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Back view of male parents cheering their childrens playing football in school.


  • Parental behaviour has the potential to either positively or negatively impact youth athletes
  • Current sporting contexts that frequently foster negative parental behaviour include parents “living vicariously” through their kids, the rise of youth sport professionalization and the high financial cost of youth sport
  • This SIRCuit article offers practical tips for both parents and youth sport organizations to foster positive parent-athlete relationships

In Canada, youth sport is often coupled with incidences of poor parent or guardian behaviour. News reports of parent or guardian arrests and verbal as well as physical altercations around their children’s youth sporting events are, unfortunately, common (Bell, 2020; Crosier, 2022; Kaufmann et coll., 2019). Further, for many young athletes, dealing with pressuring, loud, and aggressive parents or guardians (both their own and others) can be embarrassing, stressful and may lead them to consider quitting sport at an early age (Cumming & Ewing, 2002; Smoll et coll., 2011). 

Likewise, many youth sport coaches and the parents and guardians they work with experience a variety of conflicts, struggle to effectively communicate with one another, and often fail to establish common goals (Erdal, 2018; Horne et coll. 2022). Youth sport referees also describe experiencing negative interactions with parents and guardians. Some officials cite parent and guardian behaviour to be one of the leading causes of referee attrition, due to concerns around safety and abuse (Ackery et coll., 2012; Warner et coll., 2013). 

While negative parent or guardian behaviours can adversely impact athlete experiences, displays of positive parental behaviour can lead to positive athlete outcomes. For example, researchers found that parents’ and guardians’ supportive behaviours during sport practices and competitions were predictive of their children’s reported levels of enjoyment and motivation (Sánchez-Miguel et coll., 2013). Additionally, when parents and guardians provide their children with appropriate praise and encouragement, young athletes appear to want parents involved in their sporting activities and are more likely to seek out parental feedback and support (Strand et coll. 2022). 

Armed with the knowledge that sport parents and guardians have the power to influence how their children’s youth sport experiences play out, questioning why these individuals might act in harmful ways is important. The competitive context which comes part and parcel with sport participation plays a large role in facilitating some of these intensified parental behaviours. However, it is also important to examine the totality of the current youth sport landscape to consider what other conditions could be exacerbating these issues. 

Father and child playing soccer in the park.This article focuses on how sport parent behaviour could be changed to improve the youth sport environment. As a researcher currently exploring why negative parent behaviours arise within youth sport, I will attempt to outline some factors and conditions that may be contributing to these events. Following this, I will provide recommendations and suggestions for youth sport practitioners, parents, and guardians in hopes of creating actionable change and an improved youth sport experience for all children and adults involved.

Stressors behind the sport parent experience 

When looking at previous research exploring why parents and guardians may be behaving in negative ways during their children’s sporting activities, 2 main issues are often discussed: the phenomenon of parents or guardians “living vicariously” through their children and the rise of youth sport professionalization.  

The tendency for parents and guardians to “live” sport engagement vicariously through their children might be better described as a parent’s desire for their child to achieve milestones or levels of success that they could not achieve themselves (Knight et coll., 2016). Examples could include receiving a sport-related scholarship or playing sport at the professional level. Further tied to these parental desires is the amount of social capital often associated with a young athlete’s success within sport. Children are very much able to influence the social lives and status of their parents and families as a whole, particularly through achievement-oriented activities such as youth sport (Brown, 2020). This can be seen in the stories of young athlete phenoms or prodigies whose parents are often held in high regard or even granted a level of celebrity within their communities and beyond (Sandstrom, 2022; Williams & Cotton, 2019). Recent examples of this are the portrayal and glorification of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams’ father in the Oscar nominated film King Richard (Stinson, 2021) and the focus on the parents of Canadian World Junior hockey phenom Connor Bedard (Masters, 2022). In either case, when considering the benefits available to parents should their young athletes become successful within youth sport, it is important to acknowledge that incentives outside of their child’s development, growth, and sport enjoyment could play a role in affecting parent behaviours. 

The second systemic issue many young athletes and their families face is the rise of youth sport professionalization. The professionalization of a youth sport program occurs when program goals appear to align more closely with those seemingly more appropriate in a professional or adult sport context rather than in one targeted at children or teenagers (Erdal, 2018). For example, if a youth hockey program requires families to travel on team buses to away games, requires a strenuous off-ice training plan, and focuses on the teaching and implementation of advanced systems of play over individual development and fun, it could be considered more professionalized than recreational.  

