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How should parents behave watching their children compete in sports, according to Dolores Roessler and daughters Meghan and Julia of Indian Hills. Greg Mattura, Staff Writer, @gregmattura

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INDIAN HILLS, N.J. -- Tim and Dolores Roessler can't sit still as they watch their two daughters compete for the Indian Hills softball team.

The Roesslers sit together for an inning, then the next inning they go their separate ways. They’re on the hill that overlooks the Braves’ field, then behind the fence in the outfield. They're constantly changing seats in the stands at road games.

Being on the move helps them deal with the tension of watching Meghan, a senior third baseman and outfielder, and Julia, a sophomore pitcher, compete.

“We’re like nomads and we navigate around the game,” Dolores said.

Watching your son or daughter in a bases-loaded, two-out-situation in the seventh inning, or at the foul line shooting a critical one-and-one in the final seconds, can be a high-blood-pressure experience for any parent. 

Striking out, missing the key shot, dropping the touchdown pass – making that big mistake – can transform caring parents into angry fans who lash out at coaches, officials, and, worst of all, their kids. That’s an even bigger mistake.

“I tell people, ‘You can’t challenge anyone one-on-one in front of people,” said Frank Noppenberger, executive director of the Greater Middlesex Conference and a former boys basketball coach and athletic director at East Brunswick. “You are creating a situation that’s never going to work.”

Yelling only serves as a distraction and is "the worst thing you can do," said Dr. Sarah Carson Sackett, a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. 

“And there’s a good chance that all you’re doing is serving as an embarrassment, just because nobody wants to be the kid whose parent is screaming,” Carson Sackett said.

READ MORE: Overbearing parents can take the fun out of sports for their kids

When parents get emotional

Emotional parents are one reason the NJSIAA, the state’s governing athletic organization, instructs public address announcers to read the “Sportsmanship Bias Statement” before and during events.

It reminds spectators that inappropriate behavior “could subject the violator to ejection, and may result in penalties being assessed against your team.”

Noppenberger runs certification classes for new coaches in the Garden State and says one of the most commonly discussed topics is how to handle parents. He also teaches separate workshops on how to deal with parents.

He sees a lot of raised hands at the certification classes, followed by questions such as "How do you deal with parents? How do you deal with parents that are yelling at the game? How do you deal with parents that are unhappy?’”

Coaches should never raise their voices to a parent, Noppenberger and veteran coaches say, because it will just make a bad situation even worse. If necessary, ask them to wait 24 hours – when cooler heads can prevail – before having a talk.

“The first thing I’ve learned, through most other people, is most parents, if they’re acting out, it’s because they love their child,” said Noppenberger, who admits he once opened his mouth at his child’s youth game and never did it again after his kid and wife gave him a stern look. “Remember, if you’re not going to be an advocate for your child, who is?

“So when I talk to the coaches at the certification courses, or to the experienced coaches or new ADs at the workshops, I say, ‘You can’t get angry if a parent wants to talk to you about their son or daughter.’”

Carson Sackett said including the player in a conversation between coach and parent also can be beneficial.

“If the coach is going to act as an ally, there’s always the opportunity to offer to have the conversation together as a unit,” she said.

Dealing with players of upset parents

Veteran coaches say providing encouragement is the prudent way to deal with players who have drawn a parent's ire after making a mental mistake or bad play.

“The parent is going to say what the parent is going to say,” said Joe Leicht, who coaches softball at Indian Hills and boys’ basketball at Wayne Valley. “And in a way, you can be the buffer, if it’s one of the type of parents. You can be a little bit more positive, and sometimes a little kick in the butt, but you have to be the buffer."

When players make a mistake, they'll often look over at their coach or parent. Sometimes a simple look back is all they need, Leicht said.

“I have to make a point of being much more positive with that kid when they come in the dugout, or after the inning, or whatever,” River Dell baseball coach Brandon Flanagan said. “Just say, ‘Hey, listen, I know you’re working hard,’ and ‘Maybe you didn’t do that right,’ or ‘That’s not what we practiced, but I understand that you’re working hard.’ And just let them know that you see the little stuff.”

Parents dealing with frustration

It’s human for parents to feel anxiety as their child steps into the spotlight in a win-or-lose situation. Imagine the stress if you had to watch your child answer questions in a packed classroom with students and parents cheering and jeering?

So what can parents do to lessen that anxiety? For starters, unless you’re crammed into a tight gymnasium, take a little stroll to burn off some of the nervous energy. Say hello to the parents of the other players on the team. Anything that prevents a potential blow-up.

“Take a walk, take a breath, if you need it,” said Carson Sackett, who lives in Virginia, teaches at James Madison University and has two sons. “Is it worth it to start screaming? It’s taking a pause, physically removing yourself for a second if you need to, until you feel your blood pressure go back down.”

Tim and Dolores Roessler, who attend about 90 percent of their daughters' games, deal with parental stress by changing locations at the field and chatting with parents.

“I’m very much nomadic and a karma person,” said Tim, who played football at rival Ramapo. “So I’ll sit in different spots depending on how the game is going, and I’ll talk to different people.”

“There’s a social aspect,” said Dolores, who played softball for Indian Hills. “You want to make sure you touch base with everybody who’s out there, coming and going, and say ‘Hi.’ It’s always nice to go over and say hi to the people you haven’t seen in a few weeks.”

Still, there are anxious moments. Like when Indian Hills held a 1-0 lead late in a game, Julia was pitching and Megan was later at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Tim yelled, “C’mon, Six, do it for your sister – help her out a little bit!” (Megan drove in two runs.)

Yes, parents are wanted

Most players want parents to attend their games. But they want them cheering not yelling, and supporting not exhorting. Meghan and Julia appreciate their parents being there.

“It feels really good, because you know that no matter who’s there, you’re going to have one person on your side always,” Megan said. “Even though they’re going to be the first person to tell you when you messed up in the game, they’re the first person to say you also you did great in the game. It’s really good to have them in the stands all the time.”

“I feel like when they’re there, I always strive to do better, and I always end up doing better, because I have the mentality that they’re there for me,” Julia said. “And that even though, as Megan said, they will be the first ones to tell me that I did something wrong, they’ll also be the first ones to say, ‘You had such a great game, and I’m so proud of you.’”

Greg Tufaro contributed to this report.

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