Why youth sport isn’t just for kids: it benefits mom too!January 24, 2022
- With approximately 75% of Canadian youth involved in organized youth sport, it’s uniquely positioned to promote mothers’ mental health and wellbeing.
- Youth sport offers opportunities for moms to:
- gain meaning through coaching and leadership
- experience pride and joy from observing their child compete
- interact with other adults and expand their social networks
- strengthen their family relationships
- engage in healthy behaviours
- This article offers 7 tips for youth sport administrators, program leaders and families to create positive experiences and outcomes for youth sport moms.
Sport mom (noun, 🔊 spohrt mahm)
- A person who never stops doing whatever it takes to complete everything that needs to be done for their child. Period. [see also ‘supermom’ or ‘superhero’]
Parents with a child or teen involved in sport know that along with the daily responsibilities of parenting, youth sport demands time, money and a degree of emotional restraint (Hayward et al., 2017). They also know that it comes with opportunities to face new challenges, belong to a community, and have positive experiences with their kids (Wiersma & Fifer, 2008).
As a central force in many Canadian families, mothers adopt many roles to facilitate their child’s sport activities and maintain family order. While many moms embrace these roles, the time and energy required to always be a “good mom” can come at a cost to mothers’ physical and mental health.
According to Statistics Canada (2020), moms spend more time on childcare and home-related tasks than fathers. In addition, moms often sacrifice their own needs, including their own sport and exercise participation, to accommodate their child’s leisure activities (Bean et al., 2019). As a result, moms have limited time for recreation and socialization.
For example, research shows that mothers are less physically active than fathers and women who aren’t mothers (McIntyre & Rhodes, 2009). Unfortunately for mothers, a possible outcome of this reduced time for recreation is their increased likelihood to develop mental health problems (Craike et al., 2010). In fact, a review of mothers’ mental health showed that the vulnerability of being a mom, the fear of not being a good parent, and general concerns for the child’s wellbeing are common predictors of mental health problems among moms (Blegen et al., 2010). For that reason, contexts that provide moms with opportunities to validate their parenting and that are favourable for their child’s wellbeing are well-suited to target mothers’ mental health.
The question then becomes: what context offers an avenue to cost-effectively promote mothers’ mental health, while avoiding any additional time and financial costs for the mothers? With approximately 75% of Canadian youth involved in organized youth sport (Aubert et al., 2021), it’s uniquely positioned to promote mothers’ wellbeing. This article will illustrate how having children involved in youth sport can enhance sport moms’ wellbeing through opportunities to lead, socialize with others, experience pride and happiness, strengthen family ties and engage in healthy behaviours.
How being a “sport mom” can promote wellbeing
Across decades of scientific research, several gender-based roles have emerged for sport moms (Bean et al., 2014). These roles include organizing and preparing meals, driving kids to practices and competitions, laundering uniforms and purchasing new equipment, and coordinating busy schedules (Coble, 2010; Fraser-Thomas et al., 2013). Many moms also generously offer to replicate these roles for their child’s teammates and sometimes adopt managerial or coaching positions within the team. Additionally, moms provide support and encouragement during competitions and offer their feedback during the car ride home (Tamminen et al., 2017).
The roles and responsibilities that mothers assume in youth sport may appear to be stressful. However, there’s reason to be optimistic about sport as a context for improving wellbeing among moms (Sutcliffe et al., 2021). In fact, under the right circumstances, organized sport can offer several benefits to mothers (Wiersma & Fifer, 2008). These benefits include opportunities to:
- gain meaning through coaching and leadership (the “coaching mom”)
- experience pride and joy from observing their child compete (the “proud, happy mom”)
- interact with other adults and expand their social networks (the “connected mom”)
- strengthen their family relationships (the “family mom”)
- engage in healthy behaviours (the “active mom”)
Mothers do a lot for their children, families and youth sport communities. It’s time for youth sport programs to intentionally promote these outcomes for mothers.
The coaching mom
Although coaching is often viewed as a paternal role in youth sport, mothers are equally equipped to coach and serve to benefit greatly from coaching. In fact, coaching moms report feeling more enriched in life through coaching youth sport (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011). This is particularly the case when coaching moms gain additional time together with their child and their child’s teammates, foster new life skills among the team, and serve as a positive role model (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011).
