Lessons from Independence, Iowa




Name calling.

Harassing phone calls.


Social media attacks.

Threats of fistfights.

Sounds like problems of many high schools, right?

And Independence, Iowa is no different. But here’s the twist: The problems are not with the children, rather they are with the adults.

Five coaches of the girls’ basketball team at Independence High School announced their resignations citing the ongoing bullying of a small, but significant group of parents.

According to one of the coaches who left his coaching job the problems involved questions about “Playing time … who’s starting and who’s not … why we are doing this, why we are doing that on the court … phone calls before the games and after the games … people approaching us after games…I did receive a threatening phone call from a parent.”

Over. Kids. Playing. Basketball.

I’d like to say I’m shocked, but I’d be lying.

Poor behavior on the part of parents at their children’s sporting events is not new. Codes of conduct for parents and “silent sidelines” are a regular part of youth sports leagues. Children themselves wish their parents didn’t attend games because the pressure is too much.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s. I was a competitive gymnast and my brother a three-sport varsity athlete who eventually went on to play AAA baseball for a brief time. Never, not once, do I recall my parents (or those of my friends’) saying a word about our coaches or our training except to work hard and say thank you.

How did we get here?

While I am not entirely sure, here are some of the trends I have noticed:

Parental egos are enmeshed in those of their children. Parents experience the highs and lows that are a natural part of an athlete’s journey. Instead of being a steadying force in their child’s roller coaster of emotion, they are along for the ride.

Parents put the needs of their children well ahead of the common good or the needs of another child. While, of course, it is the duty of a parent to be looking out for the needs of their child, it is often done with a total lack of regard for other children or the group as a whole. Instead of fairness being a process, parents view fairness as a result. And if the result means their child gets less playing time or does not get moved up to the next level, then the experience is unfair. Instead of it taking a village to raise a child, too many parents think the village should drop everything to raise their (and only their) child.

Parenting is a competitive sport. My-child-is-better-than-yours is the new national pastime. Instead of parenting being a role that is part of adults’ lives that are raising kids, it is seen as their life work and their child is proof of their success or failure.

Youth sports are being professionalized. I wrote about this in a past blog. Instead of a way to learn fitness, sportsmanship and life lessons, youth sports are  a training ground for professional sports.

Sports are investment of time and money, not an activity for kids. Parents, expecting a return on investment, demand achievement and results for the time and money they are expending. A healthy, happy, fit child with good character is not enough.

There is a fundamental lack of respect for the professionalism of teachers and coaches. Flip on sports radio and you hear it all the time. Every Joe-Schmoe who has ESPN and a few hours free the night before has opinions on how professional coaches should be doing their jobs. It is as if people believe because they watch a sport they are qualified to coach it. (Does that mean because I watch Grey’s Anatomy that I can do surgery?) It completely discounts the amount of education, time on task and continuing professional development that professional coaches undergo to earn their jobs.

There is an adversarial relationship, instead of a collaborative liaison between coaches and parents. Parents see coaches as the gatekeepers who are preventing little Tyler from his rightful place in the starting line up. Coaches see parents as necessary evils in coaching children. Instead of working together for the common good of the children, they are working at cross-purposes.

Which brings me to the grand conclusion of the problem:

Instead of being child-centered, adult egos (on both sides) are making it about them. Bring the youth back into youth sports. Make kids the center of the reason why youth sports exists. Not parents. Not coaches. Not the sport. The kids. The kids should be the reason why these clubs, teams and leagues exist.

I don’t know all of the details of the story in Iowa. And, like most stories, I am sure it is more complicated than the news report it to be.

But this I know for sure: the ones who really lost in this situation are the girls.