I have a friend out West who runs a large, very competitive sports club. The children and parents in this club can be quite intense. He struggles regularly with balancing skewed expectations with the club mission.
We talk often about some of the behaviors exhibited when winning becomes the primary goal. Sometimes the adults overemphasize the importance of youth sports in the grand scheme.
He says “parents become a little misguided and do things here they would never dare do anywhere else. Bad behavior is accepted because it is part of sport now”.
In one situation, they recently merged a team of core players from a once dominant team, with brand new players. Two of the old players immediately began bullying the new players. The coach of the team had relayed to his director all that was happening.
In training, they would only partner with their “old” teammates. They shunned the new players. When choosing teams, they never chose the new players. If a new player was placed on a team with old players, they’d disparage the new player as being weak and “the reason we will lose”.
They called the new players rude nicknames and openly made fun of them. During a game, one child said they were losing because the goalie sucked. The child said it in front of the entire team…while looking directly at the goalie.
They would refuse to pass the ball to the new players, isolated them at games, and told them they didn’t belong. There had also been some physical bullying of the new players.
The coach sent an email to the parents of the two players asking for help to resolve it. Everyone involved was sure that this was a “player-driven” behavior and it would easily be corrected with some parent intervention. They were simply resistant to change and this could be fixed.
The parents reacted differently. It escalated. Arguments arose and the parents of the bullies pulled their children from the club, citing the club’s lack of concern for the success of their own children. Everything, including the bad behavior of the kids, was blamed on the club.
It went from copacetic to a completely disintegrated age group in a matter of two weeks.
When the parents left the club, the “ringleader” sent an inflammatory email to every member of the team, the board of directors, and all the Directors of Coaching. The letter was posted publicly, which allowed me to get a better perspective on the situation.
I called my buddy to tell him my thoughts.
“You have Parent-Proxy Bullying. Your players were not actively seeking to be bullies, they were proxies of what they had seen and heard at home, during games, or in car rides to and from the sport. They didn’t mean to, or might not realize, they are acting out their parent’s system of beliefs.”
We read the letter together so I could point out the signs of “parent-proxy bullying”.
Before we dissect, it is important to know I had heard stories of this particular parent. He was kicked out of recreation basketball and told he was not allowed at games for his poor behavior, he attempted to get in a fist fight with a youth soccer coach at a tryout, and is banned from coaching youth sports at the local YMCA. When I saw the name, I knew exactly where the bullying originated. What kind of grown man tries to start a fight with a youth soccer coach over tryout protocols?
The parent opened the email by calling the coach unprofessional, disrespectful, and “downright offensive”. He went on to state the coach was a poor role model and had set a bad example for the kids. The last line of his opening paragraph noted it was not his preference to lower himself to the coach’s level and dignify the email with a response… but he did.
Those were the words of someone looking to tilt power his way. The parent wanted the upper hand. His name calling weakened the coach’s position of authority and put him on the defensive. This was not a letter of apology. The parent was looking for a fight and grabbed a position of power in the first sentence. This was about getting the upper hand on the coach and then using it to his advantage.
In his next paragraph he informed the coach that he had confused competitiveness and a “desire to win” for not being a team player. He told the coach his child was not a bully, just competitive and he is “hard-wired” that way. He excused the singling out and name calling, saying he had no doubt his child muttered disparaging remarks because the child “…recognized the shortcomings of the team”. He finished with a statement that he pushes his child to win at everything and he would not apologize for his kid’s behavior.
The dad clearly excuses the negative comments and the bullying behaviors as being competitive. He also used the word “alleged” multiple times. He admitted, at one point, his son did behave poorly, but continued to say his behavior was alleged. There was a disconnect between the reality of the situation and the parent’s assessment of it.
I strongly believe if a parent expresses, in public, these sentiments regarding other players, they have been expressed in front of the child. We can’t help ourselves, and will carry conversations and mutter things in front of our children. Little people have big ears, and if you are willing to send an email to an entire club, you certainly talked in front of your child.
