What a few months for soccer parents in America! The Reyna-Berhalter situation has lead to a consistent vilification of soccer parents in the media. Don’t get me wrong – what we learned about the actions of Claudio and Danielle via the media reports and the recently published findings from the U.S. Soccer investigation is not something to excuse. Those of us working in youth sports know first-hand how frequent irrational and even inexcusable behavior from parents permeates the sidelines and soccer culture, so watching it play out on international news has been both cringeworthy and familiar.
It's easy to blame sports parents for the failures of our youth sports ecosystem. In today’s quick claiming, quick blaming society parents are an obligatory easy target. But today, after waking up to read yet another national news article about the failure of youth sports parents, I feel a need to defend the vast majority of level-headed parents from the broad brush accusations and assumptions being cast upon us, and instead focus on tangible solutions.
Just as it’s easy to blame sports parents, it is also easy to be distracted and keep the conversation centered on the irrational ones who elicit the media attention. Let’s instead shift the attention away from the irrational few and give voice and agency to the millions of level-headed but sometimes stressed parents who have largely been ignored, unsupported, and whose fear of being portrayed as an irrational sports parent leaves them feeling disconnected and their child less inspired.
The youth sports ecosystem is a $24 billion global industry that is lacking clear direction and consistent leadership. It resists collaboration and is steeped in a lack of trust. Our sporting structure fails to adequately engage and educate parents while simultaneously fails to adequately lead and support coaches. It not only fails to demand high standards of organizational leadership, but oversight for leadership is usually non-existent. Societal pressure has enabled competition platforms that promote nation-wide travel and win at all costs pressure, where sacrificing a childhood in the name of sport seems like a badge of honor.
To blame parents for the failures of youth sport and the current soccer culture is not only short sighted, I believe it is a reckless use of our time and attention if we want to make youth sports better.
Parents are not the problem. Coaches are not the problem. Officials are not the problem. Club and organizational leaders are not the problem
We are all the solution.
Our issues will only be solved when we collaborate on solution-minded policy and facilitate structural change rooted in agreed upon standards, values, and a deeper understanding about how children develop and what they need. Youth sports is simultaneously failing parents, coaches, officials, volunteers, administrators and of course, most importantly, youth sport is failing children.
It's time to shirt the conversation from one of flame throwing and blame, to one of Trust, Education, and a Commitment to Values.
Foundational to our work at The Sideline Project and Soccer Parenting is trust. Trust-filled relationships between parents, coaches and club leaders will be a catalyst for collaboration; collaboration will make youth sports better, faster. Without trust and collaboration, we will continue to lack direction and fail to provide young athletes with the playing and learning environment they deserve.
Developing trust in youth sports is complex for many reasons:
- Irrational parents have dominated the narrative.
- Coaches who care too much about winning have too much power.
- Most clubs do not have clear policies and accountable standards related to coach behaviors, playing time, parent engagement, and their player’s needs.
- The desire to feel a sense of community with a team has taken a back seat and we have a genuine failure to form lasting friendships amongst players and also between parents.
- We have moments of clarity that things are not as they should be, but we fail to take action, speak up, or change and instead continue in a haze of “going along with it.”
Developing trust is going to require coaches, parents, and club leaders to take back the sidelines from the irrational parents and the coaches who don't put player needs' first and align with clarity and agreement on what is in the best interest of the child.
To have more trust we will need clear standards, defined boundaries in relationships, a heightened commitment to culture, and a desire to create a wonderful sense of community within our teams, clubs and organizations.
A commitment to values will drive decision making and education will be a foundational element of trust. Let’s start with education.
In my work with Soccer Parenting over the past 10 years, I have often been told “parents don’t want to be educated.” I can unequivocally tell you this is not true. What is true is that for years parents have been encouraged to take a back seat, to blindly trust the coach, to not speak too loud for fear of being labelled irrational, to not ask questions. We have systematically disengaged parents from youth sports and so flipping the script and giving them agency will take time.
Many parents are seeking guidance and a deeper understanding of the sports experience of their child. At Soccer Parenting our mission is Inspiring Players by Empowering Parents: we want parents to understand the power they have to ensure their child feels inspired by their sporting experience, and this understanding is firmly rooted in parent education.
Our youth soccer parent education platform: SoccerParentResourceCenter.com is proving to be the tool parents need when it comes to player inspiration. We provide parents education on the Six Pillars of Sports Parenting: Mind, Body, Game, Coach/Club Relationship, Next Level and Parenting.
Our youth coaches, largely volunteer based, have not received the education they need. And, when we do require education, it is often misguided or misdirected, jumping ahead to focus on the game of soccer without first forming an understanding about what players need in a learning environment and how to facilitate a values-based coaching environment.
Our more advanced coaches need education related to community building, establishing trust, and emotional intelligence. For the past four years in a row, we have asked parents in our Soccer Parenting Annual Survey this same question (Question 21):
If your child’s coach had to choose one opportunity for coach education, based on their individual talents, do you believe education related to the game of soccer or interpersonal skills (their ability to interact effectively with players and parents) should be the choice?
For the past four years, the majority of parents who respond would prefer their child’s coach seek education related to interpersonal skills.
Most sports clubs in America are made up of volunteer Boards who are guiding and leading when it comes to operations, policies, and soccer culture. These Boards need guidance, clarity, and education on what is most important, what is required of their stewardship, and how to ensure their club culture aligns with what players need. Too often there is a lack of decision making when it comes to club values, policies and standards and Boards fail to put in place actionable policies related to player well-being and a values-driven culture. As an example, when I wrote an article about a youth coach I observed who was emotionally abusing his players, a member of the Board at the club wrote me asking me to take down the article to protect the coach. I didn’t hesitate for a moment to remind the Board member his job was to protect the players.
Who is holding clubs responsible for player's well-being and meeting the needs of the players? Could we develop and even require education for youth sports Board leadership that drives us forward faster?
COMMITMENT TO VALUES
Aligning our actions around our values will lead to improved behaviors. For this reason, we developed the Soccer Parent Value Statements. We invite all youth sports parents, plus our club and organizational partners to share and promote these values, and to reflect on them when making decisions.
The drama of the Reyna–Berhalter situation has highlighted the negative side of our youth soccer culture. There is also a tremendous positive side. It is made up of parents, coaches, and club leaders who are focusing on trust, education, and who have a heightened commitment to values.
We are at our best as a youth soccer community when we collaborate.
Let’s continue to demand more of ourselves, our coaches, our club leaders, and our organizational leadership. The result will be a youth soccer culture we can all be proud of and one in which all youth players, regardless of their athletic potential, will feel inspired and find a love for the game they will carry with them into adulthood.
Photo Credit: @jshfoto