Are pushy sideline parents crossing the line?

Why do some people think it’s OK to scream at their offspring during an underage game? Pat Fitzpatrick wants his kids to participate in sport but first he researched some of the methods being used to sideline pushy parents

Damien Duff got me thinking. The Irish soccer legend was in the news recently, talking about problems he was having, while coaching the Shamrock Rovers Under-15s.

He said that part of the job involved dealing with “pain in the arse parents”, and hinted that a few of them had offered him tips on team selection.

You have to admire these parents in one way, given that Duffer played in the World Cup and they didn’t.

This is an issue in our house, these days. My two kids are five and three and we’re having a look around to see the best place to sign them up for some team sport. (And not just because it’s free child-care, but you know yourself.)

The thing is, I don’t want to sign them up and sentence them to Saturday morning, listening to a side-line of cranky parents letting off steam. (If they really need a cranky Dad on a Saturday morning, I can just keep them at home.)

So, I want to know if it’s wall-to-wall pushy parents at sports events. More than that, should I be a pushy parent myself, to teach my kids that the world is a competitive place and you need to push yourself if you want to get anywhere?

There is only one person who has the answer to this kind of stuff – the internet. I put ‘Out of Control Parents on Side-lines’ into YouTube, and drooled over the prospect of under-medalled parents losing it big time in front of the camera.

It was disappointing. The best I could come up with was a video called ‘Lil League Parents RAGING Compilation #1’.

The only person RAGING was me, after wasting ten minutes of my life. The only thing I learned is that a lot of Americans probably watched too much Jerry Springer when they were growing up.

YouTube doesn’t have page after page of pushy parents and there didn’t seem to be anyone from Ireland.

At this stage, I started to think that good old Irish mortification must be keeping us in line. That otherwise crazy parents were keeping their mouths shut, in case someone caught them going loola with a smartphone.

And then I talked to a guy who referees underage soccer games around Cork.

He didn’t want to go on the record, so I’ll call him Alan, which makes a pleasant change from the names thrown at him from the sidelines.

“It’s shocking, that’s the word I’d use to describe it. 95% of my job is dealing with parents and coaches on the sideline, and it’s mainly parents.

I’ve seen one fella stand behind the opposing goal in an U14 match, to try and put off their keeper, because his own son is playing centre forward. I had someone shouting at me the other day, telling me to give a yellow card to an 11-year-old. It’s desperate.

“You’ll spot the pushy parents, they stand near the position where their kid is playing. I doubt very much that it’s helping them to play any better.”

I’m not sure I’d be rushing to sign my kids up for soccer after that. But then, it depends who you ask. My brother-in-law coaches an underage soccer team in Dublin, he loves it, and so do the kids.

It’s also clear that soccer is working to address the pushy parents issue. They even had to take action in Sweden. Sideline rage got so bad in Stockholm, that three clubs got together and surveyed a group of parents.

The results? One in three kids considered quitting the game because of what were over-zealous parent; 83% said they had seen parents pushing their kids too hard or criticising young refs. The clubs decided to act.

They came up with a short code of conduct statement, which basically said, “I promise not to act the gobshite on the sideline.”

Parents signed up to it, T-shirts were printed to spread the word and now other clubs are looking to incorporate the code into their underage operations.

A similar code of conduct was developed for the American Youth Soccer Organisation, where parents are required to sign a document before their kids are allowed to join up.

This includes pledges like “No yelling in anger”, “Respect the volunteer referees”, “No swearing”. and because this is the Land of the Free, “No weapons.” (You have to love the Yanks.)

What about the GAA? I spoke to two guys coaching underage teams in the GAA Go Games setup.

The Go Games ethos is prevalent across all sports now, where kids are encouraged to develop their skills and enjoy playing up to age 11, instead of trying to win.

Everyone gets a game, regardless of their ability, and in a lot of cases, they don’t keep the score.

It’s an improvement from my time playing underage football, when you sent a group of kids out to play, and their Dads screamed “man before ball” until one of them went red, and had a heart attack.

So, does the Go Games concept put a lid on pushy parents? Not quite, according to my two coaches.

One of them, coaching under-8s, often wonders if he should have a word with a particular Dad who spends the whole match in his little boy’s ear.

He said the most noticeable thing is that the little guy performs much better when his Dad isn’t there.

The other coach said his main problem was actually with grandparents! A grandmother approached him during a break in one game with some advice on marking an opponent, and asked him to pass this onto his under-8s.

In fairness, these were minor quibbles. The Go Games ethos seems to have created a calmer, more inclusive atmosphere, where it’s genuinely about enjoyment rather than winning.

And it doesn’t curb the kids’ competitive instinct. One of the coaches told me that when the kids get to under-8, they start keeping the score themselves, even if the adults at the game are happy to pretend that it was a draw.

I think this is important. Kids should understand that the world is competitive, and that it’s ok to want to win.

At this point, I started to wonder if lack of competition was actually a bad thing for my small kids. And then I got chatting to another parent at my daughter’s school.

He runs a music group, for kids of all ages. He deliberately keeps them away from competition, to keep the focus on enjoyment and participation.

Why? Because some are more talented than others, and he said it’s disheartening and stressful for kids to put in a load of work, only to get blown away in competition by someone who was born with a gift.

That’s the most sensible thing I heard all week. I have no problem signing my kids up for soccer or GAA or whatever they want to do. (Their mother won’t let them play rugby.) 

You’re always going to get some clown on the sideline who thinks he is watching the All-Ireland Final.

But it’s clear that sporting bodies are taking steps to persuade, or even shame parents into remembering that this is supposed to be fun. There will be plenty time for shouting at them later.


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