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What is it about watching your kid play sports that turns ordinary parents into trash-talking, fist-shaking boors? Erin Anderssen investigates

Tabatha Leonard knows that she loses it when she takes her son to the ice. Instead of watching games rinkside, she heads to a room where no one can hear her scream.

Tabatha Leonard knows that she loses it when she takes her son to the ice. Instead of watching games rinkside, she heads to a room where no one can hear her scream.

Lars Hagberg/for The Globe and Mail

By day, Tabatha Leonard is a mild-mannered secretary at the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board.

But, by game time, at rinkside, she transforms into her alter ego: Crazy Hockey Mom.

We're not talking cheering-loudly-from-the-stands crazy. She's the mom occasionally cursing parents from the opposing team when they trash-talk one of the players on her son's AAA team. The mother who has "conversations," as she puts it, with the referee for missing a call.

She's banged the glass above the boards so hard she's bent her wedding ring. And beware the visiting parent who exhibits glee when Leonard's son takes an intentional hit, or gets a penalty.

One time, she needed an escort of fathers to get out of the rink for fear a yelling match might end in a fistfight. "She's sweet and lovable," says another mom on the team, who has been sitting in the stands with Leonard for years. "But these are not meltdowns. They are explosions."

Which is why, at home games in Madoc, Ont., Leonard has banished herself to the sound room, where she plays music for the team during pauses in play, and where, more importantly, no one can hear her scream. "It's just better that way," she says, demonstrating more insight than many a rink-side fan. "I can say what I have to say behind glass. It keeps me out of trouble."

What is it about a kid's hockey game that flicks the switch for so many parents, turning devoted mothers and fathers into rampaging maniacs, infecting them with category-five rink-rage even while watching six-year-olds knock a puck around? These same parents would never scream at someone else's child – or any stranger – off the ice. They wouldn't tell their daughter on the playground to "take out" a peer. And you can bet that if a teacher tried to teach math by hovering at a student's desk, flailing him verbally with criticism, there'd be a comeuppance in the principal's office.

But just click through the YouTube videos. There's the father, reportedly from Manitoba, who called another player a "midget" and then threatened "to cave in the glasses" of that boy's parent – all the while holding his baby daughter in his arms. Another 2013 video shows parents at a bantam playoff hockey game in Tweed, Ont., pummelling each other in the stands with 13- and 14-year-olds on the ice.

Last winter, the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association threatened to ban spectators if behaviour didn't improve, then followed through with one-game suspensions to eight parents. Parents interviewed for this story described all manner of off-ice skirmishes: parking-lot faceoffs with coaches; sniping between mothers and fathers of opposing teams; the red-faced dad pacing the boards, bellowing insults at 10-year-old players. A Toronto-area father described attending a game where the parents berated the referee so viciously, play was stopped and the police were called. The players were 13-year-olds.

"What happens to these people?" asks Todd Millar, former president of Hockey Calgary, in his book Moron: The Behind the Scenes Story of Minor Hockey, which he wrote after resigning from the association in 2013, following a controversial blog post in which he used the m-word to describe parents. "They temporarily take off their hat of everyday life, and they put on a moron helmet. Would they act that way in front of their boss, or at a family function?"

Tabatha Leonard certainly wouldn't, although she is unrepentant about her now notorious game-side behaviour when it comes to what she sees as rude parents or inept reffing. Her boundaries are clear: She never yells at players, and believes it's unsportsmanlike to cheer a penalty. "But I am there to stick up for my kid."

Tabatha Leonards tarted her elder son in hockey when he was just three years old.

Tabatha Leonards tarted her elder son in hockey when he was just three years old.

Lars Hagberg/for The Globe and Mail

Still, she isn't quite sure what comes over her. From the beginning, she was the passionate parent, the one who insisted their eldest son start hockey at the age of three, so he wouldn't be left behind. (Her husband, who is more relaxed, now refuses to sit with her during games.)

