‘Let my child play!’

Originally appeared in Silent News, October 2001.

Part of every sporting event is an unchangeable, immobile and everlasting staple: the fans. And for children, there’s nothing more poignant than a parent cheering a child on.

But what if the parent’s cheering becomes angry and demanding? What if the anger becomes directed at other students or the coach?

A parent becoming angry over decisions made in sports is a common frustration for coaches across the nation. “Sideline rage,” the term coined for this anger, has become a public issue within the last three years, especially after a player’s father was jailed for beating another player’s father to death. In Las Vegas, a parent poisoned the opposing team’s players during a soccer game. Search the web, and you find article after article about parents who project their frustrations and anger on anyone available at games.

In many of these cases, parents get upset over their children not playing enough – especially when they pay fees for league sports. At deaf schools, coaches struggle to decide whether to give equal playing time to all athletes no matter what their skill levels are, or to strive for a good win.

“We were playing at a school, we were leading all the way and we lost in overtime,” Dave Olson of Minnesota says. “One of my players’ dad – who was deaf – came up to me in the locker room and yelled at me for being so passive at the very end of the game and felt I should do that and that.”

Other coaches echo similar experiences. “Two parents approached me, inquiring why I hadn’t played their boys. It was a very close game, so naturally, I put in my best players,” Mark Martin* says. “However, these boys had not been committed in practices and were put on the third or fourth string squads. I made it very clear that their boys needed to prove their commitment and dedication to the football team, and I talked to the parents in front of the boys.” The parents eventually realized that their anger was misdirected, and apologized to the coach for their anger.

“It’s frustrating, because often we are faced with limited numbers of players. Parents often expect us to play each and every player, even when the player doesn’t have the skills or has not earned the privilege to play,” Albert Smith* says. “It’s a struggle for me as a coach between whether to give equal playing time, or to give wins.”

Many of these coaches grew up in the very same schools they coach at today, and often have their own children or relatives attending or working at the schools, so the outrage from parents may sting even more. Smith recalls a situation where he had grown up with the parent of one of his players. “Suddenly he ran over to me and started hurling all these insults at me from years ago when we had gone to school together. I looked at him and asked why he was doing this in front of my players. I felt completely undermined and disrespected,” the coach remembers. “Later, he apologized, but in private. So basically all the people who saw him screaming at me didn’t see the quiet apology and I felt like my coaching reputation had been tainted. His son never treated me the same after that, either.”

Even deaf referees are not immune to this anger from parents or fans. Jesse Bailey, who is a deaf referee and also a coach, recalls an incident where he was working a game with another referee. A parent got upset with a call, which was a correct call, and “hollered his lungs out. My partner saw him and pointed to him, telling him to get out of the gym, which obviously resulted in a technical,” Bailey says. “My partner then spoke to the fans telling them to calm down and enjoy the game. He also told them that we as referees are just trying our best and doing our jobs. The fans, in turn, quieted down rest of the game.”

But perhaps we are overlooking the most important factor: the player. Often players become humiliated by their parents’ anger and rage, or feed off their parents’ rage. A coach from Wisconsin encountered two such situations.

“At one school, the persuasive parents of my player usually brought up issues about my coaching style, but they’d do it during actual game times. They also once criticized one of the other players and told their son that the player wasn’t as good as him, in front of the crowd. It really humiliated their child to see his parents making fools out of themselves in front of the whole school,” says Randy Shank, formerly of Wisconsin and currently of Minnesota.

Why do coaches experience such frustrations? The coaches cite several reasons, including qualifications for being a coach. Martin says, “It is very difficult to obtain qualified coaches for sports in schools. Some try their best but simply do not have the skills or knowledge necessary for appropriate discipline in that certain sport.”

Another reason cited is support from the school. “If the school does not give enough support, then the sports programs weaken very easily,” adds Martin.

