Using sport and working in partnership to equip children with skills for life
Parents play a vital role in supporting their child to participate in youth sport. Parents are quite literally the driver, providing both the opportunity and transportation. Youth sports parenting is a full time job in itself, demanding considerable investment in terms of both money and time. It is parental support that affords kids the opportunity to participate and derive the myriad benefits associated with youth sports, which span athletic, health, scholastic, and life skill realms. Naturally, parents are invested in their child’s youth sports participation, and this investment often leads to increasing involvement. Yet despite the best intentions there are adverse consequences when parental involvement or intervention becomes excessive.
THE MANY UPSIDES OF YOUTH SPORTS
Participation in youth sports offers a host of benefits, of which sporting achievement and success in athletic pursuits is only part. Youth sports support children’s and adolescents’ physical and mental health, and provide a rich environment to develop skills, behaviours, and habits that transcend the athletic realm.
The terms ‘talent development’ and ‘youth development’ have been used to describe the respective facets of youth sports participation. Talent development relates to realising athletic potential in the sporting domain. Conversely, youth development captures the wider health, scholastic, psychosocial, and life skill elements derived from participating in youth sports.
Scholastic achievement in children demonstrates a positive relationship with metrics of fundamental movement skill development and physical fitness associated with participation in sport. Beyond health and acquisition of motor skills, the benefits of regular engagement in physical activity and sport extend to brain function and cognitive development in children and adolescents. Following a bout of aerobic exercise acute there are observable improvements in working memory, attention control, and concentration. For these reasons, regular exposure to exercise and participation in sports within the school day is becoming recognised as a modality to help kids diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) manage in school.
Another important benefit of youth sports participation are the opportunities for kids to learn to manage themselves and their interactions with others. Youth sports foster development of psychosocial skills. An increasingly important aspect is that sport provides a forum for in-person interaction, including with others from different backgrounds, social standing, and ethnicities. Participation in youth sports hereby offers a route to developing interpersonal skills and cooperative behaviour.
Sports are a metaphor for life. I do not subscribe to the view that every kid should receive a participation medal and that we should not keep score in games. Rather we should recognise and exploit the benefits of sports, for the rich emotional experience they provide and the strategies and tools that young people can take from these trials in a relatively safe space.
Under appropriate guidance, youth sports participation can provide the context for developing neurocognitive aspects that underpin motivated behaviour. This encompasses the element of anticipating challenges, preparing accordingly, and learning to be adaptable in the face of unforeseen difficulties. Through these trials, young athletes are able to learn self-regulation. When framed in the right way, they can also take advantage of the opportunities to develop resiliency which come from experiencing failure in the sport realm. The emotions that participating in sport entail similarly provide a rich environment for developing the respective facets of emotional aptitude.
What can make the difference between positive adaptive responses and unfavourable aversive responses is how the athlete learns to anticipate and interpret such emotionally charged and rich experiences. What serves to shape these lessons is the motivational climate within the practice and competition environment, and the behaviour modelled by coaches, parents, and peers. From this perspective, coaches and parents share a great deal of responsibility in helping to elicit the desired behaviour and guiding the young athlete to take the appropriate lessons.
THE CENTRAL ROLE OF PARENTS IN YOUTH SPORTS
As coaches we need to recognise that the parents contribute a great deal and play an essential role. Without parental support, the opportunities afforded to kids to participate in youth sports become far more limited. In some cases participation is just not viable when parental support is not available or forthcoming.
There is however a sweet spot when it comes to parental involvement. On the one hand, parental support is crucial in affording the young athlete the opportunity to participate and pursue their goals in the sport. On the other, parental involvement can be a source of friction and may add to the pressure of competing, with adverse consequences in terms of both the young athlete’s experience and their participation in the long term.
The degree of influence that parents have on the young athlete’s experience when participating in youth sports is significant, and is akin to that of a coach. As talent identification processes become more evolved, notably the recent shift to consider ‘psychological talent predictors’, it follows that examination of parental support and the health of the athlete-parent relationship likewise represent critical factors for sporting organisations to consider for selection.
From my own experience overseeing academy and youth programmes in both professional sport and with national sporting organisations, we gave a great deal of attention to evaluating the parents as one of the critical success factors used to assess young athletes’ long term potential. Our evaluation of parental involvement and influence in different cases ranged from potential liability to major prospective asset.
