"Helicopter" Parents Take All the Fun Out of Youth Sports


A snow-less Rocky Mountain spring providing summer-like weather heralds the early reappearance of two of the most feared creatures that roam our beautiful state – the Colorado black bear prowling through back yards looking for food and “helicopter parents” prowling the sidelines of youth sporting events on a mission to protect their young. In recent years, the latter has proven to be much more dangerous than the former.

Perhaps the pinnacle of adults ruining kid’s fun came last year in an Old Colorado City Easter egg hunt. Parents – determined that their child was not going to be denied an egg – jumped over ropes defining the “children-only” hunt area and scooped up all the eggs in a matter of seconds much to the chagrin of the children handicapped by rule-abiding parents.

Because of the bad behavior last year, the 2012 Easter egg hunt has been cancelled. Not because the kids couldn’t behave but because the adults couldn’t.

Commenting on the Easter egg fiasco, Ron Alsop – the author of “The Trophy Kids Grow Up,” a look at the millennial-children generation – says, “They couldn’t resist getting over the rope to help their kids. They can’t stay out of their children’s lives.”

On another front, uber-enmeshed adults have sent the incidents of violence in youth sports skyrocketing. And again, the violence is not perpetrated by kids but by adult coaches, parents and fans.


A Massachusetts father, angry at what he perceived as rough play in a youth hockey game, beat a hockey coach to death. A doting mom was sent to prison for trying to have the mother of her daughter’s high school cheering leading rival murdered.

Two soccer coaches got into a fist fight at a game for 7-year-old girls and a parent at a football game for six and seven-year-olds pulled a .357 Magnum as he argued over playing time for his son. And in one of the more disturbing displays of adults-gone-mad, a coach in Pennsylvania actually paid one of his 8-year-old Little League baseball players $25 to intentionally bean one of the other players with a baseball because he thought the boy was dragging the team down – the targeted boy was autistic.

The above are all true stories. The time-honored chant of “Kill the ump” is no longer an idle threat.

So, what the heck is going on here?

Darrell J. Burnett, a youth sports psychologist in California (can you believe there even is such a thing), says times have changed. “If you look at youth sports, my gut feeling is that in many cases, it’s not a game anymore,” says Burnett. “There’s a little too much at stake here rather than just going out and playing a game.”

Burnett claims that too many parents are looking at sports as an investment. “If a kid doesn’t perform, it means a lot more.”

“Now, they go to a game and their kid makes an error, it’s not just the kid making the error, it’s ‘My God, that’s my error’ or “What if a scout is watching?’ That gets the juices going and away they go,” Burnett says.

Parents are pouring money into traveling teams for their kids, who now play just one sport year-round. The three-sport athlete has all but disappeared as parents focus on the promise of a college scholarship with many adults having a vicarious experience, while fulfilling their unrealized sports accomplishments through their children.

Another factor contributing to adults acting-out, according to Willie Jolley – a Washington DC-based youth counselor – is “violence has been desensitized [in our society].” Penn State University professor and Little League baseball consultant David Dimmick concurs.

Dimmick says, “Since the 1970’s, movies, television and video games have become much, much more violent.” He claims the result is that our society is more violent and that is reflected in the culture of youth sports.

Jolley, however, believes that increased exposure to violence is only part of the problem and that too much attention is focused on winning rather than the values that a sport can teach. Dimmick agrees stating that, “America has turned sport into a cult, where winners are exalted and their defeated opponents are degraded. We have blurred the distinction between sport, which is intended to provide enjoyment and escape from the rigors of everyday life, with athleticism, which is all about competing for a prize.”

The National Alliance for Youth Sports (http://www.nays.org) – America's leading advocate for positive and safe sports and activities for children – offers these tips for parents and coaches of children:

  • Treat the sports field as an extension of the classroom.
  • Make only encouraging comments to players.
  • Respect officials.
  • Focus on fun and participation rather than winning and losing.
  • Control your emotions.

And, a final word of advice from yours truly to all parents and coaches who act badly at youth sporting events – grow up!


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