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Parents in sport. Are they a blessing or a hindrance? Yes, parents are needed to do all the running about and funding, but once the training and matches begin are parents just a pain? There are those extreme cases of parents fighting with officials which just feeds the caricature of angry and unhelpful parents. The reality is, most parents are peaceable mums and dads who just mimic the way society expresses sport. That is the problem, some of our national sporting character is missing the target, so it’s no wonder parents do, when it comes to their child’s sport. If we could understand the link between parents and sport more, we are more likely to be able to harness the power of mum and dad to help our young athletes enjoy and flourish in sport.

No matter how much a sport coach may want to help a young person develop sporting character, it is the influence of the parent who shapes a young person most. If sports teams wish to pursue glory, parents are one of their best assets.

No matter how much a sports club may want to help a young person develop sporting character, it is the influence of the parent who shapes a young person most. If sports teams wish to pursue glory, parents are their best asset.

Sport is escape.

Sport has long been used as an escape from the realities of the day today. I have always found playing or watching sport a release from the stress of the week. Roman Emperors used gladiatorial games to distract their subjects from the realities of life and sport’s function in society was set – escapism. This is why it can be so hard for coaches and sports clubs to engage parents to reflect on their part in their child’s sporting participation. They are not there to think about their touchline behaviour, to consider how their character is shaping their child’s character and behaviour on and off the pitch. They are there to escape into the reality-altering state known as ‘watching my kid play sport’. The biggest evidence I offer for how powerful and consuming this drug is, is phone abstinence. When the match is on, sports parents are not on their phones (unless taking photos), that’s how much sport ejects them from the modern world.

Sport is an escape, but a child’s voice can bring you back to earth with a bump. Remember those date nights when the children were younger. You’ve just sat down for a meal together, enjoying the peace and hoping to enjoy that intimacy for some hours to come and then you hear a cry or tiny feet on the stairs. The escape of the date is over, and reality comes crashing down around you. In the same way, sports clubs use the voices of children. Ask the children to write down how they want the adults to behave at sports events. Ask them what they find unhelpful and what helps them play better.  You will find that for many parents hearing their little darlings’ voices on this topic will help them be present and not let their mind and actions escape.

Sport is passion. 

Let’s be honest, in our reserved British culture, nothing is better at creating an outward expression of passion than sport. Taking my father and father-in-law to the rowing finals at London 2012 was an eye-opener! It meant that I saw more passion and emotion from those two wonderful men as team GB won several golds than I had in my combined knowledge of them! As a nation, we have still yet to learn what it is to express our emotions healthily.  We should not be surprised when parents struggle to express their feelings in constructive ways while watching their children, but nor should that be an excuse.

We could ask for silent sidelines, but I’d prefer to see us channel parents’ emotions, rather than help them bottle up normal and natural feelings. After all, the ‘British’ way of dealing with emotions has never had good outcomes. Teach parents to channel their emotions into positive expressions of praise. At a rugby match we used some ‘clickers’, you know the ones bouncers use, to count the number of times we praised our children. Any negative comments, back to zero, with the highest number of clicks winning some beer! (You can see a video of this here.) Honestly, it was the most fun we’d had on the touchline for a long time and the children noticed the difference too. Passion was used to create a positive and fun atmosphere. Passion was not seen as negative.

Sport draws opinions.

With social media over the last decade, sport has moved from TV and radio punditry to everyone being able to put their views about the last match ‘out there’. No longer are amateur sporting pundits constrained to the pub. All media outlets encourage live opinion-giving interaction with sport. For us parents who love their sport, it’s hard to keep a lid on these views about where the ball should go next and what the ref should have done. (I too can be found shouting the odd well-meaning but unhelpful instruction.)

If sports clubs arranged a parent’s session on a small pitch and allowed the children two minutes of shouting instructions, nothing negative or positive, just instructions I’m sure the parents would learn about how oppressive the weight of constant direction is on a person. Then reverse it, have the kids just shout praise, the parents will be amazed at just how the difference made them feel. If the pitch idea isn’t an option set up Jenga. Ask for two brave volunteers from the parents then have two minutes of loud directions versus the two minutes of praise.

A braver idea is, as the players have their post-game huddle, so can the parents, with two simple questions and naming no names. What did the kids do well and what frustrated you about today’s performance? The frustrations are left in the circle, the positives are repeated in the car on the way home. This requires a great level of trust and maturity from parents, which is not always found.

Sport is pride.

Sporting success is linked to identity, at its most basic it is tribal bragging rights. A child’s performance is directly linked to a parent’s pride as much as national pride rests on how far we get in a World Cup. On Sunday afternoon, the way social media is full of photos of children proudly wearing medals and kids with muddy knees tells you how much parental pride is deeply entwined with sport.

Often, negative parental behaviour comes from the fear of dented pride. To challenge the need for sport to give us a sense of pride, focus on what your school or team values above winning.  Direct the pride away from winning and towards the culture and character of what makes your club unique and of great value, such as its history, values and character traits. Ask the parents how they can display this culture. Invite the parents to work out what their children need praising on to encourage the culture of the team.

Then challenge every parent to ring a relative and brag about how their child displayed the team culture, this could be about working for the team, good sportsmanship, being encouraging, working hard in defence.  In many ways the list is endless. The advantage of this is that win or lose you can still have the bragging rights at the end of a game. Bragging rights which build your child’s enjoyment and character.

Sport is dreams.

The biggest criticism of parents in sport is that some of the worst behaviours of parents are motivated by their desire that their children achieve the level of sporting success which they didn’t. That they are living their sporting dreams through their children. At its darkest this means pushy parents making their children train hard and continue competing long after the child wanted to stop playing.

This condemnation of parents is like saying all coaches scream and shout at halftime when the team is losing. It’s lazy, but at the same time has a grain of truth. Parents are dreamers, why would you want to stop that? Too right I want my children to be better than me at sport. Too right I dream big for them. All Blacks legend Richie McCaw’s uncle dreamt big for him and everyone applauded it. Your average parent has dreams for his or her child and it receives the negative wagging finger! I would argue that parents who don’t dream big are failing their child. I’ve worked with many families who have no aspirations for their child and this is crippling for the child’s future. The challenge is that the parent’s passionate dream for their offspring does not wound, but flourish their child.

Ask parents this question. As you attend your child’s 40th birthday party, you mingle with their friends, colleagues, former team mates, their children and partner. What words do you want to hear being used to describe your child?

No one ever says ‘world cup winner’, ‘has a PHD’ or ‘is a billionaire’. The words used are always linked to their character, such as kind, hard working, fun, considerate.  These words are the deepest dreams of their parents. Invite them to make those character traits the focus of their dreams and help them learn how to praise these character traits.

The challenge for the sports clubs working with parents is not an easy one to navigate if it is left as an ‘us and them’ situation. The best way to engage parents is to stop making them feel guilty for what are normal emotions and feelings. Instead, have someone at the club who helps coach the parents to make the best of these feelings and emotions, ensuring that your club is just a great place for all the passionate and committed parents and children.

If you would like Richard to come a run an inspiring evening for parents at your club please contact him here. 

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