‘Bad Sports Parent Behavior’: It’s NOT Just a Thing—It’s a Way of Life

By Lisa Barr

Editor’s Note: When I launched GIRLilla Warfare five years ago, I had just left my job as a reporter/editor for a major newspaper and finished writing my debut novel Fugitive Colors. There was this internal maternal pull going on within me … so many stories deeply embedded in the heart of Suburbia that as a Writer Mom I simply could not ignore. I knew I had to do something — provide a “home” on-line, where real parenting issues could be discussed, exposed, and not swept under the Welcome mat. I decided to create a no-bullshit-blog that not only unmasks the truth but also helps parents find meaningful solutions along the “Mean Streets” of Suburbia.

Enter Erika Robuck.

Erika is the national bestselling author of Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda, Fallen Beauty, The House of Hawthorne, and Receive Me Falling. And then one day she, too, had an epiphany. She decided that she needed to respond to hardcore issues that were affecting her deeply as a Mom of three sons — specifically as a “Hockey Mom”. She decided to write #Hockeystrong, a satire providing a behind-the-scenes look at youth hockey — specifically, how far would we (yes, the parents) go for the Win?

In #Hockeystrong, Erika exposes sports culture and all of its dramatics, exploring when is too much ... well, too damn much. It is a spot-on fictional social commentary  with a focus on “Bad Sports Parent Behavior” (yes, sadly, it’s a thing.) The all-too-brutally true antics displayed in #Hockeystrong could be applied to ANY intensive sport, any travel team that sucks the life out of you and your family, and asks the deep, dark question: Is it all worth it? 

Erika joins us at GIRLilla Warfare to discuss the ins and outs of “Bad Sports Parent Behavior” and offers real solutions:

GW: What inspired you to write this book and have you paid a price for exposing a sports community that you and your son are still so deeply involved with?

ER: Ten years of watching and hearing about (and let’s face it: contributing to) increasingly awful sports parent behavior inspired #Hockeystrong. The response has been far more positive than I could have anticipated. Though it’s fiction, however, there are a few parents who are offended by the book. As we see in many areas of our culture today, those who expose bad behavior are hated by some. It’s still important to tell our stories.

GW: Back in my day, maybe a Dad went to a Little League game on a Saturday, but that was it. Now, there is what I call “profound immersion” — parents are at practices, games, away, here, everywhere. They are deeply involved with coaches, side coaches, etc.  I feel that there is a strange projection going on. I’m going to just throw this out: Perhaps it’s really about turning your kid into the athlete you never were — as though his/her success is actually yours, their failure also yours. What is the psychology driving Bad Sports Parent Behavior?

ER: My upbringing was the same: My parents didn’t attend all of my sporting events (and never practices) and that was just fine. My theory about what is driving and feeding the demon is social media. It’s the reason I titled the book #Hockeystrong. The hashtag is the social media flag, and each chapter begins with a parent social media post. Parents now seem to live vicariously through their children. If junior is a star athlete, many parents believe it reflects well upon them, or feeds an unresolved wish to have excelled more in their own lives.

GW: How does this hurt/help your kid? Are we doing more damage than good?

ER: There’s a fine line between the joy of sharing and viewing photos of family and friends near and far to keep in touch and up to date, and that strange crossover zone into social media becoming identity, spurring competition, and even exploiting children. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, and one I think all regular social media users struggle to find.

GW: What happened to the pure ‘Joy of the Game’? Our kids are so stressed out—I believe, that perhaps we, the Helicopter Parents, have ruined the game for them. Your take?

ER: Once adults figured out how to monetize youth sports through tournaments and elite clubs, the downward spiral began. If parents make a huge investment (of both money and time) in a child’s team, the stakes are higher, the outcomes begin to matter, hopes for scholarships and recognition increase. There’s a fabulous article called ‘The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports’ at ChangingtheGameProject.com which brilliantly outlines the pressures kids face in sports at younger and younger ages. It is up to parents to readjust this broken system.

GW: Which character of yours in this book do YOU most identify with and why? Are all these characters real or composites of Usual Suspects along your hockey journey?

ER: I most identify with “Jack the quiet dad”—the one sitting in solitude in the warming room, tapping away on the laptop—but the darkest pieces of me are in all of the characters. The cast are composites of the many ‘types’ I have seen over the years, and represent a stew of horrid ingredients blending to produce just the right mix of team gossips, bully coaches, and over-involved parents and grandparents who can be found on every suburban youth sports team, girls or boys, recreational or travel. I have received letters from readers all over the US and Canada saying that—no matter which sports their children play—#Hockeystrong is their lives. I find that both gratifying and horrifying.

