In South Florida recently, two football moms endured a nightmarish season in which their sons—both age 9—suffered horrific verbal and physical abuse.
The kids were subjected to a five-day-a-week practice schedule for six months, were called fat a**, retard, lazy, and stupid, and rarely played on game day.
As one mom said, “It’s kind of intimidating. You have four or five coaches out there, and they’re all men, and you have a whole group of dads standing, watching, and also yelling. As mothers, we just sat there, and it was very difficult to hear. I didn’t know what to say. The coaches wanted to win, so they did whatever it took to win is what I think basically happened that season. When they should have been coaching and building morale and uplifting the kids, it was the opposite.”
The moms—fearful of saying anything that would result in additional abuse directed at their boys—remained silent. Instead, they wrote a book about their experience: Touchdowns, Tackles, and Torture: Life of a Youth Football Mom.
Unfortunately, this situation happens often in youth-sports programs across the country. Coaches wield power with playing time, and when parents see something inappropriate, they often choose to suffer in silence for fear that speaking up will lead to retribution against their child.
It’s an issue that recreation professionals must meet head on; otherwise, they put their young athletes at risk of a miserable season.
Tim Hanlon, the assistant program manager for the city of Plant City (Fla.) Recreation & Parks Department and a Certified Youth Sports Administrator (CYSA), offers some great tips to help make sure participants’ parents aren’t suffering in silence:
Visit the fields and courts often. “The best advice I could give to new recreation professionals running youth-sports programs for the first time would be to get out of the office,” Hanlon says. “The easiest way to understand what happens during the games is to be at them and walk around the fields to observe how the coaches, parents, and officials are acting. The more aware of this you are, the easier it is to handle complaints that may arise and have a better understanding of where potential problems may be so that they can be addressed proactively instead of waiting for complaints to come in.”
Open communication. “Our programs are all recreational that we run, which we stress at orientation with parents and at our coaches’ meeting,” Hanlon says. “That definitely doesn’t mean competitive coaches and parents aren’t involved, but we encourage open communication to our staff if a parent is having any problem with their coach. Many times, if they don’t tell us, we may not find out because there are so many kids in the program.”
Resolve the issue. “We would prefer them to try and work it out with the coach first, but understand that it is intimidating to approach them, especially if they fear their child will suffer the consequences,” Hanlon says. “If they approach us about it, we will address the coach about it without giving any details of who spoke to us so that they can’t take it out on them. We will then make sure to monitor that coach at future games to see if the behavior continues, and remove them from the program as a coach if necessary.”
Encourage communication when dealing with outside groups. “In the independent youth-sports leagues that we coordinate field space for, the behavior of the coaches is typically worse because the leagues are more competitive,” Hanlon says. “Since we are not involved with these leagues, we encourage those parents to speak to the local organization representative or board member, and, if needed, they should go to the league. If a concern is brought to our attention, then we make sure to discuss it with the local organization as well. It is, unfortunately, true that there will be intense coaches and parents that only care about winning and will belittle the players. However, if more parents would speak up and voice concerns, such as these two women, change will happen and the leagues will ultimately be better off for today’s youth.”
Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at email@example.com or (800) 729-2057.