My 10-year-old son plays in a football (soccer) team in a south London league every Saturday.
He is part of a great club, with dedicated coaches and he loves it.
It is a very competitive league, but over the course of the season I have seen hardly any aggressive behavior, bad language or arguing with the referee from the children on the pitch.
Sadly, I can’t say the same for some of the adults involved.
From among the parents watching, there is often a perpetual sense of injustice similar to the attitude of fans at a premier league match. Any decision against the team means that the referee is rubbish or biased. Or worse.
The shouting directed at the referee creates a simmering level of aggression, which can boil over.
One game this season had to be abandoned before it even started. A legitimate query over the eligibility of one of the players descended into an aggressive row that involved racist abuse.
The children were all patiently waiting for the game to start as the game was called off due to the behavior of adults.
While this kind of incident is not common, what is normal is the intensity with which so many parents watch as their children play and exhort them to play better.
It shows how through competitive sport, children can sometimes be vicariously representing their parents’ own aspirations and the fulfillment of their dreams.
The most important factor we have to remember is that this kind of support does not increase the enjoyment of the children who are actually playing.
BBC News reported on a recent survey published by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and cricket charity, Chance to Shine, which spoke to more than a thousand children about this very issue.
It found that children as young as 8 are being put off sport by the behavior of their parents.
Of those surveyed, 45 percent said the bad behavior of parents made them feel like not wanting to take part in sport.
And the parents agree with them: 84 percent of parents of those children agreed negative behavior discouraged youngsters from participation.
As the BBC report said, “The survey highlights how the pressure put on by parents, whether through shouting or continually criticizing, is ruining the experience of sport for too many children.”
It has made me think because I am again managing an under-12 cricket side that my boys play in, and the season is just about to start.
I prefer cricket to football, and I can recall with embarrassment a few times last season when I got a bit too passionate during tense matches.
The reflections of a U.S. children’s soccer referee on poor parental behavior at matches, coupled with an Arizona State University study on youth who tire of sports due to parental pressure to win, suggests that this issue isn’t isolated to the U.K.
Team sport can do amazing things. It can bring people together; it can turn strangers into mates and bind a group like few activities can.
More deeply, it teaches us things about life – about pushing ourselves, making the most of our skills, working as a team, looking out for others and achieving something as a group.
But ultimately children’s sport is about fun – sure it can be more fun when you play well and win – but we must not lose sight of this key fact.
All parents and adults involved need to listen to the findings of this survey and hear what our children are saying about our behavior.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.