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The Life of a Lone Wolf Hockey Parent

By Nick Buonocore, Reformed Sports Project, 11/14/23, 11:45AM EST


There is usually at least one at every game - the parent who sits off to the side of the rink

There is usually at least one at every game - the parent who sits off to the side or up the field, seemingly as far away from the other parents as possible. I immediately recognize them because I've been one of them - the Lone Wolf Sports Parent

It wasn't always that way though. Years ago, when my oldest kid started youth sports, I was right in the mix of all the excitable, passionate parents on the sideline talking youth sports shop. I was immediately drawn into the buzz surrounding the culture - who was getting a scholarship, which teams were crucial for my kid to be on, who were the best private trainers, which was the best platform to make and post highlight videos, and on, and on. It seemed like every parent was participating, so I participated and got sucked right in. It didn't take long for my engagement in my son's sports to snowball. Soon, I was living vicariously through him and seeing his performances as a reflection of me and my parenting. This was the norm for sports parents, so I didn't think anything of it. 

As I've shared before, my come-to-Jesus moment happened when I was in the car driving my son home from a game, and I told him I was disappointed in him. I wasn't disappointed in his effort or his attitude though, I was disappointed in his performance. While I don't remember exactly what had happened during the game anymore, my disappointment stemmed from his results-based performance. As I looked in the back seat, and the kid is just trying to eat a hot dog and wondering what we're having for dinner in a few hours, I realized I was that crazy sports parent. I was the one heckling the ref, yelling at my kid, arguing with his coaches, and who I should really be disappointed in is me. 

In that moment, I vowed to never be that parent again and in that moment, my passion for reforming youth sports was born. I spent a few days reflecting on where I went wrong and what I could do to be a better parent and a better role model for my kids and all kids. The pursuit of a college scholarship from age six was ludicrous. Leaving a team because my son wasn't a starter was counterproductive to his long term development as a human. Private trainers for my kid who just learned to tie his shoes on his own? No way! I would no longer be part of these silly, misguided conversations, and I wouldn't let the fear of missing out drive my actions or decisions for what was best for my kids.

I thought it would be that simple. Yet while I changed my outlook and behavior, the youth sports industry was continuing to grow, swallowing up well-intentioned parents and kids with ease. And I'll tell you what, at my son's next game, I couldn't stand the youth sports parent mania that I had so recently been actively supporting. Instead of criticizing the other parents, many of whom were my friends or at least acquaintances, I relocated to halfway down the field. I would rather stand alone and enjoy watching my kid play, then stand in a group full of overintense parents ruining the experience for everyone. As I walked away from the other parents, I thought to myself, is this why I see other parents standing alone? To be honest, I always just thought they were anti-social jerks, but now I understood, and I was one of them. I had become a Lone Wolf Sports Parent. 

To be clear, I don't want to be a Lone Wolf Sports Parent and after many conversations with other like-minded Lone Wolf Sports Parents, neither do they. We would all prefer youth sports to be the social, community events they are supposed to be, but the youth sports mania (driven often by parents) is intolerable. Now, when I'm at my kids' games, I make it a point to approach the Lone Wolf Sports Parent or at least be in his or her vicinity. When it seems to make sense, I start a conversation and explain why I'm standing alone. Nine out of ten times, they are there for the same reason. Note: I do recognize that the other 10% are usually the most intolerable of crazy sports parents, so I understand this isn't a foolproof plan but I do strongly believe the benefits and odds outweigh the risks!

I've also seen this in action as a volunteer youth sports coach. As a coach, I've seen, heard, and felt the effects that often come with having a toxic cluster of sports parents who challenge every coaching choice, plot to start their own teams, complain to league administrators, and unconsciously (or consciously!) encourage their kids to question every decision the coach makes. As a coach, especially a volunteer youth sports coach, there is probably nothing less fun than having to spend time worrying about and appeasing maniac sports parents to the detriment of all the kids' development. Occasionally, I've had issues with the insufferable Lone Wolf Sports Parent but for the most part, the parent I see standing alone is the least of my parent-based concerns as a coach. I'd wager that if there were more of the "reformed" Lone Wolf Sports Parents and less group-led parent toxicity, it wouldn't be like pulling teeth to find a parent volunteer to coach our kids every season...

I'm not naïve to think that we can change a $19 billion industry behemoth (the current youth sports industry's valuation) overnight, but I actively try to engage with other Lone Wolfs. Corny as it may sound, if we can create packs of Lone Wolfs with the same values, the packs will only continue to grow until we can tip the scales and become the majority of parents. 

So the next time you see a Lone Wolf Sports Parent, I encourage you to consider joining forces. 

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