No parents on the sidelines: Both wonderful and sad

Years ago, I helped coach a team of young teens and a girl asked us to switch her from right wing to left wing to keep her farther from her screaming dad.

Shortly before the pandemic hit, I reffed a game during which a 10-year-old boy emphatically protested an inconsequential call in midfield with the same words and gestures a father on the sideline used earlier in the game.

Countless are the times I've witnessed little kids distracted by yells of "shoot!" from the sidelines, which may be the most asinine among the many instructions that invade children's playtime and interfere with their learning process. (Even the youngest players comprehend the necessity in soccer to shoot! Screaming at them when to shoot doesn’t help them in the moment or long-term.)

Since Northern California has reached the safety point of returning to official competition amid the pandemic, I’ve refereed eight games at four different fields. COVID-prevention protocol requires parents to keep their distance. That means all the parents are watching away from the sideline. They sit behind chain-like fences, at distances depending on the venue.

Especially as a referee, who hears sideline noise from both sides and sees upclose the negative effect it has on the players, it’s remarkable to compare these games without parents on the sideline to those with the usual constant yelling.

The coaches seem calmer and their voices sound different. When coaches give good advice, the players can actually hear it. Even when coaches instruct unnecessarily or in terms incomprehensible for the age group, at least the tone sounds more encouraging because they’re not raising their voices to compete with the parents’ noise. I also believe that when parents are close-by, coaches are more inclined to overcoach because they feel pressure to demonstrate they’re “doing their job.”

I am reminded of a game I reffed with insufferable parent sideline coaching. I spoke to a real coach, a young guy, after the game and mentioned that the parents across the field from him were screaming instructions that obviously disrupted and confused the young players. He acknowledged he had problems with them, and I inferred that at his age he was too intimidated by the parents to take action, wasn’t sure how to approach the problem or his club didn’t strive to educate the parents.

This horrible pandemic has for the time being in my part of the nation solved the problems that parents can create from the sidelines, which include contributing to the referee shortage. You have to experience what it’s like to referee with parents objecting to your calls to appreciate how intensely it ramps up the players -- and how often the parents are ignorant of the rules and are in no position to make a reasonable judgment on the call. That’s one thing for an experienced adult referee to deal with and quite another for a teen ref.

Perhaps the best thing about parent-free sidelines is not seeing children playing nervously, as I often do when there’s all that adult noise.   And the atmosphere is so much more pleasant when the only times one hears much from the parents are cheers.

One venue I ref at is the former Naval Air Station on Alameda Island. The adults, besides the coaches and refs, sit or stand between dilapidated buildings and fences 40-plus yards from he fields. When I glance at them, it looks like they’re watching from cages – as if they’re being collectively punished for the historic behavior of adults in youth sports.

I can’t deny that I’ve delighted in having the parents faraway. But a sadness interferes quickly with that sentiment. Watching your children play sports is a uniquely joyful experience that shouldn’t have to be from far distance.

I hope that parents returning to their sideline seats recall that their kids did just fine without being instructed and yelled at. But parents are hard-wired to help their kids. That instinct can lead to well-intentioned but misguided interference in youth sports. It's likely that sideline screamers are unaware of how obnoxious they're being.

The most effective solution I’ve witnessed is when clubs continually educate parents on how beneficial it is for kids to be free from instruction while playing.

8 comments about "No parents on the sidelines: Both wonderful and sad".
  1. Bill Dooley, April 28, 2021 at 6:25 p.m.

    The problem with parental instruction from the sideline is that it is always distracting, usually too late, frequently wrong (and sometimes risky: nothing silences a sideline more effectively than the player who turns to it and yells “Mom! Shut up!”)  

    One novel solution to this problem was when a coach took the child of an incessant sideline instructor out of the game and sent the player around the field with “Your dad has a message he wants to give you.”  You can imagine how that 13 year-old girl handled that short, sweet conversation.

  2. Randy Vogt, April 28, 2021 at 9:35 p.m.

    Since soccer resumed in New York, I've officiated youth games with fans plus HS and college games with no fans. But sometimes a few fans with HS and college games stood outside the gates. The only time I noticed a difference with no fans in the latter was the big rivalry games were there would have been a lot of cheering and yelling if fans had been allowed.

  3. Mike Lynch, April 28, 2021 at 9:51 p.m.

    Good article Mike and spot on. Hopefully some form of "The Parents Role in Athletics" was part of every club's COVID return to play protocol. Time will tell lots. 

  4. R2 Dad, April 29, 2021 at 2:23 a.m.

    What bothers me most about parental kvetching is that it mostly advertises how little they know about the game. Novice parents with kids who only know how to play kickball annoy me because that was the situation over 40 years ago when I was a kid and nothing has changed! Clubs know their parents know nothing and will do zero to address this deficit. Clubs like their parents ignorant and wealthy, the better to tell them what to think and do; this situation makes managing families easiest for club owners.

  5. Lee Levenberg, April 29, 2021 at 8:38 a.m.

    Many parents in my club requested that we allow them back on the field instead of behind the fences when our city starting relaxing covid restrictions a few months ago.  I hesitated to do so because games were so much more enjoyable for players, coaches, and referees.  I mentioned this to my Director of Coaching.  The next morning I received short videos from many of my teams, boys and girls, ages 8 through 18, of their coach asking the players if they would like the parents to be able to watch their games from the sidelines like before the pandemic.  Unanimously, every player shouted NO with glee.

  6. Philip Carragher, April 29, 2021 at 9:28 a.m.

    I handle the parent interference issue upfront, at the pre-season Parent Meeting. I'm an old, crabby coach so no one seems to try pushing me on this, although a few years back I had one wealthy parent who wouldn't stop reducing his kindergarten son to tears during games. Two weeks in a row emails went out to all the parents informing them that parent comments must be limited to cheering but he still wouldn't shut up, so I called his home, his wife answered and when I asked for him she mentioned the emails saying she knew they were aimed at him and she handled it from there. Also, a few years ago I was watching the Little League World Series (baseball) and umpires were stopping the game to chastise parents in the stands who were verbally interfering with the games. I like this idea and and wonder if soccer could do something similar. In many cases, I think soccer referees have more experience than young and/or volunteer coaches and I'd like to see referees handle these situations when the coach seems unable to.

  7. James Madison, April 29, 2021 at 3:45 p.m.

    Parents who yell from the sidelines are, as often as not, vocalizing their subconscious anxieties avout their skills as parents---it's their failure if Johnnie isn't playing as well as they believe he should.  Parents learn to shout from coaches who shout (and I admit to being a recovering "shoutahoiic"); coaches shout for the same reason as parents; they are vocalizing their anxieties. If Susie is not not playing as well as she should, it's because of a coaching failure during training. Among other detriments of yelling "SHOOT!, by the way, is the potential for breaking concentration just when concentration is vital---deciding whether to take and then executing the shot.

  8. Jim Hougan, April 29, 2021 at 8 p.m.

    Yeah, who needs the parents?  It's not like they contribute anything.

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