"I will be the first to say we pushed them into hockey," she admits. "But listen, I have friends who put their kids on ice when they were one. So you think I'm crazy?" In those early years, she says, it was easy to get swept up in the competitive culture, even when her sons still spent ice time making snow angels. "I just got wrapped up in the hockey world way too early."

She remembers worrying too much about what other parents would think when her kid played badly. That would spill over into the drive home. "I would literally scream at him for not playing well, when he was six years old," she recalls with regret. "I look back now … what was I thinking?"

She doesn't have NHL stars in her eyes, either. But with so much time and money spent on the game, how can parents not get overly invested?

Think about this: As this hockey season ramps up, Jennifer Hicks, a Toronto blogger and long-time hockey mom, made news by suggesting that it was okay for parents not to attend every single game. "It's as if parenting has become a competitive sport," she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "Like putting in face time at work, we have to put in the face time at games – in some ways to impress the other parents, rather than appease our own kids."

'I would literally scream at him for not playing well, when he was six years old,

‘I would literally scream at him for not playing well, when he was six years old,” Tabatha Leonard recalls with regret about her son. “I look back now … what was I thinking?’

Lars Hagberg/Lars Hagberg

It's easy to see how that investment becomes toxic.

"It's the global warming of youth sport," says Mark Hyman, a sports management professor at George Washington University and the author of Until It Hurts, about adult pressure in youth sports. "It's not new, but the emotional temperature has been going up for a long time."

Hockey is not unique on this front: overly intense parents are also flipping out at soccer games, swim meets and dance competitions. But hockey is the national obsession, and dangling at the end of that childhood journey is what Millar calls the "illusion" of the NHL draft, or its fallback, the university scholarship. So parents become consumed with the desire for their kids to get better and move up to a better team each year.

Hyman tells his own story of parent obsession with his son, who was a competitive baseball pitcher, until, at 18, he ruptured a ligament in his elbow, an injury attributed to too much use at a young age. That injury killed any chance at a college career. "The adults preferred winning too much – instead of protecting him, they let him down," Hyman recalls. "His life in baseball was way too important to me."

Hyman, who interviewed sports psychologists, researchers and parents for his book, says it's a difficult instinct to quell. "It's in our DNA. We see ourselves in our children, and we see greatness in our children," he says. "If your child has scored a hat trick in an important game in front of 500 of your friends, that's a pretty powerful thing. It can feel like a validation for your parenting."

It all starts even before the first puck officially drops. "If you want to see incredible behaviour by reasonably intelligent people, go to the evaluation process," where coaches decide which level of team children should play at, says Millar, describing parents who jockey for the best placements, crowding around coaches to plead their child's case. In Calgary, he recalls, the league once identified teams by colours, to mask that they were different levels. "The kids just want to play," Millar says. "The parents don't want their kids on the 'B' team."

Playing hockey, like many competitive sports, costs thousands of dollars, and much more at higher levels, to say nothing of the time spent sitting in drafty rinks and in gridlock while commuting to games and tournaments. It's no wonder parents feel they have licence to harangue volunteer coaches and teenage referees.

"All of a sudden the payoff for what is supposed to be a learning experience, becomes 'If we don't win, we have wasted our money,'" says John O'Sullivan, the founder of the U.S.-based Changing the Game charity.

With competition comes pressure. (One parent described watching a mother weep in the stands when her son, just six years old, scored on his own net.) Facebook – the focal point of bragging parents, only heightens the fear that everyone else's kids are racing past your own, O'Sullivan says.

And then there is the game itself: fast-paced, and aggressive. Emotions run high, and even when checking isn't allowed, kids get banged around, and some get hurt. It's hard for any parent to be completely immune – even Millar admits he's had his "moron" moments.

