Correction to This Article
In this column, Jay Goldstein of the University of Maryland was referred to as "Bernstein" in some instances.

Sideline Rage -- Sports Parents Go Berserk

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, July 14, 2008

Among psychologists who study sports, there is a code word for parents who lose their temper standing on the sidelines of their children's soccer, baseball and football games: THOSE parents -- Tempestuous, Harried, Overwrought, Self-absorbed and Emotional.

Jay Goldstein has spent years studying the species in and around Washington. Once, at a soccer tournament in Virginia, Goldstein got an urgent call on his tournament director's radio. One kid had tackled another, and both had slid off the sideline. The referee called a foul. But when the two children scrambled to their feet, the mother of the boy who had been fouled socked the other kid.

"These are rational, normal people," Goldstein said in wonder. "Something goes off and they lose it."

In a recent study, Goldstein, who studies sports psychology at the University of Maryland, analyzed several hundred parents in the Washington area right after they had watched their children play a soccer match. He asked the parents to fill out questionnaires about whether the game had made them upset.

The good news is that parents did not report very much uncontrollable rage. And those who got angry reported that their tempers flared only briefly.

The bad news, however, is that more than half of all the parents -- 52.9 percent -- reported getting angry during the course of the game.

"Of the parents who did get angry, more than a third vented it," Goldstein said. "The real ugly part was that more than a quarter of the parents reported it had to do with their own child or their own child's performance."

These are parents filling out a questionnaire who know it is inappropriate to get angry and vent at their children's soccer games. If more than half of all parents report getting angry, Goldstein thinks the number who actually got angry and lost it was probably much higher.

Parental sideline rage offers an interesting window into sports rage in general: Professional sports teams spend millions of dollars on marketing and hoopla to get fans to identify emotionally with one set of highly paid athletes rather than another -- to get fans to imagine that they are the "12th man" on the field. With children's sports, that level of engagement is automatic, because parents are prone to seeing children as extensions of themselves.

The purpose of Goldstein's study was not just to measure how many parents got angry. Goldstein and sports psychologist Seppo E. Iso-Ahola wanted to know whether there was a personality profile among parents that would predict which parents were quick to get angry. They found a curious pattern: Parents who lost it during games tended to be both control freaks and people who measured their own worth by criteria established by others. These would be the kind of people who were willing to go into crushing debt to buy a luxury car because they would otherwise feel unacceptably small compared with a wealthy neighbor who owned a sports car.

"Those parents that saw their children and their children's performance as direct extensions of their own egos were the ones most susceptible to going down the path" of sideline rage, Goldstein said. "These people feel they need to keep up with the Joneses: If my neighbor's child is playing for the Bethesda soccer team, my child needs to play for that team, too. They fear they are going to be left behind."

Parents who got angry also tended to see their children's sports in instrumental terms -- as a means to bragging rights and sports scholarship -- rather than as an activity that was enjoyable for its own sake. Not surprisingly, these parents cared much more intensely about winning than about how the game was played -- or, heaven forbid, whether the game was enjoyable. They tended to see questionable calls by the referee, or poor performance by their children or their children's teams, as being personal reflections on their own honor.

Amateur teams around the country are taking the issue of parental sideline rage seriously. For one thing, such rage is unpleasant to everyone else watching the game; for another, experts are concerned that children may get turned off from sports because they worry about how their parents are behaving on the sidelines. Some teams have created "Dum Dum" brigades -- people designated to go up to parents who can't shut up and stick a lollipop in their mouths.

When Bernstein was done with his study, one parent whose behavior he analyzed came up to him and admitted he had once been a rage-spewing sideline dad. But no more.

"He said, 'One day the referee didn't show up. They knew I knew something about the game, so they asked me to be the referee,' " Bernstein recalled. The cussing from fellow parents on the sideline got so bad, the man said, that he wanted to leave the game, or get the parents ejected from the sidelines.

"From that day on, I sit up by my car and read the paper, and glance up every now and then and watch the game," the man told Bernstein. "I am there for my child. Nothing more. Nothing less."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company