Parenting in Youth Sports – the Good, the Not So Good, and the Ugly
By Taylor Armstrong, MD, FRCPC
Introduction: swimming for someone else
A thirteen year-old boy, elite level swimmer, came to the office this past spring for a mental health assessment. His mother sat across from him in the room, arms crossed. As is my habit, I started out by asking what was going well.
“Tell me about his strengths,” I asked the mother. “What is it about your son that makes you proud as a parent?”
“Well,” she said, leaning in toward me, “he has great potential. When he’s interested, when he doesn’t let other things stand in his way, he’s capable of so much.” By ‘other things’ she was talking about persistent shoulder pain, low moods, lack of motivation, a falling out with a close friend, as if these were beads of pool water that could be absorbed by a warm towel. She went on about training plans for the summer, a welcome change in pools, her own experiences in swimming, all without noticing how her son’s shoulders slumped in his corner.
In most cases, this strength-based approach helps a young athlete and their parents connect – allows for the opportunity for a child to bask in a little positive feedback when the tone at home has fallen into only disappointment and conflict. Here’s a chance to build some rapport and ease the conversation toward more challenging waters. But as evident by the interaction above, curiosity around strengths doesn’t come without any risk. While there might be valuable information about mental status and family dynamics communicated through the exchange, the trade-off can be recreating the hurt that occurs too often at home for a child.
Later, after excusing the boy’s mother from the room, the swimmer couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.
“They never stop talking about what I’m not doing enough of! Not enough training, not enough sleep. Not enough exercising my shoulder. They have no idea how much pain I’m in. So many times I’ve tried to tell her and my dad than I’m done with swimming, and their response is to keep at it. ‘I’ll be sorry if I don’t see swimming through to my potential,’ they’ll say. Or, my favourite: ‘It’s the injury talking,’ No, it’s me!”
The majority of youth athletes perceive their parents as warm and supportive (Dorsch, Smith and Dotterer, 2016). The illustration above is not meant to distract from this reality. There are times, however, when the behaviours and attitudes of parents are not in line with their child’s wishes, and aren’t experienced as supportive. In more concerning cases a parent’s approach can become harmful to an athlete’s physical and mental health, and overall development. Sports medicine physicians and other health care professionals connected to youth sports are in an important position to detect situations when parents have such negative influence, and put into action a plan to address them.
This article is not meant to serve as an exhaustive review of all the research that has been done on parenting and its role in youth sports. Rather, the hope is to highlight some of the benefits of positive parental involvement, and the risks of parenting approaches that stray from these values. The pathological parenting approach, achievement by proxy distortion (ABPD), is outlined, as well as some strategies that physicians and other health professionals can use to help evaluate the influence parents have in the lives of their young athletes, and promote supportive parenting practices.
High performance parenting: the roles and challenges of parenting youth in sport
Parents carry different roles along a child’s journey in sport, and these have been organized by Fredricks and Eccles (2004) into three broad categories: providers, interpreters and role models. Parents are providers of opportunities in sport, emotional support, as well as the practical needs and infrastructure required to meet the demands of competition within an evolving landscape of child development (travel, financial, etc). Parents serve as interpreters of lessons available through sport, and the experiences their children have along the way. And if that wasn’t enough, they serve as role models for interest in sport, healthy participation, and sporting behaviours (Fredricks and Eccles, 2004; Harwood and Knight, 2015).
There are numerous challenges related to raising young, high-performing athletes. Practically, there is the sacrifice of time and money in order to clear a path for children to develop toward their potential as athletes: wherever their talent, motivation, hard work and support system will take them. As part of that support system, responding constructively to our children during the process of training and competing, in a way that promotes their development, is another important facet of parenting. Not only do parents have the task of responding to their children’s reactions to success and failure, progress and set backs, but they have their own emotions to regulate in the face of these ups and downs. And while a parent’s relationship with their child is at the core of the sporting journey, there are many other relationships for parents to navigate along the way: coaches, support staff, club administrators, officials, other parents, and the broader sport organizations (culture, policy, etc.) they find themselves in. Finally, youth athletes are moving targets. Their development in sport changes over time, as do the team and training environments in which they work. What comes with this evolution is often a shift in the role athletes want from their parents, and so caregivers must be open to these turns and forks in the road along the journey and adjust their own course accordingly.