Given the crucial role of the parent in the process, it seems nonsensical that whilst we cater for the education of sport coaches, we do not typically equip parents with the awareness and understanding to operate successfully in this space. More enlightened individuals and groups have started to make efforts to address the lack of resources directed towards parents, but this movement is still very much in its infancy.
THE PARENTAL URGE TO PROTECT
For a parent to seek to keep their child out of harm’s way is natural and eminently understandable. What is less intuitive is that there are paradoxical adverse effects when we protect or intervene too much. What we can be slow to realise is that what we are protecting them from are important learning experiences. We also need to recognise that kids learn from direct experience, particularly during the developmental years before executive function and reasoning abilities become fully developed later in adolescence. Verbal warnings or indirect observation are typically too abstract for learning purposes. It is often only after the child burns their hand on a hot stove that they fully assimilate the lesson.
Often the most important learning experiences are negative or unpleasant ones, so the desire to protect kids from them is entirely understandable. Nevertheless these are important lessons that must be learned. In protecting kids from doing so we are further unintentionally depriving them of opportunities to develop strategies and hone the tools they will need to negotiate future challenges.
Adversity is important to our development as athletes and humans; it is an integral to how we acquire knowledge and how we become stronger. Authors on the topic have highlighted that the bumps in the road represent an important element of the young athlete’s journey to elite level. Indeed, these trials and tribulations are so vital that it is suggested we should be actively seeking ways to create challenging conditions and difficult scenarios to negotiate in the interests of the young athlete’s long term development. This is directly opposite to the well-meaning actions of what have been dubbed ‘lawnmower parents’ who seek to smooth the path for their child.
Inadvertently sparing kids from the experiences they need to acquire confidence in their ability to cope with adversity has further consequences. Ironically, insulating kids from these trials may ultimately serve to add to their anxiety. The paradoxical effects of over-protection renders kids less able to cope, so that with time they become more fragile and less resilient. At a deep unconscious level, kids understand this; and it becomes a growing source of anxiety as they anticipate future challenges without the requisite tools in their armoury.
PROTECTING THE FIRE
What does need to be protected is the young athlete’s internal fire and intrinsic motivation to play, practice, and participate. As young athletes proceed on their youth sports journey they face growing threats to this intrinsic drive. There are clear and presence dangers of extinguishing intrinsic motivation, to the extent that the athlete ultimately drops out and ceases to participate not only in that particular sport, but sport in general.
Ironically, early success can be a threat to the young athlete’s resolve and motivation for the journey ahead, as they become exposed to the accompanying extrinsic rewards, such as recognition, external validation, and other prizes. Social media represents a virulent recent addition on this front. Such external influences and concerns can easily infringe on the young athlete’s participation, and their behaviour can become motivated by rewards and recognition, displacing the intrinsic pleasure derived from the pursuit itself.
Both parents and coaches have a huge role to play in ensuring that these concerns do not become the primary driver for participation moving forwards. The coach can help to instill a process focus, to steer attention away from outcomes and external rewards. The parent can help by maintaining a degree of equanimity and consistency in their behaviour, to reinforce that affection, praise, and the parent-child relationship are not contingent upon the outcome or sporting success.
Nourishing intrinsic motivation is therefore perhaps the most important factor for the long term success of the young athlete. Intrinsic motivation has a demonstrated link to young athletes’ engagement in self-directed deliberate practice. Interestingly this is a reciprocal relationship. The more that athletes are afforded the opportunity to engage in self directed deliberate practice, the more they nourish their intrinsic drive to engage in this activity.
Limiting external influence and interference in the young athlete’s participation and experience becomes crucial from the perspective of preserving the premise that they are doing it by their own choice and under their own volition. The endeavour needs to be separated as far possible from external obligations and expectations. Parents have a huge role in this, as one of the most likely sources of these perceived obligations and expectations from the athlete’s perspective.
Youth sports participation is a major undertaking from a logistical standpoint, particularly as kids rise up the ranks, with increasing travel for competitions covering greater territory. Parents will often assume a great deal of the organisation and administrative duties involved in this endeavour. In these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that parents can find themselves more directly involved in making decisions and acting on their child’s behalf.
Alongside this growing involvement, at times parents will inevitably feel a natural urge to intervene, particularly when it appears that the child is not receiving fair treatment. Youth sport coaches all have stories of being harangued by parents advocating on behalf of their child. Most of us will also have witnessed parents remonstrating with officials during competitions. Just as coaches should beware solving the puzzle for the athlete, parents must temper their urge to step in and negotiate the challenges and trials that young athletes will inevitably face on their journey.
