Parents definitely have a tough role in sports – and are, I believe, often undermined in their key position and importance in sports. Parents are for a long time the most important adult reference people for young athletes. It’s just in the kids' youth – the older they get – the more distance and autonomy they need – that's when coaches „take over“ the role as most important adult reference person. 

However, parents play a key function in children’s socialisation to sports and throughout their sporting lives. They support their children emotionally & financially, they drive them to training – often starting at a very young age, pick them up again, go training individually with them, accompanying them to competitions, dry their kid’s tears and laugh with them when they’re doing well. And so much more! The list of what parents invest in their child in order for them to do well and develop is endless and without any parents (hardly) any child could do sports so much and develop to a higher level.

Scientists propose that parents fulfil three fundamental roles in their children’s sport experience:

  • ...as „provider“ (such as providing opportunities, financial support, and transport)
  • ...as „interpreter“ of the sport experience (e.g. emotionally reacting in adaptive ways to wins and losses)
  • ...as „role model“ (e.g. being a role model concerning ideal attributes and behaviours in sport) (Fredricks & Eccles, 2004).

Of course, depending on how well parents fulfil these roles, parents can influence their children’s beliefs and values and, in turn, their motivated behaviours and performance. Parents are often key factors in shaping their kids’ development.

Looking at the athletic developmental model of an athlete by Wyllemann & Lavallee (2004), we see that parents play a particularly important role during childhood and early adolescence. They play a big role in the initiation and development of doing sports.

Sport – for children – is important for social integration, acceptance, building up self-esteem, having fun and enjoying the movement. They have a high sense of justice in competitions (striving for achievement, performance comparison) and team spirit is highly important. They ask for emotional attention and empathy, they are looking for recognition and positive feedback, they want to be understood and be „playing“ in a great team. Also, kids show low concentration and perseverance. They are generally outgoing and social. Questions that arise during childhood are :

  • Do I feel good in the team?
  • Do I have fun when climbing/ doing sports?
  • Do my parents/ friends support me?
  • Pressure?
  • Mental over-/underload?

Fun and parents’ support are two of the most important factors.

Obviously, this role as one of the most important adult reference people also causes some stressors. Just think of it – let alone the time parents have to commit to their child and the sports can very much impede their occupational, social, and family life. Just think of all the hours spent on training and competitions instead of work of the rest of your family. Hours that might not have been spent on their other children who don’t do any sports? Think of all the pounds and pennies, spent on equipment, coaching and travelling. In fact, studies show that costs of involvement can negatively affect a child’s sport participation and impact more widely throughout family life. E.g. in tennis, 16% of tennis-parents reported severe financial hardship as a result of supporting their child in the sport – depending on the sport, this would be better or worse, but a general financial burden would be there in any kinds of sports.

Last but not least, think of all the unconditional emotional support that is required from parents. Being constantly compared to others, children need reassurance from parents, particularly following poor performances that can negatively affect children. In turn, it can also happen that parents empathise and „suffer“ so much when seeing their kids being disappointed since they start identifying with their children’s goals and striving, that they have to face high levels of strain, too. Sounds like a devil circle!

And you already see: it’s not easy to be a sport parent!

Scientists have shown altogether seven (!) main stressors: competition, coaches, finance, time, siblings, organisation-related, and developmental – all of which have numerous sub-topics.

  • E.g. Competition stressors can be divided into pre-competition stressors (Planning, logistics, and travel. physical and nutritional preparation, child’s psychological state and pre-match behaviour, behaviour of opponents and problem-parents, etc.), in-competition stressors (child’s emotional control and behaviour, child’s level of performance and enjoyment, other parents’ interference, intimidation or gossiping, controlling feelings of helplessness and offering correct support, etc.) and post-competition stressors (lack of skills in helping child to manage emotions associated with result, other parents’ inappropriate comments and competitiveness, etc.).
  • E.g. Coaches stressors can be attendance of competitions and support (e.g. lack of match attendance and player preparation, observation, etc.), behaviour at the competition (unprofessional behaviours/ lack of attention to session and child encouraging or condoning negative behaviour/values), organisation and communication skills (lack of feedback, interest, and strategic advice to parents, cancellations, poor planning, and non-punctuality), favouritism (inconsistent and unequal treatment of team members (and family), etc. (Harwood & Knight, 2015).

What do these results tell us? Well, not only that parents face many stressors but also that it’s important to support them to acquire the necessary skills to learn how to cope with the psychological, developmental, and logistical demands of competitive sports.

How do you positively deal with these stressors? Do you have personal advise that you can give others for what works for you? What doesn’t work?

Developing necessary skills takes time – and effort. It’s not something that develops overnight. Sometimes it can help to talk about it with someone – a friend, partner or a sport psychologist.

In my next article, I will address how you could work on improving these necessary skills.