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Rage at Sports Games and Its Effect on Adolescents

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

In 2000, two angry parents got into a fight at their sons’ hockey game. This wasn’t just any fight, though. Thomas Junta got upset about some rough play on the ice. Fellow parent and referee Michael Costin responded brusquely. “That’s what hockey is all about,” he said. A serious fistfight ensued.

In the end, Costin was dead. Junta beat him so hard, so repeatedly, that he actually ended up killing him.

Statistics of Sports Rage

Apparently, sports rage is frequent here in the U.S. Self-report studies have found that parents and other spectators routinely yell at referees and coaches. At times, there’s also real aggression. Parents hit each other. They swear at the sports officials and at each other. Threaten violence. Assault the coaches, biting their ears off—literally. Almost 70% of parents admit that they’ve been angry at least once during their child’s sports event. (Omli and Lavoi, 2006).

The violence of parents at their kids’ sports games is so prevalent that it even has its own name: youth sports rage. Sports rage can be described as “any physical attack upon another person such as striking, wounding, or otherwise touching in an offensive manner, and/or any malicious, verbal abuse or sustained harassment which threatens subsequent violence or bodily harm, within the context of organized athletic activity.” (Heinzmann, Youth Sports Research Council).

Why Parents Get Angry

Sports games are almost never clear-cut. Though there are rules, the way those rules are enforced is largely up to the referee. Parents can get justifiably upset if they feel that the referee or coach is acting unfairly. In fact, after surveying more than 700 parents, Omli and Lavoi found that the source of parental rage at sports games is often a sports official behaving incompetently or unjustly. In these cases, parents don’t believe they’re at fault at all for getting angry—they’re simply calling for justice.

But why do they get so aggressive about it? Why are they so emotionally distraught?

Many parents see sports as not just a game, especially when their teens are unusually talented. For these parents, sport is not just a fun and healthy outlet for their teen. It’s a means of achieving something. For some, it could be a college scholarship or even a professional contract. For others, it could just be a tangible symbol of their child’s success. (Murphy, 1999)

With the stakes so high, every sporting event becomes a stepping stone to this huge goal. Winning becomes integral. Losing isn’t just a disappointment; it’s a major setback. Parents can rightfully get anxious at such sports games, and emotionally invested in the outcome.

With tensions already running high, parents can get furious when they see an injustice on the court (or field/rink). Logic can fly out the window, especially when the individual in question has emotion regulation issues. Within such a stressful environment, it’s not hard to imagine how a parent would start beating up another.

The Impact of Anger on Adolescents

Starting from a young age, children and adolescents exposed to parental anger are likely to become angry adults. Chronic exposure to anger—even background anger, when the anger is directed at someone else within earshot of the adolescent—can result in serious mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or extreme sensitivity to criticism. (Grych & Fincham, 1990).

Research has also found that a child’s distress level changes depending on the people involved in the angry exchange. When the interaction is happening between two adults (especially when one is a man), it’s even more distressing than a situation where an angry adult is berating a child.

Needless to say, an adolescent who witnesses their own parent erupt in anger at a sports game feels exponentially more distressed. For one thing, they’re embarrassed in front of their friends, teammates, and possibly friend’s parents and coach. The shame and embarrassment the adolescent feels, in addition to distress from the anger, creates a whirlwind of negative emotions and mental scars that can last a lifetime.

At Costin’s funeral, which many of the young athletes attended, Father John Farrell’s sermon included the following advice:

“Sports can build up or take away. Our enthusiasms and passions should never disgrace, degrade, demean or destroy anyone else’s dignity or worth. Violence is always personal.”

Advice to Sports Parents

Sports parents often go to great lengths for their kids. They chauffeur their teens to practices. Purchase often-pricey equipment and gear. Pay necessary league fees. Attend games.  All for the benefit of the adolescent, of course. Sports offer a host of physical, emotional, social and mental health benefits, which many parents want for their teens.

But while it is generous of such parents to devote so much time, money and energy in their quest to give their adolescents such a transformative experience, parents should understand that their attitude towards the sport can have an equal – if not greater – effect in their teens’ lives as the sport itself.

If a parent erupts in rage at a sports game, the aftermath of that experience can undo so many positive experiences prior. If a parent criticizes their teen for a costly mistake, the child’s shame can erase any past feelings of confidence in their sports talent. Stress or anxiety about a game can spill over onto the child.

Though sports games are important, what some parents don’t understand is that winning – even successfully being recruited for college – won’t make or break your child.

Your attitude, however, can.

The Aftermath

While Junta and Costin were beating each other up, both adolescent sons were watching. Reportedly, Quinlan Junta kept pleading, “Stop, Dad!”

The kids were just 10 years old.

Fourteen years later, Michael Costin Jr. was arrested for beating his girlfriend.  Apparently, “he had grabbed her by the throat, punched her in the face and told her, ‘You’re going to die tonight.’” Court records also show that Costin Jr. had a substance abuse problem.

Meanwhile, Quinlan Junta, the other son, faced challenges as well. At age 21, the high school hockey player was arrested for a home robbery, which involved a gun. Together with a friend,  Junta beat, kicked and punched the victim while he was on the ground. (Reportedly, the incident involved drugs.)

Is there a connection between the violence of their fathers and their later aggression (and substance abuse) issues? We’ll let you decide.

We will, however, quote the Boston Herald’s report of Quinlan Junta’s 2011 assault trial:

“The unspoken parallels between the kicks and punches Quinlan allegedly rained down upon his victim…and what he remembered about his father’s eruption were both eerie and sadly ironic. According to one source close to the family, ever since his father was sent to jail, Quinlan Junta has been consumed by an anger that has never subsided…For Quinlan Junta’s anger ran so deep and hurt so much, according to the family source, he could never bring himself to visit his father in prison.”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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