Whilst for the more part parental involvement and intervention is well-intentioned, ultimately it may not serve the young athlete. Assuming the responsibility on the young athlete’s behalf deprives them of these opportunities to learn and grow. As described with over protecting, excessive intervention can likewise serve to retard the young athlete’s development, and render them less capable when they ultimately come to face these challenges alone.
Arguably all intervention, be it from coaches, other practitioners, or parents is in need of regulation. Coaching input can be constraining, particularly if the athlete is no longer afforded opportunities to practice. The extent of participation in organised practices can also become a problem when it displaces opportunities to play and practice independently outside of a supervised setting. Parental involvement and intervention can similarly constrain and inhibit self-expression and development, particularly as young athletes mature.
What is certainly true is that excessive command and control on the part of the coach or parent is not conducive to the athlete having any sense of urgency with regards to their participation. Over time the young athlete’s sense of control and perceived ownership over their own sporting journey can become eroded, in turn harming their engagement and investment in the process. Ultimately when everything seems to be dictated by others this can lead to a feeling of alienation, often prompting athletes to withdraw from investing themselves, or even ceasing to participate entirely.
WHEN THE YOUTH SPORT EXPERIENCE BECOMES TOXIC
The motivational climate within the youth sport environment plays a large part in shaping the young athlete’s experience. The coaches clearly have a major bearing on the practice environment they create. Equally, the coach is not the only agent involved, and the expectations and perceptions of others, notably parents, also have a significant contribution.
What motivates behaviour, and the learned behavioural responses that are acquired, differ at respective stages in the young athletes sporting journey. The threats and rewards that predominate also vary with age and stage of development. What the young athlete evaluates as being ‘rewarding’ (or threatening) similarly shifts as they mature.
These trends also broadly apply to parental involvement. Whereas the presence of a parent is reassuring in childhood and helps to attenuate the threats they perceive within the environment, this is increasingly no longer the case once the young athlete enters adolescence. Indeed the presence or involvement of a parent may start to induce additional stress from the young athlete’s perspective.
As the young athlete progresses on their youth sports journey, external factors can start to predominate. During adolescence particularly the young athlete is constantly striving to shape their own identity and determine their social standing. Participating in the particular sport can lead to the young person to latch onto their ‘athlete’ status. Hereby involvement with the sport can start to shape the individual’s self concept, and define their identity within the school environment and beyond.
Such external baggage and expectations add to the stress and anxiety of competing, and affects not only how perceive participating but also choices and actions in the competition environment. What some authors term an ‘ego-involved’ state poisons intrinsic motivation to engage in practicing and participating in the sport for the simple joy of doing so. Essentially, the primary motivation becomes avoiding threat (specifically threats to their athlete status), rather than the rewards derived from engaging in the activity. The coach may inadvertently contribute to this ego-involved motivational climate. It is also certainly true that how the coach expresses themselves and interacts with the athlete can have a profound impact on their psychological and emotional state.
Aside from concerns around outcomes, the context behind the athlete’s participation in the sport can also be a source of external pressure, perceived expectation, and sense of obligation. For instance, heightened awareness of the financial investment parents have made in supporting their participation in the sport can weigh heavily on the young athlete.
Interactions with team-mates and peers represents another element that can impact the young athlete’s experience of participating in practice and competition. For team sports particularly the conduct of team-mates towards each other (and opposing players) is clearly a major factor. Preliminary study of team-mates’ prosocial and antisocial behaviour indicates a link to negative emotional impact on young athletes and ratings of burnout. Whilst individual sports are somewhat different, equally the manner in which training partners and even competitors engage with each other can be expected to have some bearing.
Social media has added a capricious new dimension to the social context of participating in youth sports. As a major source of external recognition and validation, social media can be problematic even when things are going well. Social media applications on phones and smart devices are engineered to hijack the dopamine system, providing reward signals that feed compulsive use, and in the developing adolescent brain they find a particularly receptive target.
The recognition and feelings of popularity youth sports athletes derive from their social media accounts adds a further element that motivates their compulsive use. This can infringe on their participation in the sport, becoming a distraction during practices and even competition. Recent media reports of a coach who felt compelled to provide breaks during practices for players to check their smart phones illustrate this point. We can even see a bizarre scenario where the athlete starts to derive validation from the social media attention, rather than achieving success in the sport itself. Any intrinsic motivation to engage in the sport for its own sake has been long since extinguished at this point.
