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What makes an expert sports parent?

In 2015, Chris Harwood and Camilla Knight, published an academic paper titled, Parenting in youth sport – a positioning paper on parenting expertise. In this paper Harwood and Knight proposed that there are six key core competencies that expert sport parents demonstrate in order to boost the chance of their children: achieving their potential in sport; enjoying and consequently staying involved in sport; and benefiting from sport’s potential to support positive development outcomes. 

Parents support children in sport in various roles and ways. Harwood and Knight have outlined the following as the six key competencies that inform sport parent expertise: 

  1. Supporting their child to select the right sporting opportunities and providing the necessary type of support 
  2. Understanding and applying the appropriate parenting style 
  3. Managing the emotional demands of competition 
  4. Maintain and foster healthy relationships with significant others 
  5. Managing the organisation and developmental demands of youth sport 
  6. Adapting level of involvement and support to the age and stage of child’s development and progression 

In the following article we unpack what these competencies look like. 

Expert sport parents support their children with selecting appropriate sporting opportunities, as well as provide the necessary types of support 

Armed with the right knowledge, parents not only support their children in playing sport but also help them to choose a sport offering that will best suit them. 

This is important, as parents (of younger children in particular), are well placed to consider the ‘fit’ between their child and a sport (i.e., will a child love a sport?). When considering ‘fit,’ parents need to consider the biological, psycho-social, and emotional needs and wants of their child. Different sports will have attributes that inherently fulfil young people’s needs differently (team sport v individual sport, contact sport v non-contact, etc.). Also important for parents to consider is the respective contexts, communities, and settings of the sport (e.g., how much emphasis does a club / school place on competition?) 

The affinity a child may develop for a sport will then ultimately have an impact on how long they will remain involved in a sport. Before signing up for sports, parents should first have conversations with their children, understand and listen to them around what they want to do and why. 

While parents are well placed to think about the ‘fit’ between their child and a given sport, supporting children to find the sport that best ‘fits’ them is complex. This is why, its beneficial for parents to encourage their children to be exposed to a range of sports early on. Other key focuses parents should look out for include: the prioritisation of fun; that coaching is predominantly done through play or games; that selection and participation opportunities reflect a long-term focus on development; and competition is used in a developmentally appropriate manner (i.e. format of sport is appropriate for age and stage of child, and level of emphasis on winning is appropriate for age and stage of child).

Expert sport parents take time to ‘learn the trade’ of being a sports parent. Underpinning this includes: 

  • Understanding what good emotional support for their child looks like (e.g. how do you support your child to deal with a tough loss?) 
  • Working out how to provide good tangible support (how do you support you child with the logistics of a sport? e.g. travel.) Do parents access additional support networks to manage the logistics of the sport.
  • Understanding what kind of information support your child requires (e.g. what advice can you provide your child to manage both sport and school?)

All this active support should reflect the child’s enjoyment and self-esteem in their sport. 

As they progress, some youngsters will naturally want to reduce their range of activities to take their chosen sport more seriously. 

In those cases, it’s up to parents to seek out the right coaching and training programmes to enable their children to do that while still having fun. 

Understand and apply appropriate parenting styles 

Parenting styles have an important role to play in creating a healthy emotional climate for children. 

And parenting styles are reflected in the way a parent interacts with their child and the parents’ values and expectations. Parenting styles can be mapped into four types along two axis representing level of responsiveness and warmth and level of demandingness and control.  

An organization of four parenting styles based on two parental dimensions: the level of parental control on the x-axis and the level of parental warmth on the y-axis. Source: www.psychologyinaction.org

Research has shown that generally greater positive outcomes are achieved in youth sport, when the experience is underpinned by parents demonstrating an authoritative parenting style.

In simple terms, authoritative parenting is autonomy-supportive. This style of parenting provides the right balance is transparent structure to children, with flexibility for children to have high levels of self-determination to support their growth and development.  

Examples of this might look like: 

  • Setting appropriate responsibilities for young people around pre-match routines (for example organising uniform and equipment). 
  • Helping young people to negotiate the challenging experiences in sport in a psycho-socially constructive manner (for example supporting them to frame deselection experiences as learning experience, and not try to undermine a coach or selectors decision). 

Manage the emotional demands of competitions and role model good emotional control to their child 

The need for parents to supervise and/or get their child to and from sports means they are frequently on the sidelines. 

But often parents’ heightened emotions get the better of them and that has a detrimental effect on our children. 

As studies show, we know parental reactions are often the result of empathy for their child, the emotional intensity of the game, and the perceived knowledge and experience of sport.  

Children’s emotions, opponent behaviour and parent interference are often sources of frustration too.  

Any anger usually comes down to perceived unjust behaviours from coaches, referees, uncaring behaviours from coaches, athletes and other parents and perceptions of coach or referee incompetence.  

An example of this is a parent who stormed onto a rugby field during a tournament and hurled abuse at the referee after a call he didn’t agree with, in front of the two young teams and everyone else on the sidelines. 

Managing such emotions is key when it comes to supporting children and it will enhance the experience for all involved, not put them off. It also serves to model back to children, good emotional intelligence. 

It’s about mastering that whole range of emotions, for instance the disappointment or worry they feel or share with their child when their child is upset or disappointed, or the embarrassment they feel as helpless bystanders if their child is underperforming or behaving poorly.  

