Pushy ‘Soccer Parents’.

David Jackson reports on the growing trend of pushy parents in Ireland…

Imagine you are eight and a half years old. You love football. Your favourite team is Manchester United and your favourite player is Ryan Giggs. You enjoy nothing more than playing football with your friends after school. In fact you love almost everything about football. You love everything about it except for one thing. You hate when you are playing for your team on a Saturday morning and your dad suddenly turns into a Danny Dyer-style football lout. When you see your dad shouting at the referee it makes you feel nervous. You worry that if you make a mistake your dad will shout at you too.

Worryingly, your dad is becoming the norm on sidelines up and down the country.

A recent schoolboy game between two prominent Dublin clubs was abandoned when an overzealous parent threatened the referee with a physical attack. The spark for the unsavoury scenes was the referee’s failure to spot a foul on the aggrieved father’s son. The referee was left with little choice but to abandon the game as he feared for his own safety.

This is an extreme case, but pushy parents are now having a detrimental effect on their children’s enjoyment of the beautiful game. Schoolboy football is built on the generosity of volunteers, but there is a thin line between encouragement and being pushy. The young players in these circumstances were unable to complete their weekly fixture because of the unacceptable actions of a parent.

The behaviour of parents places unwelcome pressure on coaches. This in turn affects the development of players. In any park across Dublin on a Saturday morning you are likely to hear parent’s utter gems such as ‘get rid of it’ or ‘get stuck into him’ as they attempt to roar their eight-year-old on to success. When a parent places such emphasis on victory, a defeat can be a crushing blow to an aspiring young footballer. Parents, blinded by the glitz of the Premier League, forget that for the vast majority, football is a hobby. Their pushy nature forces weaker children into their shell for fear of making a mistake.

Johan Cruyff summed it up perfectly when he said “it is more important at a young age to learn to play the game properly than to learn to win”. Cruyff is well qualified to comment having spent his career at Ajax and Barcelona, two of the most successful centres for developing world class players. The Football Association of Ireland has attempted to improve matters by employing a team of development officers across the country. One of these officers, Denis Hyland, who is responsible for the North County Dublin area, has strong views on the relationship between players, coaches and parents.

Hyland says: “There is an over-emphasis on competition to the detriment of opportunities for young players to practice. If players are to develop their skills and decision making, they need to be exposed to more fun, guide of discovery-style coaching sessions as opposed to some of the must-win pressure situations they find themselves in. More often than not these situations are created by pushy parents and military style coaches living out their own childhood dreams through their children and players.”

In Ireland competitive football begins at seven years of age. From a young age results are of paramount importance. This in turn forces coaches to play their strongest and biggest players. Tall and strong players are chosen to play in the most important positions. The smaller, more skilful players are pushed to the fringes and sometimes on to the substitutes’ bench. The Spain squad, reigning World Cup and European Championship victors, has an average height of just over 5ft 10in. There is an argument that if many of these players had been coached in Ireland they would have struggled to get a game.

Bohemians FC Manager Pat Fenlon is critical of the competitive nature of our schoolboy leagues. “You go and watch any games from under 7s to under 15s and it’s about results. It’s not about developing players and their technique, how you’re going to bring them on as players. It’s about how many trophies you can win and that’s ludicrous. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. We’re competitive by nature as it is. We don’t need any of that.”

Across Europe results are of less importance until players have reached their teens. Two of the most successful models are the ‘TIPS’ (Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed) model in The Netherlands and the ‘Tikka Tikka’ possession-based model of the Spanish. Coaching on the Continent is focused on the development of technique and style. It is no coincidence that The Netherlands and Spain were the two nations that contested the World Cup Final in 2010. It also goes some way in explaining why Ireland is now looking at a 10-year gap since we last qualified for a major tournament.

The ‘jumpers for goalposts’ era is well and truly over. No longer can the street be relied on as a place where young players will hone their skills with hour after hour of practice. Children today do not play football together for hours on end; most of their football is conducted in organised circumstances. If the two hours a week of contact time is not enjoyable there is a risk of losing players to the game at an early age.

This is a world apart from when our great players learned their skills on back streets and housing estates across the country. Players like John Giles, George Best, Liam Brady and Damien Duff learned the game on the streets. They needed to be able to dribble, shield the ball and tackle because if they were unable to, time on the ball was hard to come by in 15 a-side games.

The short solution to many of these problems is fun. Children need to be coaxed away from the console and back out onto the football park. This is unlikely to happen if they associate football with rigid coaching and fear. Small sided games where contact with the ball is maximised must be implemented across the board. If there is not a shift in emphasis we could be left waiting a long time before we see players of the ability of Brady or Giles in a green shirt again.

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