Let’s STOP Inappropriate Aggression in Youth Sport

Over the past number of years we have witnessed an increasing level of aggression on our sports fields both locally and around the world and involving all stakeholders in the sports participation process. There is a wide variety of examples – a water polo player being punched in the face, deliberate fouling in the front row of a rugby scrum, a parent or coach verbally berating or even physically hurting young athletes for a poor performance, a coach arguing with a referee for missing an error in play or a school turning a blind eye to over aggressive sportsmanship in order to ensure a winning result.

Whatever the nature of the aggression, this type of behaviour is unacceptable in youth sport and without a firm stance from all stakeholders it will continue unabated. It can result in severe physical and/or psychological damage to the child which may have lifelong consequences.

So what are the reasons for this behaviour?

  • With the ever increasing professionalism and commercialisation of sport at younger and younger ages there is an over-emphasis on winning at an age when children should be having fun and learning the fundamental movement and sports skills that will ensure sporting success at later stages. This emphasis on results and winning increases the expectations and thus pressure placed on young sports people to perform. In a survey conducted in the UK in 2013 amongst 1,015 kids aged 8 – 16; 87,5% felt under pressure to win, 64,3% indicated that they had witnessed team mates fouling, diving or time wasting and 54% said they had witnessed cheating in games of which 37% indicated that their team mates didn’t care if they won by cheating. This “win-at-all-costs” attitude is permeating our sporting environment.
  • From research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2008 it appears that the control orientation of parents leads to ego defensiveness which in turn leads to anger and aggressive behaviour.
  • And coaches? They are under constant pressure from schools to achieve the results that will bring “glory” and new students to their school. In the words of Dr Glen Hageman, past president of the South African Sports Medicine Association, “Unfortunately, people judge a school on its rugby results, as opposed to its academic results.” In addition, coaches themselves are driven by the need to achieve so that they can move on to bigger and better positions and what better way to prove your worth than by a winning record.

In order to begin to address this aggression by a minority but that affects the enjoyment of sport for the majority we need to put sport participation into perspective. According to Cote and Hancock (2014), the 3 goals of sport participation are:

· Participation,

· Performance, and

· Personal Development

In addition, it should be remembered that only 1% of sport participants progress to the elite level and only 0,5% become professional sportsmen and women. Research conducted by Durandt et al showed that only 24% of U13 provincial rugby players in South Africa played at the U18 provincial tournament. Furthermore, sporting success is a combination of both genetics and practice, despite the popular belief postulated in books such as Outliers and Bounce that sufficient practice alone can ensure elite performance.

It needs a committed effort of all stakeholders (players, parents, coaches and schools) working together to rid our sports fields of inappropriate behaviour. Sport is competitive by its nature, but winning doesn’t need to be achieved by aggressive sportsmanship.


Jay D. Goldstein, JD &  Iso-Ahola, SE. Determinants of Parents’ Sideline-Rage Emotions and Behaviors at Youth Soccer Games. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. May 2008

Cote, J & Hancock, DJ. Evidence-based policies for youth sport programmes. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. June 2014

Durandt, J. et al. Rugby playing history at the national U13 level and subsequent participation at the national U16 and U18 rugby tournaments. S Afr J Sports Med 2011:23:103-105

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