Kathy Donaghy: 'Why pushy parents on sidelines should be shown red card'
Football matches being abandoned, players being struck and fears that games will descend into mass brawls. We're not talking about soccer hooligans on the rampage. We're talking about what's happening on the sidelines of the Dublin and District Schoolboys League (DDSL).
Things have got so bad that DDSL officials released a statement revealing that "substitutes, manager/coaches, and several spectators" have been involved in mass brawls, with seven matches under their control abandoned in the past six weeks. They added that "people are fearful the game will descend into a free-for-all brawl, more akin to an MMA event than a young players' football match".
It's not only confined to soccer. Anecdotally, we all know of, or have heard reports of, bad behaviour on the sidelines of other sports. It might be a melee at a GAA or rugby match or parents letting themselves down at the running track. No sport is immune. It's not just in Ireland either.
Reports of bad behaviour - particularly by parents of young people involved in sports - are becoming increasingly common. Go to any match anywhere in the country and you'll see parents yelling at referees, shouting at kids, berating their own children and others when they 'drop the ball'. You'll also witness parents take their frustration out on their own child when they're on the losing side.
So what's going on? Around the world, sports psychologists are trying to get a handle on just why a growing number of parents are becoming increasingly emotionally over-invested in their children's sporting pursuits. Some research indicates that money may be an issue; that because they invest heavily with both time and money in their child's sports, they want a bigger payoff than just seeing their child have fun.
When I asked Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who works with St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Dublin, what was driving the epidemic of anxiety among young people today, he said young people's expectations had been driven through the roof in terms of being the brightest and the fastest runner. He said parents were playing their part in this too, in terms of a comparative culture.
Because we share much more than ever in terms of social media, we're all aware that young Johnny from two doors down is captain of the junior soccer team and has just made the school swimming team. We know because his parents shared it on social media. Noctor believes that all this sharing can prey on our vulnerabilities as parents.
If this vulnerability leads to some parents exhibiting bad behaviour on the sidelines, they should be aware of the fact that research shows they're doing their kids no favours. An Oireachtas committee on children and youth affairs heard testimony earlier this year that pushy sideline parents and overzealous clubs were, in fact, putting children off sport.
Being pushy is one thing. Being an outright bad example is another. In the US, parents at football games in many states are required to adhere to a 'Parents' Code of Conduct' that includes abiding by statements such as "I will be in control of my emotions" and "I will remember that the game is for our youth - not adults". If the pact is broken, they will be banned for the entire season in some cases.
The GAA introduced the Respect Initiative in 2009. It outlines the behaviour that is expected on the sidelines in the organisation's grounds. However, GAA bosses have admitted that this has not had the impact they would have hoped for at this stage.
Sport Ireland says parents and guardians should remember that children learn best by example. This is perhaps the thing that parents need to think about first and foremost.
It's natural to feel impassioned when watching your kid play in a game. But losing the plot and throwing a strop on the sidelines, or pushing your kid to the point that they don't even want to go to training anymore, is just plain wrong.