When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady opened up recently about his feelings on youth sports and overly aggressive parents, and said “competition feels like it starts so early for these kids,” it turns out he was onto something.
A new survey from the Boston-based private coaching start-up CoachUp found that 75 percent of youth sports coaches say “most parents place too much emphasis on their child winning games, highlighting the ‘win at all costs’ culture among many sports parents.”
It gets worse. The survey also found that 95 percent of coaches have seen a parent “yell at a referee during a game,” which CoachUp said sends a sportsmanship message to children that lasts far beyond the final whistle.
And one other concern the survey found: sports burnout, the result of parents signing their elementary-aged kids up for too many sports simultaneously, out of a fear they will fall behind. The CoachUp survey included responses from 261 youth sports coaches around the U.S. from June 6 to 25.
“The pressure on young athletes to play well has never been greater and parents often unwittingly make choices that value winning over the child’s well-being,” said Dr. Amy Baltzell, a Boston University sports psychology professor, former Olympic rower, youth coach and co-author of the sports parenting book, “Whose Game Is It, Anyway?”
She said parents too often undermine any positive lessons sports may have, “by putting too much pressure on participation and performance or by behaving poorly,” through criticizing and shouting from the sidelines.
On the issue of sports burnout, the CoachUp survey found that more than half of coaches – 55 percent – recommended that elementary school kids play only one sport per season. As kids gets older, handling multiple sports, physically and mentally, becomes easier, the coaches said.
That finding echoes what Brady said in an interview on WEEI radio back on Oct. 5:
It’s just different now, and I’m experiencing it with my own kids with all the organized activities that you put them in. I’ve made a comment for a while now: ‘I hope my kids are late bloomers in whatever they do.’ Because they are going to be exposed to so much at such an early time that yeah, you do worry about what their motivation may be. As they get older or if they feel like they’ve been in something for so long and it’s been hyper-intense and hyper-focused for so long, I think that can wear out a young individual, a young teenager.
It’s just hard, because all the parents are doing it, it seems, and the competition feels like it starts so early for these kids – whether it’s to get into college or getting into the right high school or the right elementary school. I don’t know how it’s taken that turn, but you know, sometimes it’s nice for kids to just be kids.
Jordan Fliegel, CoachUp’s president and founder and a one-time basketball star at Cambridge Ringe & Latin, and then Bowdoin College, said parents and coaches will ultimately determine how much their children love playing sports. He said he can’t remember all of his teachers from his childhood, but he absolutely remembers all of his coaches, the good ones and the bad.
“There is this notion that sports should be just fun and kids should just play at a young age with no intervention from parents, coaches, refs,” he said. “Sports is such a way to reach kids when they are young. I think regardless of what you do, you should be supported to do it well, to the best of your abilities.”
He added: “Youth sports are a great way to teach kids confidence, teamwork, sportsmanship and the value of trying your best.”
CoachUp, with 28 employees, has had a big year as it seeks to establish a foothold in the world of private coaches. It signed up NBA MVP Steph Curry, whose Golden State Warriors won the NBA title, as a major investor, and one of its earliest investors, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, saw his team win the Super Bowl. Another investor is former Bruins star Cam Neely. Started in 2012, CoachUp now has more than 15,000 active coaches in its system and has raised just under than $10 million.
Other findings from the survey included:
- 80 percent of coaches said parents are most helpful during games by offering encouragement rather than instructions. Say “Good job!” rather than “Pass it!”
- This may be impossible, but the best way to help your child during games? Stay silent, according to one in five youth coaches.
- It’s far more likely that dads are the offending parents on sidelines, as 71 percent of coaches said fathers are the “bad sports parent.”
“In sports parents have a sense they know what they’re talking about,” Fliegel said. “And it’s a public arena. Academics, music, that’s not really an event to cheer or yell, it’s more private. But this is public. And it’s a competition. It’s visibly competitive, and physically competitive, you’ve got your kid out there, someone is pushing him, or running by her, or tripping them.
“For parents who did play at a high level, they think they know. And if they didn’t play, they often don’t know what’s going on, what’s too aggressive, or what they perceive to be aggressive, and they comment and lash out. They don’t understand the etiquette. Either way parents can fall into a trap.”