Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

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When Parents Take Their Child's
Sport Participation Beyond Reason

Wayne Dominowski

      A recent article in Coaching Management (February, 2000) told of the head baseball coach at a Florida high school, who was being harassed by a parent, who for one reason or another, thought her son wasn't getting a fair shake. The coach related the experience of a mother who started a one-person campaign to oust him as coach. She wrote each of the district's athletic directors, principals, and school board members, even the state's education commissioner, attacking the Florida high school coach. Finally, the coach having taken the verbal assaults long enough, called on an attorney. The lawyer wrote the woman and her husband with the stern admonition that if she wrote 'One more letter' her action would result in a lawsuit by the coach against them. The letters stopped.

      This is not an isolated incident. More and more reports of similar attacks against coaches by parents and fans have become the norm. They've seeped down from the professional ranks into both high school and little league athletics. Educating the public about the seriousness of the problem hasn't done much to stem the tide of verbal assaults. Individual efforts, often by coaches themselves, have been attempted. From psychological appeals -- ('understanding the parents'), education (providing sportsmanship ground rules to the parents), open communication (between coach and parents) and warnings (telling disruptive parents they will no longer be permitted to attend athletic events) -- these attempts have been tried, but the menace of uncontrollable parents and fans 'blowing off steam,' continues. Despite these individual efforts, the problem remains, and worse, is growing.

      Coaches, like the one in Florida, attempt a show of bravado by pretending to 'laugh it off,' saying "parents will say things about me personally… thinking it won't get back to me. But," he added, he often learns about the backstabbing from other parents. "They think they're getting on the coach's good side," he said in the magazine article, so they tell him what the backstabbers say. Furthermore, a number of coaches erroneously think that because someone "pays to get into a game," this somehow gives them the right to swear, curse, shout obscenities, scream vulgarities, and direct their vitriolic assaults at players, coaches, or referees. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      Over my 40 years in northwest Iowa as both a sports reporter and coach, I have seen a number of instances of what I described here. A good friend of mine in a community in O'Brien County, told me of the constant 'irate' phone calls from 'displeased parents,' or 'fans,' related to his coaching. They'd call him about other athletes, other parents, administrators, local officials, and even his own family. At first he tried to shrug it off as "just a part of the profession." But after a while, it got to be too much. He had been born and reared in O'Brien County, and never, he said, in all his years did he ever believe people he thought he knew "could be so cruel and down-right mean." Even though he was a successful coach and had the respect and admiration of his players," he finally gave up. He quit, sold his home, and moved away.

      I've known coaches over the years who have been verbally poked and prodded, castigated and demeaned, pelted and attacked, all in the name of 'sports,' and watched as those same coaches had their lives upturned, tortured, crippled and maimed. The perpetrators have never been students or athletes. It's always been what's been termed, 'well-meaning parents.' If it were the other way around, and a coach did to parents what they do to him, rest assured the coach would be serving a life sentence in prison for stalking, obscene phone calls and letters, threats, assault with intent to harm, and criminal behavior.

      Personally, I do not foresee now or in the future an attitude of civility taking place in the stands. At the current rate of reports, I see more abusive behavior, soon to escalate to acts of violence, and death (which incidentally, occurred in Houston, Texas (January, 1995) when - as one report put it - a "ridiculously devoted mother" (Wanda Holloway) sought to hire a hit man to kill the mother of her daughter's cheerleader rival). What we saw occur at Columbine, Colorado (April 24, 1999), where two male students walked into their school with automatic weapons and killed classmates and a teacher, may be one more step toward the next act of violence. We may all be reading about a coach, athlete, or referee being murdered because some parent's son or daughter didn't get enough playing time, was cut from the team, was pulled out of a contest because of an infraction, or any other incident that somehow, someway, was twisted from a simple sport into a convoluted, major life-threatening scenario.

      I know the arguments: 'the coach should just smile and forget about it. The coach should just quit coaching. The coach should go somewhere else. That's the way it is in coaching. Coaches need to get a thick skin. Coaches should be above it all.' These and other generalized statements, I believe do not, nor have ever held credibility. None of these cliches, by the way, have the least thread of validity attached to them. Today, more than anytime in our history or the history of sports, actions by individuals or parents as described here may be termed abusive. The abuse meted out by parents or fans is nothing less than irresponsible, insensitive, damaging, outrageous, and hideously dangerous.