Coaching allows mothers to interact and connect with their child outside of the home as well as become more familiar with their child’s friends (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011). This familiarity with the group can also provide mothers with insight and peace of mind about the type of influence the team is having on their own child. Moreover, becoming a coach can provide mothers with opportunities to foster self-esteem among child athletes (Coble, 2010). As a coaching mom reported, “This self-esteem that you see in the success that the kids get when they do well, I find that really rewarding” (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011, p. 481).
Finally, coaching moms challenge perceptions of women in sport leadership positions and represent a positive role model for their athletes. Specifically, mothers fulfilling their role as a coach can translate into youth (and possibly even the mothers’ partners and members within the sport organization) gaining positive perceptions of female leadership (Leberman & LaVoi, 2011). As a result, coaching moms have the potential to shift gender norms at an organizational level and encourage other women to volunteer for leadership positions in youth sport. Nevertheless, not every mother will be interested in volunteering for a coaching position, so it’s equally important to find ways to increase mothers’ wellbeing through sport as a spectator.
The proud, happy mom
Youth sport is particularly well-positioned for mothers to experience positive emotions from observing their child athletes’ development (Bernsten et al., 2011). From the start, registering youth in sport provides mothers with initial feelings of satisfaction and excitement in response to providing positive developmental experiences for their child (Newport et al., 2020). Then, observing their child during training sessions and competitions allows mothers to experience pride and joy from witnessing their child cooperate with others, improve their skills, and experience their own positive emotions from sport.
Emotional experiences that are both positive and recurring are fundamental to human wellbeing. Therefore, the perpetual nature of positive experiences available for mothers in sport isn’t trivial. Although a great initial focus, the positive emotions mothers experience from observing their child in sport are typically limited to training and competitions, which represents only a fraction of the youth sport experience. As such, it’s important to leverage each component of the youth sport system for mothers’ mental health, such as the social capital mothers can gain through their involvement.
The connected mom
One of the most promising avenues to promote mothers’ mental health in sport is the extra opportunities to interact with other adults (Brown, 2014). The relationship between perceived social support and positive mental health is well established. And youth sport offers mothers the opportunity to form social relationships with people they would never have met otherwise.
These relationships typically begin with friendly greetings before and after competitions but have the potential to evolve into long-lasting friendships. As an example, some sport moms become comfortable enough with other parents that they help them cope with negative emotional experiences (Neely et al., 2017). Considering that youth sport seasons often take place over several months, mothers have the time to immerse themselves in a community of sport moms and may even begin to identify with their new social group.
Sport moms may begin to perceive the sport community as a meaningful social group with which they identify (Peter, 2011). Group identities serve an important purpose in the lives of parents as they fulfil a basic human need, that is, the feeling of belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Involvement in their child’s sport team can thus provide mothers with perceptions of similarity and connectedness with other parents. And in turn, sport moms may consider the group as an important and joyous part of their life.
Developing new friendships and being part of a group are essential aspects of human wellbeing, and youth sport offers both to mothers. With everything that mothers do in and out of sport, promoting their socialization through the youth sport system should be prioritized. In the same fashion, the importance of sport on mothers’ family life is important.
The family mom
Maintaining strong relationships among all members of the family unit is important for mental health. In youth sport, mothers are provided with abundant opportunities to strengthen their relationships with their child or children.
For example, although the ongoing transportation requirements of youth sport are often considered a burden, it nonetheless provides a time for parents and children to communicate (Tamminen et al., 2017). The in-transit time gives mothers time to provide performance-related feedback and positive reinforcement. It also offers time for mothers to catch up on their child’s day and discuss topics outside of sport.
Moreover, sharing positive and negative sport-related experiences can bring parents closer with their child (Clarke et al., 2016). For instance, some parents have reported that navigating deselection (being cut from a team) with their child enhanced their relationship (Neely et al., 2017). Taken together, the opportunities to communicate with their child and help regulate their emotions through difficult experiences can have a positive effect on the parent-child relationship.
Along with the parent-child relationship, youth sport may also serve as a way to improve mothers’ relationships with their partner. Relationship satisfaction among parent couples is an important predictor of mental health, and the team effort required in youth sport parenting may benefit parents in this respect (Whitton & Whisman, 2010).
Specifically, the logistical challenges of having at least 1 child athlete can burden couples, which makes it important to openly discuss goals related to their child’s involvement in sport. It’s also possible for parents to experience moments of appreciation toward each other through their engagement in youth sport. For instance, in 1 study, a mother explained, “Sometimes [my partner] skips meetings and cancels them [to watch our child’s sport], I don’t know exactly, but it makes me feel good when he comes to watch” (Dorsch et al., 2015, p. 12).
