The Car Ride HomeApril 17, 2018
Parents play an undeniably important role in the lives of young athletes. Parents have been described as socializers of athletes’ sport experiences – providing opportunities for participation, serving as role models, and helping athletes make sense of their sport experiences. Previous research about parent involvement in sport has examined the types of feedback that parents provide to athletes before, during, and after sport competitions. Not surprisingly, parents provide a wide variety of comments and feedback to athletes, including positive or negative feedback about their performance, asking questions to explore athletes’ sense of what went well and what didn’t go well in the game, and helping athletes to process the emotions resulting from the game. The types of comments and feedback that parents provide to their children may reflect their parenting goals –providing a lot of performance feedback because they want their child to improve, or emphasizing the important life skills that may be learned through sport.
The car ride home offers a “window of opportunity” for parents and athletes to debrief about games and practices – how they did, what they saw, and how to make sense of what happened. However, the car ride home can also be fraught with challenges and anxieties for parents and athletes alike. Parents often ask, “How should I talk to my child after a game? What should I say? What should I avoid saying?” while athletes are often thinking “What’s my parent going to say when I get in the car?” In our study, we interviewed 27 athletes and their parents separately about their experiences during the car ride home. The athletes were 18 females and nine males between 11 to 16 years of age from a variety of sports including soccer, basketball, hockey, baseball, figure skating, and fencing. Parents included 15 mothers and 11 fathers. We asked athletes and parents to tell us about times when they had positive experiences, as well as times when they had negative experiences during the car ride home. We also asked parents and athletes what they liked and didn’t like about the car ride home, and whether the car ride home differed depending on who was present (e.g., both parents versus one parent, siblings, teammates). Finally, we asked for suggestions to improve parent and athletes’ experiences during the car ride home.
Enjoying versus enduring the car ride home
One of the primary findings from our study was that the car ride home was not universally good or bad for athletes and their parents. Some athletes said they really enjoyed the car ride home and looked forward to the opportunity to debrief after games; while others described the car ride home as something they “endured” and tolerated, sometimes even dreading the idea of getting in the car with their parents after a game. Some athletes told us that when they made a mistake in a game, they immediately started thinking that they were going to “get it” from their parents in the car on the way home – meaning, they knew their parents would confront them about their mistake, even criticizing them for their poor performance.
Privacy and the car ride home
The car ride home is a unique setting where parents and athletes discussed (or sometimes avoided discussing) the athlete’s performance, the team’s performance, teammates and opponents, coaches, other parents, and a variety of other topics. We found that the car ride home provided parents and athletes a degree of privacy to talk about things that may not come up in other settings, or that they may try to avoid discussing in front of other people. For example, parents said that performance criticism was often discussed during the car ride home in order to avoid potentially embarrassing their child in front of their teammates. Some athletes described how the nature of the conversation changed when both parents were present in the car, or when teammates or coaches carpooled home from competitions. In these cases, athletes said the conversation was often less critical and focused mainly on things the team and the athlete did well. Parents also discussed the importance of a private environment to talk with their child about their sport experiences. For example, some parents described the car ride home as a safe space where athletes would talk about stress, pressure, and concerns relating to coaches, teammates, and officials. In some cases the privacy in the car ride home meant that parents may be more critical toward their child. However, this privacy could also be valuable because it can allow parents and athletes a safe space to talk about concerns and develop a stronger relationship together.
“It’s about trying to make her better”
Athletes and parents both spoke about performance feedback during the car ride home, and they acknowledged it was often valuable to improve performance in the next game or practice. Several athletes said that they actively sought feedback from their parents, indicating they appreciated knowing what areas of their performance they could work on in the future. However, athletes also said that receiving criticism about their performance could be difficult to hear, even if it might be useful information. In these cases, athlete and parents spoke about having to take a balanced approach in providing positive feedback along with suggestions for improvement, and to avoid emotionally charged criticism toward athletes.
Strategies to improve the car ride home
The ways that parents engage with their children during the car ride home has the potential to impact their child’s enjoyment and ongoing participation in sport. Some commonly-held advice for parents after competitions is to tell your child “I loved watching you play.” This is a great starting point, and the parents and athletes in our study provided additional suggestions for improving the car ride home:
- Give time to think, and take time to think: One athlete said, “Give me space. If I’m feeling down or not happy, I would really appreciate it if my mom gave me some space and some time to let me think about it.” Parents also spoke about taking time for themselves to think before discussing the athlete’s performance during the car ride home: “I let things sort of wait… sometimes I’m high on adrenaline as well, right? Sometimes I say something and I don’t mean to say it in the way that I say it, because it just comes out wrong but I’m just so.. I’m not thinking about my words right?”
- Develop “rules of the road”: Some parents and athletes said they had specific conversations where they set up their preferences for post-game conversations: “I asked my mom, can you start with something positive? If you start with something positive then it’s a little bit better for me to take-in all the negative things that happened.” Parents can ask their athlete what type of conversations they’d like to have – “How do you want me to act after a bad game?” and “Is there anything you do/don’t want me to say after games and practices?”
- Ask questions in a supportive manner: Athletes said that parents may not realize their questions can come across as confrontational, even if they didn’t mean to be. Parent awareness of the way questions are asked and tone of voice can go a long way to helping athletes feel less threatened by questions about their performance. Ask questions in a way that invites your athlete to share their experiences with you, exploring what happened during competition, rather than adopting a confrontational tone. One parent described the types of questions that led to productive conversations with their child: “[my husband] will say ‘but I don’t understand when you did this, this other girl did this other move and I don’t understand that.’ So it’s more about trying to understand the sport.”
- Be positive: Above all, athletes wanted their parents to be supportive, no matter what: “I kinda wish that my parents, on the car ride home, if it not so good of a game, I kinda wish they would be a little supportive because at the end of the day they are my parents and so they should be supportive no matter what.”
 The research project described in this article included interviews with 26 biological parents. However, we believe the findings and recommendations are applicable to parents, guardians and other supportive adults.
About the Author(s)
Katherine Tamminen is a faculty member at the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada) in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Her research in sport psychology examines young athletes’ experiences in sport, parent-athlete interactions, and stress and coping among athletes. Katherine works with athletes, parents, and coaches as a sport psychology/mental training consultant to help individuals improve their performance and overall experiences in sport.
Tamminen, K. A., Poucher, Z., & Povilaitis, V. (2017). The car ride home: An interpretive analysis of parent-child sport conversations. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 6(4), 325-339. doi: 10.1037/spy0000093.
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