How to be good sports parents

We’ve all seen them—parents shouting instructions to their children during a sporting event or criticizing the coach in front of athletes during practice.

Ann Marie Sunderhaus, Hubbard Family Swim School, women’s soccer, sports parents
Ann Marie Sunderhaus is chief operating officer of Phoenix-based Hubbard Family Swim School and Sports Camps. She coached women’s soccer at the college level before returning to the business founded by her parents, Bob and Kathy Hubbard. Photos by Tac Coluccio.

While these might be obvious displays of bad sports behavior, many parents of children who participate in sports have questions about what’s right and wrong when it comes to their roles on and off the sidelines. We reached out to several Valley athletics experts for some answers.

Is it OK for parents to speak with a coach about their child’s abilities, playing time or participation?

Communication is always a key component to any relationship. Open communication is also appropriate for parents and coaches.

One rule of thumb is to wait 24 hours after a sporting event before talking to the coach. This allows emotions to settle and a chance to refocus. If your children are 16 or older, I encourage a conversation about their concerns between [the athlete] and the coach. It is a great learning experience and can be extremely beneficial for the player.

Sometimes tough conversations are necessary. It’s no fun to hear that your child is not succeeding or getting playing time. Emotions are involved and conversations can be intense. It’s difficult for the coach, too. Make sure conversations are handled respectfully. What is the goal of the conversation? How can each person move forward? Follow-up is also important. – Ann Marie Sunderhaus

Cori Alberdi, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, Phoenix, Arizona, sports parents
Cori Alberdi is director of LPGA-USGA Girls Golf of Phoenix.

What is the most helpful thing parents can do for young athletes?

The most helpful thing a parent can do is to encourage and empower them through positive support. When a parent is positive, supportive and encouraging, the child stays motivated and engaged in the “game.”

Children of all ages strive for attention and positive feedback from their parents—they want to make their parents proud.

It is our job as parents and coaches to let them know we are proud. Show up! Be present and pay attention! Don’t worry about the score or the outcome of the game. Focus on your children’s need for positive encouragement. – Cori Alberdi

Dana Zupke, Pinnacle High School, football, coach, Phoenix, Arizona, sports parents
Dana Zupke is head football coach at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix.

Are sideline parents helpful or distracting?

We call them helicopter parents—those parents who are very (or overly) involved in their child’s sport. They are a distraction.

If they are actually helping the team (getting water, keeping stats, etc.), that is one thing; but I often worry about that kid having mom or dad there all the time.

Would they like having mom or dad there? I don’t think parents think about that perspective enough.

Many times I have had players lose their enjoyment of the sport due to over-involved parents. – Dana Zupke

Do you think some coaches have gone overboard with their practice schedules for some of the year-round sports?

At the youth level, yes. It is borderline insanity. Even at the high school level, we try to balance the athletes’ time as well as encourage them to play other sports. But everyone is looking for a competitive advantage and if our competition is doing it, then there is pressure on us to do it, too. – Dana Zupke

Jeffrey I. Messer PhD, Exercise Science Department, Mesa Community College, girls cross country, boys and girls track and field, Desert Vista High School, Phoenix, Arizona, sports parents
Jeffrey I. Messer, PhD, is chair and faculty of the Exercise Science Department at Mesa Community College. He is also head coach of girls cross country and assistant coach for boys and girls track and field (distance) at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix.

When is it OK for a child to quit a team mid-season?

A valuable, important life skill of youth-sport participation is the understanding and challenge of honoring a full-season commitment to teammates and coaches. This also influences current and future commitments to family, friends and educational and professional pursuits, as well as any opportunities or challenges that require a significant commitment of emotional, intellectual, and/or physical resources.

Quitting a team is inconsistent with the development of this range of life skills.

But one exception is when a student-athlete’s emotional and/or physical well-being is threatened. If the situation cannot be resolved, it is acceptable to end the sports commitment. – Jeffrey I. Messer, PhD


Jessica Livingston Barden, AZ Girls Lacrosse, Chaparral High School, Scottsdale, Arizona, sports parents
Jessica Livingston Barden is a coach with AZ Girls Lacrosse K-9 leagues and coach of Chaparral High School’s lacrosse team in Scottsdale.

How can parents help their children be good sports?

The best sports are players who are taught to focus on their own play—not what their teammates did or how the officials called the game.

How did they play? How could they grow from the game? What did they do well? What will they do differently next time? If they blame others, they start to lose focus.

I always tell my players that if they want to blame the officials, they need to put on a whistle at practice and see how hard the job is. No one is perfect.

I also love when players come up to us at the end of practice or a game and just say, “Thanks, Coach.” Teach them it is a privilege to play a sport and an honor to wear a uniform. – Jessica Livingston Barden