nod.

That's when the voice bellowed from behind the goal. "Referee! What on earth do you think you're doing!?" So I went over to have a quiet word. "This game's for the girls, not for you. They are 9 and 10 years old. If you prefer, though, you can watch the game from the parking lot." So we're not playing to FIFA rules, was his comeback. Well, as there's no offside and no pass-back rule in this league, that's correct -- we're not in fact playing to FIFA rules. We're playing to rules appropriate for 9 and 10-year-old girls who've never played a game in their lives before.

The incident didn't ruin anyone's day. The parents took lots of pictures, and the girls took some pride in the fact that during the second half we improved and restricted our opponents to a single goal (final score: 1-8). Yet the questions remain: Why do these incidents still have to happen at all? Why does there so often seem to be an angry man on the touchline quick to make a screaming and entirely uncalled-for intervention?

By this point you could perhaps accuse me of portraying a stereotype: tattoos, white, male, SUV. Not every parent I've had bother with as a referee or a coach looks like this, by any means. Yet when trouble comes from the spectators during youth games, it always seems to be from roughly the same source. Loud men of a certain age who, for reasons known only to psychologists, want to make themselves the center of attention. Compelled to vociferously challenge the volunteer referee to impress ... who knows whom they're trying to impress? Themselves? The other parents? Their embarrassed children?

It seems draconian to banish all parents from watching their children play sport, but it's maybe the last measure available for the sake of peace, quiet and educational development. If the parents on my team who proudly took footage of their daughters' first ever game on Saturday had not been there, it would have been a shame. It would not, however, have necessarily been a bad thing. As a coach, I would much prefer the focus to be on the soccer, not the filmography.

The parents of the away team of course cheered wildly at every last goal. Is there anything wrong with that? Not intrinsically, but it's still something the youth game could easily do without. On the whole, young soccer players would benefit from the absence of family rah-rah.

Mom and pop, perhaps you could go and do something else while your kid's playing soccer. Read the paper, have a coffee, chat with some other moms and pops. The main thing is -- without any pressure, without any shouting, without superfluous 'coaching,' without them being told again and again, "Good job!" -- just let the kids play. It's what they do best.

(The author is a coach and referee in Germany's amateur and youth leagues. He holds the Uefa C-Licence and coached youth soccer in Maryland from 2004-2014.)

30 comments about "Youth soccer would be better off without the parents".
  1. Christopher Tierney, August 26, 2019 at 3:21 p.m.

    Happens everywhere and at every level and has been going on since the beginning of time in youth sports.  I recall a teammates father being removed from the gym during a high school basketball game in the early 1990's.  Social media has likely made it worse....but this is not a new issue and it isn't going away.  Social media has granted society a place in which to complain about others behavior in an effort to make themselves appear superior or 'above' that behavior characteristic.  It is what it is...hope the girls had fun and hope they improve.  Time is on their side if they fall in love with the game.

  2. james Fitzsimons, August 26, 2019 at 4:15 p.m.


  3. Kent James, August 26, 2019 at 4:26 p.m.

    While some parents may want to be the center of attention, I think many are just hypercompetitive and have trouble keeping things in perspective.  If I recall, one club (probably more than one) has filmed parents on the sideline in an attempt to show them how foolish they look (I think a lot of parents are unaware).  That might work if they are able to see the film (so it might work better for home parents that misbehave than away parents, though I assume one could send the film to the opposing coach).  Trying to shame them by posting on social media would probably not be a good idea.  

  4. uffe gustafsson, August 26, 2019 at 5:01 p.m.

    Amy decent coach would make his team work on passing if they are up 5 goals.
    it makes his own team better and not humiliate the opposing team. No need for that.
    another thing that we done is silent games, 
    no words from the parent sideline.

