There is a phenomenon that seems to cross cultural divides and all sports: the ugly parent. By this, I refer to the attitudes and behaviour exhibited by some parents when their child or children are playing sport. But it is part of a spectrum. In the extreme it is characterised by the loud, obnoxious, arrogant parent who is disrespectful to other players, officials, parents and supporters. Disrespect for the sport and societal values in general. The one who knows all and assumes the mantle of control without hesitation or consideration. Indeed, it is likely that the same person repeats their characteristics whether watching sport on television or at the venue itself.

At the other end is the passive parent, with no opinion or judgement, accepting of everything whether good or bad, winning or losing. Unconditional support irrespective of performance.

Somewhere in the middle seems appropriate, but where exactly?

Regarding offensive behaviour, why is it that some people think it is acceptable to behave this way? Why is it tolerated?

The behaviour seems to be more prevalent amongst males rather than females, although there are exceptions. Maybe this is hard wired as the male in many animal species is the dominant physical force, fighting for territory and fiefdom, then to be handed down reluctantly to its male progeny or risk it being usurped by an outsider. The heir must prove themselves “worthy” of inheriting what was fought and died for by the senior male during an entire lifetime. Sport offers that opportunity.

In sport, where sanitised aggression apparently exists, the process itself is better understood if it is thought of in 3 parts: pre-game, the game itself, and post game.

The key component throughout is the quality of the relationship between parent and child. To a large degree, the control of this is skewed towards the adult. The child is still formulating their ethics, morals, belief systems. Sport provides an important backdrop in the provision of such standards.


The parent sets the tone even before their child plays sport.

An adult’s own personal sporting experiences, success or failure, overlaps with other areas of their personality and lives. They may often lament their failures, offer excuses, highlight the one episode of greatness remorselessly that compensates for all else that has gone wrong. Or worse, just one example in a litany of self opinionated greatness. How they respond to television or online sports also is observed by their child and has the potential to be identified with. This cannot be underestimated. The parent has a powerful, preparatory role in setting the standards by which their child plays and adopts in the areas of self-esteem, self-worth, respect, team ethos and conflict mediation.

Every adult personality structure reflects how they themselves handle conflict, belief systems, issues with competing, authority and a sense of entitlement or ruthlessness. When this is extreme and pathological, it best fits those traits of the Narcissistic or Anti-social Personality Disorder. In lay terms, the psychopath. Only the arena is sport, not business, or the schoolyard, or their personal relationships, where authority and control through intimidation are manifest.

The advent of children has a profound effect on a person’s life. It represents a new opportunity. Through the child, all fantasies can be fulfilled. Whatever has gone wrong previously, can be corrected. Some of this is human nature, the desire that the child is successful, content, free of conflict and adverse experiences. The problem is, that sometimes the life and personality of the child’s is required to and must compensate for all that has gone wrong for the adult. The child has no choice. The boundary becomes blurred. So much so that the parent will convince themselves that “it’s for their own good” and somehow such behaviour is “character building”. Yes, but what type of character? A mirror image? An improved version? If it was good enough for them, then it’s good enough for the child. The child is seen as an extension of the adult, not an individual in their own right. Their existence is therefore to unconditionally achieve what the parent has not, whether they like it or not. Or suffer the consequences of the parent’s projected rage. By projection, I refer to a primitive defence mechanism of attributing one’s own anger regarding success and failure onto the child and blaming them, thereby not taking responsibility for oneself.  One can then avoid feelings of devastation and emptiness associated with failure. This is done unconsciously, but clearly the damage to the child can be profound. When the child is succeeding at their sport, all seems well. Fail and the controlling parent literally takes it personally and blames the child. Succeed, and it is the parent who basks in the glory and adulation. The child misses out either way.



This is where the “ugly” part is on full display. Whatever semblance of control that existed before the match, disappears with the crescendo of elation, the euphoria of victory or the devastation of failure. The primitive need to control through intimidation, bullying, humiliation is by extension. The child becomes the “object”, devoid of their own humanity or personality. All is fair so long as they win.

This experience may be a familiar one for the other parents who attend, especially if they were subjected to such intimidation at school. That is, they regress. They feel uncomfortable, hopeless, ashamed at their own weakness to defend not only themselves, but also their own child. A doubling effect. Once again they have failed to assert themselves through fear, but now have to deal with their child as the victim.

Fortunately, not all parents are passive. Some will complain directly to the parent and risk confrontation. How another adult reacts is reflective of their own personality and previous experiences with such people, at all stages of their existence. Clearly, a volatile situation can quickly escalate into violence and must be avoided for the safety of all concerned, no matter what the justification. A better and more civilised approach is to complain to the appropriate authorities, especially if there is a consensus. There is strength in numbers.

The sport itself, or the sides competing, must have structures in place to deal with such events, much like that which hopefully exist at larger sporting events. Some assistance can be garnered from the officials umpiring the game, especially in an indoor arena. Better still, notification should be given to all parents when they enrol their child as to what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and the consequences. At least this would serve to educate and serve notice as to who the controlling body is in the sport.

