Behaviour, misbehaviour and adult involvement in youth football

These touchline tyrants should take their bawl home!

By Jim White

In six years coaching my son’s football team I have come to the following conclusion: short of excess intake of alcohol, there is nothing that alters the behaviour of adults for the worse as much as youth football.

Every weekend I stand on the touchline and watch allegedly mature adults screaming at their children, abusing match officials, carrying on as if they were eight years old and had just been denied the present of their choice by Santa. And the team coaches are among the principal offenders. In Britain, almost uniquely, youth football works like this: the dad of one of the team players becomes the coach. In the overwhelming majority of cases he does so without any training, experience or scrutiny. Sometimes, the result is little short of child abuse.

Once, in a game my lads were playing, the rather dopey opposition full back gave away a penalty through a somewhat avoidable handball. Instead of explaining what he had done wrong and advising him on how he might avoid such problems in the future, the boy’s coach chose instead to bawl profanities in his face. The attack was personal and sustained. The boy was, the coach informed him, useless, fat and stupid. After what seemed like minutes, standing there with his bottom lip quivering and his eyes filling, the boy could take no more. He ran from the pitch in tears and headed into a copse, where he climbed a tree and sat on a branch for the rest of the match. “Good riddance,” the coach shouted after him. “We’re better off without you, you useless tosser.”

It is worth adding that the game did not involve two teams from the grimy inner city. This took place in leafy Oxfordshire. And the lad concerned was seven years old.

Nor was it an isolated example. Such attitudes are everywhere, smothering our national game in an atmosphere than can be as poisonous as it is claustrophobic. For far too many, winning is all that matters. And everything that facilitates victory – cheating, bullying, poaching players from other teams – is not just tolerated, it is encouraged.

Oddly, the desperate urge for vicarious victory seems only to obtain in boys’ football. The other day I refereed a game between two sets of 12-year-old girls and suddenly I felt as if I could breathe more easily. The girls played with smiles rather than snarls. On the touchline parents laughed and encouraged, their coaches were paragons of good cheer.

In its training courses, the FA preaches an enlightened doctrine of sportsmanship and relaxation. Professional clubs enforce strict codes of parental conduct. But that is at the top of the tree. For too many small boys their experience of the beautiful game will be limited to red-faced coaches and snarling parents. No wonder once they reach adulthood, they are giving up football in droves.

Our generation should be ashamed.

first published in the Telegraph

Violence and abuse in youth soccer

Violence and abuse in youth sports generally has escalated to an alarming level. News reports like the examples below are not uncommon. From parents tackling opposing players to threatening coaches with firearms to physical fights resulting in arrests, it’s not always fun and games in the world of youth soccer:

“A 42 year-old adult man strikes the soccer referee, who happened to also be the town’s mayor, during a match between 11-year-old girls. The coach was sentenced to one year in jail (all but 45 days was suspended), required to attend anger management courses and banned form all youth sports events for a year.”

“An upset coach attacks the game referee near a concession stand following a soccer game of 12-year-olds. The coach head butts the official and breaks his nose.”

“The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) has banned one parent and two soccer coaches for life and disbanded two boys soccer teams following the worst brawl in its 35-year history. About 30 adults were involved in a post-match melee in the southern California town of San Juan Capistrano after a tournament game between the Palmdale Eagles and the Chino Chiefs. Three adults were arrested, one parent needed treatment for a bite, another suffered cuts and a swollen eye and others reported being hit on the head with umbrellas and being threatened by a man swinging a metal rod. The cause of the melee after the San Juan Capistrano game was unclear but reports from the sheriff’s department at the time said violence broke out after an assistant coach for the winning Chino team allegedly tried to pick a fight with a Palmdale player.”

“In 2006, two soccer coaches got into a fistfight at a game for 7-year-old girls. A youth football coach attacked a referee, and another went after a 13-year-old opponent. A parent allegedly pulled a .357 Magnum at a football game for 5- and 6-year-olds as he argued over playing time for his son.”

“The structure of team sports is outdated and broken,” says Scott Lancaster of Somers, N.Y., the senior director of youth football development for the National Football League and author of Fair Play, a book that aims to take the negatives out of youth sports and encourages positive parental involvement. “Preconditioning children to value only final results in sports competitions robs them from the joy of spontaneous play and learning new skills in a positive environment.”

Lancaster believes it is the way that youth sports are organized, taught and implemented that is at the very root of the problem : “Kids are forced to play adult versions of games to satisfy an ‘adult’ thirst for experiencing what they watch on television.”

Often the emphasis is on winning at all costs. Parental behaviour at youth sports events often teaches our children that confrontation and cheating is the way to resolve conflict.

In the UK, John Allpress (in charge of player development at the FA) observes:

“It’s the attitude of the people. It is certain because the facts bear it out, the statistics show that the minute adults get involved; some children get excluded from the programme. They are seen not to be effective in matches and therefore they are left out or become sub. The kids don’t get a game and there is a danger in that because what is the basis for excluding kids from the programme?

When the kids decide, everyone is involved. There is no bias; people don’t get excluded from the programme.

It is a fact that 50%+ of players at an academy are born in September through to December and less than 10% are born in May to August. Why is that? They are exactly the same as the other children only they are a bit younger, so why does that discrepancy exist? It is not just the academies; it is all the way through football and grass roots football. The minute adults are involved the bias kicks in.

The reason why the bias kicks in is because the adults have a team and they want their team to win so they pick the stronger kids. Your team got beat 4-0 so you are crap, our team won so I feel good and I can go to the tyre factory on a Monday morning and I can say my team wins every week. That is where people get their self-esteem and it is understandable and maybe even human nature but it is only there because people want to win games. When the kids decide, it’s not there and the players that could make it through are among the younger group.”

But what can we do about it?

In the UK, many senior Centre of Excellence and Academy coaches believe there is an urgent need for the English Football Association. to:-

Initiate independent research into the effect youth football currently has on the moral development of young people.

  • Discourage “win at all costs” mentality.
  • Stress the importance of individual child development
  • Re-define winning.
  • Encourage parental involvement (other than coaching) into the management/ administration/social side of non-league and grass roots youth football clubs.
  • Closely monitor and examine all current aspects of youth football particularly at non-league level.
  • Investigate the possibility of an OFSTED type inspection process for Youth Football Clubs including on going coach assessment.

There needs to be three different levels of rules, control, management and supervision of youth football, e.g :–

1. League clubs.

2. Non- league clubs.

3. Grass roots clubs.

In addition, coaches should think seriously about why they want their children to play in local leagues. Is it really in the best interests of the players if their only experience of ‘the beautiful game’ is to compete for points on Saturday mornings surrounded by over-excited adults?

Should we not make sure our players also experience the other side of the game, where adult involvement is confined to providing a ball for them to play with and something to eat and drink afterwards?

Let your players play in organised leagues by all means, but try to also let them have a bit of disorganised fun now and then!