OPINION: 'Parents who swear at kids' football should be ashamed'
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“@X!K you!” A man screamed through my passenger side window, slamming both fists full pelt against the glass, face ruddy with cold and almost wild rage.
“Mum?” The kids enquired, voices wobbling, as Portsmouth fans climbed onto the back of our car, kicking the bumper, ‘sweary man’ still blaring expletives.
The team had just drawn a clean sheet with ITFC, and following what was meant to be a fun day out at the cinema, we found ourselves in the middle of the aftermath. Ground Zero. Mindless banter and chanting morphing frenziedly into something more dangerous. Police ran in to pull the sides apart. And still, as we left the town, shaken, the peal of angry voices rose above the sound of the traffic.
“Hooligans!” I looked to my husband, who was trying to stay quiet. He’d almost visibly melted into the driver’s seat when we’d found ourselves surrounded. Conflict is not his thing.
Now, I’m getting het up as I write this column – and as you continue to read on, the irony of this won’t be lost on you.
I’d been contemplating penning a piece on bad behaviour at grassroots football for a while, and the weekend’s antics fed into my hand.
Why? Because I honestly believe there’s a long way to go before the sport could possibly begin to be called a ‘beautiful game’.
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From high-profile bad behaviour (think of Suarez sinking his teeth into Ivanoic’s ear, or Cantona’s now cult Kung Fu kick), to thuggism and mob mentality at grounds before and after matches...and, think grassroots footie.
Because that’s where it all begins right? When little Billy puts on his (very expensive) stud boots for the first time and heads out into the field on a Saturday morning for a bit of a laugh, to return home caked in mud.
Grassroots football is meant to build confidence, respect and communication skills. It’s a welcome respite from technology.
But what I’ve found, from many years as a ‘soccer mum’ is there is here, too, a dark side. And, like professional football (because, yes, I know all fans are not villains) it’s the few who spoil it for the many.
I’ll never forget my son’s first 4x4 festival game – he will have been about eight at the time. One of the granddad’s called the ref, who looked about 13, a ‘di##head’. Charming. And the insults continued to fly around the school playing field for the entire day.
The following year. Another field. Another festival. And the lead sponsors (a lovely bunch) were forced to get up on stage, voicing their disappointment as a couple of teams (including coaches and parents) proceeded to ‘boo’ the winners.
This was all new to me. The closest I’d gotten to watching my kids play sports before we joined the footie world was school sports day, when the only kind of argument might involve a couple of nans politely fighting over the last slice of flapjack at the refreshment stand.
With every leap in age group, the behaviour seems to get worse, from coaches, to players and their parents. Now, I don’t live under a rock. I know kids swear. Hell, I swear. But it is not appropriate behaviour at kids sporting events. Especially where coaches and parents are concerned. What kind of example are you setting for the children?
Could this entry-level boisterous banter, escalating from grumbles to full on name-calling and aggression, be breeding the next generation of riotous football fans – to spoil the game for the rest of us? After all, as the saying goes, ‘monkey see, monkey do’.
There is just no place for abuse, fighting, bad language or bullying on the pitch, in the changing rooms or on the sidelines.
I have personally witnessed, over the past eight years of watching my youngest play:
Mums fighting with umbrellas
Parents calling players names on the pitch
Parents calling out weaker players (who are only trying to learn)
A young referee being called a ‘wan!@r’
Parents squaring up to coaches over their child’s position
Coaches goading weaker players and swearing at them over the pitch
It's. Just. Not. On.
Can we just all remember firstly, that this is a game? Something to be enjoyed by all parties. Can we also remember that the coaches and managers are all volunteers, who drag themselves out of bed in rain, hail and often snow, to set up the matches for our kids?
That the referees are usually young teens, getting paid around £30 to be heckled for their decisions.
And that us parents too, the ones who aren’t shouting expletives, have come out in the cold to enjoy watching our kids in their element – more often than not in near-freezing conditions.
To those reading this who may fall into the ‘overly shouty’ category, I say this. Watch your attitude, and watch your language. The FA Respect code of conduct is perfectly clear....and it can be found online!
The anonymous coach
A former youth football coach shares his experience of life on the pitch.
“Most clubs should be FA chartered with a clear set of procedures. However, problems arise because everything is done on a volunteer basis, so some clubs are better than others.
“The key custodians of the culture of a club are held by coaches who, in reality, are often parents happy to give their time to support the team their child plays in.
"I felt the main problem in youth football was the differing expectations of coaches and parents, especially on match days. In practise, at the younger age groups the game is about developing the children’s physical and mental abilities, and should be geared to ensuring all players enjoy training and matches – it is about playing, not winning.
“The FA did try to help this by taking away league tables/official results, so there’d be less pressure to win.
“We’ve all seen this doesn’t always happen. Some coaches are focussed purely on winning to please parents, ensure the best kids want to play in their teams, and probably, I think, stroke their egos.
“You will see these coaches every Saturday, who put their best players on the pitch for most of the match, leaving less able children on the subs bench for too long – desperate to win the game before playing all their players. I think this is appalling and it makes me feel very sick every time I see it.
“What if it’s your eight or nine-year-old kid who just wants to run around and enjoy a game of football, but is kept out because the coach wants to win the youth league game in division four? For who and what?
“The desire to win, rather than play, then can transfer to disrespectful behaviour towards referees and indeed volunteer linesmen, who constantly receive abuse from parents. These are a red line, and coaches should be telling parents to leave when this occurs.
“But I’ve found coaches can sometimes be the worst culprits – again, abusing refs, and setting a terrible example for their team and parents.
“My son did his referee course and refereed in some U9 league games in our nearest town. An opposing coach verbally abused him and would not stop until the chairman of the home club came onto the pitch to intervene. It’s disgraceful!
“Youth clubs must take a strong lead in building a culture within a club that is inclusive, based on improving children both physically and mentally, within a framework that’s competitive, but based on playing good quality football.
“Coaches on the ground must learn to deliver this type of coaching and communicate with parents why this is the best way of developing their child’s skills.
“Every coach should be able to look themselves in the mirror and say they ensured all their players had the same opportunities – I’m not sure there are many who can.”