Why Do Parents Get Angry During Their Kids’ Sports Games?

If you’ve ever been to a teen sports game, you’ve probably witnessed a fight at least once. It starts out, sometimes, with some muttering behind the coach or referee’s back. The parents raise their voices. There’s yelling, maybe even cursing. And then a fight breaks out.

Tensions run high at sports games. Especially youth games. Almost 70% of parents say they’ve gotten angry at their child’s sports game before. And several researchers have actually untangled the reasons why.

Triggers to Parental Anger at Sports Games

Omli and LaVoi asked more than 700 sports parents why they get angry at their kids’ sports events. They found that parents got upset the most when the referee or coach made bad calls, athletes weren’t being considerate, and other parents were being rude.

More specifically, parents got angry when:

  • The refs were wrong in their calls. Parents get angry when the referee doesn’t know or fully understand the game, fails to make calls, or isn’t consistent with calls. “A bad call from a ref cost us the game,” said one parent.
  • Athletes weren’t sportsmanlike to the opposing team. For example, at the conclusion of many sports games (like basketball and football), the team usually walks through a line to shake hands with their opponents. One mother said she got very upset when “the other team was very disrespectful and didn’t shake hands, and some of the kids swore at my son’s teammates.”
  • Coaches didn’t give equal playing time to their kids, favored certain players, made inconsistent decisions, or encouraged kids to “play rough” or illegally.
  • The coach made bad decisions in the game that led to the team losing points or losing the game altogether.
  • Other parents were disrespectful to the opposing team. I.e. cheering in an obnoxious way, mocking the other team’s players, and swearing. One football mom wrote she got angry when “a parent was yelling for the boys to…’make them eat mud!’” Another participant reported that “a parent from the opposing team yelled out for his son to hit and hurt a player from our team.”

Sports: An Emotional Investment

Logically, parents can get upset when they witness unfairness on the court (or rink, or field). But there’s an emotional component to all this, too: Parents identify strongly with their teen athletes.

Sports psychologists Frank Smoll and Ronald Smith, University of Washington professors and authors of “Sports and Your Child: A 50-Minute Guide for Parents,” have found that identifying strongly with a team leads to increased aggression from spectators. In one study, fans who identified highly with a specific team were more aggressive to the referee than fans who weren’t as connected to their team (Wann, 2006). While this specific study looked at college basketball fans, it’s easy to see how the results would replicate even more strongly for parents whose kids are on the team!

Advice to Parents

Sports can be a transformative experience for your adolescent son or daughter. But you want to make sure that experience is a positive one. And that partially depends on your behavior as a sports parent.

Ask yourself: When it comes to games, is your behavior appropriate? Are you interfering with the referee or coach? Are you being respectful to the other team’s parents, who have kids, just like you do, and want to see them succeed just as badly as you want your own kid to win?

And when it comes to your own young athlete, are you encouraging them, or criticizing? Are you boosting their self-esteem, or crushing it? It is worthwhile to note that most young athletes report they do not enjoy it when their parents yell out “suggestions” from the bleachers. Not only do they not find it helpful, they see the suggestion as a form of negative criticism (Kidman et al, 1999).

Sports psychologists recommend being as positive and noncritical as possible for the entire duration of a sports game. Refrain from yelling at, cursing, or taunting any sports officials, athletes or parents.

Of course, this could be tremendously difficult, and easier said than done. It could be tremendously frustrating to witness injustice, experience a loss, or even watch our young athletes get jostled around by some other inconsiderate players. It’s upsetting to watch a coach or referee make a call that shouldn’t have been made (or vice versa). Especially when such a call can cost your team the game. In spite of all this, a parent must try their hardest to refrain from erupting in rage.

Holding Back Your Anger

Losing your cool can have tremendous consequences, for everyone involved. Verbally or physically assaulting a person – even if they’ve done something unfair – can cause them lasting damage. (Think of Thomas Junta, who got in such a terrible fistfight with fellow hockey dad Michael Costin in 2000 that the latter ended up dead.) Less serious offenses can get you in trouble with the law. And it will always, always damage the relationship you have with your adolescent.

Witnessing a parent’s anger—even if that anger is not directed at him—is distressing to a child. Even if that child is already a teen. It is embarrassing, as well. One adult quoted in Smith and Smoll’s book said, “If it hadn’t been for sports, I wouldn’t have grown up hating my father.”

A teen who grows up with a chronically angry parent is more likely to develop depression, anxiety, a substance abuse problem, or an acting-out issue. They are more likely to become angry adults, as well. So holding back your anger now can help prevent generations upon generations of angry people.

Feeling Angry vs. Acting in Anger

One disclaimer: It’s entirely valid to feel angry when one has done something unfair, hurtful, or wrong to you or your child. Anger is an internal emotion. But exploding in an angry outburst is not okay. Yelling or screaming at someone else because you are upset, whether it’s the ref, the coach, another parent, or even your son or daughter, is not appropriate.

If you feel that you have an anger problem, seek professional help. Your adolescent will thank you for it in the future.