Yes. I Am Judging You, Sports Parents.

Years back, I went into a full-on rant about judging other parents, and how I do not want to do it. Even though sometimes it is really hard. And, yes, I still agree with my years-ago ranting. And I remain committed to not consuming media that judges parents, like, for sport.

But, honestly? It’s getting harder and harder for me to resist judging other parents.

Part of it is just that I’m more secure. When I was walking around with a toddler and an infant, I had no clue about whether I was making the right choices for myself or my kids. I mean, I had my good days, sure, but at moments I wondered if M might actually be a psychopath, and J was biting kids all over the place,  and M was never going to eat solid foods, and J was never going to stop nursing, and neither of them could sleep as I imagined babies were supposed to sleep (you know: “like a baby”). So if there were choices that other parents made that I wouldn’t make, well, what the hell did I know? Maybe it would be a good idea if I just bit J really hard once or twice.

I sure as heck considered it.

The girls are older now, and these great dramas have resolved themselves. And even though there are sure to be dramas and complications ahead, I feel like we’ve got the fundamentals down. The girls can sleep, eat, and groom themselves. They get great grades and work hard and set goals and cope with failure and join activities that promote kindness. They can cook themselves food or wash some clothes in a pinch. They are mostly sensible and polite. So I spend much less time questioning my own decisions and more time feeling like my instincts are probably right on most of the time.

And I can’t help but notice when some parent makes what I consider to be an exceptionally poor choice. In fact, I feel like it’s happening more often, or maybe it’s just me getting old and persnickety. Some of the most egregious examples that I’m willing to share have happened in the course of watching sports.

Here’s a heart-breaker of an example from a game I attended. There was a girl on my daughter’s team who didn’t get much playing time at all. I couldn’t really understand why, myself. She wasn’t a stand-out talent, but she also didn’t seem significantly worse than many other girls who were playing quite a bit more than she was. Still, it didn’t seem fair to me, and it absolutely didn’t seem fair to her mother.

The mom was pissed. And here’s the thing: I totally felt her pain. If I’ve learned anything from watching my kids do multiple sports for school and clubs, it’s that playing time is often unfair. I have been in situations in which my daughter is basically playing the whole time, and I’ve been in situations where my daughter is sitting on the bench for basically the whole, entire game. It is way, way more fun when your kid is playing. Of course it is. When your kid is on the bench . . . well, it really depends. Sometimes your kid is philosophical and coping with it, either because they know that they’re not as strong as other players or they’re just resigned. Other times they are barely holding it together.

No matter how your kid is coping with “riding the pine,” as Cute W would say, the absolutely wrong parenting move is to become noticeably upset about the situation yourself. Upset parents are upsetting. In this particular case, the girl in question seemed okay with not playing. She was smiling, she was joking with her teammates. . . and then she saw her mother. Her mother was clearly all riled up and trying to communicate with her daughter, asking why coach wasn’t letting her play. And it didn’t stop. The mom spent the whole game angry, and as soon as the daughter realized, she was barely able to hold back tears.

They spent the rest of the game that way: the mom was giving off a pulsating angry aura (think Sophie in When Sophie Gets Angry–Really, Really Angry) and the girl was surreptitiously wiping away tears. And it was so sad to witness, because this mom’s heart was hurting for her daughter, and it just felt so obvious that her intense reaction was making everything so much worse. You know how when you’re watching a tv show and the characters have some misunderstanding, and it’s just painful to watch, because each person has good intentions, but they’re just entirely screwing it up, and you just want to yell at the screen? It felt like that, but in real life.

This was an uncommon situation, because usually when I’m judging bad sports parenting, it’s because the parents suck. Oh, my gosh, you guys, I have witnessed some serious Asshole Sports Parents at games. They share the same issue: they care way too much about whether their kid’s team wins.

I think that almost every parent has a slight tendency toward assholery inside of them, because it’s tough not to get carried away. Or, maybe Cute W doesn’t have asshole tendencies, because he’s the World’s Best Sport, but I sure do. The point is, we have to suppress our secret, selfish asshole tendencies. Just like it’s not helpful to show your kid that you’re upset on their behalf about playing time, during a crucial part of the game, you can think inside your head, Why did they just put in that poor kid who is useless with the ball? But you can’t say that out loud. It is possible that pretty recently I accidentally started to say that exact phrase out loud, and then I clapped my hand over my mouth while Cute W urged me to simmer. As was appropriate. Because I don’t want to be an asshole.

Why do we get riled up? I don’t know.

Really, in the grand scheme of things, the outcome of an individual game doesn’t matter that much. Maybe the difference is getting a medal and a free t-shirt or not. Maybe it’s the difference between whether the season ends today or in a week or two. The stakes are pretty low, you guys. One might even argue that a tough loss is a crucial learning experience, an opportunity to learn about perseverance or the value of practice or some other life lesson. These arguments are lost on true Asshole Sports Parents. They’re adults who presumably have jobs and families and mortgages and social engagements and all sorts of things that should be occupying their grown-up brains and emotional energy. And yet some of them act like their life depends on the outcome of the current game.

Asshole Sports Parents fall into two categories: parents who yell at other kids, and parents who think that their own kids suck. I have seen some awful examples of both.

