When it comes to supporting their children in sports, parents are often set up to fail, according to British researcher Camilla Knight.
Much of that failure has to do with sports organizations, which need to change their approach if they want to encourage successful, positive parental involvement.
“How parents interact and respond on the sidelines is, at least in part, likely a result of their investment and commitment they have made away from competitions,” says Knight, an associate professor in sports psychology at Swansea University in the United Kingdom.
It starts, she says, with the increased “professionalization and privatization of youth sport.” From an early age, many kids, both in England and North America, are being encouraged by parents and coaches to commit to one sport.
As a result, Knight notes, parents are encouraged to invest serious time and money into their child’s activities, and are “often sold on the idea that their child has ‘potential’ or is ‘talented.’”
A child may or may not have star potential, of course. But, she notes, one thing is certain.
“There is often a perception that ‘good’ parents have their children involved in adult-organized structured activities because these are often deemed to be safer than the free play that children used to engage in,” says Knight, who completed her doctorate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
“Unfortunately, when children and parents make a commitment to sport, this can come at great cost to the parents.”
Those costs vary. The financial commitment is often major and, indeed, can spiral upward for many youth sports by the time you factor in the price of tournaments, trips, gear, and training.
But other less quantifiable costs also arise. Parents have talked to Knight about their stress over “not spending time with family, other siblings, not progressing at work, having no social life … emotionally having to manage competitions, responding to their child appropriately in a highly emotional environment.”
One big stressor is simply when a parent questions whether they’re making the right decisions for their child, despite their best intentions.
And that’s why change needs to happen, Knight says. “Unfortunately, in my experience and based on research, when people start to examine parents’ behaviours or look to ‘fix’ parents behaviours, the blame is usually placed on the parents,” she says. “And little attention is given to what might be impacting on these behaviours.”
The current approach is more of a “blame/punish” approach toward parents, for bad behaviour, such as shouting at referees or kids.
Knight isn’t supporting this sort of negative behaviour but, she says, “we need to understand the factors that lead to and impact on those behaviours.”
Most parents understand that yelling at a referee isn’t appropriate. “So if they know it and keep doing it, we need to take the time to understand why,” Knight says. “What changes need to be made in the environment and the culture to limit those factors that are leading to these behaviours?”
Change won’t happen quickly, she says. “What I’m proposing requires a change in the culture of sports.”
But, she notes, there are key steps people can take to start a positive shift.
- Parents need to reflect on the demands they’re encountering and then identify strategies to manage those demands. Most importantly, “parents need to start recognizing how important and valuable they are.”
- As an educator or coach, take “time to show that you value parents, and that you want their input and you are grateful for what they are doing.”
- Last but not least, critically examine the actual sporting environment. “See if there is anything that can be changed to make it easier for parents, and for kids.”
After all, happy parents help contribute to happy teams, and the ultimate goal should be environments in which parents are both involved and encouraged to be involved.
“If parents are better understood and supported, then they will be better able to support their children,” Knight says. “Subsequently, children should be able to have more enjoyable and successful experiences.”