Let me admit, straight up, that I'm a borderline bad sports parent. Yes, I have been warned more than once by an umpire to step back from the sideline and shut my mouth. Yes, I have criticised my children's teammates, within earshot of my children. Yes, I have nagged my children all the way home from Chisholm or Amaroo, or some other far-flung corner of the earth, about their own less-than-perfect performance. Lock me up with Damir Dokic and throw away the key.
If your house is anything like mine, Saturday mornings won't be your own again until September. Close to 1.8 million Australian children participate in organised sport out of school hours, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Some Saturday mornings it feels as though I'm ferrying them all around. But why the confession about my failings? Well, 2012 is the season I hope to turn everything around. I have promised myself I will not say (out loud at least) anything bad about anything or anyone - unless, of course, I feel my children are suffering because of it.
I can't help it. I attribute my behaviour to the fact that I know, or least think I know, something about most sports. There's nothing more irritating than watching officials, coaches, parents, or, indeed, even participants, spoiling the integral essence of sport. Umpires who want to even things up because one side is doing much better than the other are interfering with the natural order of things. As much as it sucks for the losing team, they need to learn to suck it up. That's life. Parents who berate the other team because they happen to be lucky enough to have a ''Big Tony'' who takes the ball up every hit, saying things like, ''Oh, we'd never do anything like that, share the ball around''. Of course we would. We just don't have a ''Big Tony''. That's life too. I sometimes wish I knew nothing about sport. That I could be one of those parents who are happy enough to get dressed up in their heels and Driza-Bone coats and toddle about on the sidelines with their eco mugs full of soy lattes they've picked up from Manuka on the way through. The ones who are happy to cheer and clap, oblivious to the fact that their precious Paris has cost her team a precious goal, stopping to fix her ponytail and not marking her wing attack properly.
But I'm not. I'm the one in tracksuit pants, who's got her own hockey stick out just in case the team needs some help warming up; the one who's making sure water bottles are full; that the kids know which player from the other team is the one to keep an eye on, because I've been keeping an eye on their warm-up too. I'm a sad case.
So this is the year it all stops. I will try to become an ''ideal sports parent''. I found a great story online, ''What Makes A Nightmare Sports Parent - And What Makes A Great One'', written by Steve Henson, a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports, based in the United States. He's also a father of four who's spent close to 30 years coaching and officiating children's sport, so he's probably seen more than his fair share of people like me. He lists the signs of nightmare sports parents and ideal ones.
His five signs of an ideal parent are:
■ Cheer everybody on the team, not just your child.
■ Model appropriate behaviour.
■ Know what is suitable to discuss with the coach.
■ Know your role.
■ Be a good listener and a great encourager.
Sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? Henson encourages parents to allow young athletes to find their own solutions; to display poise, control and confidence so the young athlete will learn to do the same; to never hassle coaches about the playing time your child is getting; to be your child's biggest fan.
For the sake of balance here are his five signs of a nightmare parent.
■ Over-emphasising sports at the expense of sportsmanship.
■ Having different goals than your child.
■ Treating your child differently after a loss than a win.
■ Undermining the coach.
■ Living your own athletic dream through your child.
That last one gets me. But is it so much my athletic dream - that faded years ago - or my desire for my children to get everything out of sport that I have got over the years? I want them to love sport as much as I do, to maintain a life-long involvement, because sport teaches you so many valuable life lessons, on and off the field.
But maybe I'm going about it the wrong way. By being a borderline nightmare parent am I teaching them the wrong lessons? Closer to home there's a new program, Play by the Rules, set up by the Australian Sports Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission, all state and territory sport and recreation and anti-discrimination agencies and the NSW Commission for Children and Young People. It provides information and online learning on how to prevent and deal with discrimination, harassment and child abuse; and develop inclusive and welcoming environments for participation.
Play by the Rules acknowledges that parents play an invaluable role in club and community sports. ''Occasionally, however, some become over-emotional, verbally abusive and sometimes even physically aggressive,'' says the website. ''It's important that the inappropriate actions of a few parents don't ruin the sporting experience for everyone else.''
Check out playbytherules.net.au for interactive scenarios and good advice.
Henson also talks about an informal survey conducted by two longtime coaches, who asked hundreds of college kids over the years to recall one of their best memories of playing sport as a child. For the overwhelming majority it was when their parents said to them, ''I love watching you play.''
Say that to your kids on the way home this afternoon, and leave it at that - even if inside you're seething about that goal they missed.