Alumni News

Ugly parent syndrome taking fun out of kids sport

Wendy Piltz

Senior Lecturer: Health and Physical Education, School of Education
University of South Australia
Wendy Piltz with her daughter

Recent headlines reported an umpire feared so seriously for his safety that he had to flee a junior football match in Victoria after being chased by brawling parents and spectators. While this might be an extreme example, ‘ugly parent syndrome’ is a lot more common that you might think and has a wider impact on the children and communities involved in sport.

Ugly parent syndrome is defined as the overly invested parent who interferes with their child’s sport performance or event. We’ve all seen it or heard of it at least once, the overly stressed parent yelling advice or getting angry at the coach or umpire or even their own child or other players.

Unfortunately what we don’t see is the embarrassment and psychological distress this can place on the children involved and the reduction in the numbers of sport participants when parents decide they don’t want to expose their own children to this aggressive behaviour.

There are a range of reasons why a parent may behave badly at a sport match – but Wendy Piltz thinks it is more about perspective and the management of the sport that can cause things to get out of hand.

“From what I have seen some parents seem to have a lack of perspective about what their child playing sport is all about,” says Wendy Piltz, Senior Lecturer in Health and Physical Education at UniSA.

“Some parents behave badly because they are too caught up in the result of the game and for some they are living ‘their own dreams’ through their children.

“An overemphasis on winning distorts the true value of sport participation for children.

“Instead of valuing effort, improvement, enjoyment and cooperation a win at all cost attitude can lead to negative behaviour from parents including abusive criticism of umpires, arguments between spectators and unsupportive comments to players.”

Sporting organisations have a responsibility to actively promote the positive values of junior sport. This can be implemented by projecting the positive values and the desirable behaviours expected at junior sporting events and making these live in real time at junior games. It involves structuring the season and finals to promote even competition and maximise participation.

“If parents are reminded that sport is also about getting out there and trying, learning, doing your best and having fun then that ugly behaviour is diffused.”

Wendy has witnessed and experienced the ‘ugly parent syndrome’ through her extensive career in sports; as a coach, coach educator and most recently she has been working as a Junior Coordinator for Lacrosse SA with a focus on junior participation and development. She has also had a lifelong involvement in sport and played a wide variety including lacrosse and cricket at a national level.

Wendy believes the responsibility lies with everyone who participates in junior sport to remember that it is about supporting healthy development for children and young people.

“There are ways to counteract ugly parent syndrome which requires considerable effort on the sport clubs behalf to communicate with parents and engage them in appropriate behaviour.”

Wendy would like to see further shifts in junior sport, particularly in the structure of the sports themselves so that they stop mimicking senior sports and further facilitate positive sport environments.

“The structure of junior sport just duplicates the competitiveness of senior levels without question.

“For example if we change the finals structure in sport to encourage all children to play and be included rather than just those kids who potentially get to practice more and get better faster we might see more kids staying in sport into their teenage years.

“We want kids to stay in sport because it is so beneficial for them – it gives them the structure they need to be successful in life, particularly in teenage years as it will set them up to be healthy active adults.”

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