John Hackworth remembers the incident with instant clarity.
It was the spring of 2012, and he was an assistant with the Philadelphia Union in MLS, but he was also taking time out to coach his son’s youth team. It was a typical weekend youth tournament, with two games on a Saturday, another on Sunday morning and possibly a final that afternoon. As such, he decided to spread out the playing time on Saturday and make sure every kid started at least one game. That didn’t sit well with one parent.
“In between games, I had a mom go ballistic on me because her son didn’t start in the game,” said Hackworth, now the director of coaching with MLS expansion side St. Louis City SC. “Another kid, who she didn’t feel was as good as her kid, started on that first game on that Saturday morning.”
All of this happened at the under-11 level, but Hackworth encountered similar behavior at even younger age groups.
“You would think that I had no clue what I was doing, and all these people wanted me to coach because they knew I [coached professionally]. And yet at the same time, whatever it was that I did, that they didn’t agree with … some of the communication was just outrageous. So I do think it’s commonplace in this country, and the reality is that it is problematic.”
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Former United States U17 national team manager John Ellinger recalls how one father informed him that his son “only plays forward,” to which Ellinger responded, “Uh, that’s not going to work. He’s entered this program, and we’ll play him wherever he seems to help the team.” He added, “If it’s an easy thing, yeah, it might work, but most of the times you can’t really give in because then it just opens the barn doors for more of it.”
Overbearing parents have been a staple of youth sports for as long as such leagues have been around, but the topic has been thrust back into the limelight in the wake of the dynamic that emerged at the 2022 World Cup between U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter and the family of U.S. forward Giovanni Reyna.
Claudio Reyna, a former U.S. international and current sporting director for MLS side Austin FC, has been friends with Berhalter for decades and was the best man at Berhalter’s wedding. Their respective wives were teammates at the University of North Carolina from 1991 to ’94 and spent some of that time as roommates, and the two families remained close. Yet when the younger Reyna’s playing time in Qatar was significantly less than expected, that was the catalyst for the unraveling of a relationship in full view of the public.
Claudio Reyna has admitted to sending multiple communications to U.S. Soccer Federation sporting director Earnie Stewart and USMNT GM Brian McBride about his son’s role. When Berhalter, speaking at a post-World Cup leadership conference, made a reference to a player he nearly sent home — later identified as Gio Reyna — the ante was upped further, with Reyna’s wife, Danielle, admitting she told Stewart of an incident of domestic violence in 1991 involving Berhalter and his now-wife, Rosalind. Now, amid a disintegrating friendship, the USSF is investigating.
There is an impulse to think that the Berhalter/Reyna scenario, and others like it, is unique to U.S. culture, or to American youth soccer in general. The reality is there are examples in other countries of heavy parental involvement, whether it’s Veronique Rabiot, the mother and agent of Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot, or Neymar Santos Sr., the father and agent of Brazil star Neymar. Other sports in the U.S. also aren’t immune.
“I think if you talk to coaches and organizational leaders, they will say our biggest issue is parents. I think if you look at youth baseball, youth basketball, it’s happening in every sport,” said Jason Sacks, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating a positive youth sports culture. “Then it’s also happening at the high school level within high school athletic departments and high school sports. And that’s across, whether it’s individual sports like running or something like that, or team sports. It’s happening everywhere.”
But there are some cultural aspects to life in the U.S. that make it fertile ground for such behavior. Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede accumulated data for more than 40 years as a means of discerning cultural differences among countries. Among the areas he researched are how countries stack up in terms of individualism vs. collectivism and long-term orientation.
Hofstede’s research found that the U.S. is highly individualistic, scoring 91 out of 100, while also scoring just 26 in terms of long-term orientation. By contrast, China scored 20 and 87, respectively, while Germany scored 67 and 83.
“It is very hard to get Americans to accept suppressing, even temporarily, their individual desires in favor of group goals and endeavors,” said Doug Lemov, who is the author of “Teach Like a Champion” and is the chief knowledge officer and founder of the teaching education company of the same name. “And every ‘institution’ — every school, every club, every team — lives or dies on collective action problems. Can I get the individual members to make small temporary sacrifices that will bring us all immense long-term benefit if we all make them?
“Increasingly, clubs are finding that no, they can’t cause people to engage in these behaviors like they used to.”
What happens next for Berhalter, Reyna and U.S. Soccer?
Kyle Bonagura explains potential outcomes for Gregg Berhalter and U.S. Soccer after Danielle and Claudio Reyna threatened to reveal sensitive information about the USMNT coach.
One label affixed to the overbearing parent is that of the “helicopter parent” constantly hovering in the background, but Sacks prefers the “snowplow” metaphor, one where obstacles the child might encounter are cleared by the parent. It might make things easier in the short term but tougher to deal with later on.
“It’s the old saying, ‘Prepare the child for the path; don’t prepare the path for the child,'” Sacks said.
Other factors come into play as well. Soccer is often the first youth sport to which parents get exposed. The pay-to-play model — in which parents in the U.S. have to pay thousands of dollars per year for their child to play on competitive teams — can have the effect of providing a sense of entitlement for having a say on team matters. That wasn’t present in the Reyna case, but any time money or possible advancement to the pro ranks is involved, that can lead to poor behavior. The parent community is also becoming increasingly filled with people who have some kind of background in the game of soccer, giving rise to the feeling that their opinions, no matter how unreasonable, must be listened to.
