Parents keeping it silent on the sideline is better for kids on the sports field

Children’s sports fields should be as quiet as libraries, according to sports experts as screaming parents, says Richard Fitzpatrick, are doing enormous damage to children’s fragile self-esteem

They rant and they rave. Every weekend around Ireland’s playing fields, you hear shocking abuse being yelled by parents.

Antonio Mantero trains under-age soccer teams for Castleknock Celtic in Dublin.

“I’ve heard parents call players ‘little c–s’,” he says. “You hear comments like ‘get stuck in’ or ‘break his leg’ or ‘hurt him’. Negative stuff. Coaches might pick on one particular player who they don’t like – in some cases it could be his own child – and it could be constant. I’ve heard lots and lots of foul language being used towards kids and particularly referees.”

Children react to the abuse in different ways. They cry. Some vomit from the stress. More give up playing. Others get flustered and freeze on the pitch during matches, weighed under from all the barracking from the parents and coaches.

“The primary objective of under-age team sport is participation,” says Canice Kennedy, a sports psychologist.

Parents keeping it silent on the sideline is better for kids on the sports field

“It’s not about winning or losing, but unfortunately while that philosophy would be common among kids, having fun and playing, the emphasis with parents is more about winning. That means screaming, getting kids hyped up. The feedback I’ve got from coaches is kids who are technically able to produce skills at training on Tuesday and Thursday, when there are no parents, find it difficult to do the same thing on Saturday afternoon when the sideline is packed.”

The abusive behaviour is across all codes. “Like other sports, we have had the odd incident, incursions onto the pitch, overzealous parents,” says Tony Watane, GAA National Inclusion Officer. “We have parents – as well as players, coaches – sign a code of conduct, which comes under the GAA’s code of behaviour.”

George Hook, the broadcaster and former Connaught and USA rugby coach, trains St Mary’s College under-12s and -13s rugby teams on Sunday mornings.

“The lunatic parent syndrome is alive and well. Some parents are unbelievably overbearing. I remember coaching a player at under-14 who went on to play for Ireland. He was a very good player. When he went home after a match for his tea, he had to sit there and be absolutely grilled on every minute of his performance, every mistake amplified and criticised. I could tell you about a bundle of kids who hate it because the parent is involved and they get a hard time.” Family sizes in modern Ireland are smaller than previous generations. We live in the era of “helicopter parents” who hover over their child’s development. Perhaps it’s a factor in creating the ranting parent on the sideline. Hook disagrees. He says it’s an age-old problem. “I coached at Willow Park 35 years ago and it was there then. I remember an under-8s match and this little kid got a bang. He naturally started crying. His father came on the pitch and said, ‘You’re a coward and a sissy. When I take you home I’m going to dress you up in your sister’s clothes.’”

Parents keeping it silent on the sideline is better for kids on the sports field

The criticism comes from moms as well as pops. “Oftentimes the most enthusiastic screaming is by the mammys, who wouldn’t necessarily have playing experience themselves,” says Kennedy. “I’ve a friend who said she went to watch her son play soccer and she said after five minutes she was screaming and shouting just like everybody else. She was so embarrassed about it afterwards. She’s a quiet girl, but she got caught up in the whole thing.”

Kennedy cites the example of the renowned soccer academy at Ajax in Amsterdam. They encourage parents to come along to watch training and matches but they’re told to stay quiet. The academy has a 4-ft high, 25-ft long sign along the side of its pitch that says ‘SILENCE’.

“It’s like being at a library,” he says. Man United, for example, bans parents coming along to under-age games until players reach their mid-teens.

Old Trafford
Old Trafford

Mantero has held three Silent Sideline Weekends across soccer clubs in Ireland over the last 18 months, the first in March 2014 and the most recent last weekend. Clubs participated from Cork up to Donegal and the North East, and in other countries, including Scotland, Greece and Canada. Clubs selected two supervisors to keep people calm. Designated areas were allocated for parents. It was suggested that lollipops could be “a fun way to promote silence”.

Mantero was motived by similar initiatives in the United States and the UK. He noticed players talked to each other more over the Silent Sideline Weekends because it was left to them to get messages to each other. He also noticed players blossoming.

“I remember there was a kid under-11s who scored two goals on one of the days. He’d been playing football practically most of his life and he’d never scored before. He was a defender. Playing with less pressure, he was able to make his own decisions and move up the pitch a little bit more. He said he could never forget that day.”


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