Sidelines etiquette: How to watch your child play sports without losing it

We’ve all seen them—parents behaving badly on the sidelines or in the bleachers at their children’s sporting events. 

Maybe it’s a mom arguing with the referee over a botched call. Or perhaps it is a dad berating his daughter who is having an off day on the court. Some of us cringe at this behavior while others wonder if this is how we act at our children’s sporting events.  

To frame sports in the right way, parents should ask their kids what they think they did well in the game or what their teammates did right, experts say.

There are ways to avoid being that parent.

“You can be cheerful and excited,” says Michele Borba, a TODAY Moms contributor and educational consultant. 

“You also need to sit on your hands. What kinds of things are you cheering for?”

Borba says that if parents find they’re getting out of control, they should walk away from the action. Feel the anger rising and it might be time to stretch your legs or head to the concession stand.

TODAY Moms contributor Amy McCready warns parents against criticizing or arguing with the referee. The only person who should talk to the ref is the coach, she noted.

“If there is an issue with the referee, stay out of it—the coach will deal with it. It is hard not to speak up, but it is not your place,” says McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions.

And if parents feel a coach is making a mistake or not playing their children enough, they should set up a meeting at a different time.

“Interact when your child is not there. If you really have some issues … schedule an appointment,” says Borba. “You may want to do a 24-hour wait period.”

But McCready notes that it is important to encourage children to talk to coaches on their own so they can learn what they can do to be a better teammate. Children should ask coaches what they could do to improve their play instead of complaining about issues such as not playing enough in the games.

Both experts agree that re-focusing game-time energy will help parents be supportive without negativity.

“Set a personal goal to cheer for everyone on the team for each half or period,” says McCready. “If you are consciously aware that you are making sure that you cheer for everyone, hopefully you are not getting worked up.”

Borba recommends that parents cheer “as though they want their children to model their behavior.”

And both experts agree that framing sports in the right way prevents parental misbehavior while keeping their children encouraged. Parents should ask kids what they think they did well in the game or what their teammates did right. Or say things like, “Good job. You looked like you enjoyed it,” says Borba.

McCready adds: “The only comments that should come out of your mouth are encouraging and supportive.”

It’s important for parents to remember why their children are playing sports. Very few kids will get coveted college scholarships because of sports, but many of them will take away important lessons about teamwork, healthy activity, sportsmanship, and perseverance.

“So many parents are focusing on the wins or how many goals [their children] scored. The more you can encourage the hard work and perseverance, [the better],” McCready says. “You don’t want [your] kids to feel like they are being judged.”