  5. Seth Vieux replied, August 27, 2019 at 2:23 p.m.

    Uffe, one of the teams I coach happens to be an immensely talented group of 10 and 11 year old girls. I am usually putting the brakes on them within a few minutes in, and I'd tell you it's really tough at that age to put too many constraints on them prior to scoring. When they already regularly score goals where 5-6 of the girls touch the ball prior to scoring the most effective thing I can do to make it hard for them to scoreis play them 'out of position.' But one thing I won't do as a coach is tell kids they aren't allowed to score. You also might be surprised how difficult it is to convince the player who rarely gets the chance to score that she really should pull the ball back off the open back post rather than tap it in, whether she's 10 or 18 years old. 

    Having just gone through a tournament with a 36-5 goal differential I truly am sensitive to not 'running up the score' (we went 0-3 on PKs as I had the girls least likely to convert take them), but can only slightly feel better that it would have been a 75-2 goal diff if I'd been remotely interested in scoring goals rather than 'working on passing.' We pass a ton which ultimately leads to a lot of goals.

  6. Kent James replied, August 30, 2019 at 1:41 p.m.

    Seth, you seem to be doing the appropriate things, and ordering people not to score (depending on how it's done) can often be worse than scoring (especially if it's obvious what you're doing).  And, of course, it's no fun for the players and you certainly don't want to get them into the habit of not trying.  A few things you can try; first, have them shoot from distance.  If the other team's keeper is decent, they (one hopes) will get a lot of saves, and your players will have a challenge (if they are shooting too often, maybe have them make 5 (or X number) of passes first.  In indoor, I've had players try to hit the boards just next to the goal (and you can keep score of those). Outdoors, have them hit the post, the side netting, or maybe within a foot of the goal (on the outside).  Or you can have them try to score on headers only (and if that's not challenging enough, a header from outside the 6 yard box, or the penatly spot, etc.). My point is, with some imagination, you should be able to find something that is challenging, but does not run up the score, and respects your opponents.  And in doing so, you'll be teaching your players some good life lessons as well....

  7. Bob Ashpole, August 26, 2019 at 6:15 p.m.

    Always enjoy your articles, Ian.

  8. Kevin Geisler, August 26, 2019 at 9:01 p.m.

    I’m sorry about the gentleman’s behavior, but I must say that the referee’s disregard for the rules in not awarding a free-kick for handling outside the box seems capricious and inconsistent.

    The girls aren’t learning the rules, won’t understand or accept it the next time the referee makes the correct call and the parents on his team (learning the rules from the sideline) will probably heckle the next ref. 

    A referee can very nicely explain the situation, allow the defense time to set up a wall and let the game play out as it should without being harsh or unkind. In fact, it’s his job to do so impartially. 

  9. R2 Dad replied, August 27, 2019 at 12:07 a.m.

    Ian was properly applying Law 18 of the LOTG. Look it up.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, August 27, 2019 at 12:30 a.m.

    Kevin, I get the impression that you have never been a participant in a novice game. In my experience these things are typical in the first games of the season. The most common thing I recall is allowing a player a second chance to make a proper throwin. Referees were expected to do a bit of teaching of the Laws during the first couple of matches.

    I recall one coach who was angry with me when I wouldn't allow his son a "redo" on a penalty kick. (He struck it twice). I just smiled and said no. LOL.

  11. Seth Vieux replied, August 27, 2019 at 2:31 p.m.

    Bob one of my absolute biggest gripes with throw ins for the littles is calling bad throws at all. It's literally the most boring thing in soccer, especially for the littles who can rarely if ever create real opportunities directly from them, so let's just get the ball moving and the kids getting touches again as quickly as possible. I make this appeal to all refs at every training I attend - for the littles just ignore the bad throws and play on.

    As mentioned earlier one of my teams is awfully good so didn't mind two calls on one of our players (was lopsided match so helped slow us down), and really appreciated the ref coming over quickly at half time to ensure she understood that she was coming off the side of her head more than allowable. Could do the same for players at half even if you didn't actually make the call too.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, August 27, 2019 at 4:38 p.m.

    Some clubs do "kick-ins" for the youngest ages. Makes it simpler.

  13. Seth Vieux replied, August 28, 2019 at 2:31 p.m.

    Would love if we went to that for at least up through U10 - I'm certain I'm not alone that I do pass or dribble in for all small sided games regardless of age, to include playing on if the ball is remotely close to still in play.

