Home Australia Bad behaviour from ‘delusional’ parents forces sporting codes to take action as athletes, umpires as young as 10 cop verbal abuse

Bad behaviour from ‘delusional’ parents forces sporting codes to take action as athletes, umpires as young as 10 cop verbal abuse

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A young woman with dark hair tied back looks over a netball court. The photo of her is taken behind her.

On any given Saturday morning, thousands of children across Australia put on their uniforms, lace up their sneakers and head to their local sports fields for a weekly match.

It’s supposed to be a fun activity, but bad behavior from adults is ruining the experience for many.

Officials say abusive outbursts are often directed at referees and umpires, who can be as young as 10 years old.

A young referee supervises a netball match on the Sunshine Coast.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Bree Dwyer)

In Queensland, the Sunshine Coast Netball Association (SCNA) took a stand after an adult referee verbally abused a 14-year-old referee last year.

Operations manager Debbie Battaglini said it was not an isolated event, but was the turning point that sparked a new initiative.

“That behavior was totally and absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

“SCNA has always addressed the issue individually, but we really felt the need to address it collectively.

“The last thing we want is for any of our referees to not feel safe on the field.

“Their well-being is at stake.”

Raising the white flag

The association has now armed its referees with white flags, which they can raise to signal any disrespect that occurs on the pitch.

Two girls dressed in white, standing on a netball court. One holds a white flag over her head.

Netball umpires Allegra, 12, and Lilly, 13, hold white flags to indicate they are not being respected on the court.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Bree Dwyer)

“The social welfare officer can then come and address the issue at hand,” Ms Battaglini said.

SCNA referee coordinator Gabrielle Parker said negative comments and disrespect had a serious impact on young netball players.

I had seen some girls cry and others quit the sport altogether.

A young woman with long dark hair tied back and wearing a dark shirt. She is standing near a netball court, smiling.

Gabrielle Parker hopes the white flag initiative will prevent disrespect during games.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Bree Dwyer)

“A couple has said, ‘I was actually treated very disrespectfully in my last two games and I don’t want to go back,'” he said.

“Young people are developing their social skills and confidence.

“These types of comments towards referees actually decrease their confidence and then cause the referee not to return.”

Battaglini said bad behavior has become inherent in all sporting codes.

“I think it’s become a real national problem,” he said.

End gang abuse

The Queensland Rugby League (QRL) is also taking new steps to crack down on gang abuse.

Community Rugby League general manager Adam Vanzanten said underage match officials often bore the brunt.

A young man on a rugby field with green socks, surrounded by female players.

The Queensland Rugby League has introduced green socks to identify under-18 referees.(Supplied: Queensland Rugby League)

“Unfortunately, a lot of cases where referees are verbally abused by spectators are 15, 16 and 17-year-old kids,” he said.

“In some ways it has become acceptable in Australia around sport and we aim to change that.”

Last month, QRL launched its own colour-coded respect campaign for young referees, who now wear bright knee-high socks on the field.

“It’s designed to say, ‘If your socks are green, you’re under 18,'” Vanzanten said.

The socks are part of a wider Positive Environment Program which aims to tackle bad behavior and encourage respect.

“We have deterrent measures with severe punishments and expulsion from the game if necessary, but we also really promote the positive things that happen,” he said.

“We want people to have fun and be safe.

“Support your team but don’t cross the line.”

Taking things too far

Vanzanten said part of the battle was that verbal abuse became normalized in sports environments.

A profile image of a smiling man in a blue suit jacket, in front of a maroon wall.

Adam Vanzanten says some parents go too far.(Supplied: Queensland Rugby League)

“People become tribal and territorial, and that just creates behavior that can cross the line,” he said.

“We are seeing violent incidents, whether it’s physical assaults and things like that, but that is a rare occasion.

“A lot of the behaviors that you wouldn’t see happen in the supermarket, but they do happen in children’s sports.”

Parents let emotions escape

Rachel Sharman, senior lecturer in psychology at UniSC, said there was a level of wishful thinking that led parents to get carried away.

“They’re doing something they wouldn’t do in any other context,” he said.

“Their brain misinterprets it and thinks they’re actually in a genuine life-or-death situation, when of course you’re just watching a game.

“They allow their emotions to take over and perhaps take over their rational thought processes.”

A netball referee watches the players kicking a goal.

Netball officials say they want players to enjoy the sport and keep coming back.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Bree Dwyer)

Dr. Sharman said children who witnessed their parents perpetrating abuse may feel ashamed, but are more likely to follow their example.

“Teenagers and children who see their parents behaving like this might also behave like this in the future,” he said.

Battaglini said parents who become too competitive risk ruining their children’s fun.

“We need to remind them that this is a sport that we want kids to enjoy and we want them to come back every week,” he said.

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