The Sideline Parental Scene

Over the course of my coaching career, I sat in hundreds of gyms and watched thousands of high school and club basketball games. Often, the behaviors I witnessed from parents and fans in the stands made my skin crawl and I was deeply embarrassed for them. I can’t tell you how many times I heard a player’s parent yell awful things from the stands at the coach, at other players on the team and, believe it or not, at their own kid. The sideline parental dysfunction is so out of control that 70-75% of kids quit playing sports by the time they are 14 years old. There is so much stress, pressure, anxiety, and unrealistic expectations that is placed on kids today that therapists, sports psychologists and medication have become the norm.

Clueless and Classless Sideline Parental Acts

One night I was watching one of my top recruits play. This particular high school was a powerhouse for girls’ basketball programs in the state, and they were recognized nationally. As I sat alone watching the game, one of the player’s parents was seated a number of rows behind me in the stands. As the game progressed, the player’s parents spun out of control and began yelling at their daughter. The volume kept getting louder, the frequency increased, and their comments were getting brutal. I was extremely embarrassed for them. No class. Parents are supposed to support and encourage their kids, not criticize and berate them in front of a crowd.

It wasn’t even halftime yet and I was planning on moving my seat. I couldn’t stand to hear any more nonsense. My embarrassment for them grew as their poor behavior continued; they had no idea how foolish they looked and sounded, but they were about to find out. In the middle of the second quarter, the daughter of the classless parents turned the ball over right in front of our seats. The play did not stop—and neither did the parents’ mouths. Then, something shocking happened right in front of my eyes: the player who turned the ball over, as she was running back on defense, turned to her parents and flipped them both off. I was stunned but inside I wanted to give her a standing ovation. She’d had enough. Can you imagine what she was going through, listening to the hurtful words from her own parents? Enough was enough. I won’t say it was right for her to flip off her parents, but she broke. Where was the role modeling? Well, the modeling was happening all right, but was with no class.

I will never forget that night in the gym—both what I heard and the reaction. After the player’s message was sent, the parent’s voices were silent for the remainder of the game. A few times I turned around to see if they were still there because it was so quiet. They were still sitting there. They got the message and whether through embarrassment or rationality, they decided to shut their mouths. It stopped, but the damage was done.

The worst part is that I could write so many more examples just like this. This was not an anomaly. We see and read about parents coming out of the stands after coaches, officials, and players. Parents slide out onto the ice, run onto the field, or jump onto the court. I’ve heard and seen it all. When they don’t like their kid’s roles, disapprove of a lack of playing time, or see that other players are the coaches’ favorites, they even get coaches fired—especially at middle school and high school levels.

What is really happening? Unfortunately, a parent’s status, value, and identity are tied to their kids’ athletic performance. Their deep investment in their child’s success, and (often unreasonable) hope for scholarships and stardom, manifest in a desperate need for perfection and result in frustration at any misstep. It’s really sickening. Go stand on the sidelines of a youth game and watch 11- to 13-year-olds play. Go to a boys’ or girls’ junior varsity or varsity high school game—hockey, football, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, baseball, and wrestling—the sport doesn’t matter. You will notice that some parents do not sit or stand with other parents. Why? If you’re a parent, look around; is anyone sitting near you? Are you the parent who has chosen to sit away from the others who are losing their minds, or did they move away from you? Hopefully, others look at you and say, there’s a supportive parent. You support, encourage, embrace, cheer, and know what to say, when to say it, and when to stop.

I will let you in on a secret…the conversation that happens on most days with any type of youth, middle school, club, high school, and college coach is “did you see that kid’s parents?” Don’t recruit that kid on your team because the parents will make your life miserable. A coach’s job is hard enough, and they don’t need to deal with out of control parents who can potentially damaging a program’s reputation. Parents are vicariously living through their kids for obvious reasons, and many times they sit behind the computer and act worse than kids.

Parental sideline behavior has become a horror flick and a realty show gone bad. Sports are supposed to provide a platform where kids can flourish, grow, become leaders, and learn about themselves. Parents please go back to the fundamentals and focus on your role. This is not about you.

As I mentioned earlier, many parents live through their children. It turns into a socialite competition about whose kid is the star, who has the most playing time, and who is receiving the accolades. What else do parents talk about when they get together? They talk about their kids, their success and how wonderful they are. Parents take it personally if their kid doesn’t play, plays poorly, or doesn’t live up to everyone expectations. This is what a bad case of what entitlement looks like.

Let's get into why they stop participating. Research says children stop playing sports for a variety of reasons. Six of the seven primary reasons are "adult controlled" behaviors. As an educator, college basketball coach and founder of Empower leadership academy for girls, there has never been a more significant time in our lives to realize what we are doing to our children. They are afraid to fail, striving for perfection, stressed out about letting people down and concerned that they will never be good enough. What are we doing?

My first task as a collegiate coach began in the recruiting process, but not with the players—with the parents. I had to communicate with, advise, listen to, and challenge the parents to break their own patterns of behavior. It is critical to be prepared and ready for what they would face in college. Some parents were open to my counsel and others still needed to have control, to protect, to coddle, and to cling to their helicopter parent role. These parents hovered over their kids and swooped in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble or if something didn’t go their way.

As I often say, “stay in your lane” as a parent. You will ruin your own child’s experience by being “that parent”. Their experience, good or bad, will affect the rest of their lives.

If the sideline parental dysfunction does not stop, some day you will ask yourself, What happened? What did I do wrong?  Of course, it will most definitely be someone else’s fault.

With 27 years coaching Division I basketball, including 12 years in the Big Ten, Pam Borton led her teams to a Final Four, three Sweet Sixteen’s, and numerous NCAA tournament appearances.  She has received the Marvellous Mentor Award from the Twin Cities Business magazine, “Top 10 Global Women of Leadership Connector” award, “The (Real) Power 50 Award”, the “Ann Bancroft Dream Makers Award”, and the “National Coach of the Year Award” by the New England Basketball Hall of Fame and was recognized as a two-time Naismith National Coach of the Year nominee, and honored with the creation of the Pam Borton Endowment at the University of Minnesota in the College of Education and Human Development the only one of it’s kind in the world.  Now an International Coaches Federation (ICF) senior executive coach, Borton is a Global Leadership Consultant for Borton Partners and has a proven track record of success with C-suite executives, senior level leaders, business teams, athletic coaches, and organizations. To learn more visit <> , or connect on Facebook <> , Twitter <>  and LinkedIn <> . Her new book, ON Point: A Coach’s Game Plan for Life, Leadership, and Performing with Grace Under Fire <> , is available on Amazon as well as other fine booksellers.