Shank also encountered another set of parents who took more drastic action. While coaching at a school that had a very small number of players in its third year of basketball, the team was participating in a weekend tournament, and advanced to the semi-finals for their second game. The parents were upset that their son had not played during the first game and confronted Shank before the second game with their son in tow.

“They threatened me with a lawsuit if I didn’t let their son play in that night’s game,” Shank says. Stunned, Shank asked the player, in front of the parents, how he felt about not playing. “He was very embarrassed. I tried to explain to the parents that the night before was a very close game with a difference of one point. I couldn’t just let the substitute players come in for the sake of playing.” The parents reinforced their threat, and Shank decided to let the player participate when the game was ahead by 20 points.

The next day, Shank met with the parents. The parents and Shank discussed the matter at length, including a moment where the parents asked the son how he felt about not playing. The son said that he knew he was not the best player for that game, and agreed with the coach’s decision not to use him. The son also said that he was happy to see his friends play so well.

“I was fortunate that the school backed my decision and we were able to come to an agreement with the parents. But it really shocked me that parents would go that far just for a game rather than having their child participate in other ways, perhaps as a manager, or even as a fan,” Shank says.

Even so, not all schools are so supportive. One coach tells of how he was mistakenly accused of giving a student a bruise, and placed on persona non grata status, which meant he could not come on campus nor practice for the upcoming game. Later, the student clarified that a faculty member with mediocre signing skills had misunderstood him, and that the bruise came from an incident outside of practice.

The coach was reinstated, but not without wounded pride. “Fortunately, we won the homecoming game. Even so, why would I want to continue coaching for a school that hired incompetent people who aren’t fluent in sign language and cause situations like this?”

Communication between the coach and the parents is also another factor. Robin Johnson of Minnesota says, “The biggest problem, from what I know and think, between parents and coaches is lack of communication on both sides of their roles influencing the players, on and off the court.” He states that parents often jump to conclusions on reasons for why their child(ren) aren’t being used, and coaches often are not honest enough or clear enough on the players’ capacities in playing based on skill or experience.

A deaf parent of two graduates of a deaf school who are now in their twenties, Ron Sipek of Illinois agrees. “Parents need to understand that coaches do their best and try to let players play as much as possible, but coaches also are supposed to win games.”

“When my son was younger, he was a good baseball player, but often sat out many games. I knew there were other competitive players on the same team. I told him he needed to practice and commit himself to practice so he could improve,” Sipek recalls. “It was good for him, and he came out fine.”

“I think my coaches are always right about their decisions,” says Ryan Johnson (no relation to Robin), an eighth grader at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. “I will always accept my coaches’ decision if they let me play or not. If they won’t let me play, then I know that I need work harder and improve myself.”

“As a coach, I wish parents do understand that coaching deaf sports isn’t easy, with inadequate players to choose from, lack of practices per week, communicating with them while they’re on the court, dealing with their academics and dormitory conflicts,” Johnson says. “Parents’ attitudes do influence students or players’ attitudes in a big way, more so than coaches realize, I think.”

“Frequent meetings with parents sure help. I often use a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy, but I talk with the parents and students to make sure they understand this,” Martin agrees.

Many schools, such as the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, enforce a code of conduct, with parents and players signing agreements to abide by the code. Are they helpful? Bailey says, “Yes! Definitely. School gyms, mostly middle schools, have permanent boards hanging on gym walls explaining codes of conduct. When I first saw one, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s decent’ because obviously, they are considerate about surrounding areas in the gym, not just the games and/or players.”

Overall, it’s clear that a strong relationship between parents and coaches are needed for a successful athletic experience for the students. “Parents have important roles,” Sipek says. “They need to communicate with their coaches, but they can’t just demand. At the same time, coaches need to be fair and know that winning is not everything all the time.”

For a sample code of conduct, visit the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation’s website at www.nyssf.org.

* Not their real names.

Copyrighted material. This article may not be copied, reprouced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

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