Why should we Shoosh for Kids? A coach’s perspective.
Luke Harris - PDHPE Teacher & Head of Coaching at Linfield FC
Reposted with permission from original LinkedIn blog here.
You may have seen the Shoosh for Kids campaign this month, a fantastic initiative from the Office of Sport to promote positive spectator behaviour at junior sport. Having spent a long-time coaching junior sport, I thought this is the perfect opportunity to share a more in-depth discussion of why this campaign is so important and the research behind it.
When I first started coaching as a 22-year-old, around the time I graduated from my Physical Education teaching degree, I was amazed at the behaviour of some adults on the sideline of football grounds. Most were older than me, and as a result, I expected they should know better. As a young adult, who looked even younger, it can be difficult, intimidating even, to have that conversation mid-season, during a game, when a parent may already be speaking loudly or acting aggressively. From my experience, it is not something that is discussed or developed on coaching courses. It wasn’t until I came across the work of John O’Sullivan from Changing the Game Project, that I began to understand that some spectator behaviour at junior sport is natural.
A study from Italian researchers on monkeys, found some neurons, known as mirror neurons, fire not only when an individual performs an action, but when those individuals witness another perform an action (di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L. et al, 1992). Further research into motor actions in humans suggests a parent’s reactive behaviour on the sideline can be linked to this class of mirror neurons in the brain. In the moment of seeing someone perform an action, your brain uses your inferior parietal lobe (IPL), and results in an individual reacting to a loved one who makes a mistake or is on the receiving end of a dangerous tackle, as if the action was happening to them. This explains the deep emotional connection parents exhibit in relation to their child’s sporting endeavour and provides a coach and parent’s with context as to why they act as they do.
With this knowledge, it was clear that problem with parent behaviour on the sideline was education and expectations. The one thing I always do at the beginning of the school year or a football season with a new class or new team, is set my behaviour expectations. If students and players don’t know your expectations, how will they meet them? It is the same with parents, how do they know how to behave on the sidelines if they haven’t the education or had those expectations explained?
Luke is the Head of Coaching at Linfield FC and works to educate players, parents and other coaches at the club.
Therefore, every year I now run a parent education session with my club’s U6 and U7 parents, and clearly set the expectations for their behaviour on the sideline. I relate this to research that has been conducted on the influence parents have, use analogies that relate to learning environments at school and give them clear guidelines that will help them self-regulate their behaviour in the moment. As an educator, I believe in the empowerment of education, and parents who are educated on the ‘why’ they should “Shoosh for Kids” are going to be more likely to enact those behaviours (shoosh), because they understand the impact it has on their child and not just because they were told to.
The research from Spain that I refer to outlines that player’s want their parents to be involved in and to be supportive of their sporting experience (Sanchez-Miguel, Sanchez-Olivia, Amado, Garcia-Calvao, 2013). Instead of behaviour that pressures players to perform and succeed, they would prefer supportive comments about the positive aspects of their attitude, sportsmanship and effort. Participants in the study that perceived more pressure from their parents, generally experienced a negative relationship with sport enjoyment. Whereas appropriate parental participation promoted an increase in players’ enjoyment and motivation. Thus, parents can exert a significant influence on their child’s participation in sport, and how the parents interact with others in sport, can either help or hinder their child’s participation. Similar research suggests that negative parental involvement can lead to pre-competition anxiety, a decrease in self-esteem and officials or coaches leaving the game.
To outline what behaviour might hinder their child’s participation in sport, I do an activity that allows parents to experience themselves, firsthand, what effect sideline behaviour can have. Three parent volunteers come up and are tasked with building the highest tower they can with KAPLA blocks (like Jenga, but thinner). The audience participate in the experiment by doing three things during the building phase, when I call out one, they are to stay dead silent, when I call out two, they are to clap and/or call out some encouraging remarks, “Well done, keep it up, nice work”. However, when I call out three, the audience are encouraged to get rowdy, and to start screaming and shouting “build it, build it, higher, higher quicker, or c’mon!”. This is supported by my ‘teacher voice’ leading the charge. After this, I ask the volunteers how they felt at each point of the experiment and it is no surprise to guess what they respond with.
