Bucking Station Wagon Syndrome


For some kids playing soccer, their biggest battle doesn’t occur on the field, but rather in the backseat of the car on the way home, as one or both parents give their minute-by-minute recap of the game. They cover why Johnny has no business starting at forward and how Jason playing on the right as opposed to the left is a travesty.

This situation was identified as “station wagon syndrome” by University of Missouri School of Law professor Douglas Abrams, and the name alone should suggest that this isn’t a new revelation, but rather an issue that has been around for a couple of decades. Abrams describes station wagon syndrome occurring when “The youngsters are a captive audience in the back seat on the way home, but they deserve to ride in peace without being unwilling victims of their parents” (Abrams 2002).

For US Youth Soccer Director of Coaching, Sam Snow, the conversation after a match or training session should be short and sweet.

“The only things parents need to say is, ‘I love watching you play,’ end of story,” Snow said. “I know it sounds overly simple, and it is harder to actually carry out.”

Coaches can have enough issues trying to portray a consistent message to their players while parents attempt to coach from the sidelines — a situation in which coaches have at least some control. However, their jurisdiction ends when the kids enter the car.

“Parents want to be sure that they are not coaching, whether it is on the sideline or afterward in the car,” Snow said. “If you do that then you could intentionally or unintentionally contradict what the coach is saying, and that is only going to confuse the player.”

Snow explains that this is prevalent on the entire spectrum of youth soccer ranging from 5-year-old recreational players to 17-year-olds playing in the most competitive environment. The range of soccer knowledge a parent has is also vast, but both of these should be irrelevant in regards to a parent coaching a player.

“Parents have to keep it in the forefront of their minds that this is their child’s game and not theirs, whether the parents are a former player or not,” Snow said. “While there happens to be spectators at the match, this isn’t for the spectators. It is for the kids.”

At some point, it is inevitable that a parent is going to disagree with what a coach is doing, and in this situation, Snow simply recommends the parent makes an appointment as opposed to voicing concerns right after a match or training session.

“You don’t want to voice your concerns right after a match or training session because emotions are going to be high. You wouldn’t go complain to your child’s teacher immediately after the exam in the middle of the day, would you?” Snow said. “It is the same thing with a soccer coach, and if you wait 24 hours to schedule an appointment then a discussion can occur.”

While Snow is a strong advocate of parents not contradicting their child’s coach with or without the coach present, he insists it is imperative that parents represent a support system, especially if the player begins to play in more competitive environments.

“If a player gets older and decides to commit more effort to start playing at a higher level, he or she is going to need more of a commitment from the entire family,” Snow said. “There are going to be a lot of highs and lows associated with playing at a higher level, and it is very important for a player to have an emotional safety net.”

Ultimately, it comes down to the mindset parents have in approaching their child playing soccer, and for that Snow references a friend and colleague Andy Coutts, Director of Education for Minnesota Youth Soccer Association.

“You ask the parents if they are looking at their child playing soccer as an investment or a gift. If it is an investment, then you are looking for a return on investment whether it is a college scholarship or pro contract, but I tell them that will only end in heartache and you are better off putting that money into a financial service to pay for college,” Snow said. “However, if you look at it as a gift and you don’t expect anything in return like a birthday present, then the world is open for them, and both the kids and parent can enjoy it for as long as they want.”