Last weekend, my daughter took part in a run.
It was a non-competitive run, not even a race, aimed at young children. It was meant to be purely for fun and to get youngsters into the sport. She loved it.
I run occasionally, so for her to have the chance to do something which is usually regarded in our house as a grown-up activity was exciting.
I discovered, however, that my pre-schooler has little competitive spirit – when it comes to running, at any rate. She would stop, not just because she was tired, but to perform forward rolls on an inviting patch of grass. The idea of reaching the finish line before anyone else wasn’t on her radar. Reaching the finish line at all wasn’t really on her radar.
We laughed a lot, we walked a lot. In truth, we did little actual running. We were practically last to cross through the yellow tape, but who cares? We had fun and she was grinning from ear to ear for the rest of the day. She wants to do it again as soon as possible.
Not everyone took it quite as light-heartedly, however.
Some had dressed up their four- and five-year-olds in professional-standard running gear. Others were, grim-faced, limbering their children up before the run, barking instructions and demonstrating squats and stretches that would have put Mo Farah to shame. All fairly harmless, perhaps, but it smacked of overkill.
Then, the real pushy parent reared his head. We passed one family – a boy who looked younger than my daughter, who had possibly just turned four at a push, who was sitting sobbing by the side of the path. His dad, a big burly chap, was screaming at him, purple in the face: “You CAN’T sit down! They don’t stop the clock just because you want to have a rest. Get UP! Come ON!”
The boy was barely more than a toddler. After a while, he agreed to get up and ran on, tears still rolling down his face. Despite their delay, the father and son overtook us – at a point when my daughter was indulging in one of her mini gymnastic displays – finishing a few places ahead of us. I hope his father thought it was worth it.
I was stunned. You read about these parents – the “tiger mums and dads” who pressure their offspring into performing well in sport. You just don’t often come across them in real life – I haven’t so far, anyway: most people I have met at children’s sports classes (at the pre-school stage at least) do not take it seriously. Friends and colleagues with older children, however, tell me it is par for the course.
Judy Murray always had a bit of a reputation as a pushy sporting mum – screaming from the sidelines at matches involving her tennis prodigy offspring.
But at least (by the time we ever saw the relationship in public), Judy’s children were older – they had made a choice by this point to pursue a career in tennis. Andy Murray himself has always claimed that his mother has been nothing but supportive, encouraging him in all of the right ways. Indeed, Murray and his mother do appear to have a close relationship and a mutual understanding.
But a four-year-old – or five-year-old or six-year-old – has not had the chance to find out yet what the “right” way of motivating them is; if they would be better with the stick rather than the carrot. They are too young. They probably can barely even say the word “motivation”.
They are finding their feet, discovering what sport it is they do best – if any – and most importantly, what they enjoy doing.
Gary Lineker revealed in an interview a few years ago that he had felt the need to step in to speak to fathers on the touchline at kids’ football matches, to ask them to calm down and stop harassing their own child, or risk turning them off sport for life.
A report released in 2015 by the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Chance to Shine charity found that four in 10 children are put off sport by parents who tell them they are too fat or lazy to run. Some, the study found, make their offspring cry in front of team-mates.
This is not only tantamount to child abuse, but it is totally counter-productive. Most young children have an in-built ability to do the exact opposite of whatever their parents ask them to do. Therefore, screaming at them to run is most likely to make them want to sit down. It is basic toddler psychology.
The phenomenon appears to affect older children too. Almost half of the eight- to 16-year-olds questioned in the study said the bad behaviour of parents made them feel like they did not want to take part in sport.
Pushy sports parents, despite the fact that their sole aim is to transform their offspring into the next Andy Murray or Serena Williams, are actually contributing to the obesity crisis.
The latest figures from the Scottish Health Survey show that 13 per cent of Scottish children were overweight in 2015, and 15 per cent were classed as obese.
If children are put off sport at a young age, this could lead to a lifelong battle with obesity and a lack of fitness which could contribute to illness later in life.
The reason that parents feel the need to do this probably varies – maybe they felt they underperformed themselves as children, perhaps they want to project their desire to be a professional football player, rugby star or Olympic runner on to their offspring. Perhaps they just like shouting at their children. Maybe they think it is the best way that their child responds.
But by doing so, they are storing up problems – both physical and psychological – for their older years.