What happened when soccer parents were silenced for one match

Let kids be kids.
Let kids be kids.
Image: Mark Mosher
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When Jonathan Gregg played youth soccer in the 1980s, the typical scene was 11 players-a-side mauling the ball while coaches and parents on the sideline yelled encouragement, screamed in angst, and generally made a lot of noise.

No longer. Gregg now coaches youth soccer, among other sports. A few weeks ago in Mill Valley, California, his two recreational teams duked it out in total quiet. As part of the first edition of Silent Saturday Soccer, both coaches and parents were banned from making any noise at all during the game.

Parents suffered. “It was uncomfortable,” Gregg says (he’s a parent too). “It was a challenge.”

Coaches found it particularly difficult. It was only the second week of practice and while the older kids knew what to do, more than a few of the younger ones, lacking instruction, drifted off to smell the flowers (literally).

But did the kids actually suffer from the absence of a steady stream of praise and occasional invective?

“The kids loved it,” Gregg tells Quartz. “They got to be who they are.”

The older kids took charge of the play, organized themselves (or didn’t) and learned from the experience. “They started to tell each other what to do,” Gregg says. Although he couldn’t bark orders mid-play, he soon realized that didn’t mean he had lost the chance. He just talked to the kid when he came off the field. “You get to have dialog rather than blurting it out,” he says.

Erica Walters, stepmom to Jesse (pictured above), said the team seemed more energized and engaged in the game. It was a useful reminder for parents, she told Quartz in an email:

It’s not an issue on this team, but over many years of my three stepsons playing just about every team sport there is (baseball, soccer, football, lacrosse, basketball, etc.), we’ve seen our fair share of really reprehensible stuff. Even for parents not inclined to that—which i’d like to think includes us—silent soccer was a great reminder that our behavior definitely affects their experience.

That parents are over-invested in kids’ sports is hardly headline news. But that teams are going to such extremes to muzzle the grown-ups on the field suggests that something is wrong.

Gregg said his teams got the idea from the Mill Valley League, which in turn appears to have taken the idea from leagues in Boston where it was a smashing success. The idea has been around for at least a decade, but seems to be gaining steam these days, according to the organizers of US Youth Soccer.

Some activities in particular seem to bring out our parental demons. We don’t shout what kind of pliés to do during a ballet recital or cheer on our kids as they plod through a multiple-choice test. But soccer lends itself to a special breed of insanity. Helicoptering turns to heckling and parents often end up in fights themselves. Jessica Lahey, author of the The Gift of Failure, cites an informal poll of high-level college athletes: Their least favorite part of being in youth sports was the traumatic ride home with their amped-up parents.

“That makes me so sad,” Lahey tells Quartz. “That’s when all the good conversations happen.”

Those chats would be better, it seems, if they started with silence.