Spectator Behaviour at Youth Sporting Events

Parents Lock out

There is an alarming increase in inappropriate parental behaviour at youth sporting events worldwide. Many of us have witnessed parents shouting, screaming and even swearing at their children, the referee/umpire and coaches during sports events. In some instances there has been physical abuse and in extreme cases weapons used. Is this what youth sport is all about or have we somewhere along the way, “lost the plot?”

Research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2008 found that the control orientation of parents leads to ego defensiveness which in turn leads to anger and aggressive spectator behaviour. This anger resulted from uncaring, unfair and incompetent behaviour from coaches, referees, participants and fellow parent spectators.

Is it perhaps that we have become too obsessed with the results of games/events and more focussed on winning rather that the performance of the individual child and/or the team? Youth sport should be concerned with the holistic development of the child for long-term participation in physical activity and a healthy lifestyle. It is about learning and developing skills, gaining confidence, enhancing self-esteem, displaying sportsmanship, bonding with friends and teammates and having fun. All of these are eroded by inappropriate parental behaviour.

Parents role in youth sport is to positively encourage, motivate and support their child in his/her own chosen sporting endeavour. This support should be limited to financial, logistical and emotional support in the form of understanding, empathy and positive communication.

Research has shown that children want their parents to display a moderate level of involvement in their sporting activities. By behaving inappropriately as described earlier, parents can cause their children to become embarrassed, stressed and distracted leading to increased pressure, decreased performance and often feelings of guilt if they don’t achieve their parents’ standards. Every loud screaming parent or adult spectator is viewed by young children (under 14 years old) as being aggressive. Studies show that children can’t tell the difference in behaviour and simply group it as violent and feel emotionally and even physically threatened. These reactions and emotions do not support positive sporting development and may lead to children dropping out of sport all together. Two contrasting stories from young sports people demonstrate the role of parents in their sporting lives, Dear Dad….The Game Isn’t Fun Any More and My Beautiful Parents Getting Me to Succeed.

Guidelines for appropriate parental side-line behaviour for positive youth sports experiences

  • Your child is a person first and an athlete second – treat them as such
  • Praise and support your child’s effort and performance rather than focussing on winning or losing
  • Never ridicule or berate your child for making a mistake, not performing or winning regardless of the fact that he/she tried their best or that the opponents were superior
  • Don’t criticise your child’s performance – provide constructive and positive feedback
  • Don’t make a public spectacle of yourself
  • Don’t run up and down the side-lines shouting advice or run onto the field to debate a decision
  • Refrain from coaching your child from the side-lines
  • Support the coach in performing his/her role
  • Remain in the designated spectator area until after the game – don’t interfere with the participants
  • Choose an appropriate time to provide feedback to coaches and officials
  • Cheer for your own child and team
  • Show respect for the opposition and officials
  • Avoid using foul language or derogatory comments when speaking to your child, coach, officials and other spectators
  • Control your emotions at all times – stay calm and composed when watching your child participate
  • Behave in a dignified manner at all times
  • Be a role model for other parents
  • Provide unconditional love during both successes and failure
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