More About Australia’s Ugly Parent Syndrome: Post-Game “Debriefing”
By Doug Abrams
Australians have a label for the negative influence of some adults in that nation’s youth sports leagues. Aussies call it the “ugly parent syndrome.” Most often, the label describes acts of parental violence, particularly acts that are serious enough to reach the headlines. Periodically on this blog, I have written about media accounts of these acts in Australia, and in other western nations whose youth sports systems resemble systems here in the United States.
Spurred by a new study by Dr. Sam Elliott at Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia), the Australian media reports yet another, sometimes less apparent manifestation of ugly sports parenting – post-game “debriefing.” Australians use the term “debriefing” to describe parents’ sometimes strident post-game criticisms of their player’s performance. With the game’s pressures still weighing on the player’s mind, criticism begins while the player is a captive audience in the family vehicle on the way home, or it begins soon after the family arrives.
Here in the United States, I have heard Rick Wolff and others call this parental criticism “station wagon syndrome,” or more recently “SUV syndrome.” By whatever name, the new Flinders University study reemphasizes the harmful effects that well-meaning sports parents can have on the fun their children seek from sports. The Advertiser, an Adelaide daily newspaper, warns that debriefing is “killing children’s enjoyment of sport with post-game grillings on their performance, making it more likely that youngsters will quit.”
Declining Enrollments and High Dropout Rates
American parents, coaches, and league administrators should pay attention to troubling reports from nations whose youth sports systems resemble our own. Globalization and the Internet media have left the world a smaller place, so nations can learn plenty from one another about how to overcome common economic, political and cultural stresses.
The new Flinders University study, which interviewed 12- and 13-year-old youth soccer players and their families, plausibly links pressurized debriefing to two serious concerns that plague youth sports in the United States and Australia. Both concerns — declining enrollments and high dropout rates — raise red flags.
In the United States, between 30 and 35 million boys and girls — nearly half the nation’s children – enroll in at least one youth sport each year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently reported that about 1.7 million boys and girls — about 63% of Australian children – enroll in at least one organized sport outside school hours.
These are hefty numbers, but they appear to be falling in both nations. And among boys and girls who do enroll, about 70% drop out by the time they turn 13, and nearly all quit by the time they turn 15. When researchers ask youngsters the reasons for quitting, the answers given most often are that practice sessions and games stopped being fun because parents and coaches imposed too much pressure.
The Flinders University study suggests that fun and pressurized post-game debriefing do not mix. When a player dreads swift criticism in the car or in the living room, victory can produce not the thrill the player has earned, but only relief that the team avoided defeat. This fear of failure diminishes the fun and fulfillment that youngsters deserve from the games they play.
Immediately after a loss or a bad game, reassurance from a parent or coach may signal unconditional support. In the back seat on the way home, youngsters deserve to ride in peace without being an unwilling audience for parental criticism while memories of the game’s pressure remain fresh. Like adults, youth leaguers need time to decompress from competition.
After the passage of time, young athletes can take constructive correction delivered in positive tone and language by supportive parents and coaches. Dr. Elliott says that “if children experience a win or loss, played well or not well, parents are instrumental for support – they can talk them through that and it’s the advice that children crave.”
But even after the passage of time, adults need to remain patient with their children’s mistakes on the field. Particularly at the younger age levels, players trying hard will often do as many things wrong as right. They are children, not seasoned adult professionals providing popular entertainment for salaries in the millions.
In fact, parents should encourage players to welcome mistakes, which are invitations to learn. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden coached adults, but he tolerated his players’ mistakes as part of the game. “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything,” he would say. “A doer makes mistakes.”
Professional sports holds a firm grip on the United States and Australia, and adults in both nations regularly tell pollsters that wholesome athletic competition benefits children physically and emotionally. Amid these powerful cultural forces, declining enrollments and steadily high dropout rates suggest that something is wrong about the way adults manage youth leagues.
As the new Flinders University study intimates, debriefing done wrong is doubtlessly one factor contributing to both negative trends. The ultimate losers are boys and girls who miss out on opportunities to thrive in sports through childhood and adolescence. Organized sports can do nothing for a boy or girl who does not enroll, or who drops out prematurely.
Sources: Tim Williams, Positive Test for Critical Parents, The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), Apr. 18, 2015, p. 7; Sheradyn Holderhead, Flinders University Study On “Ugly Parents Syndrome” Impact On Falling Sports Interest, The Advertiser, Apr. 3, 2013.