Not All Fun & Games: Changing the Youth Sports Environment

We often assume youth sports participation will lead to an array of great benefits for our children: leadership, confidence, teamwork, mastery and social skill development to name a few. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The benefits kids receive and the lessons they take away from youth sports participation depend on the coaches and parents and the environment these adults create. Adults are the ones who determine whether sports are good or bad for children and too many times it’s bad.

There are plenty of examples in the media that showcase how sports can actually devastate children. We hear about eating disorders, burnout, children who lose confidence, and parents and coaches who become overly aggressive. One of the reasons this happens is because youth sports are replicating the professional sports model, turning kids into mini-pros, and making everything about winning. The professionalization of youth sports is not a good model to follow and has many negative implications.

We can do much better to create a positive environment for our young athletes and we can start by remembering the true purposes of youth sport participation: having fun, developing skills and achieving optimal performance, which is different than purely winning. From my extensive research and involvement in sports-education organizations, I’ve found many ways both parents and coaches can influence the youth sports environment.

Parents’ Roles in Sideline Climate

In a 2009 study called “The perfect storm: Background anger in youth sports” my colleagues and I collected parent, coach and athlete perceptions about parent behavior on youth sports sidelines. Based on the data, we found that a concerning amount of negative adult behavior exists. We call this line of research background anger. The two most common background anger behaviors are: yelling at the referee and coaching from the sidelines when you’re not the coach. When a child is exposed to background anger, even if indirectly (i.e., when a parent isn’t yelling at them but rather a referee, a coach, another spectator, a teammate or an opponent), children tell us that this produces a lot of anxiety. It’s distracting and embarrassing. It doesn’t help them perform well and it makes the sport a lot less fun. In short, background anger creates a toxic environment.

If we want youth sports to be a place where all kids can have the opportunity to have fun, develop skills, make friends and learn life lessons, the adults have to get it right and background anger needs to go. Consider this fact: We lose 40% of child referees every year, in large part due to inappropriate parent behaviors. When parents are constantly yelling at referees because of perceived incompetence, young referees quit, forfeiting the potential to gain more experience as time goes on. Parents then become frustrated by the lack of experience among the refs. It’s a snowball effect.

Why do Parents Become Angry on the Sidelines?

To understand how we can minimize the prevalence of background anger, we need to know why it happens. Parents become angry while spectating at youth sports events for two main reasons that are based on perception.

  1. Parents have a perception of incompetence. For example, they become angry because they think the coach doesn’t know what they’re doing, the child is disengaged or makes an error, or the referee makes a bad call.
  2. Parents perceive that there’s been injustice. Frustration occurs when a parent believes that the ref isn’t making fair calls, the coach isn’t giving equal playing time, or the opponent is playing with unsportsmanlike conduct that may harm or injure their child.

It’s important to note that background anger is often a result of perception, and the incompetence or injustice perceived may not actually be happening in reality.

6 Guidelines for Parents on the Sidelines

To minimize background anger, create a positive sideline climate and ensure an enjoyable youth sports experience for all involved (including sport parents themselves!), we’ve identified the following research-based strategies for parents to put into practice.

  1. Show up and pay attention. Kids like when parents watch their games and look engaged, so when you’re at your child’s game truly be present. Don’t talk on your cell phone or read the newspaper.
  2. Cheer for everyone’s good play. This includes if a player on the other team does something well.
  3. Perhaps surprisingly, don’t scream out your child’s name. Research has found it’s distracting and embarrassing for young athletes.
  4. Don’t yell at the referee and don’t coach from the sidelines.
  5. Don’t focus solely or primarily on winning. After the game, regardless of a win or loss, ask your child open-ended questions like, tell me what you did well, what did you learn, what are you working on?
  6. Explore youth sports education resources for parents. I work with CEHD’s MinnesotaPLAYS™ (Parents Learning About Youth Sports), comprised of one-hour, interactive workshops that give tools to parents on how to create a positive sideline climate.

Coaches Count, Too

In addition to parents, coaches obviously make a big difference in whether the youth sports experience is positive or negative. Through my research and work, I’ve developed three tips for coaches to follow to create a more positive environment for young athletes.

  1. Focus on development. Kids love to learn and grow, so the primary focus should be on learning, skill development, mastery and fun—not winning.
  2. Encourage and teach kids to always give full effort. Nobody can control winning or losing, calls made by the referee or the weather, but we can always control how we respond to these things and how much effort we give.
  3. Provide a rationale for tasks and limits. In coach education workshops I ask coaches to think about “the why” in everything they do. Does this help my kids develop the skills they need to optimally perform, develop skills, or have fun and enjoy their sport? If the answer is “no” to all three things, then perhaps it shouldn’t be done.

Given the prominence and value of sports in the lives of many children and their families, it is necessary to become informed and work together to create a positive environment and an enjoyable experience in youth sports. For more information on the workshops and resources through MinnesotaPLAYS, visit

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Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D.

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Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D.

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2 thoughts on “Not All Fun & Games: Changing the Youth Sports Environment”

  1. Kelly Cohee says:

    Thank you for this illuminating article! As a newbie to the youth sports world, I find it very helpful in understanding all the dynamics involved. I think it would be great for Team Moms to share with everyone in their pre-season meetings :)

    Best regards,

    Kelly Cohee

    1. CEHD says:

      Thanks for reading our blog. Please share with the other Team Moms! If you’d like weekly posts delivered to your inbox we encourage you to subscribe here.

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