February 2020

AFL football in park

Parents undoubtedly comprise a major determining factor in children’s sport. It is well documented that parents play a vital role in enabling children with sporting opportunities through the provision of financial, logistical and emotive support. The nature and quality of parental involvement is also associated with children’s motivation and enjoyment in sport. While there is certainly some concern surrounding the influence of negative parental involvement in the news media and Australian scholarship, little attention has been given to how such behaviours are complicit in the way that sport club culture is reinforced and maintained.

At the elite levels of competitive sport, discussions about ‘club culture’ typically relate to the enshrined values, attitudes and practices that forge a clubs or organisations identity. This is critical to the way that clubs market their ‘brand’ and attract members and sponsors. At the grass roots level however, the notion of club culture is equally important in not only retaining participants and families at the club, but also in attracting prospective participants, many who are seeking a sporting club for the first time. Given that this has implications for volunteerism, fundraising and general support the sport experience, the notion of club culture cannot therefore be understated.

My research into sport-parenting in junior Australian football indicates that parents play a central role in the way that club culture is constructed and maintained. While many sporting club cultures are perceived differently (‘family-oriented’; ‘problematic’; ‘multicultural’), such perceptions are often maintained by the parental attitudes and behaviours espoused through sport. The historical underpinning of each sporting club should also be recognised, yet it is the current custodians of ‘grassroots’ sport (children, parents and coaches) who serve as the predominant reinforcing agents of club culture.

For instance, it is well documented that poor spectator and coaching behaviour, violent conduct on the sporting field and antisocial activities (smoking and alcohol consumption) are negative aspects of children’s and youth sport. Even the notions of abusive sideline behaviour or an overemphasis on winning would resonate with many readers. This not only serves to undermine the immediate participatory experience for children and other volunteers, but negatively colours the culture of the implicated sporting club/s.

Perhaps most importantly, though, while many custodians may inherit a club culture with a ‘bad name’, it is important to note that positive parental involvement can transcend such perceptions and consequently reconstruct the representation of club culture. One of the most powerful examples from my research involves a junior football club which has been historically perceived to foster club culture of substance misuse and ‘ugly’ parenting behaviours. However, several parents currently involved in the club (current ‘custodians’) not only model and advocate appropriate behaviour during the football season as sport-parents, they have also created a supportive off-field environment characterised by the voluntary delivery of a series of educative sessions. This initiative has since had positive consequences for children and for the improvement of the clubs culture.

"We have been putting a lot of programs in place for the kids, like for example, ‘save a mate’, which are around choices on driving, and things like that, drugs and alcohol. We’ve done about three programs on that so far this year and there’s a fourth to come so this year we’ve been about more educating kids than we’ve ever done before, and now the good word is spreading about our club."

Ultimately, grass roots sport club culture is not fixed. Rather, it is a perceptual fabric which can be reshaped, reinforced and/or reproduced as a result of those who are involved in the immediate sport setting. While parents are often held responsible for their own behaviour and that of their children in sport, this article encourages us to look more broadly at their responsibilities in the construction of either a positive or negative club culture.

Dr Sam Elliott

Researcher and Senior Lecturer in Sport, Health and Physical Activity

SHAPE Research Centre

Flinders University