Parents and Youth Sports: The Good, the Bad and Why We Need Them. (Research Update)

By Kanters, Michael | Parks & Recreation, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Parents and Youth Sports: The Good, the Bad and Why We Need Them. (Research Update)


Kanters, Michael, Parks & Recreation


Anecdotal reports in the media and from individuals involved in youth sports suggest a growing number of incidents involving adults behaving inappropriately at their children's sport events. Sport league administrators, youth sport coaches, referees, youth sport parents and even casual observers of youth sports can cite examples of incidents they have witnessed. Beyond differences in the sport played, the level of competition and the age of the children participating, the message is alarmingly consistent--a growing number of parents at youth sport events seem to be out of control. A recent Sports Illustrated special report chronicles a "rising tide of violence and verbal abuse by adults at youth sports events" (p. 87). The escalation of violent and vulgar behavior of parents has been reported at competitive matches between teams of elite teenagers down to t-ball games for five-year-olds. The only common theme appears to be children playing sports and parents watching their children play sports. While most, if not all, parents enroll their children in sport with the best of intentions, clearly the actions of many parents suggests that there may be a problem.

One proposed solution to what has been noted as an epidemic of "pushy sport parents" is to minimize or eliminate parent involvement in their child's sport participation. This solution is not only short-sighted, but it also implies that all parent involvement in their children's sport is detrimental. A review of child developmental and socialization research strongly suggests that parents play the largest role in influencing the healthy development of their children.

With regard to sport, parents typically make the initial decision to enroll their children (Howard & Madrigal, 1990) and have a significant impact on many of the positive outcomes of their child's sport participation (Horn & Harris, 1996). For example, a child's initial perceived sport competence, a key factor for enduring involvement and enjoyment in sport for young children, is derived from two sources: successful task completion and parent perception of sport ability (Horn & Harris, 1996).

Felson and Reed (1986), and more recently McCullagh, Matzkanin, Shaw and Maldanodo (1993), reported a strong relationship between a parent's judgment of their child's physical ability and the child's self appraisals of ability, even when actual levels of physical ability were controlled for statistically. These findings suggest that parents have the ability to override environmental cues and instill a sense of personal confidence in their children with regard to sport performance. These findings also imply that parents should give their children multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery or task accomplishment during the initial years of sport participation. In addition, parents should give a lot of positive feedback.

Additionally, Stipek and MacIver (1989) indicate that it's important that adult praise be contingent on task completion rather than peer comparison or adult-determined task criteria (i.e., doing the sport skill correctly). As children grow older, feedback from parents continues to play a critical role in shaping their child's self-perception of their ability and enjoyment in sport. However, other factors, such as peer comparisons, become increasingly important (Stipek & MacIver, 1989).

Research also indicates that, after age 8 or 9, children are much more evaluative of parent feedback. If positive feedback doesn't match performance or feedback from peers, then the parents' involvement could undermine their child's perception of their sport competence (Horn & Harris, 1996). As hard as it may be, it appears to be important for parents to provide encouraging but accurate feedback about sport ability and performance as children get older.

Positive Parent Involvement

Although there has been a substantial body of research directed at enhancing the quality of children's sport experiences, relatively little research has focused on enhancing the experience of parents and facilitating positive parent involvement. …

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Parents and Youth Sports: The Good, the Bad and Why We Need Them. (Research Update)
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