I’ve seen parents whose kids were playing up against a team full of players two years older complain loudly that the older girls’ team was full of “Amazons on steroids”. . . um, yeah, that’s actually called puberty, and shouldn’t you know better than to body-shame a bunch of 14-year-olds? I’ve heard about a grown-ass man purposefully placing himself away from the other parents and as close as he could get to an opposing player so that he could hiss at her from the sidelines, telling her that she was going to miss and fail. Like, are you freaking kidding me? That man needs therapy and possibly some sort of supportive pharmaceutical intervention. Have these adults forgotten that their targets are children? That they’d likely feel pretty affectionate toward these children if they were on their own daughter’s team? I have no idea, but that is some terrible role-modeling.

It’s even a bigger bummer when parents harsh on their own kid. They don’t get to go home and forget about it: they’re stuck living with that kind of judgement. I’ve seen parents correct their daughter constantly on every play because it was early in the season and the parents had memorized the plays better than their daughter had. Umm, parents? Don’t you have something better to do than memorize a playbook for a team that you’re not coaching?  I’ve seen parents videotaping their daughter while narrating the ways in which she was performing inadequately so that they could review the tape of the entire game later. In that instance I almost got into an argument. The mother said something to me, thinking I was a fellow Asshole Sports Parent, and I said, all amped up on adrenaline and ready to throw down, “In my experience, telling your kid that they’re terrible at something doesn’t usually help improve their performance.” I was sure that we were going to get into a full-on argument, but she nodded philosophically, as if I was just sharing another random parenting tip, like, “I tried that feed-them-M&Ms-on-the-potty thing, but my daughter still kept wetting her pants.” Like, “Hmm, making a highlight reel of my daughter’s failures was a technique I have tried and subsequently rejected because it only made her reaction times slower due to depression and low self-esteem.”

Oh, and the sideline yelling! Screaming at a group of girls who are losing that, “You’ve gotta want it!”? Do those parents really think that these girls don’t want to score? And if you, as a parent, “want it” more than you think the girls on the team do, then you absolutely “want it” too damn much. Or another favorite is, “You’ve gotta make [or get, or whatever] those!” or any other comment pointing out a recent failure. Do you think that this girl didn’t notice that she just screwed up? How is it helpful for a parent to point this out to them? It is not.

Phew. I have been holding back on those for a long time. But every time we try a new activity, I’m surprised to find yet another example of parents who seems to want to suck the joy out of it. Sports parents just do it all at a higher volume.


  1. M.E.

    Wow! Great article. My stomach is in a knot just reading it! Stay strong. It’s a long season and remember, “You’ve Gotta Want it!”

  2. Rob

    I used to coach recreation league soccer in Bethlehem. I’d stand there and watch adults yell at 12-year-old referees over a game where we barely kept score. Assholes, indeed.

  3. Enjoyable read — comprehensive, insightful.

    I’m an older parent, past this season in life. It’s obvious to me, however, that little has changed over the decades, human nature being what it is.

    One perspective I would add — the Assholery is often about the parent, and their deep psychological needs and fears. You write: “And it was so sad to witness, because this mom’s heart was hurting for her daughter,…” Perhaps, but…

    In my experience, often mom’s (and dad’s) heart hurts for her or himself. In other words, the parents’ self-esteem and social status depend heavily on the athletic prowess of child — and it’s a personal embarrassment if the child isn’t a superstar. The parent, in essence, has placed the burden of the family’s (and, in particular, that parent’s) honor on the child’s shoulders.

    I was never a perfect parent, but I had three simple rules for my children in any endeavor, athletic or otherwise: (1) have fun; (2) learn something; (3) do your best.

  4. Kristen

    I’ve read your blog for years and love it. This post is so true, I’ve been to countless youth sporting events that were made miserable by a**hole parents. At my younger son’s little league games I’m shocked at parents booing and belittling the umps who are 12-15 years old themselves, it’s awful!

  5. Claire

    Wow. This makes me even happier that my son isn’t into sports. By the way, I love the new word you invented (“assholery”). I might have to borrow it sometime. My spellcheck doesn’t like it, though!

  6. Oh, yes, my older daughter has worked as a ref for rec soccer, and parents would yell at her on points of soccer that they clearly didn’t understand.

  7. Yes, I do think that people’s self-esteem can be way too wrapped up in their kids’ performance. But I also understand it, because my girls are definitely a source of pride (and I’ve even had the occasions when they were a source of shame, like when J would run around biting children). These folks just need to. . . I don’t know, dial it back or seek therapy for their unresolved issues or whatever. Those are good rules!

  8. Yeah, I feel like parents of young children tend to think of teenagers as almost-adults, and then it’s only as their own kids get to be that age that they realize, “Oh, teenagers are actually still pretty innocent and vulnerable.” But it’s probably like M’s soccer ref situation: it’s likely those baseball kids have way better baseball knowledge and judgement than the complaining parents. . . so they’re internally kind of laughing at the situation. Ugh, I hope, for those kids’ sakes!

  9. Since you will not find it in your standard dictionary, I’ll let you know that the proper pronunciation is 4 syllables, pronounced: ass-HOLE-er-ree.

  10. Stacey

    Been there…seen that! Even the parent from the other team hovering under the hoop to psych out our 5th graders (at the time) as they went in for a basket. Great job with the write up!

  11. Claire

    Thanks for the explanation. I did not realize that the emphasis was on HOLE. You saved me from embarrassingly mispronouncing my favorite new word!

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