What is being done to stop adult misconduct at youth football games

Coaches and parents berate the referees and yell at their children and each other. Physical assaults have broken out. Adult sideline behavior at youth sporting events has gotten so bad that there is a national refereeing shortage, not to mention taking the fun out of the game.

Brian Barlow is a longtime college football umpire.  He says becoming a referee is a tough sell these days.

/Brian Barlow

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Brian Barlow

Brian Barlow is a longtime college football umpire. He says becoming a referee is a tough sell these days.

“Let’s not call them adults, okay?” advises Brian Barlow, a longtime college football umpire. “An adult is responsible. An adult understands that it’s no longer their moment – it’s their child’s moment.”

According to the National Federation of High School Associations, about 50,000 high school officers — about 20% — resigned between 2018 and 2021.

“Misbehaviour by fans (especially adults) remains a serious problem at high school sporting events — making it difficult to recruit and retain high school officials in every state,” NFHS writes on its campaign website Bench bad behavior.

Becoming a referee is a tough sell these days, Barlow says. For matches that last about an hour, “they make $25-$45-$50,” he says. “And at that time, the coaches and the parents are overly disrespectful. So we never get a chance to really mold these officers because they’re like, ‘I don’t want that $50. I’ll go flip a burger.’ ”

For children it can be humiliating.

Joshua Nimley, 15, has played competitive soccer in Washington, DC since he was 6 years old.

Maansi Srivastava/NPR

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NPR

Joshua Nimley, 15, has played competitive soccer in Washington, DC since he was 6 years old.

“I’ve had my fair share of incidents,” says 15-year-old Joshua Nimley, a capable soccer player in Washington, DC. He remembers a game when he was 8. I disagree with the decision and it was just BS. It shouldn’t be that serious.

As for his teammates, “We were all surprised because we didn’t argue about it, so why do adults do that?” Nimley shakes his head.

why are Adults fight at youth games?

One reason: too much focus on winning, says Skye Eddy, a former professional soccer player, parent, coach, and founder of an educational program called The Sideline Project. “Sometimes parents care too much about the outcome and then they get too involved and don’t let the game be owned by the kid in some way,” she says.

Skye Eddy is a former professional soccer player and founder of The Sideline Project, an educational resource for parents to reflect on their behavior during their children's games.
Skye Eddy is a former professional soccer player and founder of The Sideline Project, an educational resource for parents to reflect on their behavior during their children’s games.

Peter Guthrie, a longtime youth umpire and umpire mentor in Maryland, says he sees parents who seem to “live their youth through their children.”

Guthrie has also coached youth football. “In some cases, they think that’s going to be the pathway for your kid to get into college, so they have to do well as a 10-year-old to get that college scholarship.”

Guthrie, a retired National Institutes of Health neurologist, is mentoring youth who have recently completed a referee training program run by the Maryland SoccerPlex in conjunction with three other organizations.

He says most parents are good. “It’s just that small percentage that causes problems. I’m here so that when something like this happens I can reiterate that he did the right thing and if necessary I go to the other side to deal with the wrongdoers speak,” he smiles.

Larry Mittleman (left), State Director of Instruction for Maryland Soccer Referees, and Peter Guthrie instruct Jason Kim, 14, a new referee after a youth soccer game at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

/ Eric Lee for NPR

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Eric Lee for NPR

Larry Mittleman (left), State Director of Instruction for Maryland Soccer Referees, and Peter Guthrie instruct Jason Kim, 14, a new referee after a youth soccer game at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

Adults lose their cool at games partly because they can, says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.

“We need to empower referees and refs to throw them out of games and hold coaches and teams accountable for parents’ bad behavior,” says Farrey. “Right now, there just isn’t much incentive for parents to do that. If parents knew their behavior would harm their team or their child in any way, then maybe they will take it back.”

Farrey believes youth sports in general need more oversight. “We are one of the few nations in the world that doesn’t have a federal department of sport or a sports department to coordinate sports development, set a national agenda, move this incredibly important space forward and hold people accountable for standards.”

The solutions include Silent Soccer… and shame

For years, youth football professionals have tried to curb bad behavior. One exercise is Silent Soccer, where adults – parents and coaches – agree to remain silent during the game.

“It’s incredible,” says Pierre Hedji, Nimley’s coach at DCXI youth football club from DC. “I think it’s the best way to teach a kid. you won’t make it [games] Player-centric, when the parents yell from the sidelines and give directions to the players, and the coaches give directions to the players. We have practice for that.”

Barlow uses shame without apology. His Facebook page Offside has dozens of videos of adults losing at youth games sent to him by people across the country.

He thinks it works. He says people who viewed the videos told him, “I’ve changed because of some of the content you posted. I don’t want my kids to think of their parents like that.”

Distracting behavior is also taboo

To help parents behave better during games, Skye Eddy created a 15-minute video course for The Sideline Project. But she doesn’t address hostile behavior. Instead, she focuses on something that’s much more common.

“Distracting behavior means communicating with a player while they’re trying to complete a task or while they’re trying to think and be aware and make a decision on the field,” says Eddy.

As we walked around the massive Maryland SoccerPlex on a Saturday, where multiple games were happening simultaneously, the distracting behavior was unrelenting. Parents telling their kids, “Get it,” “Spin it,” “Pass it,” and of course, “Shoot!”

Eddy says this is what many level-headed parents do: “We often think we’re helping, but we’re actually distracting players from their learning.”

Jason Kim, a new umpire mentored by Peter Guthrie, runs to watch a play during a youth football game.

/ Eric Lee for NPR

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Eric Lee for NPR

Jason Kim, a new umpire mentored by Peter Guthrie, runs to watch a play during a youth football game.

Eddy reports that of the 9,000 people who took her course, 60% say their part-time behavior is better.

“What is most exciting to me is that over 40% of the parents who take the course say their relationship with their child has improved just because they took this 15 minute course where we are finally stepping in and parents enlighten and give them some moments to reflect and guide how children learn and how sport is learned,” she says.

Barlow is pretty sure kids don’t want to hear or be coached by their parents.

“The most powerful thing you can say to your young athlete at the end of the game — it’s not what you did right, what you did wrong, how you’re going to play better in the next game,” Barlow says. “It’s just going to the car, getting in the car and going, ‘Hey, I loved watching you play today.'”

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A "fair play please" Banners at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md. Youth soccer referees are becoming increasingly difficult to find due to abuse from players, fans and coaches.

/ Eric Lee for NPR

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Eric Lee for NPR

A “Fair Play Please” banner at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md. Youth soccer referees are becoming increasingly difficult to find due to abuse from players, fans and coaches.

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