Part II

      I do not know the exact number of abuse perpetrators at high school ballparks or stadiums, but just having one of these types hissing rude and unconscionable remarks at a coach, player or referee, must be considered unacceptable. When we hear a youngster being called an 'idiot,' or a coach labeled a litany of slanderous remarks, or a referee being pelted with a bottle, it's time for legal intervention. Whether these totally abusive assaults are assailed at a sporting event, or afterwards at coaches, athletes or referees in letters, phone calls, or in public on-the-street derogatory remarks, such profane antics warrant a subpoena to appear in court (as they now do in the NFL at the Philadelphia Eagles' Veterans' Stadium). Fines should be extensive.

      If no one wishes to 'become involved,' that is, report an uncontrollable fan or parent to the authorities, than police need to be hired and on patrol up and down sidelines, along courtside, at wrestling meets, or baseball and softball games. Police should issue citations with impunity, thereby constraining possible individual acts of criminal mischief, or possible mob violence.

      Coaches themselves need to take a stand. Refusing to coach is one alternative. Forming a coaches' alliance is another. Seeking legal counsel is recommended. Schools and school officials that close their eyes to abuse and verbal assaults upon a coach should be blackballed. Until such schools clean up their act and become responsible, no reputable coach should apply for open positions. Coaches talking to other coaches should spread the word about a school with a squeamish administration or school board.

      If the above actions don't take place, a school should lose the privilege of conducting athletics in any form. Failure to enforce or comply with the mental or physical safety of coaches, athletes and referees, is cause to discontinue athletics at a school. Non-compliance would equate to non-participation for a school found negligent in person or crowd control. The greater evidence of the problem of unruly fans or parents, the greater the punishment to the school.

      Nothing is more frightening than to see an uncontrollable individual, face red and neck veins popping out, screaming at a coach and calling him or her profane and repugnant epithets, all the while that an athletic contest takes place. Equally horrific is a parent who sets out to destroy a coach because of some convoluted sense of wrong the mother or father has falsely created in his or her mind.

      I've read letters sent to coaches that contained the vilest, most repulsive, inexcusable remarks and statements imaginable. Calling a coach unprintable names, reviling him/her and his/her family, and threatening him/her equates to nothing less than absolute criminality. Reading these diatribes, I have often wondered at the mental state of the writer. Very few of these letters are signed, but because of the invective nature of what these individuals direct at the coach or player, it is evident such individuals are in dire need of professional help. It's equally sad to note that among the athletes themselves, deranged assaults on coaches are detectable - athletes know whom the perpetrator is and they often remorsefully tell the coach.

      One coach told me of a high school athlete who came to him in tears. "The poor kid told me his father would run me down nightly, calling me names and saying he was going to get rid of me," the coach said. Another coach told me how after winning his district championship, one mother and father had set out to have him fired. Their son didn't play enough, so the couple set out on a personal campaign that inveighed on the coach's personal reputation. The entire issue went before the school board, where the coach was 'exonerated' of any 'wrong-doing.' Another coach told me of raising the ire of one mother who believed her son wasn't getting the recognition she believed he deserved. "Her neighbors told me the things she accused me of. Scary," the coach said. "Here was a woman whose sole purpose in life was running me down," he said. Another coach told me that several days after any given contest, "the players would come in, one by one, all with the same story. Each one would relate how the same cluster of parents would get together, drink beer, and rail against me. Weird," he said. "If it weren't all true, it would be comical. The first two beers they'd be tearing me apart. The next two beers and they were calling the plays. By the time they hit beers six, seven and eight, you'd swear they were all NFL coaches."

      Another coach, this one in a western state, wrote me and said "Today's gutless administrators will not stand up for the coach. The first time someone's "Junior" cries wolf, the parents turn against you. It's a far cry from years ago when the parents backed the coaches, and administrators supported their teachers and coaches as well. Now, it's CYA, and the coach is usually left holding the bag." He, too, was battered with abuse: "I have been hit with batteries, ice bags, and foreign objects. I have been stalked to the bus by an angry parent because I pulled his kid at quarterback one game. I have read numerous letters, good and bad. It's amazing how the bad ones are almost always never signed."