Conversely, when things are going badly, social media can become a hugely malevolent influence. The one-to-many format of social media provides an almost consequence-free forum for toxic and negative comments, sometimes spiralling into full-blown abuse and bullying. It would take herculean self assurance to shrug off this sort of unsolicited abuse for mature adults. Naturally, children and adolescents are especially vulnerable, and the adverse effects can be severe.
THE HUMAN BEHIND THE ATHLETE PERSONA
As coaches and parents it is crucial to recognise (and reinforce) that self concept has different facets, and encompasses multiple aspects that vary according to the particular domain and environment. Each athlete is also an individual beyond the realm of sport: the child of a parent, perhaps a sibling, a friend to various others, a student in school, etc. Similarly, our self concept encompasses both positive and negative elements, each of which may be exhibited to a greater or lesser extent depending on the respective domain, environment, and particular conditions.
Coaches don’t simply coach athletes; they coach humans who also happen to be athletes. Parents don’t simply raise athletes; they raise humans with multiple dimensions, one of which happens to be in the sporting domain.
When the athlete persona comes to define the young person’s sense of self, their status as an athlete becomes all encompassing. Placing such emphasis on a single dimension raises the stakes inordinately. The perceived consequences when their athlete status comes under threat become catastrophic.
It is entirely less all consuming when the athlete allows that there are other dimensions to life that they can and should identify with and invest themselves in beyond the sporting domain. That way not everything is on the line every time the athlete competes. As coaches and parents we should be seeking to eliminate existential threats as far as possible!
Coaches can assist by engaging with the young athlete as a human. Parents should similarly be vigilant that their interactions with their child don’t solely revolve around their involvement in sport, and associated with the practice and competition environment.
In our quest to prepare the young person for the journey in sport, we should define what outcomes we are working towards and work back from there. Ultimately a worthy goal is acquiring the physical capacities, athletic abilities, and cognitive and emotional aptitudes to compete at the highest level of competition once they reach adulthood. Depending on the present age of the young athlete, the timeline involved with this process may be a decade or more.
Given the span of the journey, and the adversity and challenges involved, both anticipated and unforeseen, a great deal of tenacity is required to remain in the fight for the long haul. Such tenacity stems from deep reserves of intrinsic motivation. In essence, there needs to be a fundamental a drive to engage and participate that is not contingent on short term outcomes, and is independent of external rewards and validation. As we have spoken about, this intrinsic drive is precious and must be safeguarded in order to avoid it becoming superseded by external rewards, and ultimately extinguished as a consequence. Both parents and coaches can help to preserve the fire by directing attention to the pursuit itself rather than the outcome, and insulating the young athlete from fickle externalities as far as possible. In particular, parents should consider limiting the young athlete’s exposure to social media during childhood and adolescence when they are especially susceptible to these influences.
The best athletes have an aura that sets them apart and allows them to elevate their performance on the biggest stage. More generally, athletes competing at the highest levels rate higher on measures of mental toughness than athletes at lower tiers of competition. Being mentally tough is clearly an important quality when operating in the crucible of major competition, and also in rendering the athlete resilient to challenges and setbacks.
Three elements that can be isolated as underpinning mental toughness are perceived control over outcomes (i.e. agency), constancy is how they approach challenge, and unshakeable confidence in their own ability (self belief). Agency and sense of control comes from the athlete feeling they are steering the ship, rather than others dictating what happens and making choices on their behalf. Constancy in approaching challenge comes back to tenacity, but also how they appraise scenarios as a challenge to conquer versus a threat and source of anxiety. Finally, self belief and confidence in their abilities are derived through developing self efficacy in different contexts. In turn this comes from having these abilities tested and the experiences of successfully coming through these trials. It follows that the young athletes needs to be regularly challenged and tested in order to develop confidence and self belief.
Peeling back the layers, the individual’s self concept beyond the sporting arena, and the degree to which they view themselves in a positive light becomes critical in order to last the course. It follows that the young athlete needs to nurture their sense of self as a human beyond their sporting identity. Parents can play a huge role in this endeavour, not least by emphasising that the regard they hold their child in is independent of the sporting domain.
Going a bit deeper, navigating the life of an athlete at the highest level requires capabilities that include initiative, decision-making, problem solving skills, and reflection to support adaptive behaviour. In effect we should be seeking to prepare young athletes to be adaptable and unfazed when faced with the unexpected.
