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Working with parents – three key considerations for sport leaders and administrators

There is no play book for being a parent or caregiver. Especially when it comes to youth sport. However, sharing good information between sports, coaches, and parents/caregivers can help everyone make sport a positive experience for young people. In the following article, we cover some key considerations and practical tips for sport leader and administrators looking to better engage and work with parents in their communities. 

So, helping parents/caregivers to better understand how to support quality sport experiences for their children is an important consideration for sport leaders and administrators. 

Of course, it can be difficult connecting and engaging with parents and caregivers for a number of reasons – there are lots of them, they are diverse, and they are busy! But when sport leaders and administrators do engage (e.g. in person, pre-season meetings, emails) we believe it’s useful to keep the following three ‘universal truths’ in mind: 

  1. Parents and caregivers love their tamariki and rangatahi, and want only what’s best for them
  2. Parents and caregivers are critical influencers of young people’s sporting experiences
  3. All parents and caregivers are different, so their needs are different  

1: Parents and caregivers love their tamariki and rangatahi, and want only what’s best for them 

First, let’s be clear: the vast majority of parents/caregivers express their love and wants for their children in ways that are positive, e.g. getting them to and from practice every week. 

Nevertheless, young people tell us that sport isn’t always positive for them. This is partly because parents/caregivers sometimes act in ways that most people would consider unhelpful. 

Why parents behave in these ways is complex. Often these types of behaviours are driven by attitudes and beliefs that sit at a subconscious level, and so it’s not obvious what’s driving them. 

Normally, of course, the behaviours are underpinned by love and a parent’s desire for what’s best for their child. However, sometimes these behaviours are underpinned by other factors, such as ego, or assumptions about youth sport, e.g. all kid want to be champions. 

Most likely, there is a whole range of factors (hidden beliefs and attitudes) underpinning the ‘wrong’ behaviours. In those moments, parents/caregivers can be hard to empathise with. 

But reflect on this: ‘We judge others by what they do, and ourselves by what we meant to do.”  

So, if you are planning on working with parents, remember where parents/caregivers are coming from, remember and recognise that their intent is good, and create opportunities to understand them better. 

So, how can you learn more about the beliefs and attitudes of parents/caregivers? 

Holding forums/huis is a good way to engage with and learn from parents/caregivers. There’s nothing quite like being face-to-face to share views and creating shared understanding. But we know that often, the ‘gathering of parents’ is easier said than done.  

One initiative that uses parent/caregiver forums to good effect is Aktive’s Good Sports programme.  

Good Sports lead Simone Spencer, who supports partners to deliver parent forums, says one of the key considerations is the title of the forum. ‘It needs to appeal to parentsSomething that talks to every parent’s desire to do best by their children.’ 

And once you get parents in the room, she says, ‘it’s critical a safe space is created; one that is open and honest.’ That, Spencer says, is where an excellent ‘facilitator’ is so important. 

Sport Bay of Plenty have run similar workshops. Dave Clarke, who leads Sport Bay of Plenty’s Parenting Workshops, says it’s important the workshops ‘fit the needs’ of the audience. ‘One size doesn’t fit all. For example, we have 30min, 45min, and 1h 10min versions of some presentations.’ 

Sport Bay of Plenty are also looking to have ‘parent hubs’ at events, where they can show videos, hand out resources, and promote key messages. 

This idea of being ‘where parents are, when they are’, such as at youth events, is at the heart of Touch NZ’s AWHI Programme.  

Touch NZ’s Respect and Inclusion Support Officer Moni Collins says Touch was very mindful of understanding and empathising with the parents’ perspective in relation to their children, whilst also recognising the impact some side-line behaviours can have on the sport experiences of players, parents, and officials. 

‘We took the issue really, really seriously but we also asked ourselves, “How do we look after people on the day?”’ 

This supportive ‘personable approach’ was important to ensuring the programme pulled people in rather than pushed them away, he says. 

Some practical considerations in this regard included the colour worn by the AWHI representatives – the more subtle teal rather than orange or red – and that representatives were present at the event the whole day, from when people started arriving to when they left. 

Moni says the cultural considerations underpinning the programme were also critical.  

‘We wanted the AWHI programme to become part of the Touch landscape, and so we needed to consider the wide range of communities participating in Touch, and then how best to engage with people from those communities.’ 