What is the effect on the child themselves? This depends on their emerging character. Some may find it embarrassing, some accepting. Do they seek approval or not, from an authority figure? Most children want their parents to be “proud” of them and their exploits. The extent will depend on how close the child has already “mirrored” some of the parents’ traits. It is also important that the parent experiences some retributive consequence for the behaviour.  The opinions of their peers and coaches are also important influential factors. Stopping the game may seem extreme, but this is already a solution to highlighting crowd problems in adult arenas such as racism, vilification and violence.



The way in which parents deal with the aftermath of the match is a vital component of the overall education process. This is a time for reflection, for assessment, for evaluation, whether a part of winning or losing. Attitudes will be formed and consolidated depending on the parent’s advice, opinions and behaviour.

This is in essence, a de-brief. Emotions are at a high level, especially for the child. The emotions will vary according to their position as victor or loser. They will make their own assessment as to their contribution to either outcome. Some will be realistic, some based on fantasy. The parent has an important role as a provider of truth, against which the child will measure themselves. Their teammates and coach have secondary roles in this regard.

In the immediate aftermath when emotions are high, little needs to be said or done. The child should be given the chance to process their experience accordingly, with their coach and teammates especially. This facilitates trust, friendship, support and the maintenance of social bonds. A sharing of experience, good or bad, elation or humiliation. The level of parental response will depend on the age of their child and thus the level of sophistication regarding language and concept formation. Overt aggression in any form is never acceptable. It only fosters rage, humiliation, revenge and ultimately anger towards the parental figure that will inevitably find its way into the relationship. There is nothing to be gained in life for a child to believe that what they do is never good enough, or to continually seek approval from others, or believe they are superior to others only to fail in their personal relationships.  How they deal with this time in their lives and the impact it has as they move through life will be remembered by how their parents reacted.

There is nothing wrong with asking your child if they want to talk about the game. If they win, it will be hard to keep them quiet. Lose, it may be different. The timing is important. Sometimes driving home will offer the opportunity for exploration. If not, then allow some time alone at home before offering the opportunity for dialogue. Always praise the achievements, even if relatively minor, but also do not falsify or embellish, as the child is astute in detection and will resent this. Offering to do extra practice after school or weekends is also crucial, so long as it is agreed to as mutually beneficial. It also tells the child that the parent is supportive, but that they do have a choice. That is the most important point to make: the child has a choice as to what game they play, how they play it, their reaction to the sport, why they play and whether they want to continue at all or take up chess or ballet.

For the narcissistic parent, this may be too much. It would be the ultimate insult, a child going in the opposite direction to what the parent expected and dictated.

To some degree, their rage is understandable. Who was it that paid for the expensive lessons and coaches? Who was it that “sacrificed” their time and effort? Who was it that watched them play every weekend, gave unconditional support, and drove hundreds of kilometres? Who is it that is owed?

The reality is, your child “owes” you nothing as a parent. What you do for them, you choose to do because of your belief, value, respect for them. To give them the opportunity to explore their lives. Sport is so much more than winning and losing. It provides a forum to discover friendships, trust, loyalty, support and to share competitive instincts. The adulation of winning, the despair in losing. But always to share the experience. The problem arises when the parent does not recognise the distinction between themselves and their child. The boundary. When they expect, nay demand, something in return. To compensate for all else that they have failed at.

This is the “ugly parent”.  Ugly, because the only point of their child playing sport is to win. At all costs. Whatever it takes.  Intimidation, abuse, illegal exploitation, disregard of the rules are all a projection of the narcissistic, bullying individual. Of course, some sharing in a child’s success is acceptable. “Sharing” is the key concept, not ownership. Humility is also important. Respect for the opponent. Respect for the game. Respect for human beings.

Individuals who conduct themselves thus have other more deep seated issues. They also have grown up in households where healthy values are absent. In turn, they are then projected onto their own children, identified and integrated into their psyche. And on it goes, as the cycle is repeated. If these values are integrated, it is likely that they are also used in other areas of an individual’s life to deal with conflict.

Sport does not need to tolerate such behaviour. If this is witnessed, it must be opposed. If not directly, then indirectly to the officials if present.  Especially if violence is to be averted.  Never the less, complaints must be made, otherwise nothing changes. The sociopathic parent will not suddenly change. They do not suddenly and magically develop a moral compass. There is no apology, atonement. There is too much of themselves invested in their child’s success. They rely on others’ fear and being intimidated, accepting of the status quo.

How often is this true in other instances in society? Unfortunately, the one who opposes often is the one who falls victim to the other’s aggression. This is what the sociopath expects: opposition to be met with violence.  They believe that sport is an acceptable alternative to play out their conflicts using their children.

In sport, when it comes to the teaching of moral standards to children, the ugly parent is an intimidating minority. Sport is an important vehicle for change through action. It sends a wider message to the society of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour.

It starts with our children.


Author Dr Phillip Salonikis – May 23, 2017

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