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Youth sports parents play many different roles: former (or current) athlete, coach, fan, motivator, role model, critic and maybe most importantly, influencer.

Studies have shown that family members may influence an athlete’s involvement and achievement in sport even more than coaches. Parents also are the first and most critical determiners in whether or not children reap the social benefits of playing sports.

This is why it is so crucial that sports parents are aware and accountable for their actions, and how those influence their young athletes.

Accounting for Your Attitude

Parental encouragement is significantly related to a child’s attraction to and competence in playing sports. Parents who provide positive encouragement instill a greater sense of enjoyment, ability and motivation in their child.

Research done by Windee M. Weiss, Ph.D. of the University of Northern Iowa emphasizes the importance of parents staying accountable for and modeling good behavior, and helping their children interpret their sport experiences. Parents are critical in helping their child develop coping strategies to deal not only with competition, but also with losing. Children’s perceptions of their parents’ interest in their playing sport also predict their lasting involvement in sport.

Studies done by the University of Minnesota’s Diane Wiese-Bjornstal found that the way girls perceive their parents’ assessment of their abilities predict their likelihood of playing and staying in sport. That is, if their parents do not have confidence in their abilities, neither will they.

And dads, are you listening? Studies have found that fathers hold more influence – both positive and negative – over their daughter’s sport competence and values than mothers do. However, mothers are more likely to first enroll their daughters in sport and then continue encouragement by providing transportation, uniforms, moral support and snacks.

Being Responsible for Their Readiness

There is some good news to report from yet another study on the topic. Researchers from Yale University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan suggest that children participate in organized activities, such as sport, because they want to, not because their parents make them.

But parents still need to consider whether a child is mentally, emotionally, socially and physically mature enough to participate in sport. Readiness for a sport is just as important as readiness for school. And, like schooling, younger children need more positive direction at first, until they begin to develop and master the sport.

Pros and Cons for Parents

Parents also benefit from their child’s participation in sport. Research from Wiersma and Fifer found that their positive experiences include watching their child learn new skills and having the opportunity to interact with other parents.

On the negative side, parents who lose accountability for their lofty expectations and put too many demands on their young athletes before, during and after competition can create stress that can destroy their child’s enjoyment of sport. Research by Bois et al., Power and Woolger, and Van Yperen has shown that negative parental support and pressure can result in competitive anxiety, interpersonal difficulties among teammates and even quitting. Conversely, lower parental pressure has been found to be associated with children enjoying their sport more.

An overemphasis on extrinsic goals (winning, trophies, status) by parents can negate focusing on intrinsic goals through which the child gains enjoyment from playing, mastering skills and improving their game. Coaches also report that children’s sport performance is affected by the presence of parents. Additionally, parents lacking self-awareness and accountability for their actions are most likely to create conflict for coaches during the critical time that their child is improving mastery and transferring their trust in authority from the parent to the coach.

LaVoi and Stellino research found that the children of parents who create anxiety about failing and emphasize winning are more likely to engage in poor sport behaviors than children whose parents encourage enjoyment and self-mastery. Another study from Guivernau and Duda showed how athletes’ perceptions of their parents’ approval regarding cheating and aggression shape their own views about appropriate sport behavior.

When youth athletes feel that their parents are supportive, positive, and emphasize mastery and enjoyment, they are more likely to display concern for opponents and grace in losing. They also are less likely to trash talk or whine and complain about the coach or their playing time.

Accountability from parents for their actions and attitudes effects much more than just their athletes’ level of effort on the field. It also impacts their mindset, mood, and motivation to continue on playing sports at all, as well as their trust in their coach and authority in general.

Creating accountable youth athletes and young adults starts at home, with parents taking responsibility for their actions first before demanding that their athletes do the same.

This was originally published in True Sport: What We Stand to Lose in Our Obsession to Win (p. 58-60). Visit the article on TrueSport for a list of references.

About TrueSport
TrueSport®, a movement powered by the experience and values of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, champions the positive values and life lessons learned through youth sport. TrueSport inspires athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators to change the culture of youth sport through active engagement and thoughtful curriculum based on cornerstone lessons of sportsmanship, character-building, and clean and healthy performance, while also creating leaders across communities through sport.