Supporting positive parental decision-making in youth sportFebruary 8, 2023
Parents and guardians have significant influence on their children’s sporting experiences, as well as broader sport culture. They serve as interpreters, role models, and providers of childhood sport experiences (Fredricks & Eccles, 2004). As such, their decisions can have long-lasting impacts on their children’s sport enjoyment, performance and long-term participation. Parents must decide when to start or end a child’s participation in a sport program, how many sports to do at one time and which sports and programs to choose. However, we don’t know much about how parents make these decisions and what factors influence them.
In this article, I will present my recent research on parental decision-making in youth sport (Larson et coll., 2022) and offer practical takeaways for parents, coaches and sport organizations. Please note that, throughout this article, the term “parent” is used to refer to the primary caregiver in a child’s life, whomever that may be.
Researching parental decision making around sport
To explore the factors that go into parents’ decision-making around sport, we interviewed 6 women and 5 men from Canada and the United States. All our participants had a doctorate and were current researchers in sport, kinesiology, physical activity, physical education, or coaching. Of the cohort, 6 had 1 or 2 children, and 5 participants had 3 or more children. The children’s ages ranged from 5 to 18 years, with a mean age of 11.7 years.
We recruited these participants because they had academic knowledge of best practices in youth sport and were currently experiencing the realities of youth sport as sport parents. As a result, they could discuss their own decision-making processes and influences within the context of youth sport literature and policy.
We analyzed the interview transcripts and identified 3 parental practices:
- Encouraging sampling
- Evaluating and modifying the sport environment
- Supporting autonomy
In the developmental model of sport participation (DMSP; Côté et coll., 2003; Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2007), sampling refers to playful participation in multiple sports. The DMSP suggests that early sampling from ages 6-12 promotes healthy and enjoyable long-term sport participation and enables elite performance. Canada’s framework for long-term development in sport and physical activity (LTD; Higgs et coll., 2019) specifically recommends doing 3 sports per year from around age 8 or 9 until age 11 or 12, and then 2 sports per year until age 15 or 16.
The parents in our study pursued a variety of movement experiences for their own children but weren’t concerned about strictly following sport policy recommendations. They noted that children don’t have to participate in multiple organized, competitive sports to experience the benefits of sampling. To fit in a variety of sports and movement experiences, many parents strategically chose summer camps or city programs with short seasons or sessions. Some parents expressed frustration with the length of the competitive swimming season and the intense, year-round involvement required by ice hockey and dance.
Evaluating and modifying the sport environment
When deciding what sport programs to put their children in and whether to stick with a certain program, parents sought out recommendations, observed the environment and checked in regularly with their children. They considered their children’s age, size, gender, personality and competence in relation to the sport program. In some cases, this led them to pause or delay their child’s participation in a program to increase the likelihood of a safe and enjoyable sport experience.
These parents also supported their children’s competence through their thoughtful choice of “appropriate sporting opportunities” (Harwood & Knight, 2015) and ongoing surveillance. In addition to watching closely for any signs of abusive or inappropriate coaching practices, they monitored their children’s skill progression. One parent noted that she decided to pull her daughters from gymnastics when they were still unable to do a cartwheel after 2 years in the program. She figured there were other activities that would be just as fun while promoting greater skill development.
Autonomy-supportive parenting involves giving children options, having open conversations with them, and involving them in decision-making, rather than pressuring them to behave a certain way (Holt et coll., 2021). In our study, parents had their own sport preferences and beliefs about sport, but they strongly supported their children’s autonomy when making decisions about beginning and ending participation. This wasn’t always easy, due to the structure of youth sport and challenges associated with having more than one child. Parents with three or more children expressed feeling pressure to steer their children into the same sport, or reduce the total number of sports for everyone, for the good of the family unit. As a result, younger children sometimes had less autonomy and fewer opportunities for multisport participation compared to their older siblings.
The family subsystem within Dorsch and colleagues’ (2022) model of youth sport includes the athlete, their parents, and their siblings. However, many current youth sport policies and recommendations seem to assume that families only have one child. For example, I examined Canada’s LTD framework, the United States’ National Youth Sports Strategy and National Physical Activity Plan, and the International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development (Bergeron et coll., 2015). None of these documents mentioned siblings or addressed the stress a child’s sport participation can put on the entire family unit, especially when multiplied by 2, 3, or more children. But most families with children in the United States and Canada have more than 1 child (Knop, 2019; Statistics Canada, 2011).
Takeaways for parents
- Kids can get the benefits of sampling without the stress of being in multiple organized, competitive sports. Recreational activities, with or without an instructor, also count.
- When choosing a sport program, remember that what’s great for one child may not be the right fit for another child. Check in with them regularly. If something seems off, investigate further. Don’t be afraid to pull them out for a time and then try the sport again later.
- Involve children in decision-making when possible, but don’t feel guilty about cutting back on activities for the good of the family. Having some unscheduled downtime as a family is important.
Takeaways for coaches and sport organizations
- Rather than having strict attendance policies (such as “no practice, no play”), recognize that athletes and their families may be dealing with scheduling conflicts and other logistical challenges.
- Be transparent about your program’s philosophy and how things are run. Offer trial periods to help families ensure a good fit before committing long-time.
- Get to know your athletes’ families. Don’t assume they all come from 2-parent, 1-child households with plenty of time for sport involvement.
- Allow siblings to be on the same team or in the same group with the same practice times, if the age and skill gap isn’t too great.
- When a family has more than 1 child in your program, give them a break when it comes to volunteering and fundraising. Don’t make a parent with 2 children do twice as much as a parent with one child.
In the future, we would like to see more flexible youth sport policy documents that take athletes’ families into account. Instead of dictating how many sports to do at once and what percentage of time to spend in various activities, recommendations should focus on how to choose and create appropriate sport contexts.
In the meantime, coaches and sport organizations can reduce family stress by showing empathy and finding ways to support parents who may be juggling multiple sports, children, and responsibilities (Furusa et coll., 2021; Newport et coll., 2021).
Finally, we hope that parents will feel empowered to make sport decisions that work for their unique family context. There is no one right way to do sport.
About the Author(s)
Heather Larson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta. Her research examines the contributions of training patterns (for example, specialization vs. multisport participation) and training contexts (for example, the motivational environment) to psychosocial outcomes and continued participation in sport across the lifespan. She has been a Masters swimmer and youth swim coach for most of her adult life.
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