Everyone who’s attended a match or game in youth sports has experienced it—someone directing loud comments at a player, coach, referee, or even another fan. And while cheering on youth athletes has many positive aspects and should be encouraged, it can be a slippery slope from engaging in constructive morale-boosting to dishing out intrusive, verbal abuse.
A good rule of thumb is to ask would yelling be appropriate in a normal situation, says Mike Clayton, Manager of the National Coaches Education Program (NCEP) for USA Wrestling. If a child is doing something that could imminently injure him/herself, for example, that would warrant yelling to keep the athlete safe. But such cases, he notes, are rare.
"Unfortunately, most yelling isn’t designed to help the young athlete as much as it is to allow the adult to vent their frustrations," Clayton says. "While that isn’t what the adult intends to communicate, the child still feels shame and fear. Kids release that shame and fear by often underperforming or by being angry in matches or practice."
As parents and coaches get excited while watching a competition, Clayton explains that their bodies can release hormones to make them hyper-alert and energized. This physical change cancause otherwise calm and rational people to say things that don’t fit the situation.
To combat this, Clayton says adults should try to carefully watch both their words and their tone when interacting around young athletes. Improved awareness will make for happier youngsters and improve retention, he adds.
Jim Harshaw, a former Division I coach and wrestler and author of the ebook How to Successfully Deal with Sports Parents, also says that the emphasis should be on tone, rather than volume, of the voice when dealing with young athletes. "You may have to yell to get your point across or to ensure that your voice is audible over the noise in the competition venue," Harshaw notes. But he says studies have shown athletes want more positive reinforcement during competition. “Yelling can be positive and a motivator or yelling can be negative and detract from motivation.”
The question really comes down to what you are trying to achieve by yelling.
A coach that yells a lot could be trying to compensate for a lack of experience and teaching skills, says Jim Moulsoff, head coach of the 2015 NCAA Division III national champion Augsburg College wrestling team. Effective teachers and coaches can still get their message across in other ways without yelling, and can even do so with intensity, says Moulsoff.
"Coaches who yell often lack the skills to be effective communicators and struggle to hold their athletes accountable for their actions," says Moulsoff. And he notes that, many times, yelling in youth sports is a learned behavior, modeled on how coaches and fans act at professional or college sports events seen on TV.
"It's what they think good coaching is, but isn't what is needed at the youth level," Moulsoff says. The human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, he notes, so young athletes often perceive yelling in a way it isn't intended. "Youth sports are for development and should be fun," he emphasizes. "Winning is fun, but so is learning how to win and be successful. When both the coach and athlete learn to trust each other, they will understand the expectations.”
Few kids in youth sports end up being great athletes. Most participate in sports to help discover who they are as an individual and to learn about life skills like teamwork, commitment and sacrifice. The number one reason why kids—especially kids who aren't in it to be great athletes—quit youth sports, Moulsoff says, is because of people who ruin the fun atmosphere by focusing only on winning and losing.
David Jacobson of the Positive Coaching Alliance says yelling during youth sports must not be about negative, personal attacks. "There is never any excuse in a youth or high school sports environment for demeaning others," he says. Doing so can have extraordinarily adverse effects, such as humiliation of those targeted, which may lead to their quitting the team or sport, withdrawing from the social network of the team and depression, he says. Demeaning behavior also hurts the reputation of the team/school/organization, causing it to be looked at poorly by members of the community. Finally, he adds that yelling rarely works as a sustainable motivational force on athletes.
“Research shows that young athletes participate in sports because their friends do it and it's fun,” says Harshaw. "Winning is certainly fun too. But yelling isn't the best way to drive an athlete to peak performance."