Fun first! sports for kids: working with parents to get the most out of youth sports – National Programs: Fitness and Active Lifestyles

Michael A. Kanters

It’s a crisp Saturday morning in October. A group of 6 year-olds come racing onto the field tripping over league t-shirts that are a size too big. Smiling coaches greet them at the sidelines with pats on the back and high-fives. As the kids rally together for a team cheer, the parents take their seats on the bleachers – applauding and shouting words of encouragement. This is a scene repeated in communities all across the country — youth sport programs filled with all that is good about recreational sports for kids — fun, laughter, and positive support for adults. Unfortunately, in a growing number of sport leagues at all levels, there appears to be a growing number of incidents involving adults behaving inappropriately. Everyone has a story. Sport league administrators, youth sport coaches, referees, youth sport parents, and even casual observers of youth sports can cite at least one or two examples of incidents they have witnessed. Beyond differences in the sport played, the level of competition, and the age of the children participating, the message is alarmingly consistent — a growing number of parents at youth sport events seem to be out of control. A recent Sports Illustrated special report chronicles a “rising tide of violence and verbal abuse by adults at youth sports events” (p. 87). The escalation of violent and vulgar behavior of parents has been reported at competitive matches between teams of elite teenagers down to tee-ball games for five-year olds. The only common theme appears to be children playing sports and parents watching their children play sports. While most, if not all, parents enroll their children in sports with the best of intentions, clearly the actions of many parents suggest that there may be a problem. If the anecdotal evidence reported in the media and by most people involved in youth sports is representative of a growing epidemic across the country, then the time has come to take action. Left alone, the actions of a growing number of parents could seriously deteriorate an environment that provides our children with opportunities to play, meet new friends, develop gross and fine motor skills, learn the value of hard work and teamwork, feel good about themselves, and most importantly, have fun.

Participation in sport has been likened to a series of positive social and psychological benefits including self-esteem (Braddock, Royster, Winfield & Hawkins, 1991; Iso-Ahola & Hartfield, 1986); better development of life skills (Dubas & Snider, 1993); greater communication in the family (Abbott, Sutton, Jackson & Logan, 1976); decreased involvement in risky behaviors such as drug use (Collingwood, Sunderlin & Kohl, 1994; Jenkins, 1996; Shilts, 1991; Zill, Nord & Loomis, 1995); and increased academic achievement (Hanks & Eckland, 1976; Posner & Vandell, 1994). While most people would agree that sport participation is generally associated with positive outcomes there are several studies that have shown that highly competitive sports can have negative effects. For example, highly competitive sports involvement has been associated with increased problem behavior in the form of alcohol use (Jerry-Szpak & Brown, 1994); and increased use of other substances (Collingwood, Reynolds, Kohl, Smith & Sloan, 1991). The reality is that sport participation, whether intensely competitive or recreational, is neither positive or negative in and of itself. The environment in which sport is experienced and the people involved and associated with that experience determine the outcomes associated with sport participation (Danish, Petitpas & Hale, 1990).

A multitude of factors ranging from the quality of the sport facility to the interaction of league administrators, referees, coaches, and parents all work in concert to affect the child’s sport experience. If we want to make a positive change in youth sports then it seems logical to start with factors that are likely to have the greatest impact on a child’s sport experience — the parent! To this end, the National Recreation and Park Association with funding from the National Football League Charities is developing a new national program that will help grass roots sport leagues work with and get the most out of sport parents. The purpose of the new program entitled FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids is to help parents with children in sport get the most out of their child’s sport participation. The program will operate on the premise that parents who enroll their children in sport (especially for the first time) have good intentions and want their child to experience positive outcomes. We want to give these parents the “tools” they need to achieve their goal. We also hope to help parents form realistic expectations about their child’s participation that would heighten both the parent’s and the child’s sport. The following article outlines the foundation for the program’s purpose and content and provides recommendations for actions that sport league administrator’s can take to start working with sport parents.

Why Parents?

Clearly parents play the largest role in the development of their children. With regard to sport, parents typically make the initial decision to enroll their children (Howard & Madrigal, 1990) and have significant impact on many of the positive outcomes of their child’s sport participation (Horn & Harris, 1996). For example, a child’s initial perceived sport competence, a key factor for enduring involvement and enjoyment in sport for young children, is derived from two sources – successful task completion and parent perception of sport ability (Horn & Harris, 1996). If a preschooler who has stated that she is a really good swimmer is asked how she knows she is a good swimmer, she might cite a specific successful task completion (e.g. “I know I am a good swimmer because I can swim across the pool all by myself”) or feedback from a parent (e.g. “I know I am a good swimmer because Daddy says I’m a good swimmer”). The research, therefore, suggests that during the initial years of sport participation children should be given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery or task accomplishment experiences, and should be given positive feedback from parents. Stipek and MacIver (1989), however, indicate that it is important that adult praise be contingent on task completion rather than peer comparison or adult-determined task criteria (i.e., doing the sport skill correctly). For example, a child after their first soccer experience says excitedly to their mother, “Guess what Mom, I kicked the ball three times today at soccer,” and the mother responds with, “How many times did other kids kick the ball?” or “How many goals did you score?” the child is taught that competence or success is determined by peer comparisons or adult-determined criteria. If, however, the mother has responded with, “That’s great, you must have worked really hard to kick the ball three times,” the child has learned that performance is best judged by level of effort. As children grow older, feedback from parents continues to play a critical role in shaping their child’s self-perception of their ability and enjoyment in sport, however, other factors such as peer comparisons become increasingly important (Stipek & MacIver, 1989). Research also indicates that after age eight or nine, children are much more evaluative of parent feedback. If positive feedback does not match performance or feedback from peers, then the parents involvement could undermine their child’s perception of their sport competence (Horn & Harris, 1996). For example, after losing a game and playing poorly, a boy’s father says, “You were great out there today, you’re really good at this sport.” This conflicts with all other sources of performance feedback and seriously undermines the credibility and value of the parents’ feedback. As hard as it may be, it appears to be important to provide encouraging but accurate feedback about sport ability and performance as children get older.

