Wednesday 21 February 2018

It's the taking part that counts

Children who play sports just want to learn new skills and have a bit of fun -- win, lose or draw -- but for some parents it's the winning that's all important

John O'Donnell, who is also a rugby coach, loves supporting sons Cillian, Seán and Conor.
John O'Donnell, who is also a rugby coach, loves supporting sons Cillian, Seán and Conor.

Rita de Brun

It's the taking part that counts

Are you the type of parent who gets up early on weekend mornings to accompany your son or daughter to matches, only to while the next hour-and-a-half away making a complete spectacle of yourself on the sidelines?

Does your passion for the game send you into overdrive, and see you morph into a Basil Fawlty-like caricature, prancing, gesticulating, bellowing and hollering, as you attempt to vicariously control your youngster's limbs from the sidelines?

If so, maybe it's time to contemplate the impact of your well-meaning antics on your young sportsman or woman. Because chances are, your child may wish you'd be less publicly vocal about his prowess or ineptitude on the field.

Sports psychologist Canice Kennedy finds that women are more likely than men to get overly emotional on the side of the pitch.

"Many scream like fishwives," he says. "A higher proportion of male adults play sport than females, so they're more likely to behave in a way that's acceptable to the kids who are playing."

Helen Ryan, from Dundrum in Dublin, is not among the loud-mouthed mums described by Canice.

"When I accompany my daughters, Julie (11) and Amy (15) to tennis matches, I am a silent spectator," she says. "I feel my role is purely supportive. If I catch my child's eye, we exchange a smile, and I hope that gives reassurance."

Helen's daughters are coached by Stephen O'Shea. "Parents usually cause no problems at all when a match is being played," he says. "It's afterwards that they can create difficulties for their kids by making excuses for them and by making them feel like victims when they tell them that their opponents made bad calls or whatever.

"Encouraging this negative mindset is no help to children who hope to play at the highest international levels, where dog-eat-dog is the norm. Top sportsmen are mentally tough and extremely disciplined. When they lose they don't make excuses for themselves.

"Tennis-playing kids need their parents to mentor them to be like that. Softening them up with negative talk about their opponents and making them feel hard-done-by is no help at all."

Nor is it any help if parents lose their cool. It's not good either if they greet their children after the match with a 'did you win?'

"It's much better to ask whether the child enjoyed himself," says Stephen.

When he was a boy, his dad, John O'Shea from Goal, attended his matches. "He would shout encouragement and the odd bit of criticism from the sidelines, but he was a great sportsman himself. I was aware that he knew what he was shouting about so it never really bothered me," recalls Stephen.

Stephen obviously enjoyed those matches, as he has chosen to make his career in sport. It's that pleasure that keeps kids playing, according to Canice Kennedy.

"Kids play sports to learn new skills and have fun," he says. "They are drawn by the thrill and excitement. For them it's about competing, but for too many parents, it's all about winning."

Helen Ryan agrees: "I've seen parents walk away from tennis matches when it becomes clear that their child is going to lose," she says. "For some, winning is all important," she says.

"I would never walk away like that. For us, success is about participating rather than victory."

According to Kennedy, kids don't withdraw from sport because they're not winning, they do so if they are not having fun.

"Parents can spoil that by yelling at them," he says. "Kids also drop out if they're not getting on well with their teammates or if they feel they don't have the necessary skills, but it's never because they lose."

PJ Costello coaches soccer to young boys at Artane Beaumont Football Club and regularly sees parents shouting at their children.

"On rare occasions I've heard young players answer their parents back, but far more often, I've seen them visibly shrink under the comments shouted from the sideline," he says.

"I saw one little lad aged about seven being snatched off the pitch by his father, smacked on the bum for misbehaviour and sent back on to play.

"Pure encouragement is all children need from parents on the sidelines. They should cheer on the team and shout 'well done' where appropriate. They shouldn't relive the game on the way home, unless they want to say that something was terrific," says PJ.

"Even if the child won their match, parents shouldn't get over-excited, as that leaves the youngster with the impression that winning is all that matters.

"One mistake commonly made is to make allowances for other players but never for their own children. All too many expect super-human play and performance," says PJ.

In his experience, most mums behave in an exemplary manner on match day, but afterwards they're more inclined than dads to approach the coach and complain if their son got less time on the pitch than another fellow.

"They seem to take it more to heart," he says.

Whether parents behave in an exemplary manner or not, there's no question that all have the best interests of their kids at heart.

No matter what sort of a spectator you are, remember that if your child doesn't mind you watching his matches, you're doing better than me. I haven't attended my 14-year-old son's rugby matches since he was in junior school.

He didn't quite bar me. Nor did he ask me to stay away. I just took it as a given, once the penny dropped, that whenever he needed a lift to the school coach for an away match, I was instructed to park "around the corner", which was his way, I guessed, of politely saying 'out-of-sight'.

I presume his reason is because it can be embarrassing for young male teens to be seen with their mothers, rather than because of any misbehaviour on my part, back in the glory days when I used to watch him play.

Back then, I could never be accused of roaring instructions or coaching from the sidelines. Ignorance of the most basic rules of the game prevented that. But that same ineptitude on my part saw me repeatedly ask other parents watching the game: "How are we doing?" and "What's the score now?" So I guess I was quietly, if not overtly, embarrassing him.

The point of this naval-gazing digression? If your child doesn't mind you going to their matches -- give yourself a clap on the back, as you must be doing something right.

Irish Independent

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