While it might be assumed that children and their families can obtain a variety of benefits through their participation in these intensified settings, perhaps the most critical issue associated with youth sport professionalization is the financial cost. For many decades in Canada, the rising price tag of youth sport programming has increasingly acted as a deterrent in barring youth, particularly those from marginalized communities and individuals of low socioeconomic status, from becoming involved in sport or remaining involved in sport over multiple seasons. Overall, the gradual elimination of community sports programs (such as after-school recreational programming) in favour of more formalized, high-performance leagues has had the effect of reducing access to sport programming for many young people (Grueau, 2016).  

With the average registration cost of competitive youth sport programming sitting at approximately $774.00 per season and non-competitive programming at $320.00 in a typical mid-sized Canadian city, it can be assumed that most youth sport program participants are individuals from families of mid-to-high socioeconomic status with enough leisure time to be involved (Robertson et coll., 2019).  

Even for mid-to-high socioeconomic status parents and guardians, the pressure to continue to fund their children’s sport can be intense. Reports of parents opening additional lines of credit to pay for the equipment, league fees, and extra training opportunities required for their children to continue playing at a high level of sport are increasing (Adams & Johnson, 2018). Further, the social competition and comparison between sport families that these environments create is also problematic. During a recent study that I conducted, hockey parents described their family’s participation in the sport as more tied to ideas and notions around how they should appear as “good Canadians” and good community members rather than the outcomes related to their children’s program content or program quality (Murata & Côté, 2022).

Improving youth sport for young athletes and their families 

It is clear that parents often face a variety of personal challenges in relation to their children’s sport participation. When considering the financial commitments and social environments that parents and guardians must navigate within youth sport, their displays of frustration and other negative behaviours may be slightly easier to understand. As such, the pressure associated with participation as well as the financial cost to play sports must be addressed.  

Since the majority of youth sport programming appears to be more competitive than recreational in nature, the mandating and funding of more casual offerings (those that involve no travel, no sport-specific training, and fewer sessions per week) could be a way to even out the playing field for a greater number of families. The costs associated with facility usage are often prohibitive for these types of programs however, therefore governmental or sport governance support would be required.   

Culture change around the status associated with high intensity sport programming is also needed across Canadian youth sport. The current pressures felt by parents, guardians, and their children would perhaps be alleviated should participation become more centred on growth, recreation, and fun rather than metrics of achievement. Lowering the financial cost of sport would also do wonders to make participation appear to be less of a status symbol for those families involved. A sporting culture that discourages glorifying participation in high-performance sport programming early in an athlete’s life may act as a reasonable step in creating more equitable and positive sporting environments. 

In line with large-scale culture change, youth sport practitioners and researchers have begun to speculate on how negative parent behaviours could be mitigated at the administrative level (Gould, 2019; Ross et coll., 2015; Wiersma & Sherman, 2005). For example, previous research suggests that administrators should: 

  • Be aware of parent tendencies to become attached to their children’s sporting involvement and work to mitigate these issues 
  • Attempt to lower the cost of youth sport programming whenever possible 
  • Be proactive in soliciting feedback from and listening to the concerns of all families within their organizations 
  • Move quickly in addressing parent-related issues (i.e., harmful behaviour) 
  • Address parent-related issues in a consistent manner 

Even when sport administrators follow these suggestions, parents still have a responsibility to both be aware of and in control of their own behaviour as key members of the youth sport system. Influential research by Knight et coll. (2010) and Tamminen et coll. (2017) suggests that parents can accomplish this by:  

  • Showing interest in their child’s sport participation but only in a supportive manner 
  • Not giving technical sporting advice unless requested 
  • Focusing more on their child’s effort and attitude rather than performance or outcomes 
  • Following spectator etiquette and not calling attention to themselves 
  • Giving their child time to think about their sport participation before discussion 
  • Aiming to be self-reflexive before and during conversations with their child about sport 

Sport can be an important avenue for fostering enjoyable experiences, teaching life skills, and promoting positive physical and mental health habits for child and adolescent athletes. As such, it is important that all adults involved in facilitating and providing sport programming to these populations aim to create environments that will allow participants to develop, thrive, and remain involved over a long period of time.  

Given that parents play a critical role in supporting their children both within as well as outside of sport, it is important to ensure that these individuals are both equipped with the necessary skills and provided with an environment which will allow them to succeed. With the necessary knowledge and tools, parents and guardians can work towards fostering positive sport experiences for their children, themselves and everyone involved in youth sport. 

About the Author(s)

Alex Murata (he/him) is a PhD Candidate in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University at Kingston. Alex’s research centres around the psychological components of youth athlete development, with a focus on parental behaviours within the context of ice hockey in Canada. Previous to his time at Queen’s, Alex studied psychology at the University of British Columbia and communications at the University of Ottawa. Outside of his research, Alex coaches ice hockey at a range of competition levels and enjoys playing a variety of sports.


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The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.