Giving competitive dads the red card

With its new ‘Respect’ agenda, the Football Association is demonising a key figure in youth sport: demanding dads.

The folk devil of the pushy parent has a powerful hold over the popular imagination - from the competitive dad in comedy sketches to the hothousing insanity of mums taking their child’s school entrance exams in John O’Farrell’s satirical novel May Contain Nuts. The Football Association (FA), therefore, will probably face little criticism for its campaign, announced this week, against overaggressive parents.

The aim of the FA’s new campaign is to encourage respect for football referees and for young players. Football bosses are worried that parents shouting from the sidelines are stopping people from becoming referees, putting kids off the game and ruining the experience of other parents watching their kids play. The FA’s decision to tackle errant parents is part of its ‘Respect’ campaign, which focuses on misguided and inappropriate behaviour on the part of over-competitive fathers. An internet film accompanying the campaign, which ‘aims to improve parental behaviour’, stars Ray Winstone in a double role: as wild-eyed, pit-bull parent and also as his reprimanding FA saviour.

The reasoning behind the new touchline guidelines goes like this: some children are put under too much pressure by their parents; this pressure prevents them from practicing ‘skills’ and forces them instead to focus on performance and end results; too much pressure puts children off taking up football.

The Respect campaign is a logical extension of last year’s decision by Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA’s director of football development, to stop the publication of children’s football match results. Apparently, to report publicly that Torquay Tigers won a seven-nil victory over Portsmouth Panthers would put far too much pressure on the game’s young participants, impacting on their self-esteem.

The FA’s new campaign preys upon a ‘parents are the problem’ mentality that is now ubiquitous in the UK, particularly within competitive sports. This effort to re-educate parents will only increase suspicion and intervention by the petty-minded, unimaginative, vindictive bureaucratic do-gooders who are, in fact, the real threat to children’s quality of life and to sport in Britain today.

The Respect campaign is the result of a number of social trends that have convinced the FA to act against competitive dads. Firstly, there is the rise of therapeutic education, which reduces schooling to simply a matter of raising self-esteem. The spill-over of the therapeutic impulse into sports coaching and policy has been significant. This is evident in the policy of inclusion that has been adopted by all the major sports governing bodies, and which has become a condition for getting funding for sports activities from New Labour’s shiny new burgeoning bureaucracy, Sport England - the government agency which aims to create opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to play sport in the community.

Alongside the therapeutic tendency there has been the decline of competition. Many parents and politicians lament the decline of school sports day and the relative decline of British national teams. The absence of competition has serious consequences for children who will be unprepared for future challenges and who are missing out on a valuable life lesson.

Of these two trends, it is the therapeutic one that is considerably stronger in society at large and which has been institutionalised. But within children’s sports, a strange compromise has been reached which attempts to accommodate both the therapeutic and anti-competitive tendencies. Sport is now being promoted as a strange form of non-competitive, inclusive competition. And in this context, the competitive dad or the pushy parent is public enemy number one.

Blaming parents for just about everything is a trend that is widespread in society, but which is having a negative impact on sport in particular. In the final part of the alarmist ‘Respect’ video, an ‘FA welfare officer’ gives his opinion on how badly the dad in the video is behaving. The FA has carved out a new role for itself as a social policeman. In fact, parents can be awarded a ‘certificate of respect’ if they answer correctly the FA’s questions on appropriate behaviour. This unbelievably patronising offer has to be seen to be believed - click here to see it for yourself.

Sport does not lend itself well to the new culture of therapy. That’s because sport is a space in life where we can test ourselves and where we can directly compete in ways that are not possible in other social or informal activities. Through a system of esoteric rules, in sport we can be as competitive as we like, without having to worry about everyday politics or the rules of society in general. However, when society’s concerns invade the competitive space, then sport and competition become degraded. And today, society has almost conquered the sporting arena, as can be seen in the marriage of sport and health policy in recent years, in the development of sport-related role-model and mentoring programmes for errant youth, and in the policing of athletics for drug use.

It is curious that football has become the focus of the FA’s Respect campaign, its desire to ‘include’ more young people in sport. Because unlike tennis and many other sports, football does not have a crisis of participation. In fact, it might be seen as the cause of the crisis of participation in most other sports, because everyone is playing football. Yet the real concern behind the ‘inclusion’ mantra is what kind of inclusion children are getting through sport. As the FA’s ‘Respect’ manual says: ‘We all know how much children can get out of football and as parents we all want to be as supportive as we can. But is the support you are giving appropriate?’

In other words, it is ‘inappropriate support’, pressure and shouting that is putting children off playing football - allegedly. The use of the word ‘inclusive’ in this context betrays its true origins. Being inclusive does not mean, as common sense would suggest, allowing more children into the game. ‘Inclusivity’ is actually a code of behaviour that requires niceness at all times, and simultaneously a lowering of the standards required to participate. Anything that may put off an child from participating in a sport is deemed to be bullying, elitism or ‘excluding’ - and therefore wrong.

As George Parolalista, a father and a player who has been through the ranks, says: ‘I would not put up with anyone telling me that I cannot watch my son play football and cheer at the same time. This policy is not going to help the game or be of any benefit to children whatsoever, it’s just anti-competition in disguise.’

The question of how the new policy regarding cheering parents will be enforced should be a cause for concern for all of us. The consequences of enforced ‘respect’ on the touchline will be to increase tension between adults, to corrode adult-child relations and to bring out the worst in everyone. The most damaging consequence is likely to be an increase in degraded snitching on the side of the pitch, brought about by heightened suspicion between adults over who is behaving ‘appropriately’ and who is not.

The PC, bureaucratic ‘bod’ who plans to police the playing of the beautiful game amongst children should fill parents and sports coaches with horror; we should defend competitive dads. As a lifelong coach, I can see that the desire to reintroduce competition in its pure, untampered form is growing amongst parents and children, who are agitated by the demands of the therapeutic and the anti-competition lobbies. Their desire to return to the days of ‘win, win, win’ needs to be given a voice.

Dan Travis is a sports coach and writer. In association with the Manifesto Club, he has launched a campaign to bring back school sports day. Visit Dan’s blog to join the campaign.

Previously on spiked Dan Travis explained why Britain cannot find a Wimbledon champion. Josie Appleton argued that outside judges have replaced real competition. Tim Black defended Dwain Chambers as the embodiment of the competitive urge. Alan Hudson argued that competition is the only thing about the Olympics which is not vulgar or demeaning. Paul Bickerton analysed the making of an Olympian. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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