A few years ago, a man showed up in San Francisco psychologist Jim Taylor's office with his daughter, a competitive figure skater. "You need to fix her jump," he told Taylor, explaining that his daughter had been struggling to execute a new move on the ice.
After meeting with the 15-year-old girl a few times, Taylor says it became clear that it was her father who was the problem. Her dad was on hand every time she practiced or competed, the skater explained, and if she performed well, he lavished her with gifts. When she faltered, he became angry. On a few occasions, her father had barged onto the ice to challenge her coach's advice. Father and daughter fought constantly.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 19, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Sporting behavior -- In a photo caption accompanying an article in Monday's Health section about adults' behavior at youth sports events, Melanie Forbes was not the girl sitting on the right side of a bench, as the caption stated. She was at the left in the photo.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 23, 2005 Home Edition Health Part F Page 7 Features Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Sporting behavior -- In a photo caption accompanying an article in last week's section about adults' behavior at youth sports events, Melanie Forbes was not the girl sitting on the right side of a bench, as the caption stated. She was at the left in the photo.
Taylor spent time with the father and learned that he was unhappy with his marriage and bored with his job. Under the guise of helping the daughter's skating, he was masking his own inner pain. "All parents love their kids," says Taylor, "but some are misguided."
Not long ago, this kind of behavior was practically unheard of among parents of kids who play youth sports. Today, psychologists and coaches agree that many parents have become more passionate -- obsessed, in some cases -- about their children's athletic pursuits than mothers and fathers of the past. Micromanaging a child's sports career and agonizing over his or her success on the playing field may be the most public expression of the so-called "helicopter parent" phenomenon; that is, the tendency of today's moms and dads to "hover" over their children.
Parents who belong to this new breed are easy to spot. They shout more on the sidelines, barking directions at their children, and often struggling to control their emotions. They pester coaches about their kids' playing time. They complain more loudly if a child isn't chosen for an all-star team. Thanks to the rising popularity of travel teams -- which compete against teams from other communities, often very far away -- some parents find themselves devoting entire weekends, and even vacations, to shuttling their sons and daughters to tournaments.
This new ultra-devout sports parent has become a cultural icon of sorts, lampooned in a new movie, "Kicking & Screaming," in which actor Will Ferrell plays a mild-mannered dad who turns into a ranting, obnoxious buffoon on the sidelines of his son's soccer games. What's more, a television series scheduled to begin airing on Bravo in June, "Sports Kids Moms & Dads," will follow the travails of several parents of aspiring young athletes.
For some, the rabid commitment simply interferes with other family priorities, occasionally frustrating less obsessed spouses. For others, it becomes an unhealthy fixation. Why do youth sports matter so much to parents today? And how does this new, deeper emotional investment affect relationships between parents and children? While it's the rare violent episodes that tend to grab the headlines, such as the Texas man who shot his son's football coach in April, most coaches can tell stories about parents who crossed the line of acceptable behavior while stopping short of actual violence. More frequently, this behavior is marked by fits of anger or menacing words from an out-of-control parent.
Sean Heyman, 42, of Westchester, who coaches a girls' softball team, says one father angrily confronted him after a game. "He completely lost it. He was frustrated," says Heyman. "He was loud, aggressive and ready to fight." Heyman was baffled by the man's ire, because the young girl had played the entire game. His complaint? The man wanted his daughter to play shortstop, but Heyman had assigned her to the outfield.
While today's sports parents come in all stripes, most are content to leave the coaches alone, instead directing their emotional energy to their children.
It's natural to feel pride when your child hits a home run or scores a goal, or sadness when his or her team loses, says Dr. Ian Tofler, a Los Angeles psychiatrist. Tofler, coauthor (with Theresa Foy DiGeronimo) of "Keeping Your Kids Out Front Without Kicking Them From Behind," says it's healthy for parents to identify and empathize with sons or daughters, even to live vicariously through their exploits.
However, explains Tofler, trouble starts when parents rely on their child's athletic success to boost their own self-esteem or fulfill other personal needs and aspirations.
"When your own identity becomes caught up in the child's performance, that's a clear red flag," says Tofler. "The child becomes more a means to the parent's end than a separate individual with his or her own needs and goals."