  14. R2 Dad replied, August 29, 2019 at 12:02 p.m.

    Correct form is to let the young kids continue play but then immediately remind the thrower to drag a toe like the big kids/ball behind the head/stay off the line. If they don't comply the next time (didn't listen/learn), they turn the ball over to the other team. Lesson is learned, everyone moves on. This process is better than just ingnoring their poor throw-ins until age X.

  15. R2 Dad, August 27, 2019 at 1:33 a.m.

    I've always thought that new U8 parents should be required to hang out with experienced U16+ parents, to see how they handle the match-day routine at the touchline. Much as Ian describes, most parents of older kids show up, drink coffee, socialize with other parents, observe and mostly avoid aggitating and/or embarrassing their kids. 
    My best piece of advise to home parents: When your team manager has scheduled any match before 10am, bring Krispy Kreme donuts and coffee to the opposing team's parents, as thanks for getting up so early on a weekend morning and driving who-knows-how-far just so their kids can play a game. No matter how competitive the play, it's hard to berate other adults who have brought a peace offering. Very inexpensive insurance. 

  16. Bill Riviere, August 27, 2019 at 8:44 a.m.

    Good article, Ian.  But what we reallly need is supportive parents who don't live their lives so much through their kids, not the parents to stay away.  Perhaps there should be a "penalty box" on the coaching side of the field for parents who are too involved--put them front and center for everyone to see.  Kids need their parents to watch and be supportive, not stay away.  Very many--in fact most are fine.  There's just a few too many rotten apples in the barrel--so let's put them in a barrel as I suggested :)

  17. cony konstin, August 27, 2019 at 11:20 a.m.

    No parents no coaches no refs. King and queen of the court. 24/7/365 that’s what kids need. No adult interference. 

  18. Peter Bechtold, August 27, 2019 at 1:45 p.m.

    Ian, I take it that this beginners match was in the US rather than in Germany which you sometimes reference?
    I ask because I believe that there should be different rules all around for recreational activities than official league play as would be in Germany.

  19. James Paglia, August 27, 2019 at 2:28 p.m.

    Banning parents? Really? Your description of the offending father smacks of stereotyping, smugness and maybe a bit of prejudice and jealousy. What significance to this story is the size of the vehicle he was driving, or the chain around his neck? Do you teach your players to judge people by their appearance?  Frankly, this post smacks of trying to justify your actions after the fact and sour grapes as much as anything. Yes, the game is for the players but better communications on your part would have benefitted all involved.

    You blame a parent for not being open to your personal interpretation or disregard of the rules and justify it on the basis you had limited time to prepare your team? You draw your story from a game where you cite a single incident of a parent challenging your interpretation of when a rule should be applied. So it’s time to consider banning parents?

    Did you explain to the parents in advance that you would not be following FIFA rules? In your telling of the goalie handling of the ball even the opposing player knew the rule was accepting of the favoritism you showed one of your players. That vindicates you? What difference did the score make in the way you called the game? We’ve all been on both ends of lopsided scores. In your modified rules did you propose stopping keeping score or impose a slaughter rule? Were the score run-up details added to make the opposing coach seem unsportsmanlike and gain sympathy for your position? What bearing did make on the presence of parents at games , which was supposedly the theme of your story?

    Do my criticisms of you and your version of the story seem harsh? Well, they’re no harsher than your whining about a parent you paint as an undesirable or the weak argument you  pose about banning parents.

    No nine year-old has ever signed up for soccer by themself. An adult is always involved. And yet, many coaches adopt an attitude of “give me your kid, give me you money and shut up because i’m the expert.”

    After 40 years of coaching youth, adult, high school and college players I too recognize we have issues with parents. I place the problem largely on the shoulders of coaches. From their first day, we create the environment, culture and atmosphere around our programs from which players and parents learn. Bad coaches who think their authority is infallible have created a culture of bad  parent behavior.