As studies show, youth prefer support without pressure which means parents need to avoid providing technical or tactical advice, ensure comments focus on effort and attitude rather than performance or outcome, and give practical advice ONLY to help them prepare and recover from games. 

It’s a matter of respecting sideline etiquette and remaining positive – cheer, be encouraging during and afterwards, give praise and empathy. 

For those who really struggle to adjust, ask for tasks at competitions, and take up opportunities to socialise and become better educated around the values and benefit of sport without the focus on winning. 

If parents can control their own emotions and behave in manners appropriate for the sport, it will impact on their own enjoyment and their children’s.  

An emotionally intelligent sport parent is one who understands their child’s emotional needs, appreciates values such as effort, sportsmanship, independence honesty, composure and constructive feedback, and demonstrates behaviour that role models these values to their child. 

Fostering and maintaining healthy relationships with other people in your child’s youth sport network 

Parent relationships with children, coaches and other parents is vital when it comes to creating a positive youth sport environment. 

When children participate they interact with a range of people, including other children parents, coaches, officials and organisers, and it’s no different with parents.  

The quality of those relationships comes down to a number of factors outlined by players in one study – self-esteem, enhancement and supportiveness, loyalty, things in common, companionships and play, and how you deal with conflict.

In relationships where those factors were present, it resulted in higher levels of player enjoyment, perceived competence, self-determination, motivation and lower stress levels.

Parents in the same space developed positive coach-parent relationships, built trust and understanding, and appreciation for their work.  

In fact through positive interactions and behaviours parents can minimise a coach’s stress by doing the simple things well, things like accepting the coach’s authority, not undermining their leadership particularly in front of the athlete, and supporting the coach behind the scenes without interference.  

It’s also about developing knowledge of the sport, listening to the coach on various issues such as schedules, competition, rest and recover, so the child gets the maximum benefits.  

Healthy relationships with other parents is also vital and can diffuse situations. 

Angry interactions, interference, shouting, cheating, and negative comments are all stressors for parents – they inevitably damage relationships and impact negatively on children’s experiences and relationships with other children. 

Instead foster healthy parent-to-parent relationships, create a social network where they can feel a part of a sporting community and have their own social needs met at trainings and games. 

It will allow parents to become aware that developing and maintaining such relationships are beneficial for their children, other children, coaches, parents and themselves as well. 

Managing organisational and developmental demands associated with youth sport 

While parents can influence the youth sport environment, so too can the youth sport environment influence parents. 

Financial demands can affect personal, social and broader family life choices while organisational demands may include finance and time commitments which can upset the sport-work and sport-family balance.  

It can even create strained relationships at home between parents and siblings, resentment and guilt due to lack of attention of non-sport siblings.  

Coaching behaviour, club and national body processes can cause stress too – lack of communication, lack of feedback from coaches, funding criteria, selection decision, and the pressures of talent development systems can all contribute.  

Developmental demands can include decisions around coaches, training and programmes, and concerns a concerted effort in one sport may mean they miss out on other hobbies and activities which, in turn, causes uncertainty of their child’s future while trying to manage sport and school pressures.  

Such demands can affect a child’s ongoing development, decision-making, support needs and even career transitions down the track. 

It’s vital that parents develop and apply various coping skills and strategies to manage these diverse demands. 

When they successfully do this, they strengthen their ability to help their child navigate through the demands and uncertainties of sport. 

Adapting involvement to different stages of a child’s athletic development and progression

As children grow and develop through sport, parents’ roles, experiences, demands and responsibilities change along the way.  

And it’s up to parents to recognise and successfully negotiate their shifting roles as children transition through the stages of athletic development.  

As a child navigates first-time challenges parents may focus on attitude, value and character development as they begin their role as educator and supporter. 

When children transition to the specialising stage and involvement intensifies, parents must also transition. 

It’s a time when parents may become more involved at an organisational level, where logistics come into play, and where providing emotional, motivational and moral support to their child is most important. 

With a child’s growing independence, it’s even more important to keep communication lines open around decision-making to ensure demands of a potential career and education are made.  

At that stage coaches begin to take on more expert support roles with parents more provider roles and in the background.

Negotiating this shift can be stressful and challenging, as parents are no longer close to the centre of their child’s sporting world.  

At the end of the day, it’s up to parents to adapt to provide that unconditional support and a safe haven for their young adult as they develop their independence and pursue their sporting and life goals.  

In summary 

Sporting parents face a whole lot of responsibilities around managing and supporting the needs of their child, managing themselves and their wellbeing, fostering and managing relationships, and dealing with organisational demands and processes within the youth sport environment.  

While parents form a necessary part of the fabric of youth sport, not everyone when they become involved in sport possesses the knowledge, skills or understanding that underpin “sport parenting expertise”. 

It’s important for clubs, organisations and coaches to help build the competencies and skills of parents to ensure a healthy sport experience and environment is maintained.  

For these organisations, the likes of online resources, workshops or meetings can help parents understand, gain confidence and expertise in their role.  

Working with coaches on relationship management and parents on relationships with others is also key. 

Being proactive and educating and supporting parents will go a long way to developing excellence and expertise in sports parents and create positive experiences for children at the same time. 

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