To many youth sport parents, practices don’t look or sound like they did 20 years ago. There’s less screaming, kids aren’t running wind sprints after making mistakes, and parents are expected to take a more active role. Some see this shift as a sign coaches have become too soft and kids too coddled, but research does show that kids learn more and perform better when coaches, parents and athletes work together harmoniously.Frank Smoll, PhD, a sport psychologist at the University of Washington, says, “There’s more awareness now, compared to 20 years ago. Parents are a big part of the equation. Parents and coaches each have responsibilities to one another.”

A culture of mastery

According to Dr. Smoll, research shows young athletes achieve the objectives of youth sports better when coaches and parents both focus on mastery and effort more than wins and losses. By creating a mastery-based motivational climate, the emphasis is on skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.In contrast, an ego-based climate emphasizes outcomes at the expense of psychosocial development. Mistakes are met with punishment, and anything but winning is viewed as failure.What about competing and winning? In a mastery approach, winning is sought, but viewed as a consequence of teaching and supporting athletes to perform at their best. In this process, both parents and coaches play critical roles.

How coaches can support parents

Just as coaches need players to buy in to their approach, they also need to gain cooperation from parents with sometimes dissimilar views. To do this, Dr. Smoll recommends a pre- or early-season meeting with all the parents, with or without players present. In addition to logistical information like times, dates, equipment, etc., coaches should:
    • Clearly inform parents about their coaching methods.
      • Smoll adds, “Coaches should present simplified summaries of research demonstrating the effectiveness of the mastery approach, rather relying on ‘because I said so.’”
  • Outline parental commitments essential for the coach to do his or her job, such as:
    • Accepting the coach’s authority as the leader of the team.
    • Pledging to support children after disappointments without expressing embarrassment, shame or anger.
    • Exercising self-control and adhering to socially-acceptable standards of conduct.
    • Being engaged. Attending some practices and competitions when possible; asking kids about their experiences, not just the outcomes.
    • Letting kids make their own choices, including whether to participate at all.
Coaches should also encourage parents to provide them with both positive and negative feedback at appropriate times, including during the preseason meeting.

How parents can support coaches

In addition to fulfilling the above requirements, parents can contribute by:
  • Reinforcing the coach’s interactions with other parents who act in ways that cause performance anxiety and fear of failure for young athletes.
  • Avoiding “sideline coaching,” or yelling instructions to athletes that may confuse or contradict the coach’s instructions.
  • Correcting mistakes with a “sandwich approach.”
    • Start with a compliment, provide instruction on what to do next time, and end with a positive statement.
    • Example: “You ran your routes well. If you bring your hands up sooner, you’ll be ready for the ball. You’ll keep getting better at it with more practice.”
Dr. Smoll sums it up by saying, “In youth sports today, everyone plays an important role, and if open lines of communication are created, harmony can be maintained among coaches, parents, and athletes.”For more information about the research-based Mastery Approach from Dr. Frank Smoll, Ph.D. visit the Youth Enrichment in Sports website. For more great coach and parent content, visit