Monkey see, monkey do: how sideline sports behaviours affect kids

Paul Eyers
Paul Eyers

For children’s sports, there’s no doubt that parents are essential – they’re the free ferry service, the half-time orange supplier, and the local cheer squad. But when it comes to sideline behaviour, some parents can behave badly, and when this happens it’s often a case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

In a new study from the University of South Australia (UniSA), researchers Dr Alyson Crozier, Dr Margarita Tsiros and Liam McCabe found a link between parents’ sideline conduct and athletes’ behaviours.

When parents behaved well – applauding good play, encouraging players, and enjoying the game – their child was more likely to project positive behaviour. But the more a parent behaved poorly – being overly critical, second-guessing the referee, or yelling abuse – this was related to greater antisocial behaviours in their child.

Schools create rules to protect students

Senior Lecturer in Exercise and Sport Psychology Dr Crozier says parents’ sideline actions can predict children’s on-field sports behaviours.

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She told EducationDaily that she is aware of many schools that have tried to “implement an intervention for parents, such as signing a “behaviour contract”, enforcing bad behaviour policies where parents are kicked out or banned from attending”.

“The effectiveness of these policies is often limited, but there is evidence that education programs that teach parents about their impact on their children is more effective at curbing bad parent sideline behaviour, says Dr Crozier.

Dr Crozier told EducationDaily that tracking the prevalence of parent negative behaviour is hard to do, “and so there isn’t evidence that it’s getting worse necessarily”.

“However, the effect of social media has made it easier to showcase extreme incidences of poor parent behaviours, and thus events are likely being seen more often (and more widespread) because of this,” she says.

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Antisocial behaviour has an impact on entire team

Dr Crozier says that, in some ways, the findings of the study were unsurprising.

“It makes sense that parents behaviours will be linked with what their child does,” she told EducationDaily.

“What was surprising was how parents’ behaviours were linked to how their child acted towards both their teammates and opponents,” she says. “With negative behaviours, if parents behaved poorly, the athletes were more likely to report behaving antisocially to teammates and opponents.”

The study findings identify that creating a positive, supportive environment is fundamental to children’s experience in sport.

“Adults can support this by focusing on children having fun (and less on winning), only saying positive things to their child or others (like coaches and umpire) and try not to instruct the players from the sidelines (that’s the coaches job!).”

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Sports participation should be inclusive – and fun

She believes that parents and educators should allow all children to participate in some form of sport that they enjoy – “don’t force anyone to participate if they don’t want, as they might start to associate negatively with physical activity”.

“While this can be hard with having to select a specific number of players for a team, ensuring each child has an activity to engage in (if they want to that is!), would help establish a positive relationship with physical activity and sport for children<” Dr Crozier told EducationDaily.

A national way of life

In Australia, about 13 million adults and three million children participate in sports each year.

The study assessed the perceptions of 67 Australian youth athletes (aged 12-17 years) participating in team-based sports. Athletes were asked to report their parents’ positive and negative sideline behaviour, as well as reflect on their own sporting behaviours.

Specifically, the study assessed negative behaviours. It found that:

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  • 32 per cent of participants reported never seeing any negative behaviours from their parents
  • 69 per cent reported some form of negative behaviour from their parents (even if rarely)
  • 18 per cent said their parents sometimes or often said bad things about the way they played
  • 17 per cent said their parents sometimes to very often yelled at the referee during the game after a bad call was made.

Role-model positive behaviour

“Most parents are role-models for their children, with children looking to their parents to learn about acceptable behaviour. So, it’s natural for them to copy the behaviours they observe,” Dr Crozier says.

“In our research, we found that when a player perceives positive support from a parent, the player also reported having positive sports attitudes and behaviours. Yet, when a parent engages in antisocial behaviours, their child will more likely behave similarly, potentially as frustration and aggression to their teammates and opponents.

“Encouragingly, most players in this study reported frequent positive parent behaviours, and negative parent behaviours as rare.”

Good sportsmanship makes sport more rewarding

Dr Crozier says that good sportsmanship is the cornerstone of a positive sports experience.

“Children get far more enjoyment from playing sport when a parent is present, encouraging, and supportive. Such behaviours also help build a child’s self-esteem, and improve their life skills and wellbeing,” Dr Crozier says.

“Yet poor parent behaviours can reduce a player’s confidence and damage their emotional and physiological wellbeing. In some cases, they can even lead to a child withdrawing from a sport altogether.

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“Sport is an important part of life in Australia. If we can encourage respect, sportsmanship, and fun, we can ensure that sport continues to be a positive experience for everyone.”

Top tips for positive parent behaviour

  • Be a positive role model for your child – be courteous and respectful to coaches, referees, players, and spectators
  • Avoid shouting instructions – unless you are an official coach, focus on words of encouragement
  • Keep comments about your child and others positive – whether you’re at the sporting field, on the car ride home, or at home, don’t bad mouth other players, parents, coaches, or game officials
  • Prioritise having fun – remember, children want to play sport to have fun and socialise. Winning isn’t everything. Have fun yourself, and help your child enjoy sport by creating positive memories.
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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with a singular perspective on the world.