At the Mira Mesa Recreation Center, playing for my fifth-grade youth basketball team, I watched as my coach threw a chair onto the court in anger. On another occasion, the referee threw my coach out of the gym during an argument. The following year, with a different coach, my grandmother was in town from Los Angeles, watching me play for the first time. I stole the ball, dribbled up-court, and missed a layup. My coach was furious. He put his hands around his neck and yelled, “Choker! You’re a choker! You missed an easy layup!” He threw his hands up in disgust. I lowered my head. I didn’t even want to look over to where my family was sitting. A teammate put his arm around me. “Did Coach even see the last three baskets you scored?” I glanced at the scoreboard and wondered if the coach realized we were up by 16 points.
I look back on the memory and wonder: Why are coaches — adults — so hard on children? At the youth level, between ages 4 and 16, children should be taught the fundamentals of the game, sportsmanship, and fun.
When you get into high school sports, that’s when you get cut from the team if you aren’t good. Or benched if you miss easy layups. You may have to run laps at practice if you forget a play.
On the news this year, we saw video of a youth wrestling match. An angry father jumped out of the stands and tackled a 14-year-old getting the better of his son. He claimed the child was doing an illegal move but failed to address why he didn’t let the ref handle it (that father is being charged with injuring a minor).
Competitive parents can be tough. I coached youth basketball for a few years. In Poway, Padres Tony Gwynn and Garry Templeton were always mellow while their sons played. But in La Costa, I coached a tall, skinny kid on the fifth- and sixth-grade team who wasn’t aggressive at rebounding or scoring. And he was really quiet. His dad, however, was a screamer. Not only did he yell at referees, he’d yell instructions to his son. One play was designed for his son to set a pick underneath, then run and post up at the free-throw line. The ball would come to him, and he’d pass to either of the two guards that were cutting to the basket. Well, Dad yelled for his son to shoot the ball. His son heard and forced a shot that was an air ball. When the play was called again later, there were more disastrous results. The shot was blocked by a defender. I called a time-out and instructed my player to listen to me, not his dad. When halftime came, I walked into the stands and approached a 6’3” balding guy. As a 22-year-old, and in front of the other parents, I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. “Sir,” I said, “I need you to stop yelling things from the stands. It’s distracting to the kids. I have plays designed for them. If you want to coach your son, that’s great. But do that on your own time.” To my surprise, he apologized. And for the rest of the season, I never heard a peep from him.
We did have a mother a few weeks later that came out to half-court in high heels to scream at the 16-year-old volunteer referee. She insisted her son hadn’t traveled with the ball. Her five-minute shouting match didn’t change the call. It only embarrassed her 10-year-old son.
HOT-HEADED PARENTS ON ICE
I went to the ice rink in UTC and talked to Tijana Martinovic, the hockey and figure-skating director. I asked her about parents who are a little extreme. She said, “Oh yeah, we see a lot of that. We had an incident one time that got really bad. Child Protective Services got involved. It was a Ukrainian woman. She yelled at her kids and forced them to skate when they didn’t want to. They would always come off the ice crying. Other parents would complain about her. After a woman from Child Protective Services filed a report, we didn’t see her again. With parents, whether it’s ice-skating practices or hockey, we have a rule that while a coach is on the ice with the kids, the parents have to be quiet.”
Aside from the shouting and yelling, what about moms who start their little girls’ training sessions so early in the morning? What about the tendency to begin training at such a young age, hoping to get the next Nancy Kerrigan?
“When kids first start ice skating, the sessions are not that early. But that’s the only time the ice is available for practice. College hockey teams practice at night, and during the day, people are using the ice. If the kids enjoy it, they get used to waking up early to practice before going to school.”
Matt Smith works with Tijana. He’s got bushy red hair and a thick Swedish accent. He’s worked at the UTC rink for a year and a half. He adds, “I’ve never seen anything like I have here in Southern California. The parents are so competitive. All they want to do is win. They want their kids to get to the NHL or win a gold medal in the Olympics. These are five-, six-, seven-year-olds. Parents are yelling at me in my office, complaining that their kids are not getting enough ice time. And we give them all the same amount of time. One game, one kid might get 30 seconds more. I don’t sit there with a stopwatch. But it evens out in the next game. I’m trying to teach the sport and have fun. But they [the parents] get furious. I had a team of nine-year-olds. They were the youngest team in the league. They lost 30 games. When they finally won a game, the parents of the other team were so upset. They cornered this young referee. It was only his second game officiating. I felt so bad for him.”