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Open letter to Heathmont Jets JFC Parents and Supporters

Wayne Judge - Director of Football.

Dear Heathmont Parents and Supporters,

The recent Silent Sunday initiative that the Eastern Football League instituted across Rounds 11 and 12 certainly created plenty of headlines and debate around the country. Our Club, which proudly fully embraced the concept, received plenty of publicity when we featured in a Channel 7 News story about it. Given the fact that the initiative triggered such a response and that it tended to polarise people’s opinions about it, I thought it might be appropriate to provide some further information relating to it and to the broader issue of parental/spectator behaviour at junior sport.

To begin with it is worth noting that “Silent Sidelines” and “Shoosh” campaigns in junior sport have been happening all over the world, including the United States and New Zealand. Research and reports coming out of these two countries indicate that children appreciate these campaigns as it encourages them to speak up to each other, helping them to enjoy the game and have a positive experience.

The objective of these campaigns is to raise awareness to the fact that junior sport is for children to have fun while trying their best without the pressure of winning. They are also designed to highlight and address issues that arise from poor parental and spectator behaviour at junior sport, such as abuse of umpires, officials, players and other spectators. This in turn can result in children and teenagers in particular dropping out of organised sport.

In Australia, we have a real problem in relation to children dropping out of sport. For example, the 2019 Australian Youth Confidence Report indicated that one in every two Australian girls are quitting organised sport by the age of 15. This is a trend that mirrors what's happening in other countries with similarly over-the-top attitudes to children’s sport. A US initiative called the "Changing The Game Project" estimates that 70 per cent of sporty kids in the US quit by the time they are teenagers.

Whilst the reasons for children dropping out of organised sport are multi-faceted, one of the major contributing factors is parental pressure. “Many parents on the sidelines are way too enthusiastic, overly involved, trying to coach and instruct, and trying to tell little Johnny or little Susie how to play their sport. Many parents appear to be trying to live out their own sporting ambitions vicariously through their kids” the report stated.

Now this is not to say that all parental involvement in junior sport is problematic. After all, where would junior club sport be without mums and dads? Who would ferry children back and forth between sporting fixtures, hand out half-time oranges, wash uniforms and make sure players arrive on time wearing both boots? We all know that, if not for mums and dads, we would struggle to find enough club administrators, coaches, scorers and line markers, and the spectator stands would be bare. Without a doubt, they are an invaluable resource and an essential part of junior sport.

But what about those parents who turn ugly? You know the type. They scream instructions from the sidelines, admonish the umpire (who is often barely a teenager), challenge the coach, sometimes storm onto the playing field or even nearly get into a punch-up with an equally passionate opposing team parent. It happens. It has happened in our club this year!

So what can we do about it? How can parents successfully tread that line between supportive and aggressive? Here are some tips for parents and for others (e.g. grandparents) who come along to watch children play sport.

First and foremost, be a good role model. Children watch and learn from you, so make sure you set a good example. If you yell at officials, complain at decisions, even swear and become aggressive – what kind of role model for children are you?

Secondly, avoid a ‘win at all costs’ attitude. Although you may think winning is important, the focus for junior sport should be on fun.

Avoid being critical of coaches, umpires and officials. Many are volunteers who give their time to make sport possible for all our children, and some are just learning.

And finally, avoid yelling. Yelling is a personal reaction. It’s very likely that those around you are not yelling and are simply enjoying the game. Yelling can ruin the game for others, players and spectators alike. The selfishness of yelling can drive people away from sport. Would you want to teach selfishness to your children? When you yell at umpires or players (including players from your own team and the opposition) you model disrespect for others and for authority. When you yell at an umpire or an official or at a player we are teaching children that it’s okay to be disrespectful. Like it or not, our actions and words on a sports field impact on children in many ways that are not confined to sport – they are life lessons!

It is also important for parents to not ignore the inappropriate behaviour of other parents or supporters. Changing behaviours at junior sport is the collective responsibility of everyone. Don’t just leave it up to someone else! So what can you do in these situations?

If the commentary or abuse is directed at you try to stay calm and maintain a non-aggressive demeanour. Politely ask the other person to stop the abuse and remind them that they are at a junior sporting competition involving children. If the abuse continues politely inform the person that you will be reporting their behaviour to a club official such as the Team Manager. Do not accept or ignore abusive, offensive or foul language.

If an umpire or an official is the focus of the parent’s abuse, you should try to defuse the situation. Talk calmly to the person, acknowledge their frustration and emphasise that the call has been made and that the decision must be respected. If the abuse continues, make sure you report the incident to a relevant club official such as the Team Manager.

If the abuse is directed at children or a child playing in your team or on the opposing team, don't ignore it on the grounds that ‘it’s none of your business’. Speak to the over-enthusiastic parent before their behaviour gets out of hand — this will often prevent the situation escalating. Highlight the positives and emphasise the need to identify children’s strengths, not their weaknesses. Emphasise that children are there to have fun, develop skills and build their confidence.

As adults and parents, it is our duty to guard and protect our children no matter what the circumstances are. We need to understand that adult behaviours are visible to children who are often emotionally affected by it. Research indicates that children become frightened and de-motivated to participate when exposed to adults who express anger in relation to sport.

So with the last round coming up and finals beckoning for some teams remember to encourage a climate of development and fun rather than “winning at all costs”. This is done when you define success as effort and improvement rather than the final score-line.

In closing, remember, if you cannot say something positive or respectful, then “Shoosh”!

Wayne Judge

Director of Football

Heathmont Jets JFC

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