In the aftermath of Rio 2016, children all across the world will be turning to their parents, saying that they want to be the next Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, or Usain Bolt. Billions of youngsters already participate in competitive sport, and it is well known that global events like the Olympics encourage many into picking up a new activity.
There are numerous physical, psychological, and social benefits associated with sport participation for children, as well as, for a very small number, being the first step to becoming an elite athlete. Through the provision of “appropriate” support – that is positive, encouraging feedback, as well as the usual financial and time input – parents play a critical role in enabling these outcomes.
It’s really not easy to support a child in competitive sport, and many may struggle to manage their own emotions as well as their child’s. Parents watch their children succeed and fail as they compete. They watch them struggle with skills they completed easily in training and execute tasks they’ve never managed before. They see the smiles of joy and satisfaction, and watch as they fight back tears of disappointment. They look on through half-open eyes as a bigger kid makes a dangerous tackle or a referee misses an important call. And they see it all knowing that, whatever the outcome, they have to think of the “right” thing to say after the competition.
Emotions arise not simply because parents have dreams of their child gaining a multi-million pound contract or standing on an awards podium, but because their child is disappointed and there’s nothing they can do to help. There is the frustration over the weeks, months or even years, of constant rushing from work to get children to training sessions and competitions, and guilt associated with missing time with other children, partners, or friends. Worrying too is common, as parents consider whether encouraging a child to take part in competitive sport is the right thing to do. Then there’s concern over financial commitments, and the fact that this can only escalate with further participation.
Being positive not pushy
So how can parents and carers provide the very best support for their children’s sporting endeavours? How can they make sure that they are not only happy and healthy but encouraged in a positive manner too?
Often, parents are stereotypically earmarked as “pushy”, but one does not need to be this way in order to help a child achieve their sporting potential – and indeed, many parents are not.
Kids need appropriate parental support to initially engage with their choice of sport, and to keep it up long-term. By providing the right types of support – such as positive feedback, even where the child is disappointed in their own performance – parents can help to enhance their children’s love of their sport and motivation to improve their skills, while reducing feelings of pressure and stress. But if parents get it “wrong”, for example criticising an already disappointed youngster, they can instead increase the pressure, stress, and anxiety that children experience – all of which have been associated with dropping out.
Given the influence that parents can have on the quality of children’s sporting experiences – paired with the increasing media reports of “negative” parental behaviours at youth sport competitions – it is not surprising that many organisations and coaches have taken steps to try and improve parental involvement in sport. A quick scan of social media highlights numerous articles, infographics, and signs reminding parents of what they should and should not be doing to support their children’s sporting involvement and, most importantly, how they should be behaving at competitions.
Such signs, leaflets, and articles often present simple messages for parents: remember that you are not being judged by your child’s success; the “athletes” you are watching are just kids, and kids will make mistakes; the focus of sport should be on fun, and winning is not the most important thing; and always respect referees, coaches, other parents, and other children, all of whom are human and are trying their best.
These messages make sense: they align with how children would like to see their parents engaging, and ultimately seem pretty simple for parents to understand and adhere to. But is it really that straightforward?
It’s very easy to get caught up in the competitiveness of any sport, not least when you have a strong emotional bond with one of the players. Parenting children involved in youth sport is challenging and complicated. Over the last few decades, youth sport has become increasingly professionalised and privatised; children are competing at younger ages, specialising earlier, and parents are often required to commit more time and more money to support their participation. It’s an environment that has become increasingly pressurised and competitions can be hugely emotional.
But despite all this, appreciating the challenges and the complexity of the task ahead can “improve” parental involvement in sport and help ensure that children have the most positive and successful sporting experiences. Parents have to tread a fine line as they support their children and this will be made far easier if those around them – be they coaches, organisations, or even other parents – understand, acknowledge, and help them manage the demands they are facing.
Camilla Knight has received funding from Sport Wales and the International Olympic Committee. She is affiliated with the Welsh Institute of Performance Science and the Child Protection in Sport Unit.