Why is working with parents in sport important?
– A scientific perspective –
For the last 20 years sports science has developed a growing interest in the issue of parents in sport, i.e. how parental influences impact the developing child athlete both from a performance and growth perspective [2,4,7]. Research has shown that parents are an extremely important source of support for how children can grow healthily in sport . On the other hand, it has become clear (and not only from factual evidence) that parents can create unnecessary pressures, high states of anxiety, unreal expectations, overemphasize winning, act as “sideline coaches”, criticise their child, emotionally and even physically abuse their child, and more [2,4].
As an example, one of the first ever surveys2 that was conducted in 1997 on 45 “tennis parents”, found that 33% considered winning very important, and that 20% had engaged in inappropriate behaviour whilst watching matches. On the same study, 29% of young tennis players (N = 101) stated that they had felt embarrassed by their parents during matches. Such parental practices included walking away from the court (61%), yelling or screaming at their child (30 %), and worst of all, physically hitting them after the match (13%). More recently, a survey on junior tennis coaches conducted in 2006 found that 36% of parents were acting as negative influences on their child’s development . In 2010, another team of researchers from the UK investigated parental stressors in a professional football youth academy and found that a considerable number of parents were being driven by their egos. This was observed through their “winning is all that matters” mentality ; these results brought further support to the previous studies that pointed to the same . In addition, the same negative sources of stress that parents directly and/or indirectly place on the child have also been related to potential factors that can add to the development of overtraining and burnout, which was shown during my PhD research  as well as in other studies [1,6].
As you – parents – know, in supporting your children you act as the main sources of financial support and/or transport, you nurture them and teach them what you believe to be important in life, you support them psychologically and emotionally when the outcomes don’t fulfil the expectations and you also respond to glories and to let-downs. Therefore, day-in day-out you are looked up to by your children, helping them to interpret their sport experiences through the examples you show, i.e. when you show a positive or negative reaction to a lost match, you are also showing how you respond ethically and morally to such a situation [3,8]. From this perspective, the child keeps incorporating all these “bits of data”, filtering them and responding both physically and mentally in training and competition.
Children therefore learn, through different coping mechanisms, how to make decisions, and unconsciously create an image of how they see themselves in sport . If their experiences are well balanced and nurtured by their parents and significant others, children normally strive to become efficient in sport and life in general. However, when their identities are constructed in ways that limit their perception and idea of sport they not only become uniquely identified with the sport, but also strongly identified with it [1,9]. In other words, when performances do not fall where their expectations lie, their whole world falls apart  and consequently causes a lot of pain to the child. My research on overtraining and burnout in young athletes has pointed to this unidimentional facet of sport that endangers athletes in general, meaning that athletes lives are focused almost exclusively on their sport and little or nothing is developed outside it. In conclusion, parents can (even though many other factors are at play) indirectly act as catalysts for the development of overtraining and burnout [9,11].
Since parents have their own influence (albeit indirectly) on sporting performance, overtraining and burnout, it should be clear that they also have an indirect role in helping to optimize training. In other words, parents “help” training to be optimized on a psychological, emotional and educational level.
The sports science community has a for long time realised the critical role parents play in sport (discussed above), and a few suggestions for parents to be educated and supported in sport have emerged [5,7], but no real concrete steps have been taken to deal with this. We at parentsinsports.com have so far dealt with over 50 parents individually in their challenges around how they can better support children in sport and have obtained very promising results. The main pattern that has been observed is an almost immediate increase in self-awareness by the parent that leads them to slowly modify the ways by which they interact with their children. As the child feels more supported, a progressive change in their behaviour and perception of the sport occurs, contributing to an improvement in their individual emotional and psychological traits, ultimately helping performance. Integral Coaching Canada (ICC) is, to the best of our knowledge, the most efficient and complete framework to use in order to successfully improve the way parents relate to their children in sport.
1. Coakley, J. (1992). Burnout Among Adolescent Athletes: A Personal Failure or Social Problem? Sociology of Sport Journal, 9, 271-285.
2. DeFrancesco, C., & Johnson, P. (1997). Athlete and parent perceptions in junior tennis. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 20, 29-36.
3. Frederick, J., & Eccles, J. (2004). Parental influences on youth involvement in sports. In Weiss, M. (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective (pp. 145-164). Morgantown: Fitness Information Technology.
4. Gould, D., Lauer, L., Rolo, C., Jannes, C., & Pennisi, N. (2006). Understanding the role parents play in tennis success: a national survey of junior tennis coaches. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40, 632-636.
5. Gould, D., Lauer, L., Rolo, C., Jannes, C., & Pennisi, N. (2008). The role of parents in tennis success: focus group interviews with junior coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 18-37.
6. Gould, D., Tuffey, S., & Udry, E. (1997). Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: III. Individual differences in the burnout experience. The Sport Psychologist, 11, 257-276.
7. Harwood, C., Drew, A., & Knight, C. (2010). Parental stressors in professional youth football academies: a qualitative investigation of specialising stage parents. Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, 2(1), 39-55.
8. Keegan, R., C. Spray, Harwood, C., & Lavalee, D. (2010). The motivational atmosphere in youth sport: coach, parent, and peer influences on motivation in specializing sport participants. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22, 87-105.
9. Matos, N., Winsley, R., & Williams, C. (2011). Prevalence of Non-functional overreaching/overtraining in young English athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43(7), 1287-1294.
10. Power, T., & Woolger, C. (1994). Parenting practices and age-group swimming: A correlational study. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 65(1), 59-66.
11. Winsley, R., & Matos, N. (2011). Overtraining and elite young athletes. In N. Armstrong & A. McManus (Eds.), The Elite Young Athlete (Vol. 56, pp. 97-105). Basel: Medicine and Sports Science.
Article written by Dr. Nuno Matos