The developmental psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles suggested that parents influence their children’s involvement in sport in three ways: as providers, role models, and interpreters. Parents provide children with opportunities to participate in sport by signing them up for programs, transporting them to practices and matches, paying registration fees, and so on. Parents can act as role models by taking part in sport themselves, and they can also influence their children’s attitudes and behaviors by modeling appropriate and inappropriate behaviors in sport contexts. Parents help children interpret sporting experiences by communicating beliefs and values regarding sport, performance, and success. Parents’ beliefs can influence how their children evaluate their own performances, the value of winning, and the importance of participating in sport.
Parental support has been defined as children’s perceptions of their parents’ behavior aimed at facilitating their involvement and participation in sport. Parents can provide children with tangible support (e.g., financial assistance), informational support (e.g., feedback after games), and emotional support (e.g., comfort after a loss). Such parental support has been associated with positive outcomes for children. For example, parental support is one of the main sources of enjoyment for child–athletes and can positively influence children’s perceived competence, confidence, coping skills, and intrinsic motivation to remain involved in sport.
Parental pressure can be defined as parental behaviors that are perceived by children as indicating high, unlikely, or possibly even unattainable expectations. Parental pressure can include parents overemphasizing winning, providing excessive criticism following competitions, and engaging in coercive behaviors. Parental pressure has been associated with children’s reports of reduced enjoyment of sport, lowered self-confidence and self-esteem, and increased anxiety. Ultimately, excessive parental pressure can cause children to drop out of sport.
Parents themselves can experience stressors as they attempt to support their children’s involvement in sport. A variety of studies have shown parents report numerous stressors relating to youth sport, including factors associated with sport competition, their child’s sporting and overall life development, and a range of logistical and organizational issues (e.g., financial concerns, relationships with coaches, family stress, and sibling rivalries). Therefore, when attempting to understand parental involvement in sport it is important to remember that being a “sport parent” can be a difficult and challenging task for parents.
It is common for parents to take on a coaching role in their children’s sport. When parents fulfill this dual parent–coach role, it can have positive and negative outcomes for children and parents themselves. From a child’s perspective, the positive aspects of having a parent–coach include increased amounts of praise, additional technical instruction, inclusion in team discussions, and an opportunity to spend quality time with their parent. On the other hand, when their parent is also their coach, children are often exposed to increased expectations for performance and behavior and receive additional criticism regarding mistakes. Children may also experience conflict with their parent and perceive they are being unfairly treated.
Having the opportunity to coach their children can provide parents with a chance to spend quality time with their children and have an opportunity to teach children skills and values that are important to them. Parents also have the opportunity to meet other parents and children and witness and take pride in their children’s achievements. However, parents can struggle to separate their parenting and coaching role, which can reduce the support they provide to their children and increase the pressure they place on them. Parents can also struggle to cope with the additional time demands associated with the coaching role and might encounter rebellious behaviors from their children.
Parents’ Behaviors During Competitions
Attending competitions can be a stressful experience for parents. As the emotional intensity of competition increases, well-intentioned parents may become pressuring, outcome-oriented, and make more negative comments to their children. Whereas sensationalized media stories often depict cases of “nightmare parents,” research actually shows that only a minority of parents are inappropriately involved during competitions. Self-report surveys administrated to parents in the United States have shown that approximately 20% to 25% of parents acknowledge having displayed negative behaviors or made negative comments to children during competitions. Observational studies conducted in Canada and New Zealand have shown that parents make positive verbal comments during competitions far more frequently than they make negative comments. But parents tend to make more negative comments as the emotional intensity of games increases. The emotional intensity of games can be triggered by issues such as the quality of the officials, unequal distribution of playing time, and seeing children struggle during games. These studies point toward the importance of understanding more about parents’ experiences in the social context of competitions to ensure steps can be taken to change or improve the competitive experience for parents.
Children’s Preferences for Parental Involvement
Researchers have asked children how they would prefer their parents to be involved at competitions. Children indicated that prior to competitions they wanted their parents to help them with physical preparation (e.g., equipment, water) and understand the different ways in which they prepared mentally for games. During competitions, children wanted parents to show respect to opponents, officials, and coaches; display positive body language; and focus on effort rather than outcomes. Children did not want parents to be overly loud or embarrassing, attempt to coach, become involved with refereeing decisions, or make negative comments. After competitions, children preferred parents to provide positive but realistic feedback about their performance. Children may have different preferences for parental involvement in certain situations, so constant communication between parents and their children regarding parental involvement is likely to beneficial.
Parenting Styles and Practices
The ways parents approach their parenting responsibilities (in general and within sport) can be thought of in two compatible, but different, ways. At a general level, there is a parenting style. Parenting style broadly refers to the range of attitudes parents have toward their children and the emotional climate parents create. Within their general style, parents also display more specific parenting practices. Parenting practices reflect parents’ goals for their children, which have a direct influence on their children’s behaviors in specific contexts. Parenting styles and parenting practices appear to have an influence on children’s involvement and enjoyment in youth sport.
Although there is not a great deal of sport psychology (SP) research examining parenting styles, the handful of studies published to date suggests that authoritative or autonomy-supportive styles of parenting are most beneficial. Authoritative or autonomy-supportive parenting styles are characterized by parents allowing their children to feel they have control over their behaviors (rather than being authoritarian or controlling). In sport contexts, these parenting styles have been associated with children having adaptive perfectionist tendencies, adhering to rules, enjoying greater satisfaction with their sport, and parents having open modes of communication and being able to “read” their children’s moods.
Educational psychology researcher Wendy Grolnick has provided a clear framework of autonomy-supportive parenting styles. Autonomy supportive parenting is the extent to which parents value and use techniques that allow children to feel they have control over their behaviors (rather than being authoritarian or controlling). There are three elements to autonomy-supportive parenting: autonomy-support versus control, structure, and involvement. Autonomy-support is the degree to which children feel they initiate their own actions. Autonomy-supportive parents provide children with the options to choose, solve problems on their own, and exert minimal pressure to act in a certain way. Structure refers to parents providing clear and consistent guidelines, expectations, and rules for their children’s behaviors. Children can then make decisions within the limits set by their parents. Involvement is the extent to which parents are involved in their children’s lives. More involvement is generally better when parents provide children a sense of independence and appropriate structure. Excessive parental involvement that undermines children’s autonomy should be avoided.
Parents play vital roles in youth sport. When they perceive their parents are involved in supportive ways, children report a range of positive psychosocial outcomes. Conversely, perceptions of parental pressure are associated with a range of negative psychosocial outcomes. Being a sport parent can be stressful for parents themselves, and although few parents make inappropriate comments during competitions, the increased emotional intensity of games has been associated with parents making more negative comments. Parents should seek to understand their children’s preferences for parental involvement during competitions and the specific behaviors in which parents should engage. An autonomy-supportive parenting style appears to be the most appropriate type of parental involvement and should be matched with appropriate behaviors.