Study: Athletes don't like pushy, pressuring, over-involved parents
By Greg Bach
Most college athletes wanted to feel supported – but not pushed, pressured or coached from the sidelines by their parents – during their youth sports experiences, according to a Ferris State University case study.
“Our country has an infatuation with youth sport success,” says Dr. Jon Coles, an assistant professor of sport management at Grand Valley State, who conducted the study. “Parents are turning it into their experience and not the child’s and we need to give sports back to them.”
Coles’ study features 11 Ferris State University student athletes’ perceptions of their parents’ involvement in their youth sports participation and what they consider to be the optimal level of involvement for parenting today’s young athletes. Coles conducted the study during his tenure as associate athletic director at Ferris State.
“I’ve seen every extreme and every parent in-between, but I never took the time to ask the student athletes what they preferred,” says Coles, a former collegiate tennis player and high school and college athletic director. “I know what I preferred as an athlete, coach and administrator, but I was curious as to how others felt. And as a parent of young athletes, I did the research so I could be a better sports parent, and to help other sport parents like me.”
Coles chose to study collegiate student athletes because they offered a fresh and unique perspective.
“I was curious as to where their drive came from,” Coles said. “Did it come from the parents? Was it extrinsic or intrinsic? The kids are the most important participant in the youth sport experience so as leaders we must investigate and then disseminate what they want out of this experience.”
It’s no secret over-involved parents are present in youth sports, at all levels. And the problems they cause can be far reaching and long lasting.
“Every participant thought that over-involvement of parents in youth sports is a major concern that needs to be addressed," Coles said. "Four common themes of over-involved parental behavior emerged in analysis: pushing student athletes to practice, coaching, becoming too emotionally involved at games, and seeing the experience as their own."
One study participant identified the negative impact of a father’s over-involvement: “Him constantly telling me to practice made me not want to practice. Any suggestion he made, I would become defensive.”
COACHING FROM THE SIDELINES
Nine of the 11 subjects did not appreciate or enjoy coaching from their parents. One athlete told Coles: “Don’t talk to me about my game. That would be our topic at dinner, and it just wasn’t enjoyable. They don’t understand the mental drain of a game.” Another expressed frustration at parental coaching attempts: “They’re not at workouts, they’re not at practice, but yet they chime in and try to give kids advice. Let the coaches do their job, and you do your job. I hate parents like that.”
Another participant shared with Coles a story about how, when he was 12 or 13, he told his father to "lay off" on the way home from a tournament: "It was hard to do, but he later came back to me and apologized and said he had read an article about how he did not want to become another opponent for me." The participant went on to say his father did a lot of research on how to properly support a high-level youth athlete and became a much better parent after he educated himself. "I really appreciated that he did the research and wanted to help me," the athlete told Coles. "There is no question that I saw a lot of kids growing up who would have been better if the parents would have just stayed out of the coaches' way."
Parents who become too emotionally involved in the outcome of games is a common issue across today’s youth sports landscape.
One participant told Coles, “My dad was seriously embarrassing until about 8th grade, when another dad suggested that he suck on a Tootsie Pop during games.” Another athlete shared this with Coles: “Winning and losing should not matter to my parents. When my dad would get upset about my performance or us losing, I couldn’t deal with it. I was already upset, I didn’t need him to be upset as well. That just made it worse.”
SEEING A CHILD’S EXPERIENCE AS THEIR OWN
Many times parents, often without even realizing it, end up living vicariously through their child. The participants in the study described this in many different ways; however, they agreed that these parents seem to want the success more than their children do.
When talking about a friend, one participant stated: “She just wanted to go to school and her parents were so disappointed she didn’t want to play in college. She was good enough. I seriously think that some of the reason she didn’t want to play is that she didn’t want to deal with her parents anymore. I’m not sure why parents take so much pride in their kids playing
college sports. I don’t see them getting as excited about their academics. I think they see athletic success as their success, too.”
A common theme among the participants regarding optimal parent involvement was engaging in meaningful, thorough discussions about intentions and goals throughout the youth athletics experience. All were able to identify one conversation with their parents in which the participant made it clear that he or she wanted to play collegiate sports, but all indicated that they thought the more discussions, the better.
Multiple participants stated that the child must be fully committed to playing in college and that passion and competitiveness for the sport cannot be manufactured by the parents. All participants agreed that a formal discussion should take place between 7th and 9th grade to determine whether varsity college sports are realistic and attainable for the child.
Nine of the 11 participants recalled a discussion they had with their parents in which they collectively agreed to “commit” to college athletics as a goal.
“Parents can give you the money for camps and coaches, but you need to be motivated,” one athlete told Coles. “If you’re not, you can’t play at this level.”
The study participants included six Caucasian females representing volleyball, basketball, cross country, soccer, tennis, and golf. The five male participants included two African Americans and three Caucasians from track and field, basketball, football, tennis and golf.
Coles hopes his work can ignite helpful dialogue among parents and their young athletes.
“I hope this study can help lead to meaningful discussions for parents with their kids about what the child wants to achieve and how parents can help them accomplish those goals,” he said.
Dr. Jon Coles
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