Mothers’ involvement in organized sport provides numerous opportunities to connect with family members, which is a meaningful predictor of wellbeing. Mothers’ may also experience opportunities to improve their physical health through involvement in the youth sport system.
The active mom
Despite the well-known relationship between physical and mental health, many mothers struggle to find the time for regular exercise. In fact, becoming a parent predicts lower levels of physical activity among mothers, and the rate at which mothers engage in physical activity has declined in recent decades (Archer et al., 2013; Bean & Wimbs, 2021). As such, it’s essential to create exercise opportunities for mothers where they’ll already be. Although evidence in this respect is in its infancy, youth sport may offer a viable vehicle to promote physical activity among mothers.
During competitions, parents spend most of their time watching their child compete. However, many parents would agree that spectating training sessions isn’t as important. So, how can this time be leveraged for parents’ physical health? In most cases of youth sport environments, whether an outdoor field or indoor arena, there’s ample space for mothers to engage in individual or group exercise.
For example, a researcher described the regular habit of “walking the stairs” during hockey practice (Misener, 2020). In a similar way, mothers may consider walking the perimeter of the soccer field or finding an open space to organize group circuit-based exercise. Regardless of the format, sport programs and coaches should encourage optional physical activity during training sessions for parents. Youth sport should not pose a barrier on parents’ physical activity.
How youth sport programs can promote moms’ wellbeing
Organized youth sport programs have the potential to promote mothers’ wellbeing in several ways. Here are 7 suggestions for how youth sport administrators, program leaders and families can create positive experiences and outcomes for youth sport moms:
- Mothers deserve the opportunity to share their skills and experiences through coaching. In recreational youth sport, mothers and fathers should be given equal opportunity to volunteer for coaching positions. In more competitive youth sport contexts where coaches are selected, organizations and administrative stakeholders should consider relevant experience and expertise among mothers and fathers.
- Mothers deserve the opportunity to see their hard work and dedication reflected in their child’s sport experiences. Specifically, allowing mothers to be present and undisturbed during competitions should be considered. If there are other children to care for while the child athlete is competing, the co-parent may consider taking on childcare duties while mom enjoys being a spectator.
- Mothers deserve the opportunity to socialize through their child’s sport activities. To activate the development of a sport-parent network, the team coach or manager may consider holding a social event early in the season to make introductions easier among parents. Alternatively, social networking platforms (for example, Facebook group) may be used to connect parents.
- Mothers deserve to belong to and identify with a group outside the home. Once initial social connections are established, further efforts should aim to foster a collective identity among the group. Sport moms may consider organizing team apparel for themselves (for example, the “hockey mom” sweater) or engaging in team chants during competitions.
- Mothers deserve help when necessary. Access to social support is critical for mental health. Therefore, it’s important for mothers to have other reliable parents to transport their child to sport from time to time. Coaches and parents should consider normalizing the act of asking for help when sport schedules become too burdensome.
- Mothers deserve the opportunity to become closer with their children and partners through organized sport involvement. Coaches may encourage their athletes to remain open to feedback from all parents and value the communication opportunities offered during the car ride to and from competition. Couples who are parents may consider having a discussion of their expectations in youth sport to ensure a harmonious sport experience.
- Mothers deserve the opportunity to be physically active during their child’s training sessions. Coaches may consider offering a portion of the field or court for parents to engage in individual or group exercise. Considering there are often many parents on each team, dividing into subgroups to accommodate everyone’s interests is encouraged (for example, 1 walking group and 1 running group).
Organized youth sport serves as a positive developmental context for countless Canadian families. Given that mothers are often the primary parent involved in preparation, transportation and support for youth sport, it’s difficult to imagine such an experience without mothers. Moving forward, it’s important not to take sport moms for granted and begin to include mothers’ wellbeing within the ideal sport experience. Although one may argue that motherhood is synonymous with selflessness, it’s time to give back to the sport moms that make it all possible. As articulated by one of the most successful athletes of all time:
“My mother is my root, my foundation. She planted the seed that I base my life on, which is the belief that the ability to achieve starts in your mind.”
– Michael Jordan
About the Author(s)
Jordan Sutcliffe, M.Sc., is a Canadian Ph.D. student currently studying at the University of Wollongong in Australia. His research interests include parental involvement in youth sport, positive youth development and mental health. Growing up as an avid sport sampler, Jordan’s athletic career ended in 2015 after playing 3 seasons with the University of Ottawa varsity football team. And most importantly, his sport mom has supported him in every way possible.
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