GW: I have three daughters. Two were artsy/dance, one was on the volleyball team. My biggest complaint has always been that these sports have put the kibosh on family time and have really hurt marriages. Don’t even get me started on travel games, holidays and vacations. This whole ‘Divide & Conquer’ thing with travel sports and if you (God forbid) have other children (and they God Forbid have needs too) takes a huge toll on family life and bonding. Thoughts?

ER: The toll on family life is the greatest crime. Kids who play on travel teams dictate the family social calendar, dinners are rarely eaten together, there is a chronic busy-ness and exhaustion we all face, and the worst part is, it’s self-imposed. Over the years we have seen so many unhappy marriages end in divorce, and I have to believe the stress youth sports puts on families contributes.

GW:  One thing I’ve noticed and we’ve written about … Many times parents will get into their car after the game with their kids and proceed to cut down other kids and how they played etc. I think one’s own child internalizes this hardcore criticism and thinks: Wow, if Mom/Dad can say that about Jordan/Emily, what do they say about me — especially if I mess up? Again, ridiculous pressure placed on our kids, most who are NEVER (sorry to say) are going to be professional athletes. And just to add, I’ve seen this same crazy parenting in the Dance World as well …. Thoughts?

ER: That is a great point, and one I hadn’t thought of. It’s hard to simply get in the car after a game and say, ‘I love to watch you play,’ but psychologists emphasize this as a positive way to end a sporting experience. Attempts at feedback often become criticism that spill over to other players, and all of that affects not only how our young athletes feel about themselves, but also how they treat others.

GW: I know there are incredible positives connected to team sports — discipline, team work, camaraderie, etc. These are qualities that go far beyond a rink, a field, etc. — they are truly fabulous life skills. How do we keep this beneficial aspect of athletics going strong yet soften the pressure from parents/coaches, etc. Can it be done?

ER: It can absolutely be done. Through a little effort, parents can find the organizations that place emphasis on the positive aspects of sports that have benefited society for generations, and embrace a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ for any of the behaviors that give youth sports a bad name. Seeking dedicated young men and women as coaches, holding players and parents accountable for their words and actions, and encouraging multiple sports instead of early specialization are just a few of the things that make great clubs and teams. When players find teams with a generous, enthusiastic spirit, they can achieve confidence in all areas of their lives.

GW: There’s a lot of pressure on Sports Moms. As we all know, there are the Alpha Moms and those who are left out. There are A Team and B Team Moms. If your kid happens to be a dedicated athlete and you MUST join the pack — any advice?

ER: Not taking oneself too seriously is the best guard against loathsome sports parent behavior. Also, not attending every practice and refraining from participating in parent gossip are ways to keep perspective. I’ve known parents who never engage with other team parents in the name of self-preservation. That is a little extreme, but it might be necessary in a toxic, cliquey environment.

GW: Was it cathartic to write this book? If so, how has it helped you?

ER: It was cathartic! It felt like therapy, or even an exorcism to expel the crazy sports parent demons. By writing down the words and being able to view the entire culture from the outside revealed so many of the petty frustrations. Whenever my husband or I find ourselves getting a little nuts at a hockey game or sporting event, one of us will make the hashtag symbol to remind the other not to lose it. It has brought us a lot of laughs.

GW: Any advice for families who are just trying to keep it together amid all the athletic demands and just want to Play It Simple and enjoy their child’s athletic abilities without all the extra demands?

ER: First: stick to school and rec sports. Travel clubs are a temptation that should be avoided. But if you find your child on an ‘elite’ team, remember not to take it all too seriously. It’s just a game. They’re just kids. It’s supposed to be FUN!

GW: Finally, #Hockeystrong showcases a lot of parents/coaches/kids behaving very badly … What is the ‘good’ that you want your readers to take away from this book?

ER: I believe it was Joan Rivers who once said, “Everything is funny”, and in youth sports, she’s right. #Hockeystrong is meant to entertain through exposure, but rather than getting frustrated or defensive, readers should embrace the crazy within, have a good laugh about it, and help call other sports parents back from the ledge of sports parent insanity. Remember: we are all on the same team! 🙂

Lisa Barr, editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Erika Robuck is not only a national bestselling author, but also a contributor to the anthology Grand Central: Postwar Stories of Love and Reunion, and to the Writer’s Digest essay collection Author in Progress. #Hockeystrong, as E. Robuck, is her first satire. She has her own blog, Muse, is a member of the Hemingway, Historical Novel, and Millay Societies, and is a proud hockey mom. In 2014, she was named Annapolis’ Author of the Year, and she resides there with her husband and three sons.

web site: www.erikarobuck.com
Twitter: @ErikaRobuck
Facebook: #Hockeystrong: A Novel and Erika Robuck, Author

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