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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 sport parents and 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 chances of their children achieving their potential in youth sport; enjoying and consequently staying involved in sport and physical activity; 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 parents’ expertise: 

  1. Through parental support, helping their child/children to select the right sporting experience(s).
  2. Adequate parental involvement: understanding and applying the appropriate parenting styles.
  3. Managing the emotional demands of competition.
  4. Maintain and foster healthy relationships with co-parents and significant others.
  5. Managing the organisation and developmental demands of youth sport participation.
  6. Adapting their level of parental involvement and support to the age and stage of their child’s development and progression.

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

Expert sports parents support their children in selecting appropriate youth sport opportunities

Armed with the right knowledge, sport parents not only support their children in playing sports participation, but also help them to choose a youth sport experience 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 particular sport or physical activity. They will know better than any other adult — including a teacher or sports coach — whether their child is likely to love playing a particular sport. As such, parental support and input is vital when helping young people to find the sport(s) for them.

When considering ‘fit,’ sport parents need to consider the biological, psycho-social, and emotional needs and wants of their child. Each different sport will have attributes that inherently fulfil the needs of young people differently (for example, team sport versus individual sport, contact sport versus non-contact sport etc.). Also important for sport parents to consider is the respective contexts, communities, and settings of the sport (for example, how much emphasis do sports clubs or sporting organisations place on competition?).

Of course, It’s also worth remembering that parents’ perceptions won’t always be accurate. Sometimes young people will surprise us; just because most children enjoy a particular sport, it doesn’t mean our own child will; even if we’re sporting parents, it doesn’t necessarily mean our children will want to participate in the same sport as us; maybe we are convinced that they will love one sport, but they develop a passion for something completely different.

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 and other forms of physical activity. So, before signing their child up for a sport, parents should first have conversations with their children, listen to them, and endeavour to understand what they want to do and why. The best sport parents will talk openly with their children, give them a degree of autonomy, and children’s involvement in sport be guided by their own wants and needs.

While sports parents are well placed to think about the ‘fit’ between their child and a given sport, supporting children to find the sport and sporting environment that best ‘fits’ them is complex. This is why it’s beneficial for sports parents to encourage their children to try more sports, and experience a range of different children’s sport environments early on.

How sports parents can evaluate youth sport environments

Good advice for sports parents is to consider the following aspects of a sport and its environment that can profoundly impact their children’s involvement and the experiences it gives them: 

  • Sport values (for instance, does it take place in a positive sporting environment, where fun and players’ enjoyment is prioritised?).
  • That coaching is predominantly done through play or games.
  • That selection of young athletes reflects a long-term focus on development and maximising children’s participation.
  • The types of physical literacy and human movement skills it helps children to develop.
  • If their child is engaging in more than one sport, whether those sports complement each other.
  • The extent to which the sport helps their children to develop physical fitness (without overloading them).
  • The opportunities it provides for social development and the building of relationships. For instance, is there a positive team environment? Is parental support encouraged?
  • Do coaches and other adults act as good role models and provide a positive influence for children, helping them to develop good behaviour through their sport participation?
  • If competition is used in a developmentally appropriate manner. This means the format of sport and level of emphasis on winning is appropriate for the age and stage of the child; children’s perceptions of themselves or their participation are not driven by performance outcomes; and competitions are treated as learning opportunities, without putting pressure on young athletes.

Being a good sports parent

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

  • Understanding what good parental support for their child looks like (for example, how do you support your child in dealing with a tough loss?).
  • Providing tangible support. As a sports parent, the logistics of your child’s sport involvement is very much your domain; for instance, how do you support them with travel? when it comes to getting young athletes to and from school, practice, home, and gameday, parental involvement is often crucial. Perhaps you can engage with other sports parents to establish additional support networks.
  • Understanding what kind of information support young people require. For example, what advice can you give your child to manage both sport and school? Do they understand the benefits of physical education and physical activity? Does your parenting style let them feel that they can come to you with questions?

Sports parents play a huge role in the sporting experiences of their children. All this active support should aid your child’s enjoyment of sport, and the self-esteem they develop through participation in sport and physical activity. 