Parenting Styles that Work

Research on the role of parents and parenting style with regard to healthy child development is, as expected, quite extensive. Some of the most interesting and relevant work focuses on the role of parenting style as it relates to preventing risk behaviors and promoting resiliency. According to Steinberg (2001), preschool and elementary school age children who are raised using an authoritative parenting style fare better than their peers raised with other parenting styles on virtually every indicator of psychological health studied. Authoritative parents are warm and involved but firm and consistent in establishing and enforcing guidelines, limits, and developmentally appropriate expectation (Baumrind, 1967; 1978). Authoritative parents are generally contrasted with three other parenting styles; authoritarian, indulgent, and indifferent parents (Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Authoritarian parents have rigid expectations about their children’s behavior and are emotionally distant and unresponsive in the parenting role. Indulgent parents are warm and supportive with their children, but have few expectations about behavior. Indifferent parents are uninvolved, hold few expectations about behavior, and maintain cold and distant relationships with their children. Steinberg (2001) states that authoritative parenting works because it does three things: (1) the nurturance and parent involvement creates an environment more receptive to parental influence; (2) a balance of support and structure facilitates the development of self-regulatory skills in the child; and (3) the verbal give and take characteristic of parent-child exchanges fosters cognitive and social competence in the child. The result is a responsible, competent child that engages in consistent behavior whether or not the parents are around.

The body of research on effective parenting styles leaves little doubt that children will benefit from having parents who are warm, firm, and accepting of their needs for psychological autonomy. The challenge now becomes finding ways of educating adults in how to be authoritative. As our children receive increasing influences from individuals, institutions, the media, and most recently the World Wide Web, parent involvement becomes more important. Steinberg (2001) suggest that we need to change the ways parents view themselves and counter the misleading claims that parents do not matter. The most important message we can send is that what parents do and say does matter. The FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids campaign will build on the notion that parents are the greatest influence in their child’s lives. Beyond telling parents that they matter, the campaign will give parents information on how to use their influence to maximize their child’s sport experience.

Program Content

The biggest challenge for any initiative targeted at the parent-child relationship is presenting a message and information in a way that doesn’t look like you are trying to tell parents how to raise their children — even if that is exactly what you are trying to do! As expected, there few sport parent education programs already in existence in the United States. Programs directed at sport parents vary in both content and structure. Some programs require parents to attend a clinic, view a video, and sign a code of ethics pledge. Other programs provide sport leagues (for a fee) with materials to distribute to sport parents. A few programs provide material to sport leagues at no charge using the internet. Some sport leagues have even gone so far as to require parents of children in all sport programs offered by the community to participate in an education clinic and sign the code of ethics pledge. If parents don’t participate their children won’t play. With the incidence of violent and vulgar behavior of so many parents in so many communities across the country seems to warrant such an extreme measure, we run the risk of alienating, or even worse, condescending to the millions of parents that are doing a great job! There are over 22 million children participating in sport across the country. If you add up all the reports of inappropriate parent behavior, it doesn’t seem likely that it would represent even a small percentage of the millions of parents involved in their childrens’ sport. As mentioned earlier, the FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids campaign will work on the assumption that most parents want their kids to get the most out of sports. It is also our belief that most parents are already doing the best job they can. The FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids program will not require parents to attend, read, or sign anything. We want to send a message that parents are critically important to their child’s sport experiences and that we have information that can help them do what they already want to do. Try telling any parent what they have to do with their children and see what kind of response you get.

An inherent problem with many of the current sport parent education programs is the cost and logistics of administration. Someone has to enroll parents, collect money, coordinate clinics, distribute information, coordinate signing of code of ethics, maintain records, and deal with parents that can’t or won’t participate. While many parks and recreation departments across the country have the means to handle the increased work, thousands of departments with only one or two full-time staff, and reliance on volunteer groups to administer sport leagues, have neither the time nor money to implement such a program. The FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids program will be designed with these small departments in mind. Our intent is to create a “tool box” of materials that would help sport league providers of all shapes and sizes build their own sport parent education program. Our goal is to provide departments with everything they need to implement the program while minimizing the time and “people power” it takes to get done. Finally, there does not appear to be any sport development program that considers the growing population of Spanish-speaking families. All materials for the FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids program will be available in both English and Spanish.

