Ugly Parent Syndrome. Rugby often seems to be in the news for all the wrong reasons. Don’t do further damage to the sport’s good name by being an “ugly parent”. No one likes an embarrassing sideline incident, especially in front of young kids. More often than not these episodes are due to the ‘Ugly Parent Syndrome”, which is justifiably dreaded by all referees, associations and participants in sport. The problem is simply described: ‘parents (and/or coaches) who behave in an unacceptable and disturbing manner’. Such behaviour can include swearing, aggressively disputing calls made by an official, arguing with and intimidating officials and other parents (and even their own children) and invading the playing field, and at its most extreme can lead to physical violence. Living through the child, attempting to impress other parents with the child’s ability, or secretly hoping one day to live off the child’s earnings as a professional player, the ugly parent is driven by a compulsive desire to control every single aspect of his or her child’s sporting career, often on the basis of a groundless assumption that the child is destined for rugby stardom.


The stress imposed on the child by this sort of behaviour can lead to a drastic lowering of self-esteem and ultimately withdrawal from sports participation. South Africa is a land that idolises its rugby heroes, and the shameful conduct of the ugly parent is contrary to the essence of good sportsmanship.

Many of today’s children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and it is becoming increasingly important to encourage children to take part in sport. Lack of physical exercise is the basis for a lifetime of adverse health issues, and active participation in sport not only improves fitness and enjoyment but also fosters physical and life skills. And being involved in sport is enjoyable and fun – or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Although parents generally aspire to provide the best possible sporting experience for their children, it does not always turn out that way. Parental interference and pressure are among the main reasons why children sustain severe injuries and why they drop out of sport. Children who compete under excessive parental pressure may display physical ailments ranging from headaches to stomach aches and muscle pains. In addition, stress may cause sleep disturbances, emotional volatility, fatigue and prolonged depression.


So what should you do as a parent standing on the sidelines? There is nothing wrong with being your child’s number one fan and cheering loudly as long as it is done in a positive way.

Here are a few guidelines for parents who want to support their child’s sporting interest.

Always put safety first. It won’t make any difference how hard you cheer if your child is not feeling well or has a niggling injury. Osteopathy can assist here – it’s valuable in the rehabilitation of typical rugby injuries and helps prevent small discomforts from turning into severe injury, while at the same time taking into consideration the child’s developmental and physical growth. Encourage children to participate if they are interested. However, if a child is not willing, do not force him or her! Putting unrealistic pressure on a child to perform, to the extent of verbal abuse, can have a negative impact not only on the relationship between parents and child but on the child’s whole attitude to sport.

Focus on the child’s personal efforts and performance rather than the overall outcome of the event – even when it has been an extremely uninteresting game. Reducing the emphasis on winning assists the child in setting realistic goals related to his or her ability.

Teach your child that an honest effort is as important as victory, so that the result of each game is accepted without undue disappointment. Encourage your child always to participate according to the rules. Never ridicule a child for making a mistake. Forgetting that the most important thing for a child to develop is a love of the game, parents who do this all but guarantee that their child’s involvement with the sport will be short-lived.

Remember that children are involved in organised sports for their own enjoyment, not the enjoyment of their parents. The most important thing to remember about children’s sport is that it is a sport – not a battleground. It’s supposed to be about children having fun, developing skills and meeting new friends.

Set high standards by practising sportsmanlike behaviour yourself. Remember that children learn best from example. Applaud good play by all teams. OK kids, shake hands, and how about three cheers for the other team? If you disagree with a referee, raise the issue through the appropriate channels rather than questioning the official’s judgement and honesty in public. Remember that without the ref there would be no game, and most referees volunteer their time and effort to help children. And they don’t write the rules.

Support all efforts to remove verbal and physical abuse from sporting activities. As well as curbing your own urge to bellow invective, keep an eye on your buddies. If things start getting out of hand, a few quiet words will often help save them from looking like complete fools. If Ugly Parent Syndrome is becoming a real problem in your sport, ask your club, school or association to develop and distribute a code of practice to all parents, if they haven’t done so already.

Avoid the use of derogatory language based on gender, weight and colour. Rugby is a unique team sport that can be played by children of all shapes and sizes and from a range of different backgrounds. It’s a great opportunity for them to play towards a collective goal and have fun.

Finally, always respect the medical opinion of your doctor, and not the advice of coaches and other parents who are fanatical about winning, when your child is told not to play because of a serious injury. For example, if your rugby-playing son sustains concussion for the first time he shouldn’t take part in sport for at least three weeks. The second time he should sit out the season, and the third time he shouldn’t play rugby for a year. It’s for this reason that some parents and coaches encourage children not to tell a doctor that they were knocked out.

Sport provides numerous physical and psychological benefits for young people, and for those who are not so young. Sadly, for a variety of reasons playing organised sport can become a negative experience for children, and these need to be addressed in order to increase their enjoyment and thereby encourage a healthy lifetime commitment to regular physical activity.