Dealing With Negative Parents In The Stands

April 17, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

Last month, a Responsible Sports Parent wrote to our panel of experts to ask: “My youngest is a first year U8 softball player. Many of her friends play on her team and that is why she plays. My problem is that the mother of one of her good friends often sits next to me during practices and games and is really negative all the time. She is either criticizing the coaching or expressing frustration with the performance of the kids, particularly her own daughter.

How do I help a parent who puts way too much pressure on her very young daughter to perform? If I can't help her lighten up, how do I deal with the anxiety she is creating for me?”

Michelle, a concerned parent.

We asked two of our experts to weigh in. Nancy Teehee, Former ASA 18-U GOLD Coach for Oklahoma Jitterbugs and Oklahoma State Pitcher, commented:

“I suggest that you ask to speak with the coach and explain to the coaches that this one person is disrupting your entire team. You may want to tell the coach that your daughter is the first one to know when she has made a mistake, and that she has mentioned that she feels like she is starting to play “careful” instead of “aggressive” whenever this parent takes it upon herself to publically correct her and humiliate her in front of everyone. The last thing a coach wants is for his/her team to start playing careful and for him/her to lose control of their team because of a mom sitting in the stands and yelling at their team.

Also, tell the coach and the coaching staff that they have done a great job working out with the girls and it does nothing but tear down all of their hard work in just a few minutes by being negative; what they have spent hours teaching and focusing on the positive work habits and teaching of skills in practices.”

And Tina Syer, Chief Impact Officer from Positive Coaching Alliance answered:

“I have a feeling many other parents find themselves in similar situations, so hopefully I can provide a few ideas that might help.

We know that 70% of kids drop out of organized youth sports by the age of 13. When they are asked why they quit, the number one answer is that it was not fun anymore. I find that sharing this statistic with people can be eye opening. If the mom sitting next to you wants her daughter to keep playing softball, she needs to ease up on the pressure. At the U8 age, the main goal for coaches and parents should be making the sport so much fun that players want to come back next season.

One way to do this is sticking to the
5:1 “Magic Ratio” of positive to negative comments. To create a positive environment that is conducive to learning and fun, athletes need to hear five pieces of positive, affirming feedback for every correction/criticism. Multiple research studies across disciplines echo this same ratio. Maybe you can share this ratio as something you aspire to with the mom sitting next to you?

Finally, if this mom does not seem to want to change, I think it might be best for you to remove yourself
from the situation. Are there other parents you can sit next to that are more positive?

I'm not sure this last idea is really practical, but if she asks you why you moved, I'd be tempted to say something like: “I want to enjoy these practices and games, and I was finding that hard to do with your consistently negative commentary.” I can see her being taken aback by this, but it might be enough to get through to her, and I am sure her daughter would thank you!”
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