In a clinical setting, whatever our initial impressions or worries might be about a parent-child relationship, it is critical for us to keep this complex set of tasks in mind. Parenting is perhaps the most difficult job out there, and in elite youth sport there are added layers of responsibility that impact parent-child relationships, as well as the larger family structure. Parents generally believe that their efforts are in service of their child’s best interests, even when in some cases the objective results are not in line with healthy childhood development. Empathy for parents and their sacrifices, and a curious approach toward the decisions they make will help guard physicians from making assumptions and judging a parent’s motivations too quickly.
The good: positive parental involvement in youth sport
Generally, positive parenting involvement has been found to be an important factor in helping children stay in sport, even achieve an elite level in sport, as well as contributing to positive psychosocial outcomes (Dorsch, Smith and Dotterer, 2016; Knight, Berrow and Harwood, 2017; Harwood and Knight, 2014; Juntumaa et al., 2005). But how do we define positive parenting in the context of youth sport?
Knight and Holt (2014) conducted a study that involved youth tennis players, ex-youth players, parents and coaches from a sample based in the United Kingdom. Their goal was to develop a grounded theory of optimal parent involvement. Based on the input of these 90 participants, they defined positive parental involvement as that which enhanced children’s enjoyment and their performance in tennis. They identified three central features that would serve parents in reaching the broader goal of understanding and enhancing their child’s tennis journey, along with a number of strategies that helped parents achieve each one. These three features were as follows:
1. Share and communicate goals.
A foundation of positive parental involvement was parents communicating with their children about their goals in sport, and aligning with their child in these objectives. While goals might change over the course of a child’s course in sport, parents would keep lines of communication open in order to identify shifts and follow their child’s lead.
2. Develop an understanding emotional climate.
Parents who make an effort to understand their child’s sport, either through constructive, open communication with coaches, or independent learning, are better able to empathize with their child’s experience in training and competition, thus helping them to respond supportively in different situations. Keeping the sport in perspective and focusing on the multiple benefits of participation are keys for achieving this.
3. Engage in enhancing parental practices at competitions.
Communication is again at the heart of this last tenet, with parents asking their children what practical and emotional support they need around competitions, and about their perception of a parent’s behaviours during play. Participants identified how promoting independence, holding children accountable for their behaviour, and generally enjoying the experience of sport competition were ingredients for helping parents enhance their positive parenting practices.
While these core parenting features were highlighted in a study of athletes within the specific sport of tennis, and narrow with respect to the level of competition, the description of positive parenting has been pushed further to the idea of “parenting expertise,” defined as follows: expertise in sport parenting is demonstrated through parental involvement that increases the changes for children to achieve their sporting potential, have positive psychosocial experience, and develop a range of positive developmental outcomes.
Along with some of the desired features highlighted above, such as managing emotional demands of competition, effective role modeling, and fostering healthy relationships within the sporting environment, in their concept of parenting expertise the authors also included a parent’s ability to provide appropriate opportunities in sport for their children, and adapt their involvement and support depending on the stage of a child’s athletic development (Harwood and Knight, 2015).
The ugly: Achievement by Proxy Distortion
If at the core of positive parent involvement is strong communication, empathy, flexibility, and a parent’s ability to align with their child’s own goals in sport, we can imagine how the relationship can start to go wrong. Even supportive parents will take missteps. They’ll get swept up in the intensity of a moment of competition, voice their disappointment with that they perceived as a poor effort from their child, or fall into a heated disagreement over a coach’s decision or referee’s call. Mistakes will happen during the car ride home just as they do on the field of play, because there is no such thing as perfect parenting.
When it is time to worry is when a parent’s misaligned values and negative behaviours become the norm, and begin to impede a child’s development and enjoyment of their sport. When the parent’s primary motivation behind their efforts is to further their own goals for their child’s participation in sport, losing sight of their athlete’s wishes and experience, then this can set up the potentially dangerous scenario of Achievement By Proxy Distortion (ABPD).
At its heart ABPD is a shift in an adult’s ability to distinguish their own needs for success and achievement from the child’s own developmental needs and goals; when a parent’s goals become the focus, there is potential for them to exploit the talented child for gratification of their own conscious and unconscious adult needs, which may be both external and internal (Tofler et al., 2005). Any adult involved in a child’s sport may be perpetrator of ABP: parent, coach, or another support staff.
