The role of parents in a child’s experience has changed significantly over the last 20 years.
Parents now are seemingly overinvolved in their child’s sports experience; painted in negative pictures of controlling and forcing their children to play a single sport at young ages. We’ve all seen videos of parents yelling and screaming at their kids’ youth sports practices and games.
This culture has made us think that a parent’s involvement in their child’s sport experience is a bad thing. The reality is there is value in parents’ involvement in their child’s sports such as introduction to the sport, active involvement, positive reinforcement and encouragement. A parent’s involvement in sport is more likely to result in a child’s involvement in sport.
Additionally, physically active parents are more likely to have physically active children. In fact, we found that parents who play sports with their children are three times more likely to have multi-sport children and meet American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) exercise recommendations.
Types of Sports Parents
Sports parents have been classified into essentially two types: Directive Behavior and Active Involvement.
The Directive Behavior Sports Parent
Children of parents with directive behavior feel “controlled” by their parents and feel higher amounts of pressure. This may then also lead to lower self-esteem and decreased enjoyment which puts children at risk for quitting sports prematurely.
This would be the proverbial “over-involved” parent who may be vocal at every practice and game. These parents may be “directive” in determining the child’s sports path, expecting outcomes for their “investment” in sports, and express disappointment if their goals are not achieved by the child. However, living vicariously through children’s sports experiences, especially at a young age can have damaging effects on their future sports participation and even relationships.
The Active Involvement Sports Parent
Parents who have active involvement result in children who typically react more positively, are happy and satisfied. This can be through “parental participation” where there is more collaborative parent-child play. Here there is more praise and understanding as well as increased enjoyment and motivation to play sports.
Examples would be their first experiences in throwing, catching or hitting a ball. These parents are not outcome-focused but rather encouraging in the positive experiences they can provide WITH their child through sports. These children may recall these positive experiences, and continue on with sport, physical activity and overall healthier relationships.
Unfortunately, we have gotten away from the era of parent-child play, and casual instruction of sports to children by a parent to create more positive supportive experiences and family involvement.
A 2015 study of young athletes, eight-to-18 years old, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, found the “sports training ratio” (the ratio of organized sports to free play) was 2:1. This is essentially a reversal of the days when children mostly played for fun and had fewer organized sports activities.
In interviews conducted with sports families we learned parent-child interactions–even for elite specialized athletes–can be positive if they are supportive and not overly focused on winning.
You can learn what type of sports parent you are by answering the following questions:
- Do you participate with your child in sports activities MORE than you have them signed up for sports with other coaches?
- Do you routinely ask your child if they are having fun during sports activities?
- Do you routinely ask your child what they would like to do (play or compete in) with regards to sports?
- Does it bother you LESS than it bothers your child if they do not “succeed” at a sports-related activity?
- Do you make sure to give positive reinforcement/feedback after most/all sports-related activities?
If you are able to answer “yes” to most or all of these questions, you may be taking an “Active” Parental approach to sports and improving the likelihood of continued positive experiences in sports for your young athlete.
Remember that for most kids, their biggest role models are their parents, and with that you have the greatest responsibility to make sure you model the behavior that will allow your child to succeed in sports!
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Dr. Neeru Jayanthi is an Emory University sports medicine physician and is considered one of the country’s leading experts on youth sports health, injuries, and sports training patterns.