    While I don’t condone parents criticizing officials and find it offensive, i’ve seen many coaches do it. You had options you chose not to use in helping parents understand how you intended to call the game.  In the story you conveyed, I see enough blame to go around for both of you. As coaches, we hold the key to fixing the broken culture of soccer.

  20. Seth Vieux replied, August 27, 2019 at 2:47 p.m.

    Generally with you on this James. Maybe it's because I'm one of those tatooed and fit middle-aged males who drives a pick up truck, but an unmistakable smugness from our cycling author... would imagine it's easier to cycle to your home games than the visitors no? 

    I am certainly always concerned about parents abusing referees, my 12 year old son refs and I reffed as a boy as well so I'm pretty familiar, but I'm just as concerned about parents shouting and hollering support and advice to their kids as it's usually at best white noise and at worse pretty poor advice! I've asked the parents on my teams to really try to limit their verbal enthusiam either way as I want the kids to be able to hear each other, and when I feel the need to communicate  with the players on the field (something I'm truly trying to do much less of) I don't want to have to shout over them :-)

    I live in Idaho but my teams play in a Washington league. This year the Idaho league instituted a new arrangement of teams / parents where team technical areas are on opposite diagonal sides of the field and their parents also sit on opposite diagonals next to their teams. I think this is a really fantastic idea that I hope the Washington league will embrace next season. If I were king I'd also ensure the teams were arranged on the AR's half so they are never running along side the parents that in the US generally have no idea how the offside rule works. Would also ensure that coaches always have an official near them and puts the onus squarely on the coach to treat the officials with respect. I've always been mystified how we can genuinely expect coaches to be responsible for parental behavior when they're on the other side of the field and we can't hear what they're saying at all. And even if we could we'd have to walk all the way around to discuss their short comings. Put them on my sideline and I can walk right over to them and tell them to quiet down so our players can focus or hear me, and also gives me a great opportunity to explain the LOTG to them when I hear them complain about a good call, or even a bad call like the one Ian is so proud of. In that exact same instance I could go straight to my burly conservative parent and explain that I don't mind at all what he's decided to do, and maybe even let him know the ref's persoective/reasoning in departing from the 'right' call.

  21. Jim Hougan, August 27, 2019 at 2:32 p.m.

    Muzzling the parents may be convenient for the ref, but it's a disservice to the kids and guts the spirit of the game.  Most parents are considerate fans who could be doing other things than attending their 9-year-old's games, and they don't deserve to be gagged because of a few (by implication) working-class white males with tattoos.  "Silent soccer" is a tedious exercise that seems calculated to drain the parents of their enthusiasm.  Once that happens, many of the parents will find other ways to spend their weekends.  And so, of necessity, will their kids. 

  22. Seth Vieux replied, August 27, 2019 at 2:50 p.m.

    Jim despite my comments above I agree with this sentiment as well. There surely shouldn't be a banning of parents or rule against them speaking/cheering, but as a coach I've been pleasantly surprised at their receptiveness to 'toning it down,' or at least trying not to coach from the sidelines.

  23. Steve Wilson, August 27, 2019 at 2:54 p.m.

    Same article written over and over with the same solution. Silly article with a certain political slant throughout it. Get rid of the rightous stuff and come up with a real solution. 

  24. Bob Ashpole replied, August 30, 2019 at 9:59 p.m.

    Steve, if you come up with a "solution" for helicopter parents, every school teacher in the country will thank you. It is a way of life for them.

  25. Mike Beaudry, August 27, 2019 at 3:44 p.m.

    Uffe I agree with u to a extent but in reality the other team does know what u r doing. However u re right that the game is won focus on improving other aspects of the game or require 5  touches by different players before u shoot. I do disagree with the Coach/Referee to a degree when i do little kids games as a referee I talk to them and give them positive feedback or corrective feedback so they learn I would have called the handball but at that level never would I have given a red for preventing a goal scoring opportunity. Part of officiationg is common sense. 
    FYI I am 62 refereed for over 20 years am a C National US Soccer Coach ran a mens amateur team for 23 years I just took off a year because of this very reason. Parents! When you ref kids and u have 2 to 3 conflicts with parents in the parking lot it is time for a break {my problem I do not back down}. Parents are a big big problemI would rather do a adult game that pays more and is less problems any day of the week!