The parental motivations that fuel ABPD are often a mix of external and internal. Parents may see their child’s abilities as a route to financial advantage, a university education, or fame. The sense of social community that can come with sport is a powerful force. The admiration by other parents in the stands, even other coaches, may scratch a parent’s itch for attention and celebration; for their child to show so much skill, to achieve such heights, they must be doing something right as a parent. And then there are endless forces that may play into a parent’s psychological make-up, shaping their own hopes and motivations for their child’s participation in sport. Often without realizing it, a parent’s emotional and material needs come to trump their child’s healthy progression through stages of development.
Achievement by proxy distortion exists on a spectrum, with graded levels of severity for how far parents may lose sight of their child’s motivations and goals in favour of their own, and the decisions they make that might put their children increasing at risk. At one end of this spectrum parents begin to make larger and larger sacrifices for the sake of their child’s progress in sport, perhaps to the detriment of other family members or interests. They may push their child in training activities beyond what would be considered a healthy level of external encouragement. Events related to the child’s primary sport may take priority other activities, such as school assignments or a vacation with extended family. Moving further along the spectrum, young athletes are seen more and more as objects, are defined more narrowly by their sport, and become isolated from the broader community of their peers. As ABP becomes more severe in its distorted parenting approach, love and acceptance becomes contingent on their child’s performance in sport, and the child may be subject to various forms of abuse, such as being asked to train through serious injury, criticized harshly and belittled for their results and effort, or pushed toward use of performance-enhancing drugs, or disordered eating practices.
Below are red flags for ABPD to look out for as a medical professional (Tofler et al., 2005). These are not necessarily specific for ABPD, but should trigger enough concern to warrant careful attention in our history-taking:
- Parents making life decisions based on a child’s activity;
- Parents giving up control over a child’s athletic pursuits to a coach, allowing the coach to make all decisions, believing this is in the service of their child’s best interests;
- Parents serving as primary coach for their child, particularly at high levels of competition;
- Parents allowing a child to compete or train when they are clearly injured and suffering, and even deferring the decision to do so to the child;
- The presence of impairing psychiatric symptoms, such as depressed moods and related symptoms, anxiety related to sport, disordered eating behaviours, etc;
- Suicidal ideation or self-harm behaviour;
- Psychosomatic illnesses, such as factitious, conversion or pain disorders;
- Reports or observations of conflict between the youth athlete and their parent;
- Parents’ over-involvement in medical care (overly directive in meetings, or dismissing care if it isn’t in line with their objectives), or under-involvement (non-participants in medical appointments, or overly deferential to child’s wishes/decisions with performance in sport being the ultimate focus).
Approach in the clinical setting: history taking
In cases where there may be unhealthy parenting pressures at work, those will almost never be identified up front as the reason for a child coming to us for a medical assessment. Instead, a stubborn foot injury, out-of-control worry, under-performance, or the recent discovery of self-harm will be the headlines, as a few examples. It is therefore our responsibility as health professionals to have in our process of history taking some strategies to inquire about family relationships and how these may play into to the development of presenting symptoms and their plan of care.
In addition to being curious about a child’s interests, activities and relationships outside of their sport, and how they generally get along with family members, the following 5 questions can be included as part of an assessment of a youth athlete:
- How would you describe your parents’ involvement in your sport activities?
- What are your goals as a competitive athlete? How do your parents’ goals align with your own, and in what ways are they different?
- Describe a typical car ride with your parents before and after competitions.
- If a challenging situation came up related to your sport, would you feel comfortable speaking with your parents about it? Why or why not?
- Are there examples where a parent put you into a situation in sport where you felt uncomfortable? This could include promoting certain eating habits, competition when you were feeling unwell or injured, use of certain substances or supplements, or working with people you didn’t feel safe around.
As part of the assessment of youth athletes, it is also important to focus some time on parents, particularly if there are any of the red flags for ABPD listed above, or other concerns about their attitudes and behaviours related to their child’s sport. Here are 5 questions to ask parents:
- How would you describe your involvement as a parent in your child’s sport activity?
- What are your child’s goals in their sport? In what ways are your own goals in line with these, and how are they different?
- What impact does your child’s sport involvement have on relationships in the family?
- What’s your relationship like with your child’s coach?
- What questions do you have about your role as a sport parent, and the best ways to support your child in their athletic pursuits?
Approach in the Clinical Setting: Management
As specialists in exercise science and sport, we have a responsibility to young athletes to help ensure that their parents are working in the interests of healthy childhood development. And here is the difficult bind we find ourselves in: while holding this responsibility to our young clients, we also understand that nothing puts adults on the defensive more quickly than having their parenting practices called into question. Of course each parent is different. Some may be quite open to suggestions for how best to support their high-achieving child athlete, feeling at arm’s length from the decisions coaches and stakeholders in their child’s sport are making. For others, even a little curiosity about child-parent relationships may feel threatening, particularly when the focus was supposed to be the injured foot exposed on the examination table.
