By: Nicholas Boon

Parental involvement has become a hot topic in youth sports thanks to a spike in research on the social environment of modern youth athletes. A 2002 article by Sean Cumming and Martha Ewing of Michigan State University does an exceptional job of compiling findings from the field, breaking down the multiple aspects of parental involvement. The entire article can be found here:

This post will highlight key findings, expand on relevant theories, and provide some additional resources for parents and coaches on effective practices for parents of youth athletes.

Parental Involvement in Sports

“Parents are becoming increasingly involved in the lives of young athletes”, which is great when taken at face value; all sport parents should be engaged to at least a moderate degree. The best thing a parent can do is find out what their child wants to get out of sports, what they like or dislike, and what their sport goals might be. Not only does this communicate interest, but it allows parents to effectively support their child in pursuit of those goals.

It is also encouraged for parents of athletes to engage in physical activity for themselves, as this is a “positive predictor of enjoyment, participation in physical activity, and continued participation in youth sports” for their children. By playing with their children, parents are able to enhance their relationships as well as immerse themselves in the sporting experience.

Parental involvement typically includes emotional, financial and provisional support.

Financial & Provisional Support

While this may seem obvious, it is beneficial to think about this in some depth. Financial and provisional support usually comes in the form of time and money. Unfortunately, stressing over time and/or money is all too familiar for most parents.

Families investing so much in a child’s athletic pursuits may result in feelings of guilt. Children may feel pressured to continue participation if parents “use guilt as a motivating factor” or if athletes “feel guilty about the consequences of their involvement in sport”. In contrast, some athletes may feel that they should not, or cannot, continue with sport if they feel their participation negatively impacts their family.

Sport needs to be a source of enjoyment, not anxiety, for young children. Parents should provide financial and provisional support without their child feeling responsible for any undue stress the family may experience as a result.

Emotional Support

This is a more significant and complex role for sports parents. Sport is a powerful teaching tool for young children, and it is important for parents to engage in that learning process. Emotional support can include “helping the child deal with winning and losing, discussing tactics, providing verbal encouragement, and helping the child understand the lessons that sport can teach”.

Issues arise when parents become overly invested in the athletic experience of their child. It is important to note that over-emotional parents often have the best of intentions and want nothing more than to see their child succeed. There are two main categories of parents who are too emotionally involved: the excitable parent, and the fanatical parent.

Over-Emotional Parents

Excitable parents are typically supportive and positive, though they “tend to get caught up in the heat of the moment”. These parents often embarrass a child by loudly yelling encouragement or overreacting to any cut or bruise their child may receive. While there may not be any negative intent, children may find this behavior distracting, even resorting to asking their parents not to come to games or practices.

Fanatical parents pose “the greatest risk to the long-term development of young athletes”. These parents put considerable pressure on their child and emphasize performance and results more than development and enjoyment. It is not uncommon for fanatical parents to live vicariously through their child, associating their child’s athletic successes and failures as reflections of themselves.

Interestingly, while most children list enjoyment of the sport, spending time with friends, and learning new skills, fanatical parents often believe that their child participates “to win medals and trophies, gain social status and recognition, or become a professional”. Their children often “argue more frequently with coaches and officials, experience more problems with eating and sleeping, show less effort and enjoyment during training sessions, and are more likely to drop out of sports”.

Fortunately, these cases are more rare than not. Athletes typically believe their parents are positive and supportive, providing the valuable encouragement that all young athletes require. Children with these parents are most likely to continue their participation in athletics.

Encouraging Positive Involvement

The article also lists some valuable strategies for coaches and administrators to use to foster a positive environment for parents and children alike.

“Create an atmosphere that puts the interests of the child before winning” through your coaching priorities and personal behavior
Encourage parents to educate themselves in areas such as nutrition, concussion and injury management, and even the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model
Host “a parent orientation meeting” to inform parents about the program, your coaching philosophy, and their roles in their child’s experience
Finally, two incredibly valuable sites with articles, tools, and other resources for sport parents are included below:

Subscribe to Email Newsletter
Share this article to...