5 Cold Hard Truths About Parent Behavior in the Stands

June 26, 2024

Topher Scott

Let's have an honest conversation about parental behavior in the stands

A few weeks ago I attended the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois’ summer board meeting.  “AHAI” is USA Hockey’s Illinois affiliate and oversees all the youth hockey in the area.

All the member organizations are invited to this yearly meeting to vote on rules, select new board members, and discuss current issues in the state.  

One of the issues discussed came from our area’s referee-in-chief and centered around parent behavior in the stands.  And I’m not going to lie, it was pretty grim.  One stat in particular really stood out to me:

Last year in Illinois alone there were 57 parents suspended from watching their kid play due to inappropriate behavior.

That’s downright embarrassing.

So, with that, it’s time to have a(nother) conversation about parent behavior in the stands.


When I was recruiting for Cornell and watching midget hockey in the rinks years ago, parent behavior was pretty eh.  Nothing great but nothing really too crazy or consistently awful.  But from what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing around the rinks recently, things have taken a turn for the worst.

I went to a few games here in Chicago this year when my friends came to town with their kids and what I witnessed was pretty gross.  Just the consistent yelling at the refs and the barrage of questioning aimed at the coaches – it was insane.

Here’s a funny but not so funny story from a few years ago on one of my own experiences:

I was coaching midget hockey and team was playing in a showcase at Mount St. Charles, a top prep academy in Rhode Island.  They play in a really cool, historic building where the spectators can actually stand right behind the benches without a glass barrier. 

The parents who stood there could clearly hear us…and we could clearly hear them.  If you’ve been to good ole’ Adelard Arena you know what I’m talking about.

We were playing an awesome, back-and-forth game against Mount.  We were both top teams at our age group and it was a fast-paced, physical, competitive battle.  I spoke with their coach after the game and we were both like wow that was an incredible hockey game.

The refs let the kids play and didn’t call much throughout the game.  And did they miss a few pretty blatant calls?

Yeah.

I had zero issue because they allowed the kids to dictate the game.  But the drunk dads behind me…they sure did.  They howled at the refs all game for every perceived mistreatment of our team or our players.


At one point, I had to turn around and tell them to knock it off.  It was embarrassing and our players were like coach can you tell them to shut up?

One blacked out dad’s response?

A nice and slurred, “Well somebody here has to yell at the refs!”

I kind of looked up bewildered and at that point my retirement from youth hockey as a coach was starting to take shape.  Well, then, and a few games later when a dad from our team stormed into the locker room in between periods to scream at our players for how he thought they were playing.

Trust me when I say this, I know I’m not the only coach who’s been at higher levels of hockey that’s felt that way after a short time coaching in youth hockey.  We’ve lost a lot of really good coaches who wanted to make a positive impact but stopped because of this type of stuff.


After hearing the referee in chief’s presentation at the AHAI meeting and after reflecting on my own experiences, I reached out to quite a few people in the youth hockey world to get some perspective on the matter at hand.  And with that, here are 5 cold hard truths I think all parents should know about their behavior in the stands:

  1. You may not even know you’re doing it
  2. You represent more than just you
  3. Your kid either can’t hear you or doesn’t care (or both)
  4. Shortage of refs
  5. There’s a vocal minority

1. You may not even know you’re doing it

My mom was the ultimate hockey manager, basically running all of my and my brothers’ teams growing up. And she ran a tight ship. Being a passionate hockey sister, then hockey wife, then hockey mom – she had all the experience in the world and learned a few pretty neat tricks along the way.

Whenever a parent was acting up in the stands, my mom would put them in “hockey jail.” She always ran the score clock and when a parent was reported for being naughty  – she put them in hockey jail working the penalty box next to her. 

It was a funny punishment that the parents bought into and actually created some positive camaraderie.  When someone was put in hockey jail they would get razzed pretty good by the rest of the group and it always produced a laugh.

One year with my twin brothers there was a dad that got put in hockey jail a few times towards the start of the season.  He was constantly reported by the parent group but every time he was put in jail he had no idea why.  He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong and couldn’t understand what he was doing to land him next to my mom, the warden.

So after multiple times in jail and still being in denial about any crimes committed in the stands, my mom went stealth mode.

She asked another parent to “film the game.”  But rather than film the game, that parent’s job was to stealthily film the dad’s behavior.  After filming the game, my mom and the coach sat down with him to show him the results.

And the dad was mortified.

He was like, “I can’t believe I acted like that. I had no idea.” And after that, they didn’t have any issues with him.  He was on his best behavior the rest of the season

Parents are not bad people.  They get wrapped up in the game and want so badly for their kid and the team to do well. 

When they feel slighted, they get emotional.  I get it.

But that’s why it’s so important, I think, to have a small number of parents in charge of monitoring the group’s behavior in the stands.  It’s their job to help settle people down when someone gets wound up.  To calm the crazy.

