Without a doubt, this time of year is all about winning. Thanks to the last few weeks of finals fever, the media has been full of tales about underdogs triumphing and boys from the wrong side of the tracks making good because of the saving grace of sport. The football grand finals are one thing, but should we be concerned about how the high stakes attitudes of the AFL and NRL translate on the school sports field?
Parents invest significant money and time in providing opportunities for our kids to learn all the values and important life lessons that sport can impart. So deep is the idea that sport is inherently good, some private schools make weekend sport compulsory. So it struck me as odd when my daughter started school and the principal penned a letter informing parents that physical violence or threats towards coaches, other parents and even the kids was unacceptable.
What sort of wholesome, life-affirming “great Australian sporting values” were being modelled at our children’s sporting events if warnings like this are necessary? I’ve since heard enough horror stories of school sport to regard it as a nasty cesspit. I know of parents abusing other people’s kids for missing a goal, parents intimidating coaches for letting weaker players have a turn on the court, and parents abusing umpires for not tolerating their kid’s violent behaviour. And it’s not just team sports where parents model the worst sporting values. I’ve seen children reduced to tears by screaming and disappointed parents for losing an under-10s tennis match. My friends’ 14-year-old daughter was called a “pussy” by her coach for not winning a match. Who knew that using a derogatory term for women and their genitalia would build motivation and self-esteem in teenage girls? One of my husband’s enduring memories of childhood sport was being asked “Do you hate ’em?” by the coach before the football final. In the coach’s eyes, motivating his team would take nothing less than instilling in his players a loathing for the other side. At the time, my husband was in Grade 3 and the grand final ended at three-quarter time because of the abusive behaviour of parents.
Former AFL star Glenn Archer recently punched a runner at his son’s under-15 football game. You’ll be pleased to know that Archer has taken “full responsibility” for his actions and will be staying on as a North Melbourne board director. We can only assume he took “full responsibility” for his previous two assault charges as well.
Of course, not everyone involved in kids’ sport suffers from poor impulse control. One children’s football coach reported that one of the most frustrating parts of the job is dealing with controlling parents who seem to think that school sports is about them and what benefits their kids individually, rather than the team. “I’ve heard parents say often over the years, ‘It’s all about you today – don’t worry about what [the coach] said – just grab the ball, run and take five bounces’,” the football coach said.
The benefits of exercise to kids’ physical and emotional wellbeing are well documented. But according to children’s mental health expert Georgina Manning, there’s a big difference between kids kicking a ball around a park and them being subjected to highly structured, high-stress and high-stakes organised sport. “If parents have too much invested then the result is much more important, and teaches kids to not just have fun and enjoy the process, it becomes a ‘Win at all costs’ mentality,” says Manning who is a registered counsellor and psychotherapist and director of Wellbeing for Kids. Manning says another potential downside of organised sport can be the time it takes away from kids having free time to just play and have fun.
“I was counselling a boy who was having regular anxiety and it came to light that soccer was the cause of his ‘stress’. Once he showed talent, his parents started pushing him to be the best at soccer and put him into training five nights a week and on Saturday. “He was exhausted and didn’t enjoy the game anymore – he just wanted to play and have fun again. He literally had no time left for down time, playing, socialising, reflecting, discovering other interests and just being an 11-year-old boy – it was no surprise he suffered so much anxiety and wasn’t enjoying life.” It’s frequently said that sport is character-building. And it can be. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
You don’t have to spend too much time around kids’ sport to see that it can create characters who are incapable of losing gracefully, who want to win at all costs, who reject the weakest teammates instead of supporting them, and resolve conflicts with verbal abuse and a quick right hook.