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Youth Sports: Pluses and Minuses For Parents

Peer Networking, Better Parent-Child Communication Seen

Parents watching sports contest

It is common wisdom that both boys and girls benefit from playing organized sports in a variety of ways. But youth sports has pluses and minuses for their parents too, according to researchers at Purdue University in a study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.


Based on focus group interviews with youth sports parents, researchers found that they benefits from their kids' sports participation in a variety of positive ways:

  • Better organization and time management skills. The time demands of youth sports forces many parents, almost by necessity, to become more flexible with their time, "spurring many of them to adopt time management strategies and to provide logistical support for the organized youth sports participation of their children." One way parents attempted to control their child's schedule or to set limits for their child's involvement in sports was by volunteering to coach their children's teams.
  • Increased personal sports participation. One of the most notable change parents in the study reported when their kids began playing sports was an increase in their own sports participation. When her youngest child wanted to play tennis, a sport she had never played, one mother reported that it prompted her to learn the game herself.
  • Enhanced parent-child communication/relationship. Parents in the study said youth sports changed the way they talked with their kids, creating additional opportunities for general communication (e.g., in the car, traveling to and from practices and games) and for giving advice and feedback, which led to a higher quality relationship between parent and child. Parents learned to develop "emotional mirroring" strategies, looking to their children for emotional cues and adjusting their emotional reactions to match. In addition, many parents, especially mothers, described protecting their children from the negative consequences of being a youth sport athlete (e.g., yelling coaches, team politics, high expectations).
  • More open spouse-to-spouse communication. Their child's sports participation often generated intense discussions between spouses about their respective sport-related expectations for their child. One mom talked about it becoming her sport parenting role to be supportive of her children regardless of the whether they did well or poorly, forcing her to confront her husband, who yelled and screamed during games. "I found myself telling [my husband] ‘leave [the boys] alone. Don't stand behind home plate and yell at them. Leave them alone. That's not going to make ‘em play better."
  • Increased peer social networking opportunities. Youth sports give parents a chance to socialize with other sport families in the community, often by supporting the efforts of their peers' children, and to join a whole new, kid-focused peer group. As one father said, "Before, my social grouping used to be about me and now our social group is about the kids." Parents linked relationships with parent peers to their long-term emotional connection to sport and to various reactive emotional experiences. In particular, many parents described how their peer social networking was inextricably linked to their enjoyment of sport and emotional tie to the youth sports setting. As one father said, "The people we hang out with ... just totally revolves around who our kids play on teams with."
  • Tempered "bleacher behavior." "Many parents ... described a remarkable cognitive change in their learning of appropriate ‘bleacher behavior.' Through modeling and reinforcement, parents described becoming experts at blending into the crowd." Parents described "attempting to manage the impressions others formed about them, in essence presenting a ‘public face' to their peers in the bleachers."


Being a sport parent, of course, requires an investment of significant time, money and emotional energy:

  • Greater cost and sacrifice than expected.  Parents typically viewed the personal and family cost and sacrifice associated with the sport involvement of their children as greater than they had expected, and were not always thrilled with their role as a youth sport parent.  While admitting that they had become "driven" by a desire to provide their children with the best possible youth sport experience they could, most parents in the study nevertheless viewed their intense involvement as a necessary means to an end.
  • Negative emotional reactions.  Along with feelings of pride and joy fromtheir children's participation sometimes came negative reactive emotions such as anxiety, embarrassment, anger/frustration, guilt, resentment, or exhaustion.
  • Loss of social network when child's sports career ended.  While parents of older athletes readily recognized that their child's sport involvement would eventually end, many had difficulty accepting the resulting loss of peer social networks. The strong emotional connection to sport parents develop left many with an "empty feeling" when their children's sports career ended, they chose to quit playing or were cut from a more elite level or travel team. Not only did sports parents report missing the sport setting itself, but also the social connections they formed with other youth sports parents.

Source: Dorsch T, Smith, A, McDonough Meghan. Parents' Perceptions of Child-to-Parent Socialization In Organized Youth Sport  Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 2009;31: 444-468. 


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