According to this parent, the bad behavior is acceptable, in our youth sport culture, as part of “competitiveness”. In fact, the dad admitted to promoting that in his household because he wants his kid to win at everything.
By the way, the word “win” comes up 15 times in a 5 paragraph letter. If you don’t think the “win at all costs” attitude pervades youth sport, this letter should change your mind. “Winning” is this dad’s biggest excuse for his child’s bullying. Does the end justify the means?
In the final paragraphs, the “parent-proxy bullying” is quite apparent.
The father confirms that his child did make disparaging remarks about the goalkeeper, but justifies it. His child knows what it takes to be a good goalie and wants to win. He says his child doesn’t want to work that hard in front of a kid who can’t catch, doesn’t know the game, and is not aggressive. He says, “when the ultimate goal is to win, how can you do it with a keeper who can’t even catch? They won’t be successful with [that kid] on the team”.
When was the ultimate goal of youth sports to win? Even as a kid, I knew it was more than that.
What was the dad’s isolation, singling out, and refusing to pass to the new players in training?
He said his child “…is reluctant to pass to certain players…is a smart kid and knows they will lose the ball if they play to certain players”. He thinks the coach may see this as failing to be a team player, but the dad believes it is a byproduct of wanting to win. (Again with the winning)
He continues, “the huge disparity in talent is your fault. You have 5 kids that have played and won at the highest level possible for the last 3-4 seasons, and then you add a handful of kids who are average recreation players”. (Openly showing his disdain for the new players…I can’t fathom where the two players learned to be disdainful toward their new teammates…)
This is the club’s fault for the bullying. His child is only doing it because the ultimate goal is to win at all costs. His child won’t pass to certain players, because, in the parent’s eyes, they are not good enough to be on the team. Passing to them could mean losing the game.
These children were 10 years-old at the time. They are intuitive and intelligent, but where do you think they drew their cues from? Did they really care much about winning when they first started playing or were they proxies for someone else’s values?
To this parent, it is about winning. The weaker players are a liability. He did not hold back what was most valued in their household – winning at all costs, including the welfare of other children.
Whether the parent supports bully behavior does not matter. What does matter is his child was a proxy to his values. The bad behaviors came directly from the same feelings and beliefs the parent shared in the email!
Children inherently take their cues from parents. We saw, in our last article, how they can take cues from the coach. We help them develop how they should feel about the world and others, the manner in which they interact, and the beliefs they carry. We shape their system of thought and action with our own.
I was driving in traffic and my son, who was 6, blurted “I hate traffic. Drivin’ me crazy!” He had no idea what about those cars was maddening. In fact, I am fairly convinced he had no idea what “drivin’ me crazy” meant. He’d heard me, many times, voice my displeasure with rush-hour traffic and bad driving. He drew his cues from me and trusted me to help him navigate the world, so he was my proxy.
My son hated traffic. He had never driven in traffic (behind the wheel). In fact, most of the time, he blithely watched cartoons on the in-car DVD system, totally unaware of why traffic was so distressing. The whole concept of “being in traffic” was foreign to my son, but he knew I “hated” it. So did he.
This adoption of beliefs and feelings “by proxy” is quite common in sports and usually the negative systems manifest in team behaviors. Players are continually exposed to mom and dad’s opinions of other players, and sometimes coaches. This exposure is adopted as their own opinions, beliefs, feelings. It isn’t long until “Johnny” feels the same way about his best buddy because of mom and dad’s “proxy”.
We can’t help it. We get comfortable with them always being around us and slip into adult conversations within earshot. We assume they tune us out when they have their devices surgically attached to their eyeballs. We figure the music or TV has created a barrier of white noise allowing us to speak freely.
So we do. We discuss the game with our spouse. We talk about how “bad Jimmy played”, or about how “Suzie was a liability”. We groan about when coach subbed out the best goalie and put “Mikey in the goal”, giving up 5 goals to lose the game.
