I have two daughters that play competitive sports. My 13 year old in grade 7 plays volleyball as part of her school’s team as well as for our community’s competitive volleyball club. My 11 year old in grade 5 plays badminton competitively as part of a local club and is also a member of her school’s cross-country team as well as their basketball team. This means from September – June I spend a lot of time running the roads and sitting on uncomfortable bleachers in gymnasiums cheering them on.
Up until recently I’ve truly enjoyed being a spectator in the stands, but lately I’m seeing a disturbing trend that is making sitting on the side-lines far less enjoyable and something that I think needs to be called out because I truly believe it is destroying kids sports – parents/grandparents obsessed with winning.
Let me be clear – There is nothing wrong with wanting your child and their team to succeed. That’s pretty normal and sort of the idea of competition. I’ll be the first to admit that when one of my kids win a ribbon or a medal I’m right there to snap that picture and post it on Facebook to capture the moment and let them and the world know how proud I am. What is problematic, however, is thinking that competitive sports are just about winning and parents and grandparents behaving in ways that instill a culture of disrespect and sore losers .
In December, we travelled out of province so my youngest daughter could compete in her first national-calibre badminton tournament. She’s had an incredibly successful season thus far here in Nova Scotia so we opted to take her to a tournament open to players from across the country in hopes of giving her a bit more of a challenge. I realized very quickly and to my dismay that the fundamentals of respect and sportsmanship that are very much emphasised and rewarded here by our coaches were not practiced by all and I watched in horror as a young boy from a different province had a complete tantrum and meltdown on the court after losing his first game against one of my daughter’s club mates and then ultimately refused to play the second game, something I’ve never witnessed in Nova Scotia. But that wasn’t the part that disturbed me the most. For me, the worst part was watching the boy’s mother grab her son by the arm, storm over to the draw desk, and just blast the official because she thought it was unfair that her son had to play against such a hard player. I really couldn’t believe it. Instead of making her child go back on the court, apologise for his disrespectful behaviour, and experience the many lessons learned from losing, she sent two very clear ugly messages – It’s alright to be a sore loser and if you can’t win, don’t play.
Sadly, I’ve been a witness to lots more bad behaviour here on home court during basketball and volleyball games over the last two months and almost all of it has been from the parents/grandparents attending as spectators. During one elementary school basketball game I actually had to get up and move because I couldn’t handle the constant pressure one mom from a visiting team was putting on the girls playing on the court. She was such a loud-mouth that during the warm-up I actually thought she was their coach until I saw the real coach on the bench and realized she was just a parent. During the game their team quickly took the lead and even when they were up by about 20 points she continued to criticise them when they missed baskets or a ball got away from them and barked orders and directions from the sideline. Throughout the game she also felt the need to criticize just about every call made by the young grade 7 boys who were refereeing the game and on top of that, she kept bragging to other spectators about her glory days as a high school basketball player. I absolutely guarantee that despite the fact our girls lost that game by over 30 points they had a lot more fun than the team that won. Our coach had a smile on her face and so did our young players.. Were they disappointed that they got totally creamed? Probably. Did they go home happy? Yes. Did they learn something? Yes. Successful game in my opinion, regardless of the score. It’s elementary school. Let them have fun, learn from their mistakes, bond as a team, and just leave them alone.
The next team they played had a similar grandparent who felt the need to criticise non-stop to the point I finally turned to him and said, “It’s elementary school. It’s supposed to be about having fun.” His wife shot him a quick look, scolded him in agreement, and that was the last we heard from him, thankfully.
I would never cut it as a hockey mom based on the numerous horrible and comparable stories I’ve heard over the years of brawling parents, cursing at refs, etc. I once chatted with a hockey coach who was beyond frustration with parents who were offering their kid $1 for every goal they scored. He said if they wanted to help their team find success they should offer them $2 for every assist because it takes teamwork to win, not a kid hogging the puck who thinks they’re a superstar. I think that could be applied to most sports, though I think it’s really sad that parents want their kids to score so badly they are offering financial incentives. Why is it so important to them?
Over the weekend, our community hosted a huge U14 girls volleyball tournament with 20 teams. I was really looking forward to it. Then I went into the stands and listened in horror to the comments being made about the various players and coaches. Comments that were degrading, hurtful, and said loudly enough that I’m absolutely certain the players themselves could hear them as could their family and friends who had come to support them. Comments like, “Number __ you suck. Get her off the court.” Comments that have no place in a sporting event and show blatant disrespect. Comments that come from an insane need by some to always have victory who believe sports are just about winning who would happily see another parent’s child sit on a bench all weekend because they think it would improve the team’s chance of winning.
What do you think happens when parents and ‘supporters’ start dissing their own players, coaches, and team? It doesn’t take a genius to know that it creates an environment that is toxic. If adults are being disrespectful it opens the door for the kids themselves to be disrespectful. It causes teammates to turn on one another and the unit collapses and fails. I witnessed this first hand over the weekend.
This obsessive need for parents/grandparents to see their kids win is a real problem and begs the question: Why is it so important to you that your child wins? Seriously, why? Is it because so much time and money is spent carting the kids to practices and tournaments that a medal is the return on such a large financial/time investment? Is it because you want them to be successful and feel they aren’t successful unless they bring home a medal? I fear that our culture of competition is stealing from our kids the real victories in competitive sports, the ones that are measured in personal bests rather than wins/losses and the sense of belonging that it supposed to go along with being part of a team. How on earth is a child going to improve their skill level if they never have the opportunity to play and learn from their mistakes and how could they possibly improve their confidence if the spectators heckling from off-court make them feel like they are failing and undeserving of play time? No wonder so many kids quit sports these days.
Most of my proudest moments watching my kids play have been in games where they lost. At the Atlantic Junior Badminton Championships last year my daughter lost a quarter-final match in the tie-breaking game 24-22. She walked off the court absolutely exhausted, but with a smile on her face because she achieved a personal best that we would never have imagined against that particular player.
During my oldest daughter’s last volleyball game over the weekend I watched her face form one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen when her teammate set the ball so she could hit/spike and they scored a point. She’s a setter so she never gets to hit/spike and a year ago would never have had the confidence to even try. They lost their set 25-23, but she felt good about how she played and she gained a bit more confidence so definitely a ‘win’ from my perspective in terms of what I see as really mattering.
As spectators we need to remember that we’re there to support the children, we’re not there for us. Our job is to cheer and make them feel good about themselves and to help build them up, whether they are winning or losing. Our job is to support the whole team, not just our own kid. Our job is to respect the volunteer time put in by the coaches and to respect the decisions they make. It’s our job to realize that just because we can see that the ball is on the line doesn’t mean the ref on the other end of the court could, so they made the best call they could and we need to respect that. If our kids come off the court/field/ice feeling happy, supported, and able to identify the things they did right and the things they can improve upon, regardless of whether they’ve won or lost, then we’ve done our job properly. If we can’t tick off all of those boxes then we’d better smarten up and be prepared to call out the people being disrespectful. It’s time to put good sportsmanship and respect back into sports and it’s time to tell the hecklers to smarten up.