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World Cup scandal highlights a big problem: The nightmare sports parent

U.S. Men's National Team player Gio Reyna during a pre-World Cup friendly against Saudi Arabia in September. After he was benched in the World Cup, his mother revealed damaging information about the team's coach. (Jose Breton/AP)
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Last week, the mother of a U.S. Soccer star admitted she leaked information about his coach, because she didn’t like his comments about her son, who played sparingly in the World Cup.

The revelation was a soap opera starring the worst of sports parents — snowplows who clear any obstacle to make way for a child’s success.

The situation between the mother of U.S. Soccer star Gio Reyna and his coach, Gregg Berhalter, raised eyebrows in the sports world, not just because of the tactics used, but because of what it represents about the dark side of sports parents.

This type of parent involvement is prevalent in youth sports and even happens occasionally in college ball, said Jason Sacks, president of Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit founded 25 years ago to change the culture of sports.

“It’s very surprising that it’s happening on the World Cup stage,” Sacks said. “This, at the highest level, is a microcosm of what youth sports has become in our country.”

Youth sports have grown into a behemoth in the U.S. The industry is a $19.2 billion market, according to a 2019 report from Wintergreen Research. That’s $4 billion more than the NFL.

For cities, tournaments bring in tourism revenue. For parents, scholarships can ease the burden of skyrocketing college tuition. But kids can start to feel like what started as a backyard game is now a job.

“In the youth sports landscape in our country, there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of focus on winning. There’s a win-at-all-costs mentality,” Sacks said. “There’s been this shift of the parents feeling like their status is equated with how good their child is at sports. I don’t know how we got here, but it’s an unfortunate side of things.”

Videos of extreme incidents, like parents of 7-year-olds throwing punches at a baseball game because they didn’t agree with the call of a 13-year-old umpire, pop up every couple of years. In September, two fights broke out at a youth football game in El Paso, involving both parents and coaches.

But it’s the countless stories of poor behavior that don’t go viral that are leading to the loss of volunteers who make organized youth sports happen every weekend. Referees are hanging up their whistles, creating a nationwide shortage of rule enforcers. One Massachusetts high school football coach called it quits after 19 seasons, saying harassment from parents was so bad he needed an escort to his car after each game.

For Nina Johnson-Pitt, Little League senior strategy executive, her wakeup call was when her then-11-year-old daughter was in her first year on a travel softball team. In the last game of a tournament, the team acted like they didn’t want to be there, she said. Then her daughter messed up a play, and the team lost.

“I remember just feeling so mad. We got in the car, and I just unloaded on her. She was in shock and crying,” she said. “In that moment, I was like, ‘Woman, what is wrong with you?’ I didn’t understand why this little kids’ sport could do that to me.”

Johnson-Pitt turned it into a teachable moment for both of them.

“As adults, we're allowed to make mistakes and show kids that you can apologize. I had to sit and evaluate why I would have that terrible reaction,” she said.

The clarity came for Asia Mape, a former college basketball player and sports journalist, after she interviewed a youth sports mindfulness coach. The woman suggested paying attention to what it feels like internally when your child plays sports.

Mape was getting nervous before her daughter’s games and irritated if she didn’t perform well. “It didn’t feel healthy inside,” she said.

She realized she needed to take a step back and make sports fun again. Mape founded the website I Love To Watch You Play eight years ago. It has blog posts and videos with inspiration and tips for parents who are trying to figure out the line between support and pressure.

“When parents insert themselves in ways that are crossing the line, the kids lose interest. They withdraw. It happened with my oldest,” she said. “If you’re not owning your own journey, even as children, it’s demotivating. It takes the fun out of it.”

Sports parents have been so out of control that Little League introduced a parent-volunteer pledge back in 2002.

“I will teach all children to play fair and do their best. I will positively support all managers, coaches and players. I will respect the decisions of the umpires. I will praise a good effort despite the outcome of the game,” it reads.

The pledge is said before every Little League World Series game as a reminder of something that probably should be common sense. But a survey conducted in 2012 by i9 Sports, a youth multi-sports provider, found that 31 percent of kids polled wished their parents weren’t watching their games.

Johnson-Pitt wonders if the advancement of technology has added to extreme parent involvement. It used to be that students came home with paper report cards, and grades were somewhat of a surprise.

“Now, I can track every paper my kid turns in. I can track everything that they’re doing. I try not to. I try to make my kids come to me with those conversations, but knowing that it’s available, it’s hard not to check it,” she said. “I think just the ability to do that has made us want to be more helicopter-ish. That extends to sports.”

She said the role of a sports parent evolves as the child gets older. When they first start as preschoolers, parents should encourage the child to be part of the team and listen to the coach. And as they age, parents should be there as a support system and not be critical. One thing she asks her daughters is how much they want her to be involved. The answer has changed over the years and has strengthened their relationship, she said.

Getting parents and kids on the same page is something the Positive Coaching Alliance does at its thousands of workshops each year. Often, parents fill out a questionnaire ranking what they want their kid to get out of their time in sports. Things like college scholarships, leadership skills and making friends are on the list. Then the child does the same.

“When the parent looks at their goals versus their child's goals, it becomes this great conversation starter,” Sacks said.

And, Sacks said, when issues like playing time pop up, allowing the child to take charge gives them a leg up in future situations.

“This is a great teachable moment for the child to talk to the coach and say, ‘What do I need to do to get more playing time? What do you need to see from me at practice?’” Sacks said. “Hopefully these kids are going to work professionally somewhere someday. It would be great if they’d have some experience having conversations with someone of authority.”

Mary Beth Gahan is a freelance journalist based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She has two young kids.