GAA parents are a curious breed. I was at a couple of under age games over the weekend and it never fails to amaze me when I hear Moms and Dads roaring out instructions with gusto to their young son or daughter about what to do on the field or with the ball.
It’s like they’re playing a PlayStation game and trying to control the people on the screen by frantically pressing buttons and steering everybody into the best positions. Shouting general encouragement is one thing, telling them what to do, where to go, or giving out if they make a mistake, are horrible pitfalls that some sports parents fall into. It’s as if the first whistle of the game is the catalyst for a complete metamorphosis from a normally calm, rational individual into some sort of foaming at the mouth lunatic who magnifies an underage game into a life and death battle.
I listened to one father at a game over the weekend give his son almost constant direction throughout the 60 minutes. He was yelling everything from ‘go yourself’, ‘shoot’, to ‘take him out of it’ as an opponent was bearing down on goals. That kind of talk happens on every GAA pitch in the country, and I’d wager it’s pretty much the same in most sports. Too often we just laugh it off and let it go without anybody ever calling them out.
The common denominator across all codes is the parent’s attitude to their son or daughter competing, the game itself is largely irrelevant. Behind all the madness, they only want the best for their child, but too many filling the sidelines of underage games are still not getting the message that the game is supposed to be about the children. It’s not about the referee. Not the coaches. Not even the opposition. And certainly not the adult.
The game at that level is supposed to be about young players trying their best, having the space to make mistakes, having fun and coming back the next day to try and do better.
Take what’s happening in the United States as a crazy illustration of parents going too far in trying to direct the lives of their children for the better. Operation ‘Varsity Blues’ was a sting carried out by the FBI to uncover a nationwide college admissions scandal that saw some of the most privileged and wealthy parents bribe and scam their kids’ ways into some of the top colleges in the US.
Over 50 people have been indicted on various charges related to the largest college admissions cheating scam ever uncovered in the States. Parents have paid vast sums of money to have information or test scores related to their children’s grades or athletic accomplishments either falsified or grossly embellished to have them gain entry to certain schools with upwards of $25 million changing hands. Of course, that’s the extreme end of the scale and it speaks as much about the power of money and privilege as about anything else.
In one of the first Go Games blitzes my two young lads played in, I was giving some encouragement to one of them to get more stuck in. In the car on the way home, he was quick enough to tell me that he’d prefer if I did less of it. Point taken.
It’s been done in other sports, and there’s tentative talk of trialling the ‘Silent Side lines’ idea for certain underage games in the GAA. That seems to be where the intensity really kicks in for supporters for some reason. Perhaps it’s the first real taste of competitiveness that leads to people losing the run of themselves and being overly excited.
The general idea is just let the kids play and have the freedom and confidence to try and figure things out a little more for themselves without all the noise and fuss from outside the white lines. Everybody at the game just watches. They keep their comments to themselves, they don’t berate the referee, they don’t try to coach their own kids or fight with the opposition manager.
A Silent Side line is just a novel gimmick to encourage coaches and parents to become more aware of their own behaviour outside the chalk. You’d think it wouldn’t be necessary, but clearly, some kind of initiative is long overdue to quell some of the more enthusiastic of the crowd.
I wrote previously about the growing need for sporting organisations and clubs to become more proactive when dealing with some of the PlayStation parenting that goes on at games. It would be great if they followed the lead of some sports bodies from other countries and put together a workshop for parents to attend before their child starts the season. The purpose of the interactive presentation would be to highlight and properly inform parents about what is, and what is not acceptable behaviour on the side lines of games.
GAA coaches are required to earn a minimum of a foundation level or award one coaching qualification, they must be Garda vetted and complete a child protection course before they step foot on the field to work with the players. The parents on the other hand obviously have no such requirements to be supporters. It would be a hugely positive and empowering initiative for the GAA to roll out and could be something used to help parents gain a better understanding for how their behaviour on the side line affects the enjoyment their own child is getting out of their sporting experience.
Give them the tools to support their children in their journey through sport. Allow them to see the game through the prism of the child being directed and ‘encouraged’ from first whistle to last. According to renowned psychologist Carol Dweck we should be aiming to create an environment which fosters a growth mindset; which “creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education and sports”. We get there by emphasising the process rather than the result.
The stuff we say from the side line as parents and coaches really matters over time, the more we praise great effort over good results, the greater space we give them to make their own mistakes on the pitch, the more we are arming kids with something far more meaningful than the outcome of any particular game or a season. In the words of one of my kids, ‘moms and dads watching games should try harder to be seen more and not heard as much’.