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What the David Beckham documentary tells us – and what it doesn’t – about controlling parents in sport

What the David Beckham documentary tells us – and what it doesn’t – about controlling parents in sport
Production still from Netflix docuseries "Beckham", image courtesy of Netflix

David Beckham says he felt prepared for the nation’s wrath because of how he says he was treated by his father. It’s a familiar story in sport, but evidence shows controlling behaviour doesn’t work.

In the Netflix documentary Beckham, the footballer is asked how he coped with the abuse of his entire country after the 1998 men’s football World Cup. David Beckham responds:

I was able to handle being abused by the fans […] because of the way my dad had been to me.

A poignant scene shows Beckham’s mother Sandra struggling with how hard his father Ted was on their son. Ted’s shouting often brought David to tears. When asked if he was too tough on David, Ted says:

No […] if I told him how good he was, then he’s got nothing to work at.

Throughout the documentary, Ted’s behaviour is rationalised by Ted and even Beckham himself as necessary to support David’s sporting trajectory. But David also said he was scared of his father’s feedback and felt compelled to practise for hours every day. Other athletes with similar stories include Tiger WoodsAndre Agassi and Australian Jelena Dokic.

Too often, controlling behaviour by parents is portrayed as necessary for success as an athlete. But the evidence shows this idea is false. Such an approach can be detrimental to both a child’s chances of sporting success and their well-being. And it’s not just a problem with elite sports; our research shows it’s also occurring with community sports.

The Beckham documentary only skimmed the surface of his relationship with his father, Ted. Netflix

What we found

Our research found about one in three people we surveyed said they’d experienced abuse by a parent during their time in Australian community sport.

Psychological abuse by parents was reported by just under a third of our respondents and included behaviours such as:

  • excessive criticism
  • insults and humiliation
  • excessively training to extreme exhaustion/vomiting
  • ignoring a child following a sports performance.

The controlling and abusive behaviours described above have been consistently normalised by parents, coaches and sporting organisations as being necessary to create “mentally tough” athletes ready for high-level competition.

However, there is no evidence abusive and controlling behaviours have a positive impact on performance.

Instead, there is ample evidence to indicate it:

Research shows when adults in community sports use what’s known as an “autonomy-supportive approach” – in which young people are empowered to make their own decisions and have their feelings validated – children can be more self-motivated.

An experiment at the 2012 Olympic Games found coaches with a more supportive approach achieved higher medal tallies than those who did not. Most of this evidence has focused on coaching, but given many parents act as coaches for their children, these findings remain relevant.

There is no evidence abuse improves the performance of children in sports. Production still from Netflix docuseries “Beckham”, image courtesy of Netflix

Putting children’s experiences first

No evidence controlling or abusive practices improve children’s performance in sports. But even if there was, sports performance should not be valued above a child’s health and well-being. These behaviours would not be tolerated in different environments, such as workplaces or schools.

It’s time to move on from this debate in sport. So where to from here?

The sport system is complex, and while it’s easy to think it’s just a few problematic people, the reality is these practices have been normalised for generations. Parents are repeating patterns from their own experiences and mirroring practices they see as normal in elite sports. There is no quick fix. But we can all play a part by reflecting on our behaviours and considering how we can prioritise children’s experiences and wellbeing.

Parents should focus on fun, learning new skills, enjoying the moment, and being part of a team so their kids can get the most out of the games they love. Despite Beckham himself suggesting it was all worth it, the evidence suggests he was successful despite the high-pressure home environment, not because of it. DM

This story was first published on The Conversation. Mary Woessner is a Lecturer in Clinical Exercise and Research Fellow, at the Institute for Health and Sport (iHeS), Victoria University at Victoria University. Alexandra Parker is a Professor of Physical Activity and Mental Health at Victoria University. Aurélie Pankowiak is a Research Fellow at, IVictoria University Institute for Health and Sport 

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  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    I don’t think Beckham’s father is in the same league as Dokic. Dokic’s abuse was described by Jelena in great detail. He was banned from tournaments, made bomb threats and was eventually jailed. By contrast, Beckham’s dad was hard on him, but clearly there was still a loving relationship. Beckham clearly loved playing football and had a very long and successful career. He continued playing at the highest level out of sheer love of the game well into his thirties, when, as the richest sportsman in the world, he obviously did not need the money. I think you have mischaracterised the Netflix series. While both parents and Beckham himself acknowledge that his dad was hard on him, they also show that it was this almost obsessive practice routine that made him the player he was. Dokic, Agassi and Woods all ended up in a meltdown of sorts and struggling with their sports. Beckham, not so much. He seems remarkably “normal” with a loving marriage and family. I would compare Beckham’s dad to Richard Williams, father of the Williams sisters. Ultimately to be an elite champion athlete you have to dedicate your life to the sport from a very young age.

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