Out of Bounds: The Sideline Parent Syndrome

May 15, 2015
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Fifth inning and her team was winning. Poised on the pitcher’s mound Julie was looking for a signal. Another 10-year-old girl was up – a strong batter, and her friend, Kathleen, was catching.

She scratched into the dirt with her right foot: Once twice three times. But then she kept doing it. Her toe stopped scraping the dirt and started stomping. She covered her face with her mitt. Julie was crying.

Her coach hustled out from the bench. He stood in front of her putting his hands on her shoulders. Still hiding behind the glove he could feel her tiny body shake and heave.

“What’s the matter?”
She peeled back her mitt just enough for him to see her red eyes and trembling lip.

“My dad is embarrassing me to death.”

It’s happening around the country. As the weather breaks and the sport season moves outdoors, parents flock to watch their kids play their chosen sport. The fields and courts are full with soccer, lacrosse, baseball, tennis and other teams. The parents are in the bleachers or on the boundaries of the field. But not all of them have come just to watch: Some of them are screaming and criticizing the coaches, the assistants, other kids, and their own child – constantly.

The sideline syndrome, a term I made up, has to do with winning. Parents – almost always the fathers – are so invested in the thrill of winning that they forget what playing on a team and being involved with sports is all about. They are so wrapped up in the success of their child and team that they do exactly the wrong thing – they verbally abuse others.

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Many school districts are taking up the challenge and asking parents to sign a code of conduct. A promise not to badmouth, taunt or berate anyone on the field. In 2010, the University of Maine produced a “Sports Done Right” report emphasizing seven core principles to be used in sports. The goal was to produce guidelines supporting an environment that encourages discipline, respect, responsibility, fairness, trustworthiness, and good citizenship.

Repeatedly screaming at your daughter’s coach wasn’t one of their recommended activities.

Statistics show that fewer than 200,000 of the 75 million school-age children who play sports will ultimately earn full-ride scholarships, which means that playing sports must offer more to children than learning to win.

Psychologists know a good deal about what makes for success – not only in sports, but also in career and academic achievement. It is the difference between harmonious – versus obsessive passion. Children who engage in sports and other activities they find inherently enjoyable and in-tune with their identity have harmonious passion. They succeed at what they are doing because they enjoy it and invest time engaging in the activity. They learn to cultivate resilience in the face of losses, and keep at it because they love it.

Obsessive passion happens when a sport or activity is done to get a reward, and not necessarily part of a child’s identity. If a young person feels they have to win to be acceptable they are likely to feel guilty, or believe they will be punished when they don’t. If a child feels compelled to engage in a sport to be accepted by a parent, they experience obsessive passion, and won’t do as well as those engaged harmoniously.

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The sideline syndrome parent is often alone, and believes he is doing the right thing. But if he really wants to help his child, the better way is to teach his son or daughter how to be resilient in the face of losing, and how to find a sport and activities in their life they’ll be passionate about.

Dan Tomasulo holds a Ph.D. in psychology, an MFA in writing and a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. For more information, visit his website Dare2BeHappy.com.

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