How to Handle Your Kid’s Uber-Aggressive Teammate
Youth sports can be a field of problems for kids who just want to have fun
Jack is a great kid. He loves to run around while playing youth sports, cheer on his teammates and snarf down snacks after the game. But Jack — or maybe it’s Jill — has a problem. Johnny Baseball — or Jenny Soccer or Lee Lacrosse — is on the team. And Johnny doesn’t seem to care about camaraderie or fun. He just wants to win.
Experts see a line between being appropriately aggressive on the field (or court or ice) and being unsportsmanlike. Playing hard is expected at higher levels of competition and taught to the younger set. Clean, hard slides are OK in baseball. Teaching solid and safe tackling is an accepted practice in football.
But unnecessary physical roughness? “Dirty”plays? Screaming at opponents or teammates? Incessant teasing or trash talking? That’s crossing the line.
“I think the danger is … [Jack] might get pushed away from the sport,” says Russell Medbery, PhD, chair of exercise and sport sciences at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire. “If you’re talking about an athlete who is not as competitive, the question is, how do you support and foster their motivation to stay in the activity they like?”
Here are a few steps parents can take.
Touch base before the season starts
Meeting with coaches and league organizers before the season is critical. Ask questions.
“‘What is your coaching philosophy [on] winning, losing, having fun? What is the purpose of the sport at that age?’” says Medbery, who is certified by the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). “The earlier you can develop a relationship, the better.”
Find out about playing time and practice, and how coaches handle conflicts. Explain what you expect.
“You’ve intentionally signed your kid up for sports because you want him to get the benefits,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences at West Virginia University. “In doing so, you’ve added these people [coaches] to his circle of influence.”
Generally, the younger the kids, the more likely organizers will stress participation, learning the game and having fun over winning. But as any parent of a junior athlete knows, that isn’t always the case. And of course, some teams — the ones kids have to try out for, and travel teams — are generally more serious and competitive.
“Looking at the context here is so important,” adds Dieffenbach, who also consults for AASP.
Related: Keeping Your Young Cheerleader Safe
Talk with your child
If it's a league geared more toward fun and an aggressive player on the team is causing trouble, you may have to talk to Jack about an important life skill: Dealing with all sorts of different people, attitudes and perspectives.
“You have to think, how do you want him to react? It’s not even a sports question. That’s a personal choice as parents,” Dieffenbach says. “You have that unique moment as a parent to work through that with your kid. There are some really important lessons you can teach.”
How should Jack handle the Johnny problem? Should he steer clear? Speak up to the player or the coach? Should you go to the coach? Should you talk to Johnny’s parents? Every situation is different, but these questions should all be on the table when working through the situation.
And if Jack wants to know what makes Johnny that way, parents can point out that kids simply approach sports differently. Maybe Johnny’s coaches, parents or siblings are pushing him to be the best. Maybe he simply thinks winning is the most important part of being on a team. Maybe he doesn’t know the right way to talk to or socialize with other kids.
Whatever the case, understanding what might make Johnny so competitive — and finding a way to get along with him — can be an important life lesson.
Dieffenbach cites studies that suggest the more competitive the athlete, the less able they are to take another’s perspective. So having Jack ask Johnny for some tips (maybe with the coach’s assistance), rather than asking him to accommodate Jack’s feelings, could help the relationship improve.
Medbery agrees. “I would ask [Jack], ‘Are you able to talk to this player?’” If the answer is yes, he can tell the player, “I like this. Help me learn.”
And that would be a win for everybody.
Learn how and when to talk to the coach
At some point, it might be necessary to speak to the coach about your child’s performance on the team or her relationship with another player. Learning when and how to do that is important. Just remember: Many of these coaches are volunteers, and overseeing a group of kids isn’t easy.
If there’s a physical altercation, go to the coach immediately. But if the actions are less threatening — teasing or the occasional yell — don’t approach the coach at practice. An email, phone call or face-to-face away from the park may be more useful. Try to make the meeting collaborative and unthreatening.
“When you approach a volunteer coach, approach it from perhaps the view of, ‘How do we seek a solution or change together?’” Dieffenbach says. “Invite them into the conversation. Remember, you’ve invited this person to be the adult role model in that environment.”
Here are some suggestions on how to frame your talk:
- What do you suggest?
- How can I help?
- I’m wondering if we can talk about …?
- What do Jack (or Jill) and I need to work on?
- Do you think it might help if … ?
Help the coach make the environment a safe and enjoyable one for all the kids. After all, sports are about exercise and competition — but also about teamwork and fun.