Shocking and unsporting: Parents at children’s football games have forgotten how to behave

After nine years on the touchline watching children’s football, I find the behaviour of some mums and dads leaves a lot to be desired

The behaviour of some parenrs at children's football matches can be aggressive, abusive and lacking in sportsmanship. Getty Images
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Pitch invasions, coaches sent off for arguing, spectators almost coming to blows, verbal abuse.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m talking about a World Cup final, a spirited Manchester derby or the dying minutes of a Roma vs Lazio grudge match.

Rather, these are a few of the scenes I have witnessed while watching children’s football matches in the UAE over the past few years.

Like most parents, my weekends ceased to resemble a weekend the moment my bundles of joy arrived in the world. Additionally, as a mum to three boys, weekends are now planned with military precision around football.

There’s training, matches and tournaments; hats, sunscreen and water bottles (which will get left at the venue); not to mention the correct kit (home or away?); shin pads and boots for grass or astroturf.

While I’ve come to terms with the fact my weekend is Pep Guardiola’s dream scenario, I remain wide-eyed and open-mouthed by the lack of self-control, decorum and manners some parents exhibit.

Having been watching matches for the past nine years and counting, I can't help but notice that while the children are enjoying all the benefits of team sports – physical exercise, confidence-building, friendship and communication – their parents are screaming, yelling, abusing, and on one memorable occasion, actually invading the pitch.

All because they didn’t like the outcome.

Of a game of football.

Played by children.

A recent survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials of nearly 36,000 sports officials in the US found that 69 per cent of the respondents agreed that sportsmanship at games is getting worse. An additional 50 per cent said they have felt unsafe while doing their jobs.

And the worst offenders, according to respondents? The parents.

That’s right, dear old mum and dad. The ones yelling on the sidelines as though the match was a matter of life and death.

Some of the behaviour I have spotted at children’s football matches defies belief. There’s the coach who was sent off for screaming at the referee. Yes, the very person who is supposed to serve as a role model to the little ones, got dismissed for yelling at the ref’s decision.

I’ve seen parents from opposing teams almost coming to blows after their children tussled over the ball, and fathers striding out on to the pitch mid-game to yell tactics at their child.

Then there are the mums and dads screaming at their tweens to “take them down”, as though their child was Legolas and the opposing child the orc from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers delivering the bomb to blow up Helm’s Deep.

And then there’s my all-time favourite: the day I watched a woman run on to the pitch to stage a sit-down protest, because her son’s team lost the match.

UAE football club IFA recently saw fit to issue a parent conduct statement for its IFA Sport Stars Football Competition Spring 2024. Apparently, we’re now at a point in history whereby common sense needs to be clearly stated.

“Have fun and enjoy watching your children play football within an encouraging and enjoyable environment,” the code of conduct reads. “This is not a win-at-all-costs competition.”

They also add a point so obvious it’s painful that it has to be made: “All spectators are asked to keep off the pitches and watch from designated areas.”

You see those white lines on the ground? That’s called “the pitch”. And in the same way you don’t see swimming gala parents diving into the pool or parents of runners racing around the track to offer advice on pacing, you can’t just stroll on to the pitch during a game simply because you feel like it.

Another point states: “Parents are asked to behave in a considerate manner to opponents and officials.” Adding: “Any abusive, aggressive or violent behaviour will not be tolerated, and the offending academy will be asked to leave [the] competition.”

The very fact such behaviour needs to be addressed means there’s something not quite right at the heart of sporting events for children. And it’s not the children’s fault.

Don’t think that bad behaviour is the sole province of the losing team. You should see what parents do when their team wins. The screaming, the yelling, the over-the-top celebrations, the racing on to the pitch.

The children, meanwhile, usually offer congratulatory palm slaps and get on with the game.

Celebration is great, joyous, marvellous. But also, as adults, you have to bear in mind that another bunch of six-year-olds just lost. You need to rein it in.

“Be gracious in victory and defeat,” reads the final point of the code of conduct. “Win with humility, lose with grace.”

Remember, they’re not talking to the children, they’re talking to you.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 6:02 PM