'Stop making it about yourself': Should parents shout encouragement from the sidelines?

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto 

I was sitting on the sidelines of my 10-year-old son's AFL game recently when I noticed a real disparity in the parenting styles on the sidelines.

Some of us sit in their camping chair, coffee in hand, clapping the goals and moments of good sportsmanship, and generally enjoying being in the sunshine and having nothing else to do on a Saturday morning (okay, that's me).

Some other parents are like me, they seem to enjoy relaxing and sitting still for an hour, but there is a significant amount of other parents who prowl the sidelines, shouting encouragement to their kids – "eye on the ball", "get on your man", "chase it down" – that kind of thing. 

I'm not talking about those scary alpha parents who get aggressive with the refs and make it awful for everyone, they're just parents who actively enjoy the game and have a stream of feedback to share with their kids on the field about their performance.

And it made me wonder: should I be shouting something to my son? I mean, I'm sure he wouldn't appreciate it, seeing as he likes to pretend in public that he doesn't have a mother. And my grasp of AFL rules is fair to middling at best. But should I be offering something more than the occasional polite round of applause? Would my son even hear it above everything else going on? Would it help in any way?

I decided to investigate, speaking to Dr Jo Lukins, performance psychologist and author of In The Grandstands, a guide for parents to champion their teens through the tears and triumphs of sport.

Dr Lukins says that although parents are overwhelmingly well-intentioned, it's important to differentiate between what they need and what their child needs.

"The challenge comes when you've got a child on the field and the parent is yelling instructional feedback – "get back, tackle him, that's it, you can do it" – because what you're actually doing is interrupting the play for the child," says Dr Lukins. 

Photo: iStock.

Photo: iStock.


Dr Lukins says this is a problem because what your child is learning to do while playing sport is to be immersed in a single task and to problem-solve for themselves. 

"And if you think about how we do that as adults, we don't do it with a parent on the sideline, because hopefully we've learned the lessons through our childhood of what it is to independently make decisions and to decide those things for ourselves," she says.

Dr Lukins says that voice from the sideline can also be distracting from the task at hand.  

"When you get those distractions – even when they're well-intentioned – it's still a voice that's interrupting what's happening around me, because it's going to divert my attention," she says. "So if I listen to mum or dad, it takes me out of the moment. That's the reason that encouragement is generally unhelpful.

"Basically, if your child can hear you on the sidelines, there's a good chance that's problematic."

And to those parents who say they're just being enthusiastic about their child's game, Dr Lukins has some blunt advice: "Stop making it about yourself."

"You know, it's really about parents stepping back and letting their children enjoy [their sport]," she says. 

"[Shouting from the sidelines] undermines what the coach is doing and it's generally not well intention for the kids. And in all my years of working with teenage athletes, I've never had a child saying to me, 'Gee, I love it'."

Dr Lukins says she understands that the behaviour most often comes from a loving place, "But, again, that doesn't mean that it's a helpful behaviour or something the parents want to be continuing with."

So if parents shouldn't be shouting encouragement from the sidelines, how can we support our kids on the field? 

"They can smile," says Dr Lukins. "When your child looks across at you to be smiling at them and encouraging them, not frowning, because you're not happy with how they're playing. 

"I've had parents say to me, 'But I need you to work with [my child] because they're so inconsistent,' and I say, 'They're 13, they're supposed to be inconsistent'."

All of which makes me feel a whole lot better about enjoying my flat white and the sunshine on my face as I watch my son play footy. And I'll be sure to share the six words Dr Lukins says are the single best thing she's found that parents can say to their child as they come off the field:

"I love to watch you play."