Randy Nathan is disappointed in parents who don’t recognize their own bullying behavior when it comes to sports.
As a sports bullying expert and life coach from West Orange, “Coach Randy” specializes in working with teens. But the former synagogue executive director also sees the consequences of the professionalization and consumerization of youth sports — especially on parents who want to see a “return on the investment” they have put into their children’s athletic careers.
“As the kids get older, especially in high school, when the spots are more competitive and the kids are not as good as their parents thought,” he said, families begin to act out. “They get vocal and agitated when their kid isn’t getting playtime. They sometimes make up things that are not true. It’s all because of that expectation that they become the bully parent. They get lost in the minutiae of the moment and their own unrealistic expectations.”
In his book, Bullying in Sports: A Guide to Identifying the Injuries We Don’t See (Pearson Education), which he launched in February at his own synagogue, Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, Nathan profiles bullies — from coaches to fans, from parents to athletes, in both recreational and professional sports.
He advocates becoming an “upstander” rather than remaining a passive observer in the face of bullying, and in the case of youth sports, modeling the behavior for kids rather than focusing too heavily on winning.
He remembers when his own son was playing baseball as a freshman at Columbia High School in Maplewood. A parent from the opposing team was screaming at a player on his son’s team. “He was saying stuff like, ‘Strike out! You stink! You suck!’ I asked that parent to please stop ‘trash talking,’ which is now against the rules” of some sports associations, Nathan said. “He looked at me like I had four heads.”
Eventually, an administrator from the other school came over and the trash-talking parent was removed from the game.
“Parents often say they don’t feel comfortable doing this. Even my son was asking me to stop because I was embarrassing him. But I see it as a teachable moment. It’s important to demonstrate how to handle these situations,” Nathan said.
Nathan also draws on his experience coaching girls’ softball at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and middle school sports at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, where he still coaches.
“Sports takes a back seat at the Jewish day schools. Parents send their kids to yeshiva not for sports but for the Jewish education. In those worlds, I haven’t seen overzealous parents,” he said.
In fact, it’s sometimes the opposite — day schools are more likely to work out arrangements to enable kids to be involved in other activities, which has its own downside: “that takes away from practice, so kids’ skill level suffers and any expectations they have need to be lowered,” said Nathan.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see bullying in the day school arena, or that the schools always know how to handle it.
“When a bully situation arises, they use conflict resolution strategies like there’s a family squabble or conflict,” said Nathan. “But there is no conflict. There’s a victim who is being harassed and intimidated and there’s an imbalance of power. That piece really needs a paradigm shift.”