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Setting Boundaries But Supporting Independence Work Best For Sports Parents, Study Says

Autonomy-supportive, not controlling parenting style encouraged

For better or worse, parents play an important role in supporting their child's involvement in competitive sports, especially during early adolescence.

Parents can influence their child's behavior in one of two ways: indirectly by their general attitudes toward their child and the emotional climate they create (their parenting style) and directly through the parenting techniques they employ in specific contexts such as sports (their parenting practices).

Three parenting styles

According to study in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology,[1]  there are three main parenting styles: autonomy-supportive, controlling, and mixed.

Autonomy-supportive parenting style

Researchers studied two Canadian girls' soccer teams, one U-12 and one U-14.  Based on observations over the course of a summer soccer season and post-season interviews with both parents and their daughters, researchers classified thirty-two of 56 parents from 18 families as having an autonomy-supportive parenting style, one in which parents:

  • Promote a child's independence by providing choices and supporting decision-making within clear boundaries;
  • Exert minimal pressure on their children to act in a certain way;
  • Strike an appropriate balance between structure and independence; and
  • Help children accept personal responsibility for their decisions and learn from their own mistakes.

Researchers found that autonomy-supporting parents were able to "read" their child's mood, provide feedback on their child's sports performance at the right time (which the child often invited), and maintain open two-way communication.

Controlling parenting style

The second most common style (13 parents from 7 families), the study found, was controlling, a parenting style in which parents:

  • Set boundaries in a controlling manner ("I made her stay [in a dance class] for like half the year.");
  • Expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation
  • Provide their children little or no support in independent decision-making, even to the point of actively undermining such autonomy);
  • Apply strong pressure on children to meet their high behavioral expectations and induce guilt on the part of children until their behavior matches parental expectations; and
  • Create an environment in which their children learn to lie to avoid punishment.

Researchers found that most controlling parents are unable to read their child's mood or engage in open two-way communication so that, for instance, during the car ride back home after a game, she wouldn't want to speak with the parent and didn't want any feedback. 

"Autonomy-supportive parents have very good open and clear lines of communication with their children," noted Nick Holt, a professor in the Department of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta and the study's lead author. "We found the children from autonomy-supportive families would come to their parents and ask for advice. In the controlling families this rarely happened."

Mixed parenting style

A third group of parents (11 parents in 7 families) had a mixed parenting style: one parent was more autonomy-supportive and the other more controlling, or a single parent was autonomy-supportive in some situations and controlling in other

Autonomy-supportive: not same as "not strict"

Holt thinks all parents should strive to support their teenager's steps towards independence rather than be controlling.  In doing so, he says, parents need to remember that such a style "does not mean [they are] ‘not strict.' " Autonomy-supporting parents set boundaries and expectations for their kids, he notes, but they "give their children room to make some decisions within those boundaries." Then, crucially, they support their children's choices and emphasize the importance of taking personal responsibility for their decisions.

In this way kids "feel they're making the choice," Holt says, "rather than feeling they're forced to do something. When the pressure to act is there, kids tend to give up."

"For example," Holt says, "parents may say to their daughter in the spring, ‘You can choose soccer, baseball, or dance. But you can only choose one activity, and whichever activity you choose we will support you. But, whichever you choose, you must commit to attending all the practices and games and trying your best at all times.'  Then, the parents help support their children through any difficult times."

By contrast, says Holt, "those parents who are controlling are not  just ‘strict' - rather, they try to control all the aspects of the child's life without letting the child make any decisions." These parents tell the child what to do, often providing no explanation.

Changing parenting styles is possible

Holt says parents should be encouraged to think about and discuss their general approach to parenting to help them be consistent with their children.  If they want their children to become independent and take responsibility, the parents should think about setting boundaries and letting their teenagers make some decisions.

Is changing a parenting style from a more strict approach to supportive possible? Holt thinks so. "These aren't personality things; they are just behaviors," he says. "We know there's no guideline on how to parent your kid in sport, everyone is just learning by doing it."

Holt also noted that kids can help in this process. One of the study's surprising findings, he says, was that the teenaged girls often influenced their parents' style of parenting over time. "If a child showed she could be responsible, some of the parents said they would be less controlling."

Picking the right time to talk

One way for parents to become more supportive of their teenager's independence and improve communication is in when and how they talk about a child's performance after a game.

Holt suggests that parents try to "read" their child's emotions and avoid talking about a "bad" game if he or she is upset.  Instead, he recommends that parents say something like, "I can tell you don't want to talk about the game right now, but if you want to talk about it later today, or tomorrow, or later this week, I will be happy to listen."  Following this approach lets the child know you are "there" for him or her, but doesn't force the issue. "Over time, I suspect most parents will find this type of approach helps them communicate better with and support their children."

"From my perspective," Holt says, "it's not about how a child performs on a particular day. It's about how a child learns life lessons from being involved in sport and how these lessons will help the child in all walks of life. This, of course, is the crucial role good parents play, and sport provides great examples for helping parents to teach their children about life."

1. Holt NL, Tamminen KA, Black DE, Mandigo JL, Fox KR.Youth sport parenting styles and practices. J Sport Exer Psychol. 2009;31(1): 37-59



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