Visit any youth soccer field, baseball diamond, basketball court or football field and you will likely see them: parents behaving badly. Take a look at this Good Morning America report on "sideline rage". Sometimes, these are the extremes, but at most games, you can find at least one adult making comments at the referee, shouting at their child, or having a verbal exchange with another parent. Thankfully, these parents represent only a small percentage of those attending the game. Does that mean the others don't become upset at something during the game? Usually not, as there are lots of opportunities to dispute a bad call or observe rough play or react to one of these loud parents.
The difference is in our basic personality psyche, according to Jay Goldstein, a kinesiology doctoral student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. His thesis, recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (see reference below), hypothesized that a parent with "control-oriented" personality would react to events at a game more than a parent with an "autonomy-oriented" personality.
According to Goldstein, defending our ego is what usually gets us in trouble when we feel insulted or take something personally. At youth sports games, we transfer this pride to our kids, so if someone threatens their success on the field, we often take it personally. The control-oriented parent is more likely to react with a verbal or sometimes physical response, while an autonomy-oriented parent is better able to internalize and maintain their emotions. This "control" vs. "autonomy" comparison has also been seen in research on "road rage", when drivers react violently to another driver's actions.
Goldstein and his team focused their research on suburban Washington soccer parents back in 2004. They designed a survey for parents to fill out prior to watching a youth soccer game that would help categorize them as control or autonomy-oriented. Immediately after the game ended, another survey was given to the parents that asked about any incidents during the game that made them angry on a scale of 1, slightly angry, to 7, furious. They were also asked what action they took when they were angry. Choices included "did nothing" to more aggressive acts like walking towards the field and/or yelling or confronting either the referee, their own child, or another player/parent. 53% of the 340 parents surveyed reported getting angry at something during the game, while about 40% reported doing something about their anger.
There was a direct and significant correlation between control-oriented parents, as identified in the pre-game survey, and the level of angry actions they took during the game. Autonomy-oriented parents still got mad, but reported less aggressive reactions. As Goldstein notes, “Regardless of their personality type, all parents were susceptible to becoming more aggressive as a result of viewing actions on the field as affronts to them or their kids. However, that being said, it took autonomy-oriented parents longer to get there as compared to the control-oriented parents.”
So, now that we know the rather obvious conclusion that parents who yell at other motorists are also likely to yell at referees, what can we do about it? Goldstein sees this study as a first step. He hopes to study a wider cross-section of sports and socio-economic populations. Many youth sports organizations require parents to sign a pre-season "reminder" code of conduct, but those are often forgotten in the heat of the battle on the field. Maybe by offering the same type of personality survey prior to the season, the "control-oriented" parents can be offered resources to help them manage their tempers and reactions during a game. Since referees were the number one source of frustration reported by parents, two solutions are being explored by many organizations; more thorough referee training and quality control while also better training of parents on the rules of the game which often cause the confusion.
Sports contests will always be emotional, from kids' games all the way up to professionals. Keeping the games in perspective and our reactions positive are tough things to do but when it comes to our kids, it is required.
Goldstein, J.D., Iso-Ahola, S.E. (2008). Determinants of Parents' Sideline-Rage Emotions and Behaviors at Youth Soccer Games. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(6), 1442-1462. DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00355.x