Too much pressure on young soccer players

They are barely six years old; still a bit too small for their soccer gear. But once on the pitch they behave like little devils in their eagerness to win the match. Partly for the glory of victory, but mainly to not disappoint their fathers, who are shrieking from the sidelines like lost souls as if the very future of humanity depended on the outcome. “Go for it!” “Break his leg!” “How did you miss that?” Too many insults, too much aggression and too much pressure around soccer -that is the conclusion drawn by Het Hoger Instituut voor Gezinswetenschappen in Brussel (HIG). The institute has carried out research on 180 players under the age of 15, as well as 300 parents coming to matches each weekend to support them.

“We already carried out an initial study in 2008 on communication in soccer. We found that parents are often too hard and too authoritarian with their children when they are on the pitch. They put far too much pressure on them. This is the case at every the level whether it’s local or in the top flight,” says Hans Van Crombrugge, educational expert at HIC. “Too many parents focus only on the results and blame their children if they lose the match. They completely forget that everyone is there to enjoy themselves. -that it’s only a game.” The report also found that the more negatively the parents criticized their child’s performance, the less the child enjoyed playing. “We know, however, that enjoyment is critical to learning, and that even without being exposed to criticism, it is natural to try to improve.”

But will that be enough to satisfy the parents’ hopes? Or, rather, their ambitions? The reason that fathers pile on so much pressure is that they are investing their own hopes of social success in their children’s success at sport. But what if the child were a future international player – a Hazard or a Fellaini? “We have noticed that the fathers who shout loudest are those who themselves have not been able to get very far in the sport. It’s a way for them to get a second chance.” What they certainly fail to realize is that the more they bellow from the stands, the less their child will dare to get stuck in with the ball. Torn between their father’s advice and that of their coach, they risk completely losing their bearings. “The confrontation between two authority figures generates acute anxiety – fear of being disobedient, and of not living up to expectations.”

“Parent Cool”, a not-for-profit organization, has been helping clubs, players, referees and parents manage aggression since 2006. It has chosen a typically sporting tactic – a match debrief – as the best way to reach its target groups. “We show a video of a match between tiny little kids, because if you start any later, then it’s too late – the blight has already set in,” explains Stéphane Coudyzer. “After the film, we ask what they think of the attitude of the parents lining the pitch.” For some, it’s like an electric shock. “Their ideas change. They realize that they have been going too far.”

To raise the profile of its activities, Parent Cool is looking for a media-friendly partner among the players in Belgium’s Premier League. Working with the top clubs, it’s hoping to reward the parents whose behavior best embodies fair play, perhaps by arranging for their child to meet a top flight player.

At FC Horion in the Liège region they first became aware of the issue several years ago. When Rudi Rulli took charge of the club, he swore that he would bring back a friendly atmosphere on and off the pitch. “My background was in basketball, but I wanted my children to play soccer, and when I saw how the players and their parents spoke to each other, I said to myself that it was not acceptable. Even with the referee, there was much too much aggression. So it became a priority for me to show that it is possible to play soccer without getting into a fight.” On September 7th, FC Horion took part in “Fair Play Day”. They were the only soccer representatives in the Liège region, to Rulli’s regret.

Van Crombrugge and Coudyzer advise parents to encourage their future champions without putting too much pressure on them or raising the bar too high. But how do you then inspire them to excel? The adults can give them targets to achieve by the end of the season in terms of their own technique, rather than focus on the number of goals. They can also ask them to evaluate their own performance on the pitch.



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