Parents and youth sports: the good, the bad and why we need them

Parents and youth sports: the good, the bad and why we need them – Research Update

Michael Kanters

Anecdotal reports in the media and from individuals involved in youth sports suggest a growing number of incidents involving adults behaving inappropriately at their children’s sport events. Sport league administrators, youth sport coaches, referees, youth sport parents and even casual observers of youth sports can cite 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 t-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 sport with the best of intentions, clearly the actions of many parents suggests that there may be a problem.

One proposed solution to what has been noted as an epidemic of “pushy sport parents” is to minimize or eliminate parent involvement in their child’s sport participation. This solution is not only short-sighted, but it also implies that all parent involvement in their children’s sport is detrimental. A review of child developmental and socialization research strongly suggests that parents play the largest role in influencing the healthy development of their children.

With regard to sport, parents typically make the initial decision to enroll their children (Howard & Madrigal, 1990) and have a 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).

Felson and Reed (1986), and more recently McCullagh, Matzkanin, Shaw and Maldanodo (1993), reported a strong relationship between a parent’s judgment of their child’s physical ability and the child’s self appraisals of ability, even when actual levels of physical ability were controlled for statistically. These findings suggest that parents have the ability to override environmental cues and instill a sense of personal confidence in their children with regard to sport performance. These findings also imply that parents should give their children multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery or task accomplishment during the initial years of sport participation. In addition, parents should give a lot of positive feedback.

Additionally, Stipek and MacIver (1989) indicate that it’s 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). 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 8 or 9, children are much more evaluative of parent feedback. If positive feedback doesn’t match performance or feedback from peers, then the parents’ involvement could undermine their child’s perception of their sport competence (Horn & Harris, 1996). As hard as it may be, it appears to be important for parents to provide encouraging but accurate feedback about sport ability and performance as children get older.

Positive Parent Involvement

Although there has been a substantial body of research directed at enhancing the quality of children’s sport experiences, relatively little research has focused on enhancing the experience of parents and facilitating positive parent involvement. A review of related literature reveals that parenting skills can be taught successfully, and these skills can help parents avoid specific practices that increase risk for adolescent problem behaviors (e.g., Fraser, Hawkins, & Howard, 1988; Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992: Kazdin, Siegel, & Bass, 1992,; Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986; Olds & Kitzman, 1993; Spacarelli, Cotler, & Penman, 1992).

Research on effective parenting styles is 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 nearly 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 expectations (Baumrind, 1967; 1978).

Authoritative parenting works because it does three things: nurturance and parent involvement creates an environment more receptive to parental influence; a balance of support and structure facilitates the development of self-regulatory skills in the child; and the verbal give-and-take characteristic of parent-child exchanges fosters cognitive and social competence in the child (Steinberg, 2001). The result is a responsible, competent child who engages in consistent behavior whether parents are around. With regard to sport involvement, authoritative parents would be more likely to encourage sport participation, participate in their child’s sport (e.g., attend games and practices, reinforce positive participation and practice), be supportive of environments that require disciplined practice, commitment, fair play and sportsmanship. In addition, authoritative parents are also more likely to set appropriate development goals for their child’s sport performance.

The body of research on effective parenting styles leaves little doubt that children will benefit from having authoritative parents. The challenge thus becomes one of influencing parent behavior to be more reflective about the use of an authoritarian style. While intensive parent-training interventions, such as requiring parents to attend several workshops or seminars, have been able to demonstrate significant changes in parent perceptions and attitudes (Kosterman, Hawkins, Spoth, Haggerty, & Zhu (1997), the structure and nature of youth sports in this country is prohibitive to such an aggressive and obtrusive approach.

A strategy such as social marketing is a much more likely model to affect attitude and behavior change with respect to discretionary activities like sports and recreation. Social marketing seeks to influence social behaviors, not for the benefit of the marketer, but to benefit the target audience and general society. Social marketing has been used extensively in international health programs, especially for contraceptives and oral rehydration therapy, and is being used with more frequency in the U.S. for such diverse topics as drug abuse, heart disease and organ donation.

A fundamental component of social marketing is an understanding of and ability to manipulate self-interest (Rothschild, 1999). Social marketing campaigns typically try to show their target audience why there would be self-interest in behaving a certain way (e.g., “If you use a condom, you will be less likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease” or “If you drive more slowly, the nation will have greater fuel reserves”). In the context of youth sports and parent behavior, a social marketing campaign might try to show target parents that by behaving appropriately, their child will have more fun and get more out of their sport experience.

