Monkey see, monkey do: how sideline sports behaviours affect kids


For children’s sports in Melton and Moorabool, there’s no doubt that parents are essential – they’re the free ferry service, the half-time orange supplier, and the local cheer squad. But when it comes to sideline behaviour, some parents can behave badly, and when this happens it’s often a case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

In a new study from the University of South Australia, researchers found a link between parents’ sideline conduct and athletes’ behaviours.

When parents behaved well – applauding good play, encouraging players, and enjoying the game – their child was more likely to project positive behaviour. But the more a parent behaved poorly – being overly critical, second guessing the referee, or yelling abuse – this was related to greater antisocial behaviours in their child.

In Australia, about 13 million adults and three million children take part in sport each year.

The study assessed the perceptions of 67 Australian youth athletes aged 12 to 17 participating in team-based sports. Athletes were asked to report their parents’ positive and negative sideline behaviour, as well as reflect on their own sporting behaviours.

Specifically, the study assessed five negative behaviours. It found that:

32 percent of participants reported never seeing any negative behaviours from their parents, 69 per cent reported some form of negative behaviour from their parents (even if rarely), 18 per cent said their parents sometimes or often said bad things about the way they played and 17 per cent said their parents sometimes or very often yelled at the referee during the game after a bad call was made.

UniSA’s Dr Alyson Crozier said parents’ sideline actions can predict children’s on-field sports behaviours.

“Most parents are role models for their children, with children looking to their parents to learn about acceptable behaviour. So, it’s natural for them to copy the behaviours they observe,” she said.

“In our research, we found that when a player perceives positive support from a parent, the player also reported having positive sports attitudes and behaviours. Yet, when a parent engages in antisocial behaviours, their child will more likely behave similarly, potentially as frustration and aggression to their teammates and opponents.

“Encouragingly, most players in this study reported frequent positive parent behaviours, and negative parent behaviours as rare.”

Dr Crozier says that good sportsmanship is the cornerstone of a positive sports experience.

“Children get far more enjoyment from playing sport when a parent is present, encouraging, and supportive. Such behaviours also help build a child’s self-esteem, and improve their life skills and wellbeing,” she said.

“Yet poor parent behaviours can reduce a player’s confidence and damage their emotional and physiological wellbeing. In some cases, they can even lead to a child withdrawing from a sport altogether.

“Sport is an important part of life in Australia. If we can encourage respect, sportsmanship, and fun, we can ensure that sport continues to be a positive experience for everyone.”