I’d actually venture a guess to say that 80-90% of the time that happens, the parent acting up will laugh, say their sorry, and calm down.  They just got wrapped up.

If not, they get thrown in hockey jail.

2. You represent more than just you

As a parent, you are part of a team.  Not just a part of a team, you are a part of an organization.  And the way you act in the stands is not just a reflection upon you, but a reflection upon your entire organization.

How many times have you seen a parent of another team being disruptive in the stands and lumped that parent in with the team’s parents group or the organization as a whole?

It’s never just that parent. It’s that team’s parents or that organization.

A parent’s crappy behavior reflects poorly upon everybody associated with that jersey.  The coaches, the parents, the club leadership, and the most importantly…the players. 

Which is brings us to the most important part of all this.

Most higher-level hockey scouts and coaches will tell you they’ve chosen not to recruit a player because of the conduct of their mom or dad.  How you act as a parent will have an impact on the decisions being made on your kid. 

And for everyone saying that’s not fair to the kid, here’s some perspective.

As a college coach, if you are going to potentially invest $250,000 on a scholarship for a player, your job is to dive deep and look at every angle of what that player brings to the table.  It’s a massive decision as D1 teams only get 18 scholarships to work with. 

Would you invest that kind of money in an asset that has parental baggage that will 100% affect the mindset of their kid? Here’s an instance that I’ve seen as a college coach:

While parents don’t talk to college coaches directly anymore about their kid’s play, parents can do plenty of damage on their kid’s mindset behind the scenes when they are chief complainer and excuse maker when things don’t go their player’s way. 

And what are parents being loud and obnoxious in the stands showing themselves to be when things don’t go their way?

Chief complainers and excuse makers.

Kids model the behavior of their mom and dad.  That’s not to say that all kids with problem parents are problems.  There are many kids with a difficult parent that are wonderful human beings. 

But excuse makers as parents typically raise excuse makers for kids.  They’ve modeled the way.  And excuse makers as players are the hardest kids to coach.  We want players that take ownership and accountability for their actions and their play, not ones that look to point fingers and cast blame when things are hard.

So parents – especially parents with kids at ages where they’re being recruited – coaches are not just watching your kids.  They want to know about you too.

It helps them to make a much more informed decision on who your kid is and what they will potentially bring to their program.  And the easiest way to sow some doubt about your player is to be an idiot in the stands.

3. Your kid either can’t hear you or doesn’t care (but it’s probably both)

It’s always funny when I hear parents yell instructions at their kids from the stands. 

SKATE!! MOVE IT!!! SHOOT!! MOVE YOUR FEET!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOINGGGG????

It makes me chuckle because hockey is so fast that even if they could hear you, they probably won’t react fast enough to what’s in front of them.

Also, do you want to know what high level hockey people call coaches who do that? The ones that scream directions from the bench throughout the game?

“Remote control coaches.”

Rather than let the kids play freely, the coach is always shouting what he thinks the player should do when they get the puck.  It’s too bad because then what happens is the players are always looking to the coach for what to do rather than just playing with instinct.

I see it a lot and it is so bad for the development of our players.  These coaches create robot players incapable of making decisions on the ice. 

So parents, if we think this poorly of coaches who remote control their players…you might be able to guess what we think of parents who do it too.

Also, I have yet to encounter a player that likes it when their parent yells at them from the stands.  I’d be hard pressed to find any kid that after a game goes up to their dad and says, “Hey Dad, thanks for telling me what to do all game from up top. It really helped me play better today.”

Your kids probably can’t even hear you.  And if they can, they don’t want to hear it. 

They just want to play hockey.

4. There is a vocal minority

I say this a lot about hockey parents when coaches vent about the parents of today:

Honestly, 90% of hockey parents are awesome.  They are either positive and encouraging in the stands or they just sit and watch the game keeping mostly to themselves or their other kids. 

That leaves the other 10% who ruin it for everyone else. 

And that’s why I think it’s so important for that positive majority to police the group when things take a turn to negative town.  If people are acting out – just let them know. 

“Hey, that’s not how we do things here”.

Positive hockey parents have to acknowledge and confront the ones causing a ruckus.  One bad apple can ruin the bunch – so don’t let any apples go bad.

What you allow is what you enable.

And remember, there’s actually a decent chance that the troublemaking parents don’t even realize they’re being that way, so just pointing it out can go a long way.

Hockey parents unfortunately get a bad rap because of this vocal minority.  Let’s do a better job of turning the negative minority into the positive majority.

5. There is a referee shortage

The attrition rate of referees, especially young referees, is going in the wrong direction.  Refs don’t want to do it anymore.  It’s not worth the abuse. 

And spoiler alert:

We don’t have the sport of hockey without referees.

Most of us have never laced up a pair of skates to ref a game so we really have no idea how difficult of a job it can be.  This really hit home for me a couple of years ago when I got thrust into reffing my first ever real game.

