As the seconds counted down in the final moments of my daughter’s netball match, I can’t deny I was doing everything I could to keep my cheer-leading under control.
In the centre of the court was my little girl Clio, 8, earnestly trying to get control of the ball to stop the visiting team scoring the winning goal.
Tension was already etched on her small face – and something told me that yelling: “Come on!” or “Get the ball off her!” was not only stating the blindingly obvious. It was also going to make Clio’s nerves worse.
But it seemed that a mother on the other side of the netball court DID think screaming and jumping up and down from the side-lines was helping.
When, just before the final whistle blew, a girl in her child’s team scored to make it 8-9 victory, what I witnessed was the most outrageous display of bad sportsmanship I’ve ever seen in my life.
Haka, a dance that rugby players perform to intimidate their opponents, to the open-mouthed astonishment of my daughter and her heart-broken team-mates.
In my new book Taming the Tiger Parent, I analyse how and why competition at the school gates has been driven underground to become parenting’s dirtiest secret.
After all, the contempt heaped on Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of Tiger Mother, convinced most of use it was better to hide what are doing to make sure our kids get ahead.
Yet there is still one place where pushy parenting is still openly on display – and that’s the sports pitch.
Last week a Welsh youth rugby club, Beddau RFC, posted a notice on its field which summed it up: “These are kids. This is a game. The coaches are volunteers. The referees are human. This is not the Six Nations.”
So how has sport become the last bastion of pushy parenting?
The main reason is that because the whole point of a match is to win, this is the final place that parents still feel justified in letting their true instincts shine through – not only by yelling so called ‘encouragement’, but also by hurling abuse at their own children to try and get them to do better.
While parents are behaving worse than ever, schools and coaches know full-well how how bad this is for the kids themselves.
At my older daughter’s primary sport days, parents had to be reminded over the tannoy to cheer for their child’s house, not just for their little darlings. At other schools I know of, mums and dads are banned altogether because they can’t be trusted to behave.
Even scare tactics are not off-limits for the most determined.
During my research for my book, I came across one ten-year-old tennis player who was so intimidated by the parents of her opponent continually questioning whether her shots were during a key match, she deliberately lost the game to get it over with.
Sport is also the arena where Eagle Dads, rather than Tiger Mums, come into their own.
Fathers often tend to want their sons to excel in their sports they love or played at school, whether their boys are good at them or not.
Dads in particular cling to the belief that pushing kids hard in sports makes them tough and is somehow ‘character building.’
The higher up the ladder a child goes – and the more visions of glory and sponsorship dance before their eyes – the more dads can lose their perspective.
More and more, many of them feel justified in their endless criticisms of their children’s performance on the pitch because they believe they are following in the highly-publicised footsteps of Richard Williams, the parental powerhouse behind Wimbledon winning Venus and Serena, or Ted Beckham, father of soccer superstar David.
Among those have pointed how damaging this is to our youngsters is none other than former England Captain, Gary Lineker, who has four sons of his own.
When he was a young player rising up through the ranks, Gary has noted that his own dad never intervened or shouted at him to play better or differently.
Times have changed since then, says Gary, who points out that these days dads get their practice moving pixelated versions of premiership footballers around video games screens, allowing themselves to believe they can do the same with their sons.
Gary says: ‘I have stood on the side-lines of countless games, spanning many years. Oh, the drivel I have heard, the abuse I have witnessed, the damage I have seen done.
‘Promising young players are barked at by clueless dad (with comments) like: “Don t mess with it there” and “Just kick it!”. I have seen a father pick his son up by the scruff of the neck and yell in his face: “You’ll never make it playing that cr**p.”
“Who cares who wins an under-eights game? Who cares if a youngster makes a mistake? It’s how we learn.
“If we could just get parents to shut up and let their children enjoy themselves, you would be staggered at the difference it would make.”
Never mind that if your child does make it, even talented youngsters are continually weeded out of sports training programs.
At best, the likelihood of them reaching the top echelons, like a 300,000 pounds-a-week Wayne Rooney, are miniscule. And of course the higher the expectations on your child, the greater the humiliation.
But even beyond this, there is something even more serious at stake here – the health, fitness and well-being of our children far in the future.
Coaches say that when the pushing from parents becomes intolerable, children feign or exaggerate injuries to take the heat off themselves.
Even more worrying, considering that our nation is in the grip of a creeping obesity epidemic, is that many kids react by simply giving up the sport altogether – with lifelong consequences.
By the age of fifteen, a range of studies have found that a staggering eighty to ninety per cent of young people have dropped out of organised sport, saying they feel under so much pressure to win from adults that it’s no longer fun.
Researcher Dr Clifton Evers, who studied the effects on children, found that kids are appalled and frightened when their parents behave aggressively.
In his study for the University of New South Wales, he found that the ninety children aged ten to sixteen who he interviewed about how they felt about their family’s involvement in sport ‘overwhelmingly resent parents who scream at them. Some kids spoke about “hating” their dads for being overbearing. That’s very strong language to use.’
Other US research has found that sporting events make certain parents behave the same as they do in road rage incidents.
Here in the UK too, research from the MCC Marylebone Cricket Club also found that 64 per cent of children would be ”relieved or not bothered” if the competitive element of school sport was dropped.
Nearly nine out of ten kids said they felt that winning was more important to their parents than them.
So next you’re tempted to open your mouth at a school match and tell your child to ‘try harder’ or ‘get the ball’, ask yourself another question.
Is it worth it if it ends up putting your child off sport and exercise for life? Because if we are only concerned about our kids winning today, the fact is that we will be scoring a spectacular own goal tomorrow.