Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: The parent trap

Over-involved parents of young athletes are getting worse—and it’s up to coaches to step in
May 10, 2023

We’ve all seen them, and at every level of sport: the parents who get over-involved, incessantly shouting at their children on the field, telling them what to do, running them down, showing their rage at decisions by match officials that go against “our Jonny”. Naturally, they want the best for their boys and girls, and there is usually a healthy identification with and encouragement of their talent and performance. But some say parental behaviour is becoming worse, more vociferous, tribal and partisan. And there are stories of referees and umpires giving up in the face of abuse and—at times—violence. It may even result in a crisis in the recruitment and long-term commitment of these essential officials. 

I’ve been learning about how this scenario plays out in the academies and youth recruitment of professional football clubs. 

Most parents are willing to put themselves out considerably to encourage their child in a sporting passion. They drive them miles across town to their training several times a week, braving traffic, roadworks and road closures, and the exhaustion of this extra burden. They may be juggling the needs of their talented offspring, enrolled at a specialist institution, with those of their other, “ordinary” children at the local school. They have to weigh academic and other qualifications against the requirement for football, football and more football. They have to cope, as the children get older, with the distressing risks of failure and rejection. At times, rejection comes out of the blue, with no warning that the progress being made was anything but good. (There is a phrase for keeping on, as opposition for the promising ones, boys who are already judged not to be up to it: it’s called, I gather, the “mannequin culture”.) 

Some interpret the use of VAR in football as making it acceptable for spectators to yell at the referee

My parents supported me throughout my career as a cricketer in a laidback way–not that there was anything like a professional club academy when I was young. As I look back, I’m amazed at how restrained my father, in particular, who was himself a fine amateur cricketer, was; I can’t remember him criticising me or even questioning my methods, technique or my psychology once I had started to play first-class cricket. Before that, he would not publicly defend or attack me, and would never make his presence felt while watching a game. But he would privately rebuke me for selfishness, boasting or for having unrealistic expectations of other players in the team.

Cricket and football are very different games; the career of a footballer in particular is short and—if successful —involves huge amounts of money and fame from an early age. Children and parents have to deal with shrewd and persuasive agents. The stakes are high. Seventeen-year-olds at the leading clubs may already be earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year or even more. Will they become the next Harry Kane, Kylian Mbappé or Lionel Messi? Or will they, as is more likely, fade away into a minor league? 

Most parents love their children whether they make it or not. But there are those who live vicariously through them. For these mothers and fathers, their own disappointments and failures in life are to be compensated for, even rectified by, the successes of their children. They may swing from adulation of the child to condemnation. “You’re no good. You’re not practising hard enough. That other boy is much better. Look at what we’re doing for you and you don’t get stuck in.” The child of such parents is loved for what he does (or might do) rather for what he is, for himself.

At the same time, these parents, like the rest of us, have less respect for authority; some interpret the use of VAR in football, as with the right to appeal via the Decision Review System in cricket, as making it acceptable for spectators to yell at the referee, demanding revision or review. Tribalism joins hands with the paranoid view that any authority that refuses to take our side is a tool of evil forces. 

Professional football clubs, who take on little apprentices and hopefuls from the age of nine or younger, are well aware of these issues. One coach of the young said: “What is it about the parents of these children? If their children worked in a bank, their mothers wouldn’t come in screaming against their bosses. Why do they feel free to do it to us?” Club coaches and counsellors see it as central to their job to guide parents and children to view the twin imposters, success and failure, with a degree of detachment. 

There are, they tell me, big changes of mentality these days. There is a story about Deloris, the mother of the great basketball player Michael Jordan. When, at 15, he complained about not being selected for his Varsity basketball team as a sophomore, she told him to “Get back into the gym and work harder”. On another occasion, when he felt undervalued, she didn’t blame the coaches or go to the athletics director, she didn’t pull him out: she told him he had to do better if he wanted to succeed; and found him a part-time job that paid $3.10 an hour. 

Back in 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about the stages of mourning when a loved one has died. She suggested the acronym DABDA: D for denial, the first stage; A for anger, second; B for bargaining (perhaps with God); D for depression or down; and A for acceptance. Today, one academy counsellor uses a version of this to prepare parents and young footballers for disappointment, adding N, for “new dream”. 

The route into top sport has never been easy, but many of the boys have it even harder these days. There is a lack of male role models. Moreover, the normal routes into coming of age, which include alcohol and exposure to drugs, are so readily detectable by blood tests that the overall footballing culture almost rules them out. This can encourage bursts of bad behaviour of various kinds, which can also lead some to social media exposure and thus to public shame. It’s a difficult and complicated upbringing, for footballer-children and their parents alike.

The coaches have learned that boys whom they call “too cool for school” rarely make it to the top. What’s more, they may lead other kids down the same path of selfishness and superiority. One club refers to these boys as “vampires”, who devour the others. 

I learn that the coaches see their job as akin to that of Steve Waugh, when he was captain of Australia’s cricket team. Waugh’s aim, he told me, was to make players not only better cricketers, but better people.