Can We Not Be Assholes Even If Our Kids Play Sports?

Emily Wolf
4 min readSep 8, 2023

I’m a big believer in youth sports. Sportsmanship, respect for self and others, belonging, teamwork, learning how to both give and receive support, to win and lose, self-exploration…It’s great stuff.

But the overwhelming odds are that our kids’ slugging percentage, goals scored, rebounds made, or total games won won’t materially affect their lives.

If you want to focus on stats, I’d point you to these: 0.16% of high school baseball players advance to the MLB; 0.01% of high school basketball players advance to the NBA; 0.02% of high school football players advance to the NFL; and only 1–2% of college athletes receive scholarship money.

(I recognize that football and baseball are male-dominated. I have boys. So most of the youth-sports-related parental “episodes” I’ve witnessed, heard about, and seen on YouTube or, on sad occasion, the news involve boys’ sports. Maybe the psychosis extends to girls’ sports, too? But, for today’s purposes, I’ll stick to what I know.)

Part of sport’s beauty is that it sweeps us up and connects us. Sports provide connection and even transcendence; our allegiances become part of our identities. There is an intensity inherent in all of these things. An intensity that can feel bigger when the athletes you’re cheering for are your kids.

It is also worth noting, though, that the world is, quite literally, on fire. And, what happens in any particular game isn’t likely to materially change your child’s future, as long as that child is loved. So why, in my affluent little corner of the world, are parents increasingly losing their minds over youth sports?

I DON’T KNOW. I lack the necessary credentials to answer this question.

But, as a parent who has “watched” too many games with my head between my knees, not because of tension on the court or field, but because of parental misbehavior in the stands, I’d like to offer the following:

  1. Resilience is a buzzword for a reason. According to the American Psychological Association, “building resilience — the ability to adapt well to adversity…or even significant sources of stress — can help our children manage stress and feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.” The opportunity to build resilience in a safe, low-stakes environment is one of the best things youth sports have to offer. But adults who cheat the draft, pay to play, or intimidate the ref into reversing a call rob their children of a wonderful opportunity to build resilience, develop their coping skills, and find support from their teammates and coaches — i.e., from people other than Mom or Dad. It’s hard to watch your kids experience sadness, unfairness, or disappointment! But these things are part of life, and the pitch/field/court is the best place for kids to encounter them.
  2. If your blood pressure spikes dangerously at 10U basketball games, you find yourself yelling, crying, or wishing ill on other children, or talking incessantly at your friends/hairdresser/mail-carrier about how unfair the fourth-grade all star draft was — or, G-d forbid, you get formally reprimanded or banned from the bleachers — please ask yourself why you’ve made your kid’s sporting experience about you. And if you can’t answer that question, ask a mental health professional so that your grown child won’t have to.
  3. Take your cues from your kid. When my son’s baseball team had a tough loss circa third grade — I can’t remember exactly what happened, but do remember silence descending over the bleachers as we wondered how our boys would pick their broken hearts up off the field — I approached him after the game with some trepidation. But he simply asked if he could get two flavors on his snow cone. He was unfazed! Nothing for me to do but head to concessions.
  4. Try to listen more than talk. Asking questions helps. I learned this the hard way when my other son expressed frustration after a basketball game. Instead of asking him why he was frustrated, I apparently decided to tell him why I was frustrated: “I know! Billy will not pass the ball — ever!” My kid looked at me quizzically and said, “Billy’s my friend.” OUCH. Billy was eight. And I was a dillhole. MY. BAD.
  5. This leads me to my next suggestion: When you screw up, own it. Parents are human, and the older I get, the more important I think it is to impress this fact upon our kids. It’s impossible not to become invested in the teams for whom we provide mountains of snacks and equipment, round-the-clock chauffeur services, and constant cheerleading, and whom we just want to be happy. Sitting back must be especially hard for parents who played the sport they’re now watching and know a thing or two about what should or shouldn’t go down (a “problem” I don’t have, given that I wasn’t coordinated enough to play sports, unless you count tetherball or four-square, which you should not). So, if you boo the umpire who’s sweating her ass off at 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday for a paltry sum, check yourself, give the parents around you a chagrined wave — even (especially?) if they were also booing — and say you’re sorry. Apologize to the umpire and to anyone else whose peace you disturbed, too.
  6. Finally: If you suspect, deep in your belly, that your attachment to your kid’s athletic achievement isn’t healthy, do your work. Do whatever it takes to regulate your behavior. You’ve got unfinished business with soccer? Join an adult league. You’re a yeller? Do five minutes of deep-breathing before approaching the stands and ask your bleacher buddy to elbow you sharply in the ribs should you get too loud. Need to vent? Call a trusted friend after your kid’s gone to bed. If none of this does the trick, get professional help. By doing this work, we respect our kids, their teammates, coaches, umpires and referees, other parents, ourselves, and sport itself.



Emily Wolf

Author, worker, woman, wife, U2-loving frazzled mama.