In sport psychology, it is intuitive that I work with athletes and their coaches. But one area that can be overlooked when considering an athlete’s potential success is looking at their parents’ role. Sport parents are some of the most passionate and invested people I’ve come across; there is nothing quite like the joy of seeing your child reach their potential, and nothing quite like the ache of watching them stumble. Unfortunately, even the most well-intentioned parents often misguide their efforts when trying to encourage their young athletes’ development. But with the help of what we know from psychology and a little bit of intention, parents can capitalize on their potential to be a positive influence in their young athlete’s development.
Parents Role in Training & Competition
One of the most common sources of conflict I’ve seen between parents, coaches, and athletes is when the parents’ role in the training process is muddled. And psychological research supports that experience. In a series of studies on tennis players, it was found that athletes commonly cited negative parenting behaviors as including interfering with training, demanding too much of coaches’ time, and being too involved in technical development. On the positive side of that coin, research has also shown that athletes perceive a positive experience when their parents provide comment on effort and attitude, as well as motivational and emotional support. So how can we boil this down in a practical way?
- Let coaches do their jobs. This may be a hard pill to swallow, but when you committed to a coach training your child you committed to them being the technical, tactical expert in your child’s life. And that means, when it comes to the technical skills of your child’s sport, you need to allow coaches to do their jobs. An environment of trust is important in the coaching-athlete relationship, and a parent can either facilitate that trust or diminish it. Questioning a coach’s training methods, contradicting a coach’s feedback, and demanding input into your child’s place on a team are all ways to diminish that trust. And if it is impossible for you as a parent to place that level of trust in the people providing training for your child, it may be valuable to reflect on the goodness-of-fit in that relationship.
- Provide practical support. Don’t underestimate the influence it has on your child when you provide the practical support they need; transportation, proper meals, financial support. This is another way in which the parents’ role can be separate from the coaches and it is still meaningful in the individual’s development. In a study of elite canoeing, athletes actually cited practical support from their parents as being influential because it allowed for them to focus more fully on their training.
- Feedback during training. I’ve started to notice a trend in youth sports in which parents’ communication with their children during training are either limited or banned completely. I think this trend speaks to a larger issue: parents consistently misguiding their efforts in supporting their child’s training. Again, remember your role as a parent as opposed to the coach. Training is the coach’s time to do their job, which includes giving corrective feedback in order to master skills. As a parent refrain from giving any type of feedback until it is not a distraction to the coach’s corrections and instruction. And when your input no longer takes away from your child’s training, focus the content of your feedback on effort and attitude.
- Handling results. If there was ever a time for a parent to practice their role-modeling skills, it’s when their children face “failure”. Yes, everyone wants to win. No, it isn’t fun to lose. But your child is more than an athlete, and their sport experience is more than wins and losses. In the face of both success and failure, focus on the effort that was put into play and any growth you witnessed. I also encourage parents to do their best to leave the results at the field; it is valuable to reflect and it is valuable to find ways to improve, but again this is the coach’s job in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to the technical skills of the sport.
It is vitally important to remember as a parent that you have an opportunity to complement the training your child is receiving and you do not need to distract from it, add to it, or question its effectiveness. Over-burdening your child with unnecessary input or challenging the trust they have with their coach can only lead to negative consequences, like burn-out and performance anxiety. While this post was dedicated to the ways a parent can be effective in the training context, the home context will later be explored in more detail. Training and competition are integral parts of athletic environment, but it is important not to overlook a parent’s opportunity and unique role in the home as well.
Gould, D., Lauer. L., Rolo, C., Jannes, C., & Pennisi, N. (2006). Understanding the role parents play in tennis success: a national survey of youth tennis coaches. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40,
632-636. doi:10.1136/ bjsm.2005.024927
Gould, D., Lauer. L., Rolo, C., Jannes, C., & Pennisi, N. (2008). Understanding the role parents play in tennis success: focus group interviews with youth coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 22,
Knight, C., Little, G., Harwood, C., & Goodger, K. (2015). Parental involvement in elite junior slalom canoeing. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28,
234-256. doi: 10.1080/10413200.2015.1111273