Children are appalled and frightened when their parents behave aggressively on the sidelines of junior sports events, and bad adult behaviour is a major reason they drop out of sport, in-depth interviews with 90 children show.
Following the horrific beating of a parent on the sidelines of an under-12s rugby league match at the weekend, a University of NSW researcher, Clifton Evers, wants parents to know that children hate loud, aggressive, sideline mothers and fathers.
After interviews with the children aged 10 to 16, Dr Evers, a postdoctoral research fellow, said he was surprised at how readily the youngsters recalled events from even three to five years previously that had alarmed them.
"Parents yelling at parents, parents yelling at officials … Young kids view all aggressiveness as violence," he said.
An 11-year-old boy told him, "The loud ones scare me. They're so big, too. Sometimes I think their head will explode.
"My dad is bad and I get worried. He punched someone near the car once."
A 12-year old boy said he had stopped playing sport after parents from an opposing team pushed his mother hard. And a 12-year-old girl said, "You're
not allowed to have fun, especially when everyone is yelling and angry."
US research shows many parents feel passing anger as a game unfolds, usually because of referee decisions or mistakes made by their child's team. But only a certain personality type exploded into sideline rage - the same personality type that was quick to anger when driving.
A University of Maryland researcher, Jay Goldstein, said, "When they perceived something that happened during the game to be personally directed at them or their child, they got angry. That's consistent with findings on road rage."
The executive director of the Parenting Research Centre in Melbourne, Warren Cann, said it was hard for all parents to see their children being treated unfairly on the field, or hurt. But the explosive parents were those who tended to exaggerate the threat and to see things in black and white. "They don't see the umpire as having made a human mistake but as biased. Just as on the road, they don't see a driver who cuts in front as having made a mistake but as doing it deliberately."
Louise Newman, professor of developmental psychiatry at Monash University, said some parents over-invested in their children's achievements - sporting and academic - putting them under huge pressure. At the same time, they thought their children could do no wrong and lashed out if onfield decisions went against them.
"It's sad. In a perverse way they're trying to protect their child, defend their child at all costs, but the aggressive, angry ones go too far."
Dr Evers reminded parents that most children, especially until about age 14, played sport for fun. It was parents who thought sport was about competing and winning.