2: Parents and caregivers are critical influencers of young people’s sporting experiences 

Children participate in sport for all sorts of reasons, e.g. to have fun, to be with friends, to learn and develop skills, to be challenged. They might also play sports to simply be like mum or dad. This is one reason we see so many ‘sporting families’. 

Of course, parents spend a lot of time with their children. This means they have lots of opportunities to shape their child’s attitudes, values and behaviours towards sport and physical activity. Equally, parents’ role and influence shifts as their child grows and as they experience sport in different ways, Shaping information and interactions with parents around these changes is an important consideration for administrators. 

Recognising the parent/caregiver as a key influencer means creating opportunities to invite them ‘inside the tent’, and in doing so, seeing them as valued and respected partners in youth sport. 

So, how can you engage with parents and caregivers so that they better understand youth sport? 

One approach is to run forums for parents and caregivers (e.g. information evenings, workshops and seminars). 

For example, Badminton NZ delivered an induction seminar for parents of their U15 Development Players. Feedback from the parents included: ‘It’s good to see Badminton NZ promote Balance is Better and hear that skills are transferrable across codes.’ 

Pre-season meetings between a coaches and parents/caregivers can also help create a shared understanding of coaching philosophy, expectations, and the respective roles of coach and parent/caregiver. It also gives parents an important opportunity to ask questions of coaches. 

Another approach is to share information through current communication channels to parents, e.g. social media, a website, club publications, parent handbook. 

Birkenhead United Football Club, on Auckland’s North Shore, did this through there Football Philosophy booklet (see the link below). This is a great resource for everyone in the club, not just parents/caregivers. Of course, such a detailed approach won’t be needed in all contexts. 

And lastly, let’s not forget parents/caregivers influence other parents/caregivers. So, look out for those good folk who are willing and able to help deliver Balance is Better messages and model desirable behaviours. 

3: All parents and caregivers are different, so their needs are different  

Every parent and caregiver have different sporting experiences and knowledge to draw on. 

Parents/caregivers can range from being high performing athletes (current or past) to being someone who may have played no or little sport. 

In addition, the parent/caregiver may also be a coach or a sports administrator. 

These differences will likely mean the parents’/caregivers’ needs, and perhaps their expectations of their child’s sporting experience, will vary. 

Parents/caregivers will also differ across a range of other personal and social factors. These include education, job background, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, religious beliefs, language etc. 

Why does this matter? Well, it’s important when engaging with parents/caregivers that the messages are relevant, respectful, non-threatening, and delivered in ways that promote understanding.  

What are some ways to recognise the differing needs of parents/caregivers? 

One simple way to recognise ‘differentiation’ amongst parents/caregivers at workshops is to have breakout groups that reflect some of the differences in the room (e.g. ‘Okay, can you please get yourself into groups of ‘Under 7, Under 11, and Under 15 parents, respectively’). 

Another way to recognise ‘differentiation’ is to match the timing, place and structure of your hui with the audience.  

For example, Sport Hawkes Bay held an early evening workshop in the local school grounds, outside under a shaded area, creating an informal, family atmosphere. The children were also there, able to play together in the school grounds and enjoy a family BBQ at the end of the session.  

In addition, the ‘delivery part’ of the workshop was condensed (e.g. 30-40 minutes) to allow for discussion. 

When asked for feedback on the workshop, one of the Hawkes Bay parents said the hui worked for them ‘because it was here in the community and just down the road it was easy to come to and the kids were there with me, so it wasn’t hard to make the hui’; ‘I liked that it was out here in the community, at the school – outside made it more open and you felt more free to talk rather than in a closed classroom situation.’ 

Summary 

Parents and caregivers love their children, and the role they play in ensuring young people have positive sporting experiences is massive. Yet, traditionally, the value parents and caregivers can add to youth sport has largely been overlooked.   

Aside from parents being critical to supporting their children’s experiences, parents who understand what a quality experience looks like and who themselves have positive interactions with the sports system also become key advocates for building and growing a sport culture grounded in the Balance is Better philosophy.   

By viewing parents and caregivers as partners in the delivery of great youth sport experiences, and recognising the good intent this influential and diverse group bring to young people’s sport, sports leaders will help our tamariki and rangatahi realise the lifelong benefits of sport participation.  

Read More 

What Sport NZ is doing to support its partners to work with parents 

Q&A – How can I deal with difficult parents on the sidelines (video) 

What is a good youth sport experience? 

Research – young people’s experiences of parent involvement in youth sport 

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