Once again, in order to develop such capability, young athletes must be exposed to conditions that test the respective abilities. Each of these qualities are honed by a continual process of trial and error. It follows that kids must be afforded the opportunity to try and to fail. Having others manage these trials on their behalf deprives the athlete of such opportunities. The role of the parent in this domain is to step back and allow the athlete to tackle these small trials and continually test their mettle.
Athletes who have sustained success at the highest level are resourceful and able to operate autonomously, rather than reliant on others. It follows that both coaches and parents should be working towards this goal. This requires that the athlete not only learns the game but also understands themselves. Such awareness and understanding serves to enable the athlete to effectively manage themselves, steer their own course, and navigate unforeseen events. Part of this process is learning self regulation, including impulse control, emotional reactivity, and interpersonal aspects, such as fostering and managing healthy relationships with others. Both sport and school provide rich environments for learning these lessons and acquiring the necessary strategies and coping tools. The tools to enable the athlete to self-reflect and fully exploit these opportunities to learn and adapt represent important assets. Equally, coaches and parents can help to calibrate this ongoing reflection with candid feedback, including regular debriefs and periodic reviews.
As the young athlete progresses on their journey it is important they remain attentive to challenges and also to the opportunities they will encounter. Integral to this process is how they appraise challenges and opportunities, in order to respond appropriately. This includes learning to regulate how to respond to cues and contexts that appear threatening, in order develop behavioural responses that better serve them. Specifically, the ability to reappraise scenarios that might provoke anxiety, and learn to reframe them in a way that better serves, also changes how they are able to engage. An example is reappraising the particular scenario as a challenge that they can get excited about tackling and testing themselves, rather than a threatening situation to avoid or feel anxious about. Both coaches and parents can of course assist by providing appropriate guidance and wisdom, to offer a different perspective on the situation.
Clearly it is crucial that the young athlete is passionate about participating in the sport. However, once again it merits delving a little bit deeper into the nature of this passion. The term ‘harmonious passion’ is used in the literature to differentiate from the all-consuming obsessive drive that comes from an imperative to feed a particular emotional need or to fill a gap in their life. Once again, the coach has a clear responsibility in terms of the behaviours they model. Equally, how parents behave and respond in particular scenarios will similarly influence their child’s perspective and resulting actions.
Digging into why the young athlete chooses to engage in practice also becomes important. To be sustainable, the athlete should have a desire to engage in the sport for its own sake, and clear reasons to participate that relate directly to the sport rather than external factors. If the sport is primarily a vehicle to satisfy some unrelated need or external obligation this becomes a highly precarious basis for engaging in the sport over the longer term.
In the same way, parents will also benefit from periodically examining the motivation behind their own engagement and investment in their child’s participation in youth sports.
The parent-coach relationship has a major influence on the young athlete’s experience. Nobody is more invested in the success and happiness of the young athlete than their parents. Our task should be to harness and help direct these energies to favourably impact the young athlete’s trajectory, and allow them to enjoy the significant ancillary benefits of participating in youth sport.
Jaded coaches are often quick to distance themselves from parents. I have even heard reports of a youth soccer coach who instructed his players they would be dropped to the bench if they spoke with their parents once they reported for duty with the team on match day. Rather than excluding parents we should seek to enlist the parent as a partner in the endeavour. Attempts should be made to engage them in the process. We need to equip parents with the tools to assist with the young athlete’s preparation, and with the knowledge to understand when to step back and allow them to be independent. It is however crucial to establish expectations and clear boundaries from the outset. There should be explicit agreements made on matters such as channels for communication and protocol for the practice and competition environment.
The parent-coach partnership is also a reciprocal relationship. The coach can be a key ally for the parent. My own experience is that one of the aspects that parents of young athletes I work with enjoy is that they listen to me; and what I am telling their child is often repeating what they themselves have tried to convey but met with resistance. This is particularly the case with teenagers. The coach can thereby provide a conduit for communicating messages that parents endorse.
Coaches and parents share a role in providing guidance to assist the process of helping the young athlete to acquire the necessary elements of emotional intelligence. Parents likewise play an integral role in providing support and direction when the young athlete inevitably makes mistakes.
One important aspects that parents and coaches can work together to instill in their athletes is the importance of being a good team-mate (or training partner), and upholding high standards of conduct towards others, including opponents and officials. Importantly, this will impact not only the athlete themselves, but also those around them.
Finally, both coach and parent are crucial in supporting and reinforcing a long term perspective. It is vital that both coaches and parents do not fall under the thrall of chasing short term wins, to the detriment of the long term mission. Both parties share a great responsibility to be the grown ups in the room.