by Mike Woitalla

Years ago, I helped coach a team of young teens and a girl asked us to switch her from right wing to left wing to keep her farther from her screaming dad.

Shortly before the pandemic hit, I reffed a game during which a 10-year-old boy emphatically protested an inconsequential call in midfield with the same words and gestures a father on the sideline used earlier in the game.

Countless are the times I've witnessed little kids distracted by yells of "shoot!" from the sidelines, which may be the most asinine among the many instructions that invade children's playtime and interfere with their learning process. (Even the youngest players comprehend the necessity in soccer to shoot! Screaming at them when to shoot doesn’t help them in the moment or long-term.)

Since Northern California has reached the safety point of returning to official competition amid the pandemic, I’ve refereed eight games at four different fields. COVID-prevention protocol requires parents to keep their distance. That means all the parents are watching away from the sideline. They sit behind chain-like fences, at distances depending on the venue.

Especially as a referee, who hears sideline noise from both sides and sees upclose the negative effect it has on the players, it’s remarkable to compare these games without parents on the sideline to those with the usual constant yelling.

The coaches seem calmer and their voices sound different. When coaches give good advice, the players can actually hear it. Even when coaches instruct unnecessarily or in terms incomprehensible for the age group, at least the tone sounds more encouraging because they’re not raising their voices to compete with the parents’ noise. I also believe that when parents are close-by, coaches are more inclined to overcoach because they feel pressure to demonstrate they’re “doing their job.”

I am reminded of a game I reffed with insufferable parent sideline coaching. I spoke to a real coach, a young guy, after the game and mentioned that the parents across the field from him were screaming instructions that obviously disrupted and confused the young players. He acknowledged he had problems with them, and I inferred that at his age he was too intimidated by the parents to take action, wasn’t sure how to approach the problem or his club didn’t strive to educate the parents.

This horrible pandemic has for the time being in my part of the nation solved the problems that parents can create from the sidelines, which include contributing to the referee shortage. You have to experience what it’s like to referee with parents objecting to your calls to appreciate how intensely it ramps up the players -- and how often the parents are ignorant of the rules and are in no position to make a reasonable judgment on the call. That’s one thing for an experienced adult referee to deal with and quite another for a teen ref.

Perhaps the best thing about parent-free sidelines is not seeing children playing nervously, as I often do when there’s all that adult noise. And the atmosphere is so much more pleasant when the only times one hears much from the parents are cheers.

One venue I ref at is the former Naval Air Station on Alameda Island. The adults, besides the coaches and refs, sit or stand between dilapidated buildings and fences 40-plus yards from he fields. When I glance at them, it looks like they’re watching from cages – as if they’re being collectively punished for the historic behavior of adults in youth sports.

I can’t deny that I’ve delighted in having the parents faraway. But a sadness interferes quickly with that sentiment. Watching your children play sports is a uniquely joyful experience that shouldn’t have to be from far distance.

I hope that parents returning to their sideline seats recall that their kids did just fine without being instructed and yelled at. But parents are hard-wired to help their kids. That instinct can lead to well-intentioned but misguided interference in youth sports. It's likely that sideline screamers are unaware of how obnoxious they're being.

The most effective solution I’ve witnessed is when clubs continually educate parents on how beneficial it is for kids to be free from instruction while playing.