Effective psychoeducation begins with connecting with a parent around their motivations for acting how they do. Empathy and acceptance is key, rather than judgment. Approaching each parent with the assumption that whatever they’re doing, they believe it to be in the best interests of their child, will go a long way to establishing a trusting relationship. Without that, there will be no buy-in to any of our suggestions, and no effective counselling can be done.
Sports medicine physicians who have a long-standing relationship with an athlete and their family are often in the best position to offer support to a parent around their attitudes and approach, and challenge any concerning behaviour they detect. For parents who have trouble reflecting on their own roles in a child’s struggle, and seem resistant to shifting their approach, being aware of their pre-contemplative stage of change is an important first step, and then remembering the principles of motivational interviewing (collaboration, evoking a person’s own reasons for change, and honouring their autonomy). Instead of imposing recommendations, suggest them. “You might consider trying,” is one way to begin. Empathize with a parent’s frustration that their tireless efforts aren’t leading to the desired outcome in their child’s health and performance, and propose an alternative approach as an experiment. In any case, shorter more frequent follow-up visits that are collaborative in spirit will be more effective in engaging a parent than longer sessions of lecturing about positive parenting practices in sport.
2. Making a Referral
When there are symptoms that suggest more concerning medical and psychiatric conditions, don’t hesitate to make referrals to other specialists. This includes sports psychiatrists and sports psychologists who can aid in assessment and treatment planning around any concerns for a youth athlete’s mental health. Psychotherapists affiliated with a clinic, or elsewhere in the community might be suggested to a family in order to support a young athlete.
If the reason for referral deviates from the presenting complaint which is more physical in nature, this might pique resistance in a caregiver. In that case, highlight the impact physical injuries can have on an athlete’s mental health, and how good mental health contributes to strong performance in sport. In a non-blaming manner, be forthright and honest with your concerns, even if a parent struggles to accept them. Finally, make the effort to communicate with a colleague consultant if you feel there are nuances to the case presentation that you feel need to be raised.
3. Manditory reporting
There will be times when we, as health care providers, have reasonable grounds to be concerned that a child might be in need of protection related to behaviour of an adult (parent/caregiver, coach, or other member of the child’s sport community) that may be abusive (physical, emotional or sexual) or neglectful. In such cases it is our duty to report our concern to whichever child protection agency exists in our community. In Ontario, for instance, the duty to report is mandatory for children up to the age of 16, although reports for youth 16 and 17 years of age can also be made. In the case of ABPD, a system’s exploitation of a young athlete, depending on its severity and the related health outcomes, may reach such a threshold for reporting.
While we have responsibility to support our athletes on a case-by-case basis, our knowledge and expertise can also be put to use on a wider scale. Efforts to promote positive parenting involvement with teams and sport organizations we support as part of the health and performance staff can have an effect of reaching more families than we can in the confines of our clinics. Strategies might include education to coaches around how they guide and encourage certain parent behaviour, creating clear expectations for the conduct of parents and their roles for best supporting the training program for their children. We can also encourage sport organizations, from the community level to national sport organizations, to set up policies around parent behaviour and fair consequences for inappropriate examples.
Conclusion: back to the pool
A difficult recommendation for the young swimmer’s parents to hear, together his sports medicine physician and I prescribed a defined break from all training activity and competition, with a goal to focus on recovery from his injured shoulder and depressive episode. His father declined to participate in any family meetings, angry about his son missing a crucial meet, but in time the boy’s mother was able to explore her goals for her son’s swimming, plus her own disappointment at how her own promising athletic career came abruptly to an end. The coach was supportive, checking in with the young swimmer periodically during his time off.
Without the demands of swimming, and more understanding from one parent, the was much less conflict at home, and the son realized how this had been the main driving force behind his unhappiness in sport. Once his shoulder felt strong again, and he had learned new coping strategies to help manage his moods, he asked to return to the pool. He arranged for rides to practice with a friend on the team. In the week leading up to his first meet back, he and his mother agreed that simply getting into the pool again with a healthy arm and outlook was a victory. He invited her to watch him swim, and with our support requested that they not discuss his swimming before or afterward the competition.
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