Every Saturday, my 10 year old son plays in a football team in a south London league. He is part of a great club, with dedicated coaches and he loves it.
It is a very competitive league but over the course of the season, I have seen hardly any aggressive behaviour, bad language or arguing with the referee from the children on the pitch.
Sadly I can’t say the same for some of the adults involved.
From among the parents watching, there is often a perpetual sense of injustice similar to the attitude of fans at a premier league match. Any decision against the team means that the ref is rubbish or biased. Or worse. The shouting directed at the referee creates a simmering level of aggression which can boil over.
One game this season had to be abandoned before it even started. A legitimate query over the eligibility of one of the players descended into a aggressive row which involved racist abuse. The children were all patiently waiting for the game to start as the game was called off due to the behaviour of adults.
Whilst this kind of incident is not common, what is normal is the intensity with which so many parents watch as their children play and exhort them to play better. It shows how through competitive sport children can sometimes be vicariously representing their parents own aspirations and the fulfillment of their dreams.
The most important factor we have to remember is that this kind of support does not increase the enjoyment of the children who are actually playing.
Put off by parents
Yesterday a survey was published by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and cricket charity Chance to Shine which spoke to over a thousand children about this very issue.
It found that children as young as eight are being put off sport by the behaviour of their parents. Of those surveyed, 45% said the bad behaviour of parents made them feel like not wanting to take part in sport. And the parents agree with them: 84% of parents of those children agreed negative behaviour discouraged youngsters from participation.
As the BBC said:
‘The survey highlights how the pressure put on by parents, whether through shouting or continually criticising, is ruining the experience of sport for too many children.’
It has made me think as I am again managing an under 12 cricket side which my boys play in and the season is just about to start. I prefer cricket to football, and I can recall with embarrassment a few times last season when I got a bit too passionate during tense matches.
What sport can do
Team sport can do amazing things. It can bring people together – it can turn strangers into mates and bind a group like few activities can. More deeply, it teaches us things about life – about pushing ourselves, making the most of our skills, working as a team, looking out for others and achieving something as a group.
But ultimately children’s sport should be about fun – sure it can be more fun when you play well and win – but competitiveness should never be allowed to over-shadow enjoyment.
As parents, we all want our children to listen to us. As this survey shows, when it comes to our attitudes to sport, it’s time we listened to them.
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