We all know what anger is, and we've all felt it. Anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury. As for other emotions, it's accompanied by physiological changes, like increases in heart rate and blood pressure.

Anger is a completely normal human emotion. But when it gets out of control, it can turn into destructive forms of behavior like aggression and violence. Many examples of parents erupting at sport events can be seen on YouTube. However, neither verbal nor physical forms of aggression have any place in youth sports.

Why do spectators get angry? What causes them to blowup?

Research conducted at the University of Maryland found that ego defensiveness triggers a phenomenon known as “sideline rage.” Ego defensiveness involves the perception that something in the game is unfair or personally threatening to the parent or to their child. The same process can trigger anger on the highway, which is called “road rage.”

In a study of 340 soccer moms and dads, Jay Goldstein reported that 53 percent of them got angry to some extent during the game. The sources of their anger were most often the referee or the way their child’s team was performing.

What can you do to reduce the emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that accompanies anger?

Well you can’t get rid of or totally avoid the things or the people that tick you off. But you can learn to control your reactions. The best approach is to find out what causes or triggers your anger at youth sport events and other situations as well. Then you can use strategies to keep those triggers from pushing you over the edge.

The American Psychological Association has recommended several techniques that can be used to keep anger at bay. Simple relaxation skills can help to calm down angry feelings. 

  • Breathe deeply from your abdomen. Breathing from your chest won’t relax you. In fact, it actually creates tension in chest and shoulder muscles. To breathe in a relaxed way, mentally picture your breath coming up from your stomach.
  • Use positive self-talk. Slowly repeat a calm word or a phrase, like “relax” or “keep cool” or “take it easy.” Repeat it to yourself while inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly.
  • Use mental imagery to visualize a relaxing experience like walking on a beach. You can also visualize yourself keeping cool calm and in control.
  • Do yoga-like muscle stretches. Slow stretches can relax your muscles. And they can make you feel much calmer. 

It’s a good idea to practice relaxation techniques regularly and learn to use them when you’re in a tense situation.

What else can be done to control anger?

In the end, thoughts not situations cause feelings. When you’re angry your thinking can get very exaggerated and overly dramatic. This is known as “catastrophizing.” To counteract it, try replacing illogical thoughts with more rational ones. For example don’t say to yourself “That referee’s blind, and he should be shot.” Tell yourself something sensible “Hey, it’s frustrating when there’s a bad call. But sport officials are only human, and they do the best they can.”

Logic defeats anger. So use cold logic on yourself. Remind yourself that the world isn’t “out to get you.” You just experience some challenging rough spots from time to time.

Don’t strike while the iron is hot. When something irritates you and you start to feel tense, don’t say the first thing that comes into your mind. Most spectator rage is impulsive and a source of later embarrassment. Mentally count to 10, and think about some positive responses.

Use silly humor to defuse anger. For example mentally picture the umpire or referee wearing a funny hat or a bunny costume. This will take a lot of the edge off of your feelings. There are two cautions for using humor. 

  • Don’t try to just “laugh off” your problems. Rather, use humor to face them more constructively.
  • Don’t use harsh or sarcastic humor. That’s just another form of anger expression in an unhealthy way.

There’s a final message. If you feel you need help with anger management, you might consider counseling. A psychologist or a mental health professional can teach you how to control anger.

Do you want to learn more about parenting young athletes? 

  • The Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports is a research-based video that emphasizes skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.
  • To access the video, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.

About the Authors

Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith, Ph.D., is a University of Washington clinical sport psychologist who specializes in developing and evaluating interventions designed to improve the functioning of athletes.

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