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A Warning to Sideline "Coaches": Just Let The Players Play

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Australian tennis pro Bernard Tomic made an unusual request last weekend to the chair umpire during his quarter-final match at the Sony Ericsson Tennis Open in Miami. 

During a changeover he asked to have his dad "banished from the stands."  Seems his dad was, according to an article in USA Today, "noticeably upset with his son's performance", which the reader and fans might conclude, would impact Tomic's ability to focus. "He's annoying me. I know he's my father, but he's annoying me. I want him to leave as soon as possible," Tomic reportedly told the umpire.

The umpire issued a warning to Tomic's father, John.  It didn't help. Tomic ended up losing the match.

As a sports parent and an official, I have witnessed first hand the effects of inappropriate sideline coaching from parents. Players rarely perform better when adults other than their coaches bark commands, make faces, gestures or statements intended to motivate.  While some would argue that such behavior is well meaning or overzealous, I respectfully and vehemently disagree.  Such behavior is disrespectful and detrimental to the game, coaches, team, parents, and most of all, the players.

Parents enroll their kids in youth sports for a variety of reasons including skill and team building, learning a sport, and sportsmanship. In many cases it is a social event where parents, siblings and kids gather to enjoy themselves. The problem arises when some of the same parents, good intentions notwithstanding, assume a coaching role from the stands and undermine the very goals they set out to achieve in the first place.

As a parent, I watched a parent approach his son during a Babe Ruth league baseball game while he was in the on-deck circle waiting to bat.  In a tone and manner neither instructive nor supportive, he advised his son on his swing, his stats, and his performance.  Not surprisingly, his son, over time, developed a series of mysterious injuries and ailments which kept him on the sidelines, and he eventually quit the sport. 

Another time I saw a dad criticize his son during a Little League game to point that he exited the field and refused to return.  That same dad, while coaching a Special Olympics basketball team at a game I was officiating, so belittled the officials that I ended up charging him with a technical foul, the only technical foul I have ever handed out in the five years that I have officiated for Special Olympics.

Not all sideline coaching is from "screamers."  One time I sat next to parent who had caught for his college baseball team.  He was constantly advising my son, who was catcher, on pitch count, what pitches to call, placement of the mitt, and so on, to the point that my son, then twelve years old, requested that my husband, who was assistant coach,  ask the parent to stop. He did and the parent honored the request.

I learned later that eliminating the unsolicited coaching  was important, not just to eliminate the distraction it caused, but because the coaches were in the process of teaching my son how to do all those things - call pitches, what to look for, how to communicate with the pitcher, team and umpire - himself; in other words, learning a catcher's craft.  The running commentary from the parent, no matter how well intentioned, was interfering with the learning process.

Bernard Tomic is nineteen-years-old and, as an adult, in a position to assert himself in order to eliminate an uncomfortable situation.  But it is much tougher for youth athletes. Who do they listen to? Their coach, their parents, or their own inner voice as they develop their instincts and learn a sport?  instead of playing a sport, they get put in the untenable position of having to play politics in order to break the three-way tie.

Youth sports is all about fun and learning. Learning a sport, a new skill, making new friends, making mistakes and developing.  Anything that diminishes the experience, such as sideline coaching, robs our kids of their ability to seize and relish all the good things that youth sports offers. So let the coaches coach, the officials officiate, and above all, the players play, without undue parental interruption.