4 Ways to Manage THAT Parent on the Sideline

For the parent who just can’t get on board with They Play. I Coach. You Cheer!

Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW

| 4 min read

Twenty20

A few years ago, my daughter started playing water polo, a sport my husband and I know absolutely nothing about. Yet, there we were, in the bleachers yelling (nicely) to swim to the ball and raise your arms in defense. I swore I’d never be this parent. I’d already been sitting on the sidelines of little league baseball for years. I’d offered up the occasional woohoo for a good hit, but that was it. Now, I was suddenly an expert at water polo, and I was sure my daughter could use my assistance. 

My daughter had a coach, and it wasn’t me. I was being that parent. 

I learned my lesson the hard way. The coach organized a friendly kids-versus-parents game. My husband and I played 12- and 13-year-old girls in water polo for a total of four minutes. We nearly died. That’s not hyperbole. I was so exhausted at the end of the period I could barely pull myself out of the pool. As I lay freezing on the pool deck gasping for air, I knew exactly what I was doing wrong.

Playing sports is a lot harder than it looks. It’s easy on the sidelines, where one is exerting exactly zero energy, to know just the right move. It’s unfair to think our kids can actually do what parents can do in their minds. And it’s all too easy to think you know as much as — or more than — the coach.

There are many well-meaning parents who just don’t see the harm in critiquing the game or offering additional coaching. They really do think they are helping. But, as a social worker, I’ve seen how children shrivel up with embarrassment when their parents get out of control at practice or a game.

Here are some ways, as a coach, you can encourage parents to let the coaches do the coaching:

Beat ‘em to it.

Communicate with parents as early as possible to establish expectations. (A great time to do this? The welcome meeting). Remind them that the most important goal for the team is to make it a fun experience for all of the children.

Be specific – cheering for their player (and all the players!) is encouraged, but coaching from the sidelines is not. This might be hard for some parents to hear. As awkward as it may feel, if you address it right away, you’ll keep it from becoming a pattern for the whole season.

Know your team.

If you want parents to respect you, it helps to be fully prepared to coach. Know your players’ names. Try to understand their strengths and weaknesses.

The number one reason moms and dads butt in is because they think they know better than the coach. Use your voice and body language to communicate confidently.

Be the change you are looking for.

We’ve all seen the coach who screams this and that at the players after every single play. Nothing encourages bad sideline behavior more than a coach who models it themselves. Be an example of good sportsmanship and emotional control to show parents what you expect. 

Harness their passion for good.

Sometimes, parents with the most to say from the sidelines actually have a good deal of experience in the game. Give them a job. Consider taking on an assistant coach or asking for help with activities and games to work on a particular skill.

Best case scenario: You get help. Worst case: They pipe down. 

The truth is, no matter how carefully you lay out the rules or model appropriate behavior, you might still have a parent who repeatedly steps out of line. The best way to handle it is to privately pull the parent aside when it isn’t game time. Let the parent know the effect the sideline coaching has on all the children on the team — and ask (yes, again!) for additional cooperation.

Related articles

5 Types of Parents Who Are Killing Youth Sports

THIS Is How Kids Want Parents to Behave on the Sideline

Let’s Respect the Ref

Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW, is a therapist, avid youth sports parent and founder of The Family Coach.

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