For Lesle Gallimore, head coach of the University of Washington women’s team from 1994 to 2019 and current commissioner of the Girls Academy, a national player development platform for more than 13,000 girls nationwide, the pandemic hasn’t helped. She said in the past couple of years she has witnessed “way more aggression” from parents, even as the vast majority succeed in staying in their lane.
“I don’t know if people were locked up for too long and just lost their way a little bit in isolation, but I’ve seen threatening language, poor language, fights, fights between parents on the same team, parents entering the field, aggression towards referees, you name it,” she said. “For me, it’s not the bulk of what happens, but when it happens one time, it’s so alarming that it’s too much. It shouldn’t happen at all, ever, and those types of behaviors are the ones that I think, as leaders, we need to continue to address and educate around.”
When you add in the increasing professionalization and early specialization of youth sports, be it in soccer with MLS Next, or shoe company-sponsored club teams in basketball, you have a recipe for parents engaging in behavior that they shouldn’t. The damage can be intense for all involved, for coaches and for players, leading members of both constituencies to leave the game.
However, there are some steps clubs and organizations can take to lower the collective temperature. Having a buffer between coach and parent can help, be it a team administrator or a director of coaching. But Gallimore said she has seen this cut both ways. Given how the coach needs to control the “performance environment,” as she put it, another layer of management can create complications.
“That buffer better be on the same page as you want them to be, or it can have the exact opposite effect,” she said. “I’ve seen it both ways, so it becomes a management issue.”
A steady, proactive flow of communication throughout the season is also vital. It can serve to communicate the club’s overall culture in terms of player development and results, as well as spell out some parameters for how playing time — probably the biggest potential source of conflict between coaches and parents — is to be doled out. It also helps ensure that the first interaction between parents and coach isn’t when something has gone wrong. Yet it’s not as easy as it sounds.
“I think that a lot of clubs operate in fear,” Lemov said. “I don’t think you can be great at what you’re trying to do when your primary goal is to avoid difficult situations when you’re operating out of fear and anxiety.”
Communication can also help set boundaries. Hackworth recalled getting pushback when he told parents they couldn’t set up lawn chairs right next to the field to watch practice but had to watch behind a fence. He insisted, however, that the parents needed to let their kids practice without the kind of immediate parental feedback that could be a distraction. His approach ended up carrying the day.
That isn’t to say parents shouldn’t have any input. For Gallimore, if the family is paying, parents should be heard, especially if the child in question is, say, 10 years old and isn’t quite ready to have conversations where they have to stick up for themselves to an adult. But clear parameters should be set in terms of what is an acceptable discussion topic. It shouldn’t be a one-way street either, and the Girls Academy is notable for having a player advisory panel to raise concerns.
Boundaries also need to be communicated and set in terms of personal relationships. Gallimore noted that at youth level, parents and coaches often socialize with each other, stay in the same hotels and even drink together. She recalled that there were some instances when parents expected that dynamic to continue at the collegiate level, although by that stage, the switch had flipped. The parents are no longer paying. The college or professional club is now the one paying, shifting the power dynamic.
“These parents have this expectation that they’re like, going to hang out with the coaching staff, and that’s just not the gig,” Gallimore said. “And as coaches in college, you have to explain to them, ‘Listen, I am here for your daughter. I want her to have a great experience. I want this to be a place where she feels valued. I will be upfront about everything and fair.’ And there’s no perfection to that in coaching.”
The impact of personal relationships proved to be a problem in the Reyna situation in that not only were the Berhalters and Reynas friends, but Stewart and McBride were also former international teammates of Claudio Reyna’s. That dynamic extends throughout much of the U.S. soccer landscape. The roots don’t just run deep; they are tangled, especially on the men’s side, given the pervasiveness of the Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena coaching trees. Only once in the past 25 years has the USMNT been managed by someone who didn’t hail from the New York/New Jersey area.
All the more reason to put up more of a firewall so matters don’t get personal.
“In soccer in particular, there’s a pretty small group of people that know a lot about each other, is what I’d say,” Gallimore said. “So it wouldn’t take [more than] one little thing going sideways for something like this to happen, and it’s just a shame, to be honest.”
Hackworth added that how coaches treat their players can go a long way toward mitigating any angst that might arise in the coach/player/parent relationship. There are certainly instances when coaches have to be firm, but kindness counts too.
“If there’s a silver bullet that I could give most coaches at any sport, or any activity, it’s that if you treat your students, your athletes well, if you treat them with respect, if you treat them with empathy and kindness, if you treat them with care, it will alleviate so many of these emotional issues that happen in sports,” he said. “So when things like playing time become an issue, you have a little equity in the bank because you treat them well.
“It sounds easy coming out of my mouth. That sounds like anybody in the world could do it. It’s amazing to me how at every level — professional, college, amateur — that doesn’t happen.”
That goes for parents too. Later, Gallimore forwarded a text from a parent who had just received the league’s newsletter and thanked the league profusely for sending it out.
“[It] made me smile,” she wrote.