Can spectator silence improve youth sport performance and enjoyment?1 Opinion
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For those of us that have watched Ray Winstone’s performance of ‘Angry Football Dad’ for the FA’s Respect campaign, we can truly experience the extremes of negative adult involvement in grassroots’ football. The Lancashire FA’s “Silent Weekend” is a recent initiative set out to improve the behaviour of adults in grassroots football and, as a consequence, allow the children involved more enjoyment. In simple terms, one could describe that the aim of reducing to nil the hyperventilated verbal exhortations from parents to their “mini-me’s” cuts out so many potential moments of doubt, anger, frustration, confrontation and, at its worst, abuse.
We seem to live in a generation of cosseting parents who want to check on and, to an extent, do every last thing for their children when in fact it’s likely that with minimum interaction the children will most likely work it out for themselves. The term “helicopter parents” coined by a journalist sums up the notion exactly. An example strengthening this claim, via a counter-example, is Skateboarding. Very much an American import but is becoming extremely popular with British youngsters; skateboarding can demonstrate how minimal to no adult interaction can boost the skills of participants in the sport. Skateboarders have a culture built upon respect, tolerance and nurture, without the interference of pushy parents. Why is this case? Simple-there are, in a large number of cases, no rules on the skate-parks, but everyone knows them. I have seen several parks where there are no specified sets of rules, where skaters of all ages mix safely taking turns in the half-pipe and are watching out for each other. Older skaters are particularly helpful to beginners who are going to fall over once in a while. Compared to football, many parents won’t have experience of skateboarding; they can’t be shouting from the sidelines when to change direction or the right technique to land because they have never done it before. Support comes from within and from peers who are stood alongside “on the pitch”.
Particularly with football matches in England, children will continually look to the sidelines for instruction throughout the game. Too much instruction will hamper the child’s ability in decision making. Instead children should be coached to figure out solutions for themselves; this way they will gain a much better understanding of the game simply by exploring it themselves. The famous image of Gary Lineker signaling to the bench when Paul Gascoigne had just been booked in the 1990 World Cup England v Germany is etched in the memory for many but redolent with interaction to coaches on the sidelines. This is a clear example of players who, when playing well were good, but when things went wrong didn’t know what to do. Children should be coached to have the ability to solve and work out their own difficulties during game time. Looking abroad, the Atletico Madrid Football academy has children as young as 12 taking over the training sessions. This would only improve the understanding of their own team members as well as the game. Perhaps this is a lesson that coaches in the UK can take away.
My personal experience with Silent Weekend as a grassroots coach has been very positive. I have seen my team play with more freedom and enjoyment, resulting in a number of good scores. One study by Omli and Wiese-Bjornstal (2013) found that children prefer their parents to be silent on match-day, which further supports the argument that there should be silence on the sidelines. However, throughout childhood, it is parents’ and other significant adults who are the primary sources of social support and encouragement (Harter, 1999); therefore parents’ voices should be heard. Perhaps then a compromise should be made, so that parents can still cheer and encourage their children, but leave the instructions for the coach to make before, at half time, and after the match. Too many instructions from coaches, parents and even other teammates are bound to confuse players and decrease enjoyment.
To summarise, the advantages of spectator silence are:
• That it avoids unnecessary criticism of players
• It allows coaches and parents to watch and enjoy the game better
• The children will enjoy themselves more
• It allows players and coaches to reflect on the game better
• It reduces the pressure put on players and allow greater performances
The skate-park culture is a fantastic example of seeing how children can work out the skills of the sport for themselves. Football can learn from this model during match days so that children can be given the freedom to express, explore and enjoy themselves in the beautiful game.