Will it Work? and How Will We Know?

There is no direct evidence that a parent education program will reduce the incidents of violent and vulgar behavior of sport parents. Past research has shown that parenting skills can be taught successfully and can help parents avoid specific practices that increase the risk of adolescent problem behaviors (e.g., Kazkin, Siegel & Bass, 1992; Spaccarelli, Cotler & Penman, 1992). The work of Kosterman, Hawkins, Spoth, Haggerty, and Zhu (1997) is notable in that their research was able to demonstrate that with a general population of parents, a parent education program was able to demonstrate observable improvements in proactive communication between parents and children, and improved the quality of relationships between both mothers and fathers and their children. If an education program can improve the quality of the parent child relationship it seems reasonable to assume that a sport parent education program can improve the quality of the parent child relationship as it relates to sport participation. The proof, however, is in the pudding. If in the long run league administrators, coaches, and referees report a noticeable change in the climate of youth sport venues, if parents report more realistic expectations and positive perceptions about their child’s sport participation, and if children report that they are having more fun and want to keep playing sport for sport itself, then we have accomplished our goal. The reality is that with programs like this, it is very difficult to take credit for any noticeable change. We do intend on developing a series of measurable criteria to determine if the FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids program is achieving its objectives, however, any attempt to document sweeping changes to the quality of youth sports would be quite overzealous.

Pilot Testing

We are currently working with the following 10 communities to pilot test the FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids program:

Raleigh, NC Burlington, NC Edenton, NC New Bern, NC Wake Forest, NC

Cumberland County, NC Jackson County, NC Virginia Beach, VA Montgomery

County, MD Springfield, MO

A variety of communities and sports were identified in an attempt to work through issues that would prevent implementation at the national level. Each pilot site agreed to implement the program and work with us to determine effective implementation strategies that would work for a diversity of sport delivery systems, populations, and agency size. Pilot site representatives also agreed to assist in an evaluation of the program’s success and make both specific and general recommendations for improvement of the program. Results of the pilot testing will be used to make final modifications and recommendations for implementation as one of NRPA’s new national programs in early 2002.

What You Can Do Right Now

While we believe the FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids program will provide youth sport leagues with valuable resources for working with sport parents, there are several resources currently available and actions league administrators and parks and recreation directors can take to start working with parents. A review of the relevant research has clearly indicated that parents play a critical role and cannot be excluded from their child’s sport experience. Instead of trying to control parents and their actions, it may be more effective to try to work with parents. Obviously violent and criminal behavior cannot be tolerated and should be dealt with by law enforcement agencies. Sending a message that you want and value positive parent input into the sport league acknowledges the important role that each parent plays and may empower parents to do the right thing. Many leagues accomplish this through parent meetings and/or parent letters and even signed agreements (i.e., code of ethics pledge). It seems to be important to establish a culture in your sport league that the agency, coaches, referees, players, and their parents all share the responsibility of creating a quality sport experience.


There are several excellent resources already available to help you not only work with parents, but also a host of other issues affecting your sports. The following websites will get you started:

National Alliance for Youth Sports.

American Sport Education Program.

Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport.

American’s Promise: The Alliance for Youth.

Positive Coaching Alliance.

North American Youth Sport Institute.

Coaching Youth Sports.

A Colorful Way to Learn Youth Sports.

Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

Center for Sport, Character and Culture.

Institute of Youth Sport.

Character Counts. sports.htm

Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.


Institute for International Sport. nsd.cfm

Center for Sport Parenting.

Tips for Soccer Moms and Dads. soccer/sport_parent.htm

Also, stay tuned to for the launch of the FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids website that will contain not only information on the program, but also links to numerous youth sport resources and success stories from the field. If you have a program or idea for working with sport parents please pass it along and we will post it on our website.

Send information to Michael Kanters FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids Campus Box 8004 North Carolina State University Raleigh, NC 27695

or via email to

Michael Kanters, Ph.D. and Sharon Tebbutt M.S. are the authors of “FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids — Working with parents to get the most out of youth sports” on page 72.

Michael Kanters is an assistant professor and director of the PGA accredited Professional Golf Management in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. Michael is also project director for FUN FIRST! Sports Kids, a new national program for NRPA currently under development and pilot testing at NC State University. He received his Ph.D. from Indiana University. Originally from Canada, Michael has worked as executive director of the Indiana Park and Recreation Association and as assistant professor at Western Illinois University, and Brock University in Canada. Sharon Tebbutt is currently project coordinator for FUN FIRST! Sports for Kids, a youth parents education program through NC State University. Prior to this position, she was a recreation consultant with Recreation Resources Service, NC State University. In that position she provided technical assistance to park and recreation providers across North Carolina and provided field administration for the North Carolina Park and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF), which provides over $6 million in grants to local governments. Sharon is a graduate of the University of Delaware and Indiana University with degrees in Recreation and Park Administration and a minor in Public Management from IU. Sharon began her career as a recreation specialist for the Ocean City, Maryland Recreation and Parks Department.

COPYRIGHT 2001 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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