Parenting and Sport

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

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

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.

Parental Stressors

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.

The Parent–Coach

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.

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