Monday, Oct. 8, 2007 | I am in disbelief. Recently a local person related to me a story of such first-rate absurdity that I could not help but wonder if it was true. But this is Rancho Santa Fe, where such stories usually are. The storyteller was Mary Aschieris, a concerned and rather sane-sounding mother of three soccer-playing boys.
There is, Aschieris said, a problem in these parts with suburbia’s favorite Saturday engagement.
It seems that in between all the picture snapping and passing out of orange slices on the sidelines of their children’s soccer games, a disturbing number of parents have taken up another pastime: shouting at their kids, yelling over their coaches and cussing out the referees.
Ascheiris was of course too nice to name names and relate ignoble details. She organized an event — “Silent Saturday,” it was called — to get the errant parents in her kids’ soccer league to shut up and be good sports. To at least to match the level of decorum commonly exhibited by their nine-year-olds.
But Paul Slater, an England-born Rancho Santa Fe resident who referees youth soccer games, told me of some truly polluted proceedings.
“It is quite amazing the abuse as an adult that I get from parents,” Slater explained. “It’s always the parents. They’ll scream at you, ‘You’re playing for the other team’ or ‘How much did they pay you to make that call?’ And those are the humorous comments. Some of them will shout pretty much obscenities at you.”
With nearly a lifetime of experience in soccer, Slater says he doesn’t let the trash-talking get to him. But the abuse is bad enough that he has real trouble getting players in the league to referee younger divisions’ games, even for money. “You can imagine a 14-year-old kid going [through] this in his second season as a referee?” Slater asks with serious concern. “I can’t.”
The final straw for Aschieris, who resorted to printing up huge posters telling parents how to comport themselves — or to at least be silent — was the two weekends in a row her kids’ games were called off early due to “out-of-control” parents from the other team.
“It just makes for a less-than-pleasant atmosphere,” she explained.
So along with the posters urging “No Coaching, No Yelling, No Shouting,” Aschieris passed out a flyer titled “Sideline Suggestions: 10 Things Kids Say They Don’t Want Their Parents To Do,” compiled by Dr. Darrel Burnett, a youth sports psychologist.
The flyer reads like one those comical signs in semipublic places that shout common — or at least thought-to-be-common — sense, like “Don’t stand up on the rollercoaster,” or “Keep your fingers away from the saw blade.”
A few highlights: “Don’t put down the officials” — that might encourage the referee to be fair! “Don’t yell at the coach” — he’s not on television; he can actually hear you! And my personal favorite, the concluding reminder: “Don’t forget that it’s just a game!” — as if the four-foot-tall players and lawn chairs weren’t adequate enough reminders that this isn’t World Cup 2007.
But Burnett’s flyer confirmed a thought I’d had since Aschieris first called: Psycho-Parents aren’t at all unique to Rancho Santa Fe, or to the sport of soccer. In a diagnosis of the rather common affliction, Burnett didn’t indicate that adult nastiness was elicited by any particular type of ball.
“The parents are being told ‘Well, you better get your kids into club sports early, otherwise they won’t be on the high school team. If they aren’t playing club soccer, forget it,’ that kind of talk. And their thought is, ‘Gee whiz, if I don’t do that … then I haven’t got a chance at a scholarship’ — so that brass ring mentality starts,” Burnett says.
“Parents are only seeing their kids in terms of this athlete who has a chance for a scholarship … and then of course the old thing about living through your kid: ‘I could have been a contender if my parents would have pushed me …’”
It isn’t just about sports though. As everybody knows, getting well-off suburban kids into college is an undertaking that begins at unconscionably early ages: They play in competitive soccer leagues before they hit double-digits, and work all weekend to rack up extracurricular achievements in science or music before beginning puberty.
“As a clinical psychologist, I’ll get parents who’ll bring their sixth-grader in and say, ‘I want you to get him ready for the SATs’ and ‘What can we do to get him into Stanford’ and all that,” Burnett explains, barely stifling a chuckle.
He believes the hysterical sideline behavior is often a product of stress in both the parent’s and the player’s lives. “There’s a certain percentage that come to an event inebriated. They’ve had a couple and their guard gets down, or they’ve been at work all day and [there’s] a lot of stress and they want to just kind of let it all out on the field.”
So there you go: Drunk, stressed-out parents chewing out refs and overriding coaches at kiddie sports games. I wouldn’t have believed that the pillars of today’s placid ‘burbs would allow themselves such public transgressions. Then again I’m not a parent and not really a sports fan.
I also probably wouldn’t have believed another thing I’ve discovered: In New Jersey, they’re requiring ejected parents to take an anger management course before they can resume attending their children’s games.
But Burnett said a league near his office in Laguna Niguel uses what sounds to me a much better method to shush the sideline psychos: Linking a sportsmanship award for each game to parents’ behavior. That’s right — give these ambitious folks something to achieve and they’ll fall right in line. “The parents would be running out to the referees, taking them water,” Burnett laughed. “They were on their best behavior.”
I’ve seen how they play football in Germany, and it’s deliciously mischievous. At a Frankfurt Eintracht game I once attended — where the hometown boys won, then a rare occurrence — the cops had to break up two fights between skinheads and out-of-towners. One fan I stood next to shouted at everybody (the players, the coaches and the refs, all of whom were 50 yards away) with such vehemence that I worried he would either pass out, rupture a major artery, or simply explode. It was terrifying in a way that only a man continuously yelling at the top of his lungs in German can be terrifying. Keep your kiddies away. But feel free to yell at the top of your lungs in German to firstname.lastname@example.org.