It has become so normal for the parent of a sports-playing child to lose his or her damn mind on the sidelines, that the ranting, raving father-fan has become a Hollywood cliche. And there are a lot of cliches pacing America’s sidelines, shouting dumb things at kids who should just be out there having a good time. According to Joel Fish, sports psychologist and author of the book 101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent, these people need to get a grip and, specifically, they need to get a grip on the way they talk about competition.
“Dads are well-intentioned but something happens when you see your son or daughter out there,” says Fish, who’s also the parent of three young athletes. “No one knows where it comes from exactly. We just know that it’s universal.”
Fellow father and sports psychologist Ciarán Dalton agrees that, in the heat of the game, dads are particularly vulnerable to saying the wrong things to everyone their kid and their kid’s entire soccer team. More often than not, it just hurts the children’s experience by overshadowing the benefits of physical activity and teamwork, while making sports dads look more like dicks.
To reduce the odds of this happening, Fish and Dalton recommend sports dads phase the following phrases out of the batting order.
“Stay Focused!” or “Toughen Up!”
While sports cliches don’t necessarily harm kids, dads who use them are wasting their breathe because young children don’t really understand them. They may have heard them on the T.V., but to kids, they’re mostly confusing words out of context. It’s better for a parent to be more specific about the sentiment they’re trying to communicate. “Stay focused turns into ‘Pay attention to the next pitch.’ ‘Toughen up’ would be ‘Learn from your mistake and move on,’” Dalton says.
Granted, these are not good things to shout from a sideline. But neither is “toughen up” so here we are.
If you’ve ever told a woman to relax before, congratulations on being very brave (and extremely stupid).With kids, telling them to relax slightly different but just as ineffectual. When parents say “relax” or even “have fun,” but kids sense how tense their parents are it sends a mixed message, Fish explains. Not only does it confuse younger kids, but as they get older and more self-aware, it can make them less trusting of feedback from their parents. Ultimately, it’s not just about what sports dads say, it’s how they say it. “That might be a blindspot — saying the right thing, but the wrong way,” Fish says.
“Get Them Back!”
Depending on the sport (or the dad), this may be pronounced “hit them back.” Either way, it’s a terrible life lesson and a quick way to get your kid benched. More importantly, it detracts from the positive impact sports can have on children. Instead of learning about fair-play, teamwork, and sportsmanship, they learn about revenge. “It’s a huge distraction from what the kid is supposed to be doing.”
“You Can Do Better Than That.”
For some parents, this may seem objectively true — their kid can make their free-throws or follow through on a swing. They know this because they’ve observed it first hand. But for children, this may be an obvious observation, but that doesn’t mean it’s benign at all. Rather than state the obvious, ask them how they felt about the game, both Fish and Dalton recommend. This gives parents a chance to get valuable information about their kids level of self-awareness, without piling onto any embarrassment they may have felt at the moment.
Much like assessing their performance, it’s better to let children take the lead when it comes prescribing more practice. If the kid brings this up on their own, they’re more likely to actually work that skill because they care about it rather than being defensive about it. “There’s a tendency in everyone, not just kids, when a weakness is pointed out we push back and don’t want to work on it,” Dalton says. If you don’t think you’ve been there, ask your boss.
“Are You Blind, Ref?”
For the record, the referee, umpire, or whatever official in charge is not visually impaired. They see you and won’t forget your hot head anytime soon and it’s probably best not to come at them again. That said, when it comes to your kid, it teaches them a lesson that it’s ok to disrespect people in positions of authority, Dalton says. This is particularly challenging for him, as he’s not allowed to coach from the sidelines at his son’s soccer games despite coaching at a college level. (It’s not personal, but just the league’s rules for parents in the stands.) But it is a chance to teach kids a complex lesson that adults don’t always grasp. If an authority figure is wrong but you handle that badly, you’re don’t get off the hook for being wrong too. More often than not, you make the situation worse. If the ref is really wrong, it’s the coaches job to address it. They eventually will and kids may accidentally learn a little about patience while they wait.
“Let’s Take This Outside.”
As much as you can get caught up in the game and yell the wrong thing, so can other sports parents. When those words are about your kid, moms and dads understandably want to fight each other. But like fighting with the referee, the only thing children take away from that is that verbal and sometimes physical altercations are justifiable if someone is really asking for it. Instead, parents have the opportunity to model appropriate problem-solving skills. Namely, by calmly and quietly asking spectators to not talk to or about your kid. That combination of subtlety and stoicism will scare the shit out of them.
“You Let Your Team Down.”
Despite building psychology careers on undoing this message among professional athletes, Dalton and Fish agree that this is one of the most harmful things sports dads can say — which is often why they wait for the car ride home to say it. If a kid missed a show, struck out, or made any crucial error, they know and there’s absolutely no need for parents to pile onto the shame they may already be experiencing. In these moments, letting children know this happens to everyone, people are forgiving (and forgetful), and that by the next game no one will be thinking about it, is a productive and empathetic alternative approach. It allows parents to acknowledge what happened while making it better, not worse. If all else fails, watch NBA players miss clutch shots on YouTube over ice cream at home later.