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Pushy or laid back? The challenge of being a sporting parent

Updated Friday, 13th December 2013
How to strike the right balance between 'over-involved' and 'under-involved' as a sporting parent? 

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"If I didn't practice well my dad made me run home behind the car… Once, he was upset with me and he spanked me pretty good.” - Richard Krajicek

Father watch girl play table tennis Parental involvement

When children participate in any activity, parental involvement is undoubtedly an important factor in the child’s development and sport is no exception. Different parents demonstrate varying levels of involvement and this is clearly visible if you attend a junior football game or a school sports day. For a start, there are children whose parents limit their involvement to dropping off and picking up, or those with even less involvement where the child walks to the event by themselves or is brought by a friend’s parents.

Parents who take little interest or do not actively support their child’s participation are classified as ‘under-involved’. In stark contrast, many of us will have seen parents who stand on the side-lines at every single training session and competition, screaming and shouting, breaching codes of conduct and often interfering with the coaching. Their behaviour is so intense that it can often be overwhelming for the child and other participants. These parents are classified as ‘over-involved’.

What does the research say?

Research conducted by Brackenridge on parental engagement in youth sport reported that under-involved parents either see sport as a waste of time, money and effort. They may dislike the sport that their child has selected and actively oppose their involvement in it. Alternatively, some under-involved parents may be inactive due to a lack of interest, motivation or knowledge and just ‘let the child get on with it’.

Over-involved parents were reported to be hyperactive, showing excitable and even fanatical behaviour. As illustrated by Richard Krajicek’s quote above, over-involved parents frequently display a focus on winning and are frustrated by failure. Both under and over-involvement are considered negative behaviours with regard to the welfare of the child participating. They are labelled by Brackenridge as ‘parent no-go zones’. However, it is mainly over-involved or ‘pushy parents’ who get the negative press coverage.

Tennis, which often involves high financial and logistical support, appears particularly at risk from such behaviours. For example, Bernard Tomic’s father was banned from the French Open in 2013 and previously, Mary Pierce’s father had been banned by the WTA from attending all her matches for over-zealous support. Andre Agassi’s father even hung tennis balls above his cot. His intense regime and obsessive nature are documented in Agassi’s book Open where, as a child, Agassi describes being forced to hit 2500 balls a day. 

Finding the right balance

Located between these two extremes of involvement is the ‘optimum zone’ for parents. Moderate involvement is considered to be the most positive for all parties. Moderate involvement ranges from parents showing some genuine interest and being actively engaged through to being wholly committed and willing to listen to the child’s views. As with all forms of human behaviour, certain nuances or contradictions exist. For example, a parent may not approve of their child’s chosen activity but may have a good knowledge of it, such as a father with a passion for boxing may be unhappy that his daughter boxes due to their gender stereotyped beliefs.

Frequently, we see parents who begin with limited knowledge of the activity their child has chosen, but because they are supportive their involvement increases as they learn more about the activity. Also, it is important to consider the individual preferences of the child when discussing optimal parental involvement. Some children may want their parents to be actively involved, whereas others may enjoy participating in an activity without their parents present, particularly older children seeking more independence.

Effects of parental behaviours

Basketball kid with father If we delve a little deeper into the research on parental behaviour, we can see that some parental behaviours have a positive effect on a child’s sports participation and others a profoundly negative effect. In a survey of junior tennis coaches, one of the most powerful positive parental behaviours the coaches identified was support. These included financial, logistical, and socio-emotional support as well as providing opportunities for participation, and what was described as unconditional support. In contrast, coaches considered the most negative parental behaviours to be overemphasising winning, unrealistic expectations, coaching and criticising the child. Within this same research the terms ‘pushing’ and ‘pampering’ the child were perceived as detrimental.

Interestingly, the level and focus of parental involvement the child requires can change as the child ages and progresses within the sport. For example, in the first stages of participation, parental involvement is the key influence, especially to offer encouragement and support; however, as the child progresses within the sport, parental involvement, and their influence, lessen as the emphasis moves towards the coach.

So being a sporting parent and establishing the right amount and type of involvement is certainly not an easy task. However, key features of positive parental involvement such as valuing the child’s activity, being actively involved, rewarding effort rather than success, and talking to the child to understand their desired level of involvement may provide a good starting point for parents.

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