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Research: Young People’s Experiences of Parental Involvement in Youth Sport

This article is shared by Player Development Project

Research paper by: Ase Strandbu, Kari Stefansen, Ingrid Smette, and Morten Rensio Sandvik

The Big Idea

“Involved parenthood” in organized youth sports is what these Norwegian researchers are attempting to better understand.  Child-centered parenting they note—using the United States as an example—is still evolving since its early cultural development in the 1960s.  Organized youth sport in those days was in its infancy, preceding the appearance of involved parents.  On a personal note, this reviewer—who is from the U.S.—recalls his early childhood sporting days in the 1960s, and happily with no parents in sight—which by the way, may have been the Promised Land in the history of youth sports.

The novelty of this study on parental involvement in youth sports is who the researchers talked to.  It was not the parents.  These voices are from the young people who play.  They also are voices not of elite players, but of those immersed in the emotionally intense mainstream youth sports.

The goal of this research project was to shine light on “how young people understand ideal parental roles and their own scope of agency in the sphere of sports and in the context of intensive parental involvement.”  In other words, the question was: Has contemporary youth sports structure and function lost its capacity for adolescents to experience autonomy from parents and family?  Now let’s hear what the kids say about that.

Takeaways

  • Parental involvement in youth sport has intensified over the last few decades.
  • The more intense the parent participation, the less likely youngsters will have positive opportunities to develop their own identity and autonomy.
  • This study of parental involvement in youth sports explores how adolescents negotiate their parent’s involvement, and how they define ideal and problematic forms of parental involvement.
  • Norwegian teenagers who are engaged in youth sport are asked how they define both ideal and less desirable forms of parental involvement.
  • 13- and 14-year-old boys and girls sports participants were organized into 16 focus groups.
  • When focusing the group discussion on sport as good for physical and healthy activity, the youngsters supported their parent’s efforts to regulate and encourage participation.
  • But when peer sociability and athletic skill were the focus of the discussions, these young teenagers find parental involvement undesirable.
  • Generally, these children’s parents do respect the boundary lines the athletes draw between parental roles and types of parental involvement preferred by the youngsters.
  • This study finds that teenagers in sport do appreciate parent support and guidance, while at the same time they negotiate their co-existing freedoms and autonomy.
  • This study was published in the journal, Sport, Education and Society (2019).

The Research

Norwegian youth sport

In Norway, youth sport is conducted outside the schools.  Organized sport for youngsters is a unique partnership between the state and civic society.  Both state and municipalities are responsible for the infrastructure; the local clubs are responsible for organizing and delivering the activities themselves.  Coaches are volunteers (unpaid).  These club sports are accessible, and the fees are reasonable.

At the club level, the parents are largely responsible for both the coaching and the “ground crew.”  At both the child level and the youth level the participant rates are impressive.  Approximately 60% of Norwegian children and adolescents participate weekly in organized sports.

The study

The method for this study was to conduct focus groups.  The area of interest was to learn more about young people’s autonomy and the ideal role for parents in assisting youngsters in finding themselves (autonomy).  In a previous study, these researchers also talked to about half of the parents of the children sampled in this study.   From the parents’ standpoint, collectively they said their involvement in their children’s sporting life exceeded their own parents’ level of involvement when they were growing up.

The standard form of parent involvement included encouraging their children to participate in sport early on.  Their role was to provide the proper sports equipment and club fees.  Parents also worked the kiosks, provided transportation, and stepped up to coach.  But It was also reported that some fathers were engaged so fully in their child’s sport experiences that it was “difficult to distinguish whether the sport was the child’s or the parent’s project.”  In these more involved families, parents carefully followed the child’s athletic development; they also gave extensive practical, emotional, and strategic advice.

The product of this study was the views of the youngsters on three primary questions: 1) parent’s rationale for encouraging their children to participate in sport; 2) parent’s encouragement and regulation of participation in sport; and 3) views on parental visibility and presence in the sphere of sports.

#1:  The youngsters recognized several rationales for their parent’s encouragement to play.

  • Taking part in sports was a way to get to know new people and to keep in shape.
  • Frequently mentioned was reference to health, social engagements, and having fun.
  • A deeper understanding was the way these adolescents understood what their parents did not want them to do, such as sitting down playing computer games or watching TV, smoking, or hanging out at the mall.

#2:  The parent’s role in encouraging and regulating their youngsters to begin, continue, or quit a sport was by and large deferred to the kids.

  • Some youngsters found it helpful when parents encouraged them to not quit in a sport, especially when it turned out to be the right decision.
  • When it comes to regulating the time young people give over to sport, most youngsters appreciate being reminded that school comes first.
  • As to which parent was the “time regulator” between school and sports, almost always it was the mother.
  • And, the children do believe that parents play a vital role in their development of autonomy.

#3:  Parental direct involvement in the youngster’s actual sporting activities is a sensitive topic.

  • Some of the children wanted their parents to attend their games.
  • Parent presence provided a common ground, emotional support, and extra motivation to perform well.
  • Still others said when they were younger, they appreciated parents watching games; but as they aged-up the youngsters were indifferent to parent presence.
  • Others wished their parents would be less involved because without parental presence they felt more comfortable to be themselves.
  • Still others were uncomfortable with parent presence because parents can be over expressive and behavior at games is sometimes embarrassing.

Conclusion

The upshot of this study is the extent to which sporting adolescents both want parental involvement and yet also want defined limits to that involvement.  Appreciated by these young players are parents who support and encourage love of playing sports; this includes needed financial investment, attendance at events, and help with time management.

But these Norwegian youngsters seem to intuitively understand the Latin root of the word, parent: the verb, parereto, meaning “to bring forth.”  Nurturing, raising, protecting, and loving.  But parenting is not a competitive sport in and of itself.  Too much parenting cripples, just as too little trivializes.

For these young athletes, good parenting doesn’t cripple or trivialize; good parenting is finding the right way to give the adolescent space to grow, develop, and learn.  That means not interfering in meaningful social relationships with teammates.  That means giving the youngster the right to make the final decision to participate or not.  That means the teenage players need to be trusted in the natural process of negotiating their identity and autonomy.

Image Credit: Jordan Whitt via Unsplash

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