Some parents even make light of others. They get so competitive they can’t help but pick on someone else for once. They want to feel better about their own kid’s shortcomings, and there’s no better way than pointing out the other kids’ shortcomings as far worse.
I am not knocking these parents. It’s a defense mechanism. We want to see our kids succeed. We cannot fathom them being the weak one or being flawed. We justify their development by looking for the flaws in others. When we see other’s shortcomings, we feel better knowing our kid isn’t the only one. “Misery loves company”.
So we make that statement in the car. We muse over dinner. We snark about a kid while loading the laundry machine.
“That Scott whines a lot. He fell down every time he was touched, cried the entire game. What was that all about, refusing to go in at the end? Our Tim would never act like that”.
Thus, the proxy has taken place. Our child, who loved all his teammates the same, now feels differently about Scott. He becomes the proxy for our feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. He does not even know why he feels differently, but he does.
Fortunately, most of the time it goes no further than some mixed feelings, or misplaced beliefs. It corrects course when we stop talking about “Scott” or we say something nice next time. It is on us to accept responsibility for our actions, though. Firing a flaming email that justifies the bullying because “the ultimate goal is to win” exacerbates the issue.
Your innocent child has no idea why he doesn’t want to play with “Bobby” anymore, but he really thinks he is causing the team to lose. He shuns him. He won’t pass him the ball anymore. He doesn’t pick him in partner games. He leaves him out of certain activities. He unexpectedly ridicules him. These are all clear bully behaviors and lead to the damage bullying does to the brain. If you had been groaning about “Bobby” being a liability in the car after each game, there’s a good chance your son proxied your feelings.
When they discover the bullying, the parent response is usually that of surprise. They cannot understand why their child would do that to his buddy, because he is a such a sweet kid. They grew up together. He even went on their family vacation. Surely, this is a mistake.
Our letter example is extreme. It was an intense parent who gives the rest of us a bad name. It happens at that magnitude, though. Parents like that have muddied the culture of youth sports, but they don’t have to if we know how to spot it and prevent it.
It also happens in well-meaning homes too. It happens with us parents who keep saying “we aren’t the monsters you say we are” to those who want to blame all the problems on us. It does not happen because we are bad people. It happened because we didn’t watch what we did or said in front of our sponge-like children.
We lost sight of what youth sports is all about and let our emotions lead us down a treacherous path. We wanted that scholarship, wanted those trophies, needed those wins, had to have our child be a pro at age 12 because that is what the system dictates, and in the process, we lost our way. We bought into the myths of youth sport and said things we didn’t mean.
Our children were a proxy of what we did and said along the way. Worse, as the behavior continues unchecked, it will be internalized.
This can be avoided. It should be. At all costs. No game, scholarship, or silly trophy is ever worth hurting another child. Not. Even. Close. It is just a game. A game.
No game trumps life. So avoid it. Prevent it in the first place, and if we see some potential “Parent-Proxy Bullying” beginning to develop, take action.
To address it, we must recognize it. Then we must take action. Here are some signs of “Parent-Proxy Bullying”:
- Kids who were best friends and have no reason to act this way suddenly start excluding, picking on, isolating, or ignoring their friends. It’s as if they suddenly turned on each other.
- The behavior tends to crop up at the practice after games or will subside for a bit and then arise again, as if being triggered.
- The behavior is unexpected, uncharacteristic, or unprovoked. Parents and coaches alike see it as somewhat of a mystery why it is happening and where it originated.
- We can hear the words of adults being used, or hear comments and see actions that do not make sense for a child. (Such as my son “hating traffic” though he has never driven a car.)
- We can see clear “victims” in this situation, and there is evidence of a balance of power that is unequal and creating distress for players and team culture alike.
Part II of this piece will cover suggestions for preventing and/or fixing the situation.