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When Dads Go Bad

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Dads shouting on touchline

Article from Coaching Edge Autumn 2015: The Tech Issue

Interfering in decisions, yelling instructions and shouting abuse are, sadly, common examples of parents’ behaviour that erode both the coach’s authority and children’s enjoyment. Mike Dale of Coaching Edge investigates how best to engage with meddling mums and destructive dads.

Shoot!’ ‘Pass it!’ ‘oi, ref!’ There’s always one.

The bellowing ‘touchlinedad’, heaping pressure onlittle Johnny to atone for his father’sfailed dreams of sporting greatness.

At its worst, parents’ behaviour can prove toxic to a junior sport environment; damaging young athletes’ enjoyment and self-esteem, undermining the coach, fuelling conflict and souring the atmosphere.

In the 15 months up to November 2013, The Football Association recorded 3731 incidents of misconduct by parents at youth football matches.

Just let that number sink in for a moment. Just under 250 a month.

The issue isn’t confined to football, of course. Yorkshire Rugby Football Union recently felt compelled to call for ‘Silent Sundays’, asking spectators and coaches not to shout, cheer or clap during matches.

‘A small minority are definitely not living rugby’s core values while coaching or watching on Sunday mornings,’ said a letter to the region’s clubs.

‘Screaming “pass” or “tackle” at players simply turns you in to a PlayStation coach.

Junior players who leave the game have highlighted this pitch-side pressure as a reason for giving up.’

To prevent things getting this far, sports coach UK’s eLearning module, ‘Positive Sports Parent’, advises coaches to promote a positive culture from the outset, ‘focusing children and parents on enjoying the activity and giving of their best rather than winning at all costs.’

The triangular relationship between coach, child and parent can be more intense in individual sports than in team sports.

‘There’s got to be inclusivity and dialogue,’ says Danny Massaro, elite squash coach, sports psychology lecturer and author of ‘The Winning Parent’ blog.

‘What you often get in that three-way relationship is a blamer, a rescuer and a victim. So after a defeat, for example, the parent blames the child for not training hard enough, the kid sulks and the coach has to intervene to rescue the kid’s mentality.

That then puts a little wedge between the coach and the parent.

‘It’s important you don’t get into those scenarios. The coach has got to lead by example and not join in with that dynamic of blame. It’s then easier to calmly remind parent and child that we’re a team, we work together and we shouldn’t blame or accuse.

‘What everybody is after at a deeper level is not simply attention, but recognition for the work they’re each putting in. Telling each other ‘thank you’ is important.

'Some of my lads turn up for sessions after a hard day at school. I’ll say to them, “It’s tough this squash lark, isn’t it?” I’ll also say to the parents sometimes, “You’ve done well with this lad, he’s very bright. Did he get that from you?” I make sure I say it in front of everybody. It’s just a small thing, but it makes sure everybody feels appreciated and valued.’

Match day is, of course, when the vast majority of parent misconduct occurs. The desperation to win (or fear of defeat) fuels stress, tension and loss of control. Changing the parents’ focus from the score to the children’s enjoyment and development is tough, but not impossible.

The FA’s Jack Walton says: ‘I ask parents what their first question is when their child comes home from a match. If it’s, “What was the score?” that tells the player subconsciously that the parent isn’t bothered about what they learned or how they performed, only the outcome. Even something as simple as changing that first question starts to make a difference.’

Many coaches have banned problem parents from the touchline on match days. Walton favours the opposite approach, engaging with them to channel their undoubted enthusiasm positively.

He’s now set one particularly ‘vocal’ parent to work as a ‘second analyst’ during training sessions, timing with a stopwatch precisely how long his son is active with a ball at his feet so they’re compliant with the FA’s new ‘70% ballrolling time’ target.

‘It brings that parent on board, improves our sessions and shows him we really care about our children,’ Walton reflects.

Massaro tackles the damaging ‘winning at all costs’ mentality on a deeper level with his squash parents, stressing the importance of inspiration over motivation.

He explains: ‘I see a lot of parents trying to motivate their kids rather than inspire them. Motivation is aggressive, results-focused, too much carrot and stick.

‘I don’t like to see parents or coaches say, “If you want to win, you’ve got to do this and this, otherwise this’ll happen!” Sport can then become a means to an end for a child.

‘When you inspire somebody it’s very gentle. They go away with an uplifted energy and desire. With your demeanour, the story you tell and the praise you give them, you need to inspire them so it feels like the first time they’ve ever played the game.'

Keeping Parents Onside

Forging relationships with parents from the beginning is key to nipping unhelpful behaviour in the bud, says Jack Walton, the Football Association’s Regional Coach Development Manager (5-11).

‘I don’t think that you can really influence somebody unless you’ve got a positive relationship with them. If you start off on the wrong foot or don’t get along with someone, they become much more difficult to influence. They won’t accept what you’re saying.

‘You’ve got to keep parents on board and work with them, not against them. If you’ve got a good working relationship in the first place, they’re more likely to trust you and display the behaviours that you want them to display.

‘There are 168 hours in the week. Most grass-roots coaches see their players for two or three. For the rest of the time, parents are the most influential people in those players’ lives. They are your greatest ally and can carry on delivering your messages at home for those 165 hours.’

Many coaches state their expectations from parents in workshops at the start of a season, but then see behaviour erode after a few weeks, so communication needs to be regular and consistent.

Out of the Mouth Babes...

With a group of under-10s, Jack Walton tried an experiment that proved extremely effective in forcing parents to think about their touchline behaviour.

He asked the children to write down on cards three things they wanted, and three things they didn’t want, from parents during matches.

‘The results were absolutely unanimous,’ he states. ‘They wanted support, encouragement, clapping and cheering if they did something well. What they absolutely didn’t want is to be told what to do, shouted and moaned at, or for people to get angry.

‘I showed the parents the cards. A lot of them recognised their own kids’ handwriting and a few home truths struck them! Since then, they’ve been absolutely great.’

Promoting Positive Parental Behaviour

These five themes have been identified as crucial for parents by Brunel University’s research network for athlete Welfare:

  1. Understanding the sport: so that parents can discuss the things that are important to the child and maintain a balanced approach to enjoyment and recognising success.
  2. Allowing the child to lead discussions on their performance after match or competition: helping a child to understand why we can’t always perform at our best and remembering to praise effort above results.
  3. Emphasising holistic child development: by placing an equal emphasis on the development of confidence, relationships, character, compassion and creativity to that of performance and winning.

  4. Understanding the importance of the sport: by understanding what participating in the sport means to the child, parents can judge the right level of involvement and support
  1. Having clear boundaries: respecting the sport’s rules, coaches, officials and other volunteers.


sports coach UK’s ‘Renewal: Safeguarding and Protecting Children in Sport’ elearning course has a ‘Positive Sports Parent’ module. Our YouTube channel also features ‘Parental Behaviour in Youth Sport’, created with sports psychology experts at Swansea University.

The Child Protection in Sport Unit’s tools and guidance to promote the positive use of parents in sport can be found at: https://thecpsu.org.uk/

‘My Magic Sports Kit – It’s Our Game, Not Yours’ on YouTube is a powerful video showing children’s responses to their parents’ behaviour during games.

Visit the sports coach UK website for more information on how you can receive Coaching Edge.

Have you experienced many meddling mums and destructive dads in your coaching career? What advice would you give to your fellow coaches? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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Comments (1)

The Magic Sports Kit video is so powerful - it makes me feel bad for my poor parenting and I don't even have kids yet!
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