When the crowd of parents are silent, the volunteers building their towers respond that they are relatively “calm and able to focus on the task.” When they hear some clapping and encouragement, they respond with they feel “good and want to continue building,” though some say they feel “a little pressure building.” At three, the overwhelming response is a feeling of “pressure”, “they feel anxious or tense”, which makes it “hard to focus”. It is at this point, that I usually see the “aha” moment on the audience’s faces, where they understand how their behaviour can have a negative influence on their child and long-term, potentially hinder their enjoyment of the game.
Following the experiment, I like to take parents through my lens of the training and game day environment. I look at training as the place where, I as coach, create a learning environment, that the kids can learn and understand the game. The match is then their day, the place where players can “show what they know”, and I as coach, can assess how they have progressed on what we have introduced in training. For players, this is the most important part of their sporting journey, it is sacred and should be treated as such! For the coach, it is the time where we gauge what we can work on next week to help each player reach their developmental potential. In short, training time is the classroom, where you learn the skills of the game and the match is like the test, like NAPLAN, where kids can express their learning. Albeit, in a way that is much more exciting than NAPLAN!
So, if we look at the schooling analogy, parents generally let the expert, the teacher, do their thing in the classroom and have an understanding and respect for what happens. When it comes to the test time, parents wouldn’t dream of standing at the back of the room of their child’s classroom during NAPLAN and start yelling, subtract, subtract, SUBTRACT, whilst their child is trying to do their test. It doesn’t happen, and if it did, the principal would likely be calling in the authorities. So why does it happen on the sidelines of youth sports?
Education is the key. If parents know that this behaviour can hinder their child’s enjoyment of and development within junior sport, we’re less likely to have it occur. It is at this point though that parents will ask, if I’m on the sideline, what can I say or do? As a guide, to ensure your behaviour is positive, I ask parents to ideally, say nothing. As we learnt from the earlier experiment, silence is golden. It allows players to focus on the task at hand, the game. It allows them to ‘show what they know’, and make their own decisions, and not be influenced by those on the sideline. Thus, not only developing their technical skills in the game, but also their decision-making skills.
Sometimes perfect silence isn’t always going to be achievable and positive reinforcement is an important part of the learning process. So, if parents are to say anything, I recommend sticking to encouragement only. Encouragement like clapping good play, or saying well done, or good effort, are simple examples of positive reinforcement. The key though, is the timing of this encouragement. They are best given when there is a break in play when the players are not focused on the ball, so as not to interrupt the players in the middle of their decision-making process.
The other advice I give is to avoid action verbs. They include words like “Press, tackle, push up, pass, kick it out, don’t go across goal and SHOOOOT!”. The main reason is that often action verbs are distracting, but they don’t allow for players to “show what they know”. If the parent hasn’t been at training, they can be a contradiction to what the coach has tried to teach in the classroom (training). For example, before the game, a parent might say to their child, listen to your coach. At training, the coach, is teaching the players that if they see space, then one option they might try is to dribble into that space. If that situation arises during the match on the weekend, and the player tries dribbling into space, like the coach asks, what message is being sent if all they can hear is their parents on the sideline yelling pass, pass, pass? This, overtime, can become what the research says is a negative influence.
In short, if you don’t know what you don’t know, then parents can’t be expected to know how to behave on the sideline, if they haven’t been educated on how to. The “Shoosh for Kids” is a great initiative to start the conversation, but more is needed to educate parents on the how and why, because a successful junior sport experience will only occur if parents, players and coaches/clubs work together to create a safe, fun and inclusive playing environment.
di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L. et al. Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study.Exp Brain Res 91, 176–180 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00230027
Sánchez-Miguel, P. A., Leo, F. M., Sánchez-Oliva, D., Amado, D., & García-Calvo, T. (2013). The Importance of Parents' Behavior in their Children's Enjoyment and Amotivation in Sports. Journal of human kinetics, 36, 169–177. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2013-001