At some point, the police were called. What had been a Sunday morning under-15s football game had turned into a pitch invasion, then a full-scale scrap between two London teams. And their parents. “Grown adults remonstrating with 15-year-olds on the pitch,” says James, the coach of one of the teams. “The referee and linesmen were chased off the ground. It was crazy.” He doesn’t quite know how it started – a player had been sent off, he thinks, and one of the parents made a comment – but tensions had been simmering between sets of parents all throughout the match. “The kids got into an altercation with parents, then they retaliated, parents hitting kids, it was crazy. Full-on fisticuffs between 15-year-olds and grown men. Then the mums got involved, screaming and shouting.” Many of the players were tall, strapping 15-year-olds, and some of the parents were intimidating, too. The police turned up and made everyone go their separate ways.
That was a couple of seasons ago, but it marked the beginning of the end of James’s time coaching youth football. What had started as fun, rewarding volunteer work with children and teenagers, in teams that fostered a sense of community spirit, had become fraught with meddling and abuse from the players’ mums and dads. One father once ran on to the pitch to tell his son to ignore the instructions the coach had given. James has been shouted at across the pitch by parents telling him he didn’t know what he was doing, and he has seen his son verbally criticised by opposition-team parents at matches. James decided last season would be his final one. “It just became a toxic, nasty environment,” he says.
The problem of pushy, competitive parents was highlighted this week by Emily Dyke, a 14-year-old football referee from Cleveland, who put a post on Facebook asking the parents who attended games she refereed to stop shouting and swearing at her. At one game, she had been told she was a “fucking disgrace” for one of her decisions. “I have recently suffered some verbal abuse from people whilst refereeing and have found it very difficult to deal with, to the point I’m now considering not doing it anymore,” she wrote. “I’m not looking for sympathy or anything like that. I’m wanting people to realise that I’m just a child doing something I love. I want everyone to take a look at their children and put yourself in my shoes when the abuse is being said.”
Others report similar experiences. Andrew, a swimming coach for many years, remembers parents fighting each other and one pushing an official into the pool for disqualifying his daughter from a race. “Once I had one lad I didn’t pick for a relay and his father damaged my car. They become obsessed. If they can see their child swimming from one end of the pool to the other faster than the kid in the next lane, they think they’re going to be in the Olympics.”
Tony Coffey, a travel agent who lives in Glasgow, recently attended a cross-country race in which his seven-year-old daughter was competing. “A dad set off with the children and ran along the side of the course,” he says. “He was legging it alongside, shouting at his own children, barging spectators out of the way. People were diving out of the way, he was coming through, he wasn’t stopping. I think he put on a little spurt at the end to make sure he beat his child across the finish line.”
A survey earlier this year by Marylebone Cricket Club and Chance to Shine, a charity which encourages and enables children to play cricket, found that more than 40% of children who responded had seen an adult abusing an official at a sports event. Just over a quarter said they thought winning was more important to their parents than it was to them.
Joanne, whose 13-year-old daughter goes to a swimming club and competitions, has seen pushy parents at their worst. “You can see that some of them are almost swimming for their children – they’re constantly gesturing at them from the poolside to swim harder or adapt their strokes. I’ve been in situations where I’ve seen people questioning everything the coach is doing. We were at a swimming competition recently and we heard a mum shouting from the crowd to her 10-year-old, ‘That was rubbish, what were you thinking?’” She says she has tried to understand why some parents behave like that. “They do invest such a lot of time and effort and money. I can see why they get so emotionally involved.”
There have been efforts to get parents to behave better. Signs have been used at children’s rugby matches – at one, Bryncoch RFC in Neath Port Talbot last year, it reminded parents that “this is mini/junior rugby, not the final of the World Cup”. At swimming clubs, pinned-up versions of the 10 commandments read: “Thou shalt not expect thy child to become an Olympian.” The FA has a guide for parents under its Respect campaign to improve sideline behaviour.
Sam Thrower, who is doing a PhD at Loughborough University, has been running workshops for parents whose children are involved in tennis – including educating them on how to develop better relationships with coaches, child development and how best to be supportive before, during and after matches – and has spent a lot of time observing and talking to them. “You start to understand how challenging and complex it is, and start to unpack the reasons why some parents behave in a certain way,” he says. “Certainly you get the influence in tennis of the amount [of time and money] they are investing. Their own goals for their children will have an influence on their behaviour, as will their knowledge of tennis – it’s difficult for some parents to understand what their children are experiencing on court.”