Our 18u team was playing a home game and my team was off for the weekend so I went to help out on the bench.  There ended up being a communication miscue between the two teams and no refs were scheduled for the game. 

So I said what the hell, I’ll do it.  We’ll just make it a scrimmage.


It was in Chicago so my dad was there too and both of us went to the coaches’ room, put on some official ref gear, and skated out to the ice. Our parents knew who I was and that I wasn’t an actual ref, but the other team’s parents had no idea.

Sure enough, I was letting the kids play and not really calling any penalties and the parents of the other team started getting lippy.  I got to feel on the ice how ridiculous the parents were and how much it sucked the fun of being out there.

Eventually our parents filled the other team’s parents in on what was going on so they shut up, but it gave me a perspective on really how difficult reffing can be and little enjoyment there is when parents are being obnoxious in the stands.

Refs are human.  They are going to make mistakes.  And in reality probably less mistakes than your son or daughter will make on the ice or their coach will make on the bench.  Take that into account.

One of the coolest things I’ve seen as a coach is when I was helping out with a group in central New York and our team made the State Championships.  Before each game, it was required that the refs go into each locker room and introduce themselves.  They told us all their names, how long they had been reffing, where they were from, and what they did for a living.  It humanized them.

Players are human.  Coaches are human.  Refs are human. Parents are human.  We all do some cool things and we all make mistakes.  It’s a part of being human.  Let’s not forget that and show each other the grace we would want for ourselves.


Lastly, I want to propose a solution that I think could curb this parent problem we have in the stands.  Because 57 suspensions…in one state…in one year…is outrageous.

Rather than suspend the parents for inappropriate conduct in the stands, suspend the kids.

If a parent acts in such an egregious manner that their behavior is deemed suspendable, rather than the parent not being able to attend the game, their kid shouldn’t be allowed to play.

I’m going there.

Is it harsh? Yes.

Is that fair for the kid? No.

But I’m telling you, this is a problem that needs to stop.  And if it’s their kid that feels the repercussions of their actions, maybe parents will think twice a little harder about the way they behave.

There needs to be a hard line in the sand.  It’s driving referees out of the game and we don’t have a game if we don’t have referees.  It’s driving good coaches out of the game and we don’t have a game if we don’t have coaches.  And it’s teaching a whole generation of kids that making excuses when things don’t go your way is acceptable.

It’s not.

We have to be better. 

I do a ton of work with youth teams and organizations on parent education.  Of all the work we do in the game, our work with parents has gotten the best feedback from the clubs we work with.  And not just the club directors and coaches who are going gray from difficult parents, but from the parents themselves.

I’ve been around the game a long time and have held a lot of really cool hats that have given me a really cool perspective on the game.  I want to help parents understand the journey and I want to help them enjoy the ever loving hell out of that journey with their kids.

The most heart-wrenching thing a said to me after one of our parent education sessions:

“Where were you five years ago? I needed you give years ago.”

His relationship with his son was strained by the hockey parent he was being and our work helped him to better understand the journey and how he could help to guide his son through the journey in a much more positive way. He was really hard on his kid and it really strained their relationship that he was still working to repair.

Hockey is a game that should bind us through camaraderie and community.  The way things are going, and particularly with behavior in the stands, unfortunately it’s causing friction and splitting people apart.

Reach out to me if you think I can help your groups in any way.  By having honest conversations and dialogue, together we can make things much more enjoyable for everyone involved in the game and help shift things in the right direction.

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4 Responses

  1. So much starts with strong role models
    I have been around many teams at many ages and found the parents as much in need as the players when it comes to leadership and self esteem.
    Coaches, compliment your pare when they do well just as you would the players. This can change almost all of what your article puts forward.
    Keep your expectations high and bring everyone along.
    Thanks for doing what you do
    Tony

  2. Excellent article with concrete suggestions for leadership dealing with massive threat to the future of our game. I support suspending the family from participating due to behavior unbecoming to the organization. Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to lay this all out in a coherent convincing manner.
    Sharing with my own organization.

  3. Amen! I’ve been saying when the parent goes… so does the kid. Everyone said that’s not fair. Trust me suspend one parent for 3 games and the kid sits 3 games watch… it will never happen again. The other problem is the coaches won’t give up the parent when the refs go over to the teams bench to get a name. Seems neither team wants to claim them. That’s gotta stop!

  4. Great article and thanks for the work you do! Embarrassingly, I was that remote control mite parent in Alaska and it caused a rift with my son’s coach. I was able to apologize and patch things up but it was never the same, much to my regret. When we moved, I went on to become a youth hockey coach due to a shortage but decided very early on I needed to become a better coach by becoming a youth hockey official. Glad I did because the change in my perspective was amazing! And to your point, a parents behavior causing a suspension of their hockey player will hurt their child less in the long run than allowing bad behavior to continue.

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