Too much pressure

2009-04-06 00:00

The media have carried regular reports about an increase in the number of parents behaving badly at competitive school sports matches of all age groups.

While most parents enrol their children in sport with good intentions, the actions of others suggest that there is a serious problem. This is backed up by research, which shows that rates of depression and anxiety in some children directly correlate to participation in sport, and are rising at an alarming rate.

Sport should be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Surveys have shown that having fun is a primary reason why children play sport. Alarmingly, a study by the National Alliance for Youth Sports in the United States found that 70% of American children who signed up for sports quit by the time they were 13. The reason? They said it wasn’t fun anymore.

Sport provides valuable learning experiences about teamwork, rules, winning and losing — while keeping children fit and healthy. It also provides an opportunity to learn social skills and make friends. Participation also gives children the opportunity to experience the challenge of competition and to learn life lessons from the experience. If you plug a little boy or girl into sport, they automatically get the uniform, the snacks, the team name, the nicknames and the photos. All of these give an instant sense of belonging.

One of the most satisfying things about sport for children comes from being with their friends and being part of a team. I am not advocating that children be left to have fun and the results will take care of themselves. We go to fixtures with a clear objective to win and we aim to grapple to the last moment. Winning is important — it is what makes teams focus. But it has to be seen as an important part of a larger process and has to be managed carefully. And this appreciation for the overall process is a culture that children need to adopt from an early age.

Sport teaches children the principles of fair play: respect, integrity and fairness. By adopting these values, they will get the best out of sport and, importantly, demonstrate good sporting behaviour both on and off the field. They will learn to respect their opposition by seeing their parents and other adults doing the same. They will also accept a coach or referee’s decision if those same adults do. And they will be the first in line to shake the opposition’s hands, if their parents have taught them how important it is to do so.

That is why parents can also be at the heart of a disintegration of sporting ethics. Children don’t need their parents to yell at the referee, harass the coach about playing time, or shout instructions at them while they are playing. Teach children to treat adults with disrespect and you stand the risk of embarrassing them and making them think less of you.

Too often parents fail to focus on the broader benefits of sport and focus instead on winning. On the road to children being the sportsmen that their parents want them to be lies a threat that eats at the very fibre of what makes young children who they are: pressure. Too much pressure on children to achieve takes the fun out of sports and can lead to stress and anxiety. If parents overemphasise winning they can chase children away from sports participation because they fear failure. Potentially, the most destructive situation occurs when children believe that their relationships with one, or both parents, depends on the quality of their performance or on their continued involvement in sport. Sean Cumming and Martha Ewing of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University in the U.S. say that the role of parents in youth sports is to provide support for a child, both emotionally and financially, “without becoming over-involved to the point of being overboard”.

Friendly rivalry on the sporting field is a healthy part of growing up. But when the line between competition and parents’ ill-behaviour and aggression is crossed, there are no winners. Simply put, sideline antics are bad for children, bad for a school and bad for sport.

The current system of sport in some schools and communities can condone and actually facilitate this emotional abuse of children and encourages unacceptable behaviour in parents. It is unfortunate that more and more children are dropping out of sport, not because they do not like to play, but because of parents failing them.

A major problem with sports education currently is the selection of primary school children for regional and provincial representative teams. Handled correctly it has its merits. However, as a result of parent pushiness we are seeing more negative effects on children, especially in the form of increased anxiety.

There is also the so-called “Tiger Woods Syndrome”. Parents think they have to push their children to achieve from an early age. Children’s self-esteem is in danger when parents send the message that what they are doing isn’t valuable unless they can turn it into something tangible like a scholarship, tons of runs or many tries.

Parents are aware of the existence of sports scholarships and bursaries to high schools. And so the game is on: children are being pushed to become elite athletes with specialised training and diets. It has become a “feeding frenzy”. And then the “play-offs” commence — which high school will offer what scholarship or bursary? Invariably, parents offer their child to the highest bidder. I wonder where the child stands and what his or her opinion is?

This hyper-competitive atmosphere often translates into overly involved parents ready to explode at any coach, referee or other parent who interferes with their child’s performance. This ultimately contributes to a climate that inhibits a child’s ability to respect human dignity and good sportsmanship.

A sobering fact to digest is that if there are 240 000 boys in Grade 1 right now, only one will make a Springbok squad. All of them though, could have a chance to enjoy their sport, if their parents would only let them.

• Dave Beetar is the headmaster of Merchiston Preparatory School. This is an edited version of a talk he gave recently to parents at the school.


Parents play a critical role in a child’s enjoyment, success and maintaining of sports participation. They play the largest role in a child’s development as they are the main role models. Children learn values, attitudes and behaviour from parents.

Parents should consider a few important questions.

• Are negative sideline comments about children and coaches counterproductive?

• Is the undermining of the coach, the school and the parent community in line with school ethos?

• Considering the socialising function of sport, is it acceptable that a child is revered over and above team unity?

• Is it acceptable for a parent to rebuke a child in front of team-mates and other parents?

Parents are responsible for their actions while on school property and it is incumbent upon them to ensure that they also “play the game” by refraining from bringing a sporting body into disrepute, embarrassing their children and showing disrespect for the institution and what it offers their child.

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