During one game of five-a-side football in March, Garth Smith, a junior football coach and trainee primary school teacher, noted down all the instructions parents shouted to their eight- and nine-year-olds. In 30 minutes, he recorded 96 instances of parents shouting things such as “chase the ball”, “shoot” and “back in defence”. He made a record, he says, because “when we read what we say, it can sometimes stop us in our tracks. I wanted to highlight the nonsense that some parents shout at their children. How are children in sport expected to enjoy and learn if they have a constant barrage of instructions flung in their direction? If we’re not willing to let our children fail and make mistakes, then youth sport becomes not about the youth, but about the adult.”
Chris Hodgson, another coach, agrees. “It’s all about pride and ego,” he says. Of the parents, that is. “When a child wakes up on Saturday morning and he’s got a poster of Lionel Messi on his wall, he dreams and fantasises about being like Messi. In the other bedroom, you’ve got the dad who wakes up expecting his child to be like Messi. That’s the problem, they’re expected to be like professional footballers from the age of seven.”
It is possible that a gifted youngster – the next Wayne Rooney or Theo Walcott – will be spotted and funnelled into the Premier League, with all the glory and financial reward that entails, but the chances are remote. Even if a child is picked up by one of the academies run by big clubs, just 1% will go on to play professional football. It’s a brutal system, in which boys are successively weeded out – or “culled”, as one pre-academy development centre coach of six-year-olds put it in Chris Green’s book, Every Boy’s Dream. Of the handful of 16-year-olds who make it through the system, half will have left professional football within two years, and by the time they are 21, more than 75% will have failed.
But children – and parents – still dream. A few years ago, Hodgson was watching his nine-year-old son play in a football match. “There was one child who had been playing for an academy team and the mother said: ‘He’s my pension.’” Hodgson pointed out how unlikely it was that the boy would ever become a professional, let alone a Premier League player. “She went: ‘Don’t be daft, he will make it.’”
Such attitudes aren’t just a minor annoyance. In June, a father was given a suspended prison sentence for repeatedly punching the coach of his son’s opposing under-nines football team in the face. Earlier this year, the UK Anti-Doping agency (UKAD) warned about the prevalence of steroid abuse among rugby-playing boys who see it as a quick way to bulk up and get stronger and faster. Rugby union has become much more financially rewarding, making it more attractive, but Nicole Sapstead, the chief executive of UKAD, said parents may also be to blame: “Your typical pushy parent – think about what your pushiness might be driving your children to do.”
According to figures from Sport England, around 58% of 14- to 25-year-olds in England participate in a sporting activity at least once a week, and the hoped-for bounce in participation after the London 2012 Olympics hasn’t materialised. Sport England’s figures for those aged over 16 (it only recently started including younger teenagers) show the Olympics had little effect, and participation in sport is even down from the 2010-2011 period. In a report published last year, the organisation claimed young people were being put off sport partly because they perceived it as becoming more serious than fun. Parents who put pressure on children could well be a part of this – in the MCC and Chance to Shine survey, nearly half of the children said their parents’ behaviour made them want to give up.
Research by Dr Jens Omli of California Polytechnic State University, who has studied young people’s attitudes to sport and their parents’ involvement, produced a similar result. The top reasons why young people drop out of sport, he says, “are usually ‘I was no longer interested’ or ‘it was no longer fun’, and when we probe a little deeper, the reason for that has a lot to do with negative behaviours from parents, coaches and other adults in youth sport. My research as a whole has demonstrated that children really do not want anger at their sport events. They would rather lose the game than be in an environment where parents are screaming and yelling.”
Many parents focus on the winning, but for children, he says, that is a priority, but not the highest. “Being able to play with their friends in an anger-free environment is clearly a higher priority than winning the game. But it’s also a mistake to say the kids don’t care who wins.”
Omli describes four main types of sports parents: the “demanding coach” who shouts instructions and unsolicited advice, then there is the “crazed spectator” who likes to shout at the referee or coach, and cheers wildly, which children find embarrassing. The “distracted spectator” is “the parent who is reading the newspaper, or talking to other parents the entire game – or more often than not, staring at their phone. This is especially bothersome for younger children, because they are at that age where they want their parents to see the great things they are doing.” Best of all, of course, is the supportive parent, “which means the parent shows up, and watches attentively. They provide encouragement during breaks in the action, but while the ball is in play, they remain quiet and after a goal or basket is scored, they cheer regardless of who scored.”
But how many parents attending a gymnastics lesson, or their child’s sports day, can really claim to have always watched silently from the sidelines? In the heat of the moment, says Coffey, sometimes it’s hard not to become that pushy parent. He once had a shouting match with the coach from the other team at his son’s football match, before coming to his senses and shutting up. You come to the realisation, he says, “that you’re an adult, shouting at or across children. Nobody wants their kid to think their dad’s a lunatic.”