  26. uffe gustafsson, August 27, 2019 at 5:28 p.m.

    first let me clarify we talking about young ones as in rec league. for many it’s first or second year of playing.
    clearly your league is not flighting your team properly.
    Here they play 3 games (coaches requested which flight to start in) but after the 3 games the league will change teams flights accordingly how the 3 first games played out.
    nobody want a team that is far superior in their flight and it sure not helping the superior team to get any better, only when u play equal teams you learn and improve.
    on the issue of silent games, it’s something that’s done 1 or 2 times a season, it will teach parents that the kids can play just fine without any parent coaching their kid from sideline.
    as a ref it’s a big pet peeve to me having parents coaching. Super distracting for the kid as well for me.
    any coaching should only come from the coach and he/she should keep that to a minimum.
    read mike Woitalla article that’s posted before each season starts.

  27. Seth Vieux replied, August 28, 2019 at 2:56 p.m.

    Uffe I think we're on the same page. Biggest problem for the particular team I mentioned is that we live in a very remote area and the club does not traditionally produce strong teams. So despite walking through lower divisions for two years we've just now finally been promoted to the next higher level (which I think is still going to be easier than they need to keep progressing at the pace we want). For the recent tournament I called ahead to ensure we were placed in the highest division.

  28. uffe gustafsson, August 27, 2019 at 5:35 p.m.

    And for the comments on big burly tattooed man.
    yes it very intimidating to any ref especially for teenage refs to have him hollering from sidelines.
    why you think most teenage refs stop after 1 season.
    because of a guy like that, who needs that abuses getting paid $20/game.
    its not WC game they play but simply a great way to learn team work as well sportsmanship and to run off pent up energy.

  29. Kent James, August 28, 2019 at 12:38 a.m.

    Banning parents is too extreme, "silent Sunday", while well-intentioned, is too awkward. I think the problem is that parents see coming to watch their child play a sport is being a "good parent", and when they start watching, they get involved (and they literally have skin in the game, since their progeny are playing).  When I was growing up playing youth baseball and football (this was the early '70s, so there was no youth soccer in NC until I was in HS), we carpooled with other kids; one parent dropped us off, while the other picked us up.  Nobody stayed to watch practice.  For games, I think we still carpooled and the parents who drove would watch.  I think one of the problems now is that parents feel the need to be more involved, and they count watching games as that involvement.  And of course, to a point, it is.  But if they feel the need to come to every game, I think that may hurt the children, who may feel lost when they can't make it (or too much pressure to perform if they do make it).  The program (as Ian said) should be for the kids.  No adults are necessary.  While it is appropriate that the adults catch a game now and then, it is better for the kids not to have their parents watch (and critique) their every move.  Parents need to relax, and let the kids be kids.  If they let some other parent take their kids to their game (and don't come watch), they're not being a bad parent.  I would argue it's a good thing for parents to be less involved, and let the kids do more on their own.  Helicopter (or bulldozer) parents aren't helping their kids by doing everything for them and being intimately involved in every aspect of their life, they're smothering them...we need more "free range" parenting!!

  30. Ruth Nicholson, August 28, 2019 at 1:29 p.m.

    I really hate the idea of banning parents from the sidelines. It only addresses a symptom of the problem, not the core issue(s).

    I wasn't allowed to play soccer until after the passage of Title IX. My parents worked on weekends, and rarely were able to attend a game. They fought hard so that I could play soccer like my younger brother could. I knew they supported me. And yet, I really wish they had been able to watch me play. I have no idea if they would have been loud and cheering or just quietly there. However, I do know that I wanted someone cheering especially for me on the sidelines, vocal or not.

    Don't wimp out and ban parents. Engage them and make them a constructive part of the experience. 

    I truly loved sitting with my thermos of tea watching my sons play soccer at training and at games. I didn't have to yell or get in the way to enjoy seeing them have fun with their friends.

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