Kids' sports gone wild: When parents lose it, everybody loses

When you see this at a kids' game, it's safe to say the fun is over. Former MLB pitcher Mitch Williams got into a disagreement with an umpire at his 10-year-old son's baseball game.

Last weekend, we saw another example of the ridiculous ways kids’ sports can transform well-meaning human adults into juvenile animals. Former MLB pitcher Mitch Williams (nickname: "Wild Thing") was thrown out of his 10-year-old’s baseball game in New Jersey. The umpire has been reprimanded as well. In a photo tweeted around the country, Williams is seen in a confrontation with the ump. It looks remarkably similar to an argument you’d see in a major league game, with ump and manager nose-to-nose, red-faced and ready to go at each other.

Witnesses claim to have heard Williams loudly cursing at the ump, while the former All-Star claims the entire provocation started with the umpire physically threatening him and another coach. Williams claims there is video evidence to clear his name and expose the out-of-control umpire.

Regardless of the details, we are faced with an instant replay of a scene that is sadly familiar to most of us: Adults behaving like children, all the while saying they are there to help children grow into adulthood. And then we wonder why our kids don’t respect their elders.

As a youth coach for over ten years, I have seen more than my share of adults acting badly, in the name of parenting, coaching, or refereeing. I once had to physically separate an assistant from an angry parent. Threats were followed by invitations to the parking lot to “settle this like men.” Watching the faces of the young players, you could see them thinking that if this is what manhood looked like, they wanted no part of it.

Sports can be wonderful for children—or terrible. As parents, it's our job to set the tone.

As a marriage and family therapist, I have seen my share of parent/child relationships damaged by too much focus on the child’s sports. These are families that once enjoyed going out to the ballpark, or the soccer pitch, for the sheer joy of play. But as the competition level elevated, and the potential for vicarious parental status increased, these families became centered around a child’s athletic performance. Conversations about grades and tutors turned to talks about tournaments and private hitting instructors. Sit-down dinners at the table turned to fast food shovel-fests between games. Relaxing weekends with the whole family turned to grueling travel tournaments, either separating the family or dragging along (and subjugating) the less athletic siblings.

Not only does all this eventually drain the fun out of the game, it can erode even the strongest of parent/child bonds. It can even chase good kids into depression, anxiety and self-harming behaviors. And it’s all based on a lie. The lie promotes youth sports as the primary vehicle for our kids’ futures. Little Johnny needs the right amount of Little League playing time, or his Major League contract will never happen. Little Suzie needs a prime place in the lineup, or her scholarship dollars will go to someone else. And above all, these kids need perfect officiating, or else they’ll be forever scarred by this cruel, unfair world.

These are lies that we all are tempted to believe, and they are ruthlessly supported and fed down our throats by the ever-growing industry of sport-specific trainers, travel leagues, and HD-televised youth showcases. But the truth is this:

  • Sports are not life, nor even a metaphor for life. They are supposed to be organized playtime, with the emphasis on play.
  • When we as adults take our kids’ sports more seriously than they do, it ceases to be fun for everyone.
  • All kids have amazing antennae, picking up the slightest indication of whenever parents start taking what happens on the field personally. This disgusts them.
  • In the words of legendary sportswriter Rick Reilly: “Your kid won't remember the score of a single game he played. He'll only remember the time he laughed so hard in the dugout that Capri Sun came out of his nose. Relax.”

Hal Runkel is a licensed marriage & family therapist, author of the NYT bestseller ScreamFree Parenting (Broadway Books), and a frequent expert on Today Show. He and his wife are currently trying not to scream at their two teenagers in Atlanta.