It’s finals season in sport. And not just for the big guys and girls. Every weekend parents are driving all over the city to watch their precious poppet dribble the soccer ball, fly with the football, intercept the netball or shoot the basketball. On the sidelines there are a lot of oranges being sucked, cold hands being rubbed together and small bored brothers and sister bent over Ipads.
I grew up spending Saturdays cartwheeling and collecting daisy chains beside by brother’s soccer games. My mild mannered father rarely made a sound from the sideline and my mother mostly collapsed with laughter. I find such scenes synonymous with childhood; as familiar and reassuring as vegemite sandwiches and ice blocks.
While I’m usually allergic to talking about the ‘good ol days’ I do feel things are getting more serious out there on the ovals and courts. There’s increased evidence of bad behaviour, abuse, screaming and rule breaking.
And that’s just the parents.
Yesterday the Illawarra District Rugby Union announced it’s investigating a brawl at an under 11s game that was started by a parent. The club is looking to ban some folks from the finals because they’ve been yelling and running onto the field. Last year News Ltd reported the Southern Football League called off it’s under 8, 10s and 12s carnivals because their umpires were copping abuse by parents and coaches. I have friends who referee and they report being sworn at, questioned and harassed. One acquaintance was horrified when the people beside her started calling on their kid to kill hers. In 2009 a parent was actually beaten up at an under 11s rugby league match. The bullying is even moving onto social media with some parents bitching about coaches on Facebook.
As sports obsessed as we are this is not a uniquely Australian problem. Sixty percent of Indian parents have seen abuse on the field. New Zealand’s Western Bay sent a letter to all junior ruby players warning increased aggression by parents and coaches was putting participation in jeopardy. The ‘All Blacks’ even helped launch a program to control things called ‘My Parents are Ugly’. Meanwhile there are You Tube videos out of the United States showing parents storming the field and brawling, referees knocked unconscious and police being called to Little League. Friday Night Lights it ain’t.
It’s bad enough that aggression is getting worse in junior sport. It’s bad enough that 27 per cent of king hits are linked to football. It’s bad enough that a recent newspaper article showed a picture of a boy stomping on the head of another child.
But it’s worse that parents are getting out of control as well. And you have to wonder if it’s related. How can kids learn to play fair and not foul if their parents can’t stay nice? In my area, the local rugby union now requires a ground marshal to ensure that parents are behaving appropriately. There are big yellow signs showing how to support children constructively. There are even special ‘silent days’ at soccer where parents are encouraged to give the kids a break by zipping their lips completely. Some dads and mums find such games so torturous they don’t attend.
Now, before I get into questioning what’s going, on I’ve got some confessions to make.
I’m not immune to parental passion.
My daughter plays under 11s netball. She’s recently had a bad flu and after she’d recovered, I kept her home from school for a few extra days to ensure she could play in the semi final. I did it because they were not allowed subs and she didn’t want to let her teammates down. I did it because I didn’t want to let her teammates’ parents down. And I did it because I’ve turned into a netball mother.
I have never seen myself as this type of parent. Until last year my child was vague, dreamy and doing cartwheels whenever the ball was down the other end of the court. But on her first game something came over me. One minute I was watching the girls squabble about what they were doing and the next I was in an altered state. I suddenly found myself on the court yelling ‘we’re going that way! That way! ’. My friends were flabbergasted. My daughter was in fits of laughter and I was completely astounded. It was like I’d been possessed with my 12 year old self and wanted to play Centre.
I’ve never done it again but I do yell encouragement from the side most Friday nights. When the match is close, I confess my heart beats faster. When my daughter’s team played in the grand final last year I felt sick with nerves. When they won I was ecstatic. But when I recently heard myself saying ‘we’re in the semis’ I decided to investigate my motives and behaviour. She was in the semis. I was the driver and occasional scorekeeper. By using ‘we’, I was at best getting too involved, or at worst, basking in her reflected glory.
Thinking about it, I realised I’m part proud that my daughter has found something she’s good at – after all, families celebrate each other’s successes and console each other’s losses. But I’m becoming increasingly aware I need to not get over involved. Any success is hers and hers alone. It cannot compensate for my own netball nerdiness and losses. It cannot make up for shortcomings in my own life. And it definitely can’t make me look like a successful parent.
The reason I’ve made this confession is because it’s time for others to do the same. Researchers at Flinders University in South Australia questioned parents at junior football matches. They found many think other parents' are inappropriate at the sidelines but none admitted actually being so themselves. Obviously, the parents who are at fault are in denial.
But here’s a warning to them. The researchers also found that the more parents yell, bag the referee or disagree with the coach, the more their kids are turned off sport. Another study called it a form of road rage that imprinted powerfully on young minds.
So, I’m putting it out there to parents. If you have sporting aspirations for your child, keep them close and quiet. And question why you have them. If they are about supporting a child’s passion then lucky you! If they are about keeping your child strong and healthy, then well done. But if they are about satisfying your own yearnings for glory then I have a better idea. Join your own competition.
I’ve just signed up to play for the old girls team at my daughter’s club. I’ll soon have my own ambitions on the court (staying upright chief amongst them). I’ve invited her to come and watch my first game and yell all she wants. She’s not in the least bit interested. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.
Come this Friday night it’s my daughter’s team’s last chance to get into the grandfinal. I’ll be clapping every goal the other team gets and smiling through it all. As quietly and respectfully as I can. It won’t be easy but it’ll probably hurt less than my knees will after my own first game, come September.