More worrisome, perhaps, is that some parents say they are nervous about speaking up about bad behaviour – by coaches or other parents – for fear there will be repercussions against their son or daughter. "You take any parent away from the hockey rink, they know what that line is," Millar says. "But they are concerned about the implications of calling people out."

"You don't want to be that parent," explained one mom, whose sons play in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, and who asked to be anonymous to avoid any fallout for them. She admits that she has struggled with knowing when and how to intervene. One weekend, she watched a father angrily and repeatedly snap his son's goalie mask on his face after a loss. Another time, the boy sitting beside her son in the locker room was sobbing, tears streaming unchecked down his face; when she asked his mother if he'd been hurt in the game, she was told no, but that "he knows exactly how much trouble he is going to be in at home for how he played today." As the Toronto mom says herself: "I know my kids have had not-very-fun rides home with their dad from the game."

For many young athletes, the end result of all this bad behaviour is that they lose their love for the game – the dropout rate peaks in early adolescence in all competitive sports. "Imagine if 70 per cent of the customers who went to Tim Hortons walked out one day and said: 'I am never going back,'" Hyman says. "In youth sports, we seem perfectly satisfied with this result."

Leonard still videotapes her eldest son's games so they can break them down afterward. But she is more easygoing with her youngest, Heiden, who also plays competitively, but is less receptive to parental critiquing. And she is now the first to caution other parents about falling into bad habits on the ride home. "I tell them: You think this is a huge deal right now. But you need to go and buy them a bag of chips and a pop, and say: 'Good job,'"

Meanwhile, she says, she's not expecting to leave the sound booth any time soon; even with her stowed away, her 13-year-old son, Karsten, says "I can still hear her banging on the glass." That's code, he says, for "skate harder!"

Karsten says he doesn't mind – he says it even helps him play better. But given the pressure on young players these days in hyper-competitive sports, perhaps most parents watching eagle-eyed from the stands need to chant a different cheer.

Tabatha Leonard's game-side behaviour is so notorious that her husband now refuses to sit next to her at the arena.

Tabatha Leonard’s game-side behaviour is so notorious that her husband now refuses to sit next to her at the arena.

Lars Hagberg for The Globe and Mail

Chill-out time at the rink

"I really love to watch you play."

This is the only sentence that hockey parents absolutely need to say, according to John O'Sullivan, founder of the U.S.-based Changing the Game initiative. O'Sullivan says that parental pressure and an overly competitive culture are draining kids of their enthusiasm for sports – to say nothing of destroying the chance to learn important team lessons, such as moving past failure and winning gracefully. And whatever happened to just having fun?

In the past few years, youth leagues have tried to clamp down on parents' antics and aggressive coaching, with rinkside bans and zero-tolerance policies. Many leagues now require parents to take an online "Respect in Sport" course, or to sign good-behaviour contracts, in effort to change the culture.

One of the most destructive rituals in sports, O'Sullivan says, doesn't even happen when kids are wearing their skates. It's the drive home, when parents insist on critiquing the game.

"This is the least teachable moment," he says. "Players are physically and emotionally exhausted, and they just want this time to belong to them so they can digest what happened."

Parents need to take the hint, and put off game talk until their child is ready.

O'Sullivan argues that parents have lost sight of the long-term benefits of playing sports. "What are you investing in? Character development? Learning how to overcome adversity? Becoming a better human being?"

He suggests that parents and players both write down their goals for the season, and then compare them, so parents can adapt their expectations to help their kids, whether they just want to have fun or are truly driven.

Theresa Dostaler, a veteran hockey parent, who created the hockey mom website in part to discuss these issues, advises parents to relax during the early years when it's "all about the joy of wearing a jersey, chasing a puck, and waving to your family in the stands." And be careful with criticism – at all ages. "We know when our kids missed the empty net, we know when they take a stupid penalty. I guess what I have learned is that they know, too."

After all, says O'Sullivan, "you cannot coach someone into being LeBron James." Or nag them all the way home into becoming the next Sidney Crosby