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

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

Advice for sporting parents: understanding and applying appropriate parenting styles

Parental involvement and parenting styles have an important role to play in creating healthy emotional climates for children. Therefore your child’s participation in sport and physical activity can be profoundly impacted by your input into their sporting experiences. The best sports parents appreciate this and endeavour to exert a positive (but not overbearing) influence on their children’s participation in sport.

Understanding different parenting styles

Parenting styles are reflected in both the way a parent interacts with their child and in 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 findings suggest that, generally, greater positive outcomes are achieved in youth sport, when the experience is underpinned by sports parents demonstrating an authoritative parenting style.

In simple terms, authoritative parenting is autonomy-supportive. This style of parental involvement provides the right balance of 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 children 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 experiences, and not trying to undermine a coach or selector’s decision). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

An example of this is a sports 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 teams of young people and everyone else on the sidelines. 

Managing such emotions is key when it comes to parental involvement in youth sport and supporting children. It’s key to being good sporting parents, and will enhance the experience for all involved — not put them off. It also serves to model good emotional intelligence back to children. 

It’s about mastering that whole range of emotions — for instance the disappointment or worry a parent feels or shares with their child when their child is upset or disappointed; or the embarrassment they feel, as helpless bystanders, if their child is under-performing or behaving poorly.  

As studies show, young people prefer support without pressure, which means that parental involvement should not entail 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 for, and recover from, games. 

It’s a matter of respecting sideline etiquette and remaining positive — cheer, be encouraging during and afterwards, give praise, and provide 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. Sport parenting can be tough. But just like our young people can develop in their sport, we can improve as sport parents.

And if parents can control their own emotions and behave in manners appropriate for their child’s sport, they can exert a positive social influence on the young people around them. It will also impact on their own enjoyment, as well as 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, as well as their relationships with other parents and coach-parent relationships, are vital when it comes to creating positive youth sport environments. 

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, companionship and play, and an ability to constructively deal with conflict.

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

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

In fact, positive parental involvement — through positive interactions and behaviours — can minimise a coach’s stress. Often, all that’s required of parents is for them to do the simple things well — for example, accepting the coach’s authority, not undermining their leadership, particularly in front of the children, and supporting the coach behind the scenes without interference. 

Not everyone will find this natural at first, but, again, it’s something that we can practise — for the good of our children, their coaches, and the overall sporting environments that our young athletes experience.

It’s also about developing knowledge of the sport, listening to the coach on various issues such as schedules, competition, and rest and recovery, so that their child gets the maximum benefits from their sport or physical activity.  

Healthy relationships with other parents are also vital, and can diffuse potentially negative 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, and create a social network where parents can feel a part of a sporting community and have their own social needs met at training sessions and games. 

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

Managing organisational and developmental demands associated with youth sport and physical activity

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 time commitments which can upset the sport-work and sport-family balance.  

It can even create strained relationships at home between parents and siblings — perhaps in the form of resentment and guilt building due to a perceived lack of attention to non-sport siblings.  

Coaching behaviour, as well as club and national body processes can cause stress too; lack of communication, lack of feedback from coaches, funding criteria, selection decisions, and the pressures of talent development systems can all contribute to stress and undermine the joy associated with simply playing sport and engaging in physical activity.  

Developmental demands can include decisions around coaches, training and programmes, and concerns that a concerted effort in one sport may mean they miss out on other hobbies and activities. This, in turn, can cause parents uncertainty around 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 and physical activity, 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 and participation in their sport.  

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 in their sport intensifies, parents must also transition. 

This is 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, in order to ensure the demands of a potential career and education are also met.  

At that stage, coaches begin to take on more expert support roles, with parents adopting roles further in the background, more akin to provider.

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 safe haven for their young adult as they develop their independence and pursue their sporting and life goals.  

In summary: Being a great sports parent

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

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

For these organisations, the likes of online resources, workshops, or meetings can help parents understand their potential contributions, and 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 creating positive experiences for children at the same time.

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