      Most people outside of coaching may believe such instances of abuse are isolated, but the fact of the matter is that one such irresponsible individual can undo an entire athletic program. To such individuals, being destructive means absolutely nothing. All such individuals think about is "getting even" with the coach for something they've conjured up in their head. Like Adolph Hitler, in the last days of World War II, calling for the internal destruction of Germany (Gotterdammerung), so too with individuals who magnify their personal grievance against a coach, athlete or referee, and kindle hatred, animosity, untruths, lies, slander, defamation of character, in fact anything to destroy a coach. The last thing such misguided individuals think about is the damage they do personally to a coach, his family (spouse and children) or even to the team. These same irresponsible individuals never think or believe that they are harming the very son/daughter they think they are protecting. They are doing just that.

      As a long time strength and conditioning coach, football coach, teacher, news and sports writer, and now guidance counselor, I can tell you unequivocally that a youngster is embarrassed at the least, ashamed at the most when his/her parents interfere on their behalf. I've known of parents who believe that doing everything for their son or daughter made them a responsible parent. One woman would get up in the morning and start her son's car so it would be warmed up for him when he drove a short distance to school. Another would bring chocolate fudge bars to practice for the coaches. When her kids graduated, it was the last the coaches saw of the chocolate fudge bars.

      Some parents become obsessed with their son's or daughter's athletic success. Making all-conference, all-county, all-district, or all-state, for some parents caught in the web of showing themselves and their neighbors they are somehow 'better' because of their child's success, is a case in point. Playing up to a coach, beseeching administrators, or running to the athletic director is a common occurrence among those with a do-or-die fixation personality. When things don't go the way these individuals want them to go, out come the personal bashing, invective, provocative personal assaults, name-calling, and 'get-even' determination to end a coach's career.

      In the early 1970s after a big conference game, the older brother of one of our athletes came to my home late that night, pounded on my door, and shouted he wanted to talk to me outside. When I opened the door, the young man stood there with a shotgun in his hands. I turned to my wife and told her to stay inside and not open the door. I remember telling her that if she heard a loud noise to call the sheriff. For his part, the young man shouted and screamed, called me every name you could think of and brandished the shotgun at me. He wanted to shoot me because his kid brother didn't get into the ball game. Soon his father, who talked him into leaving, joined him. That was a Friday night. Monday, when I went to my teaching assignment at the school, the younger brother approached me in tears. He told me he was glad he didn't get into the game Friday (he was 5'6" and weighed 112 pounds), and told me how scared he was that night because he didn't want to play. Later that evening, after the game, he came home to find his brother and father drinking. They told him how "mad" they were because he didn't get into the game, and that they were going to "take care of the coach" for not playing him. I wasn't even the head coach.

      I remember over 45 years ago when I was in high school. It was a different world. Our pads alone weighed over 30 pounds, and the helmets we wore probably did more for concussions than prevent them. Where those great days? I don't believe so. My father would occasionally come to my practices. One day he saw one kid punch another on the field. He got up, went down to where the coach was and began to object to what he saw. "Mr. Dominowski," my coach said, "you have nothing to say. You get back up to where you were sitting." I admired my father for doing what he tried to do, but at the same time, inside, I wish he hadn't spoken up. Things have come a long way since those days. Now, we have better, safer equipment. Unlike yesteryear, the game has changed from its Neanderthal "get in shape" mentality. Today, football is still physical and the goals are the same, but the game has become tremendously intricate. It's a science. No one in the stands can possibly understand the myriad of details that go into strength training (year around), conditioning, flexibility, endurance and all the performance data that comes with it. What people see on the field or the court doesn't amount to 1/16th of what goes into training, individual and team preparation. It's not just physical anymore; it's psychological as well.

       I wouldn't return to the past for all the money in the world. On the other hand, I'm not sure the way we are going in sports - especially in what's been pointed out here - affords our youngsters much of a future. I believe that if the trend of insufferable actions by some parents and fans continues, you will see schools begin to abandon athletics altogether. This will come about not because of many, but because of a few misguided individuals. Then again, it's always a few who ruin if for so many.

(Wayne Dominowski holds a post-graduate degree from the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, a Master of Fitness Sciences (ISSA), and is currently completing work toward his MS in Counseling. Dominowski has resided in four northwest Iowa counties - Woodbury, O'Brien, Sioux and Plymouth - and has covered and reported as a media professional on education and athletics in virtually every school system in the region. He has also coached and holds the highest ranking attainable as a certified fitness trainer and personal trainer. This is the first of a two part series on a growing concern regarding adult misbehavior and inappropriate actions that negatively impact on youth development.)

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