NRPA’s Fun First! Sports for Kids is a parent-education program developed using a social marketing orientation. Fun First! works on the assumption that most parents want their kids to get the most out of sports. The program doesn’t require parents to attend or sign anything. Research on effective social marketing suggests that for the campaign to be effective, the target audience needs to believe that behavioral conformity will yield personal benefits. The Fun First! message and materials were tailored to first get sport parents to read the material and second to convince parents that the Fun First! information would help them help their children get more out of sports. The message implies that parents are critically important to their child’s sport experiences and that the Fun First! information will help them do what they already want to do.

Socializing Parents

The parent-child relationship in the context of sport participation has been, for the most part, consistently identified in the literature as unidirectional–from parent to child. The parent makes the initial decision to enroll their child in sport and, especially during the child’s formative years, has tremendous influence on their child’s perceived ability and enjoyment in sport (Felson and Reed, 1986; Horn & Harris, 1996; McCullagh, Matzkanin, Shaw and Maldanodo, 1993). Some studies, however, have suggested that a parent’s involvement in their child’s sport and the outcomes realized by both parent and child may be reciprocally caused by both parents and their children (Fishwick & Creendorfer, 1987; Hasbrook, 1986; McPherson, 1986). Most recently, Green and Chalip (1997) found that “parental socialization into youth sport may not be due to the direct influence of the child per se, but, rather, to the child’s sport organization” (p. 71). The results of their study suggest that the child’s impact on parents is indirect and that the sport organization plays a greater role in parent socialization. Although Green’s and Chalip’s (1997) study was somewhat exploratory in nature, their results do lend further support to the notion that the factors influencing the culture of youth sports are quite complex, and that interactions between parents and all facets of the youth sport organization are significant predictors of positive outcomes.

In summary, the message in the literature seems to be consistently strong: Parents play a critical role in their child’s sport and should not be excluded. While the actions of a few parents seem to warrant extreme “push” measures, such as severely minimizing or even eliminating parent involvement or requiring completion of seminars, research suggests that a “pull” strategy that encourages positive parent involvement in youth sports may be more likely to succeed. Youth sport administrators need to send a message that they want and value positive parent input into the sport league. They need to acknowledge the important role that each parent plays and empower parents to do the right thing. It seems to be important to establish a culture where the organization, coaches, referees, players and their parents all share responsibility for creating a high-quality sport experience.


There are numerous youth sport organizations

and resources available to assist youth sport


American Sport Education Program

1607 North Market Street

Champaign, IL 61825


Provides instructional resources, workshops

and courses for coaches, administrators and


Athletes for a Better World

1740 Barnesdale Way NE

Atlanta, GA 30309


Seeks to change the culture of sport by

developing individual character, teamwork

and civic responsibility.

Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport

2197 Riverside Drive, Suite 300,

Ottawa, Ontario K1H 7X3


Promotes drug-free sport, equity, fair play,

safety and non-violence.

Center for Sport Parenting

Institute for International Sport,

University of Rhode Island

The Feinstein Building

3045 Kingstown Road, P.O. Box 1710

Kingston, RI 02881-0104


Helps those involved in youth sports cope with

the psychological and physical challenges that

accompany kids who play sports.

Center for the Study of Sport in Society

Northeastern University

360 Huntington Avenue, Suite 161 CP

Boston, MA 02115-5000


Works to increase awareness of sport and its

relation to society, and to develop programs

that identify problems, offer solutions and

promote the benefits of sport.

Citizenship Through Sports Alliance

10975 Benson Drive, Suite 350

Overland Park, KS 66210

Supports characteristics that define self-respect

and respect of others.

Coaching Youth Sports

Health and Physical Education Program

Virginia Tech

201 War Memorial Hall-0313

Blacksburg, VA 24061


An electronic newsletter for coaches, athletes

and parents that presents information about

learning and performing a variety of sport skills.

A Colorful Way to Learn Youth Sports

NuWay Products

10945 E. San Salvador Drive

Scottsdale, AZ 85259


Web site with information, advice and

instructional products for parents, coaches

and children involved in youth sports.

Mendelson Center for Sport,

Character and Culture

University of Notre Dame

202 Brownson Hall

Notre Dame, IN 46556


Encourages those involved in sport to embody

values and behaviors that promote social

justice, such as valuing diversity, creating

equal opportunity and advocating for the


60 Thoreau Street, Suite 288

Concord, MA 01742


Works to create a safer, more inclusive

youth sport experience.

National Alliance for Sport and

Physical Education

1900 Association Drive

Reston, VA 20191

800-213-7193, ext. 410

Coordinates coaching standards.

National Alliance for Youth Sports

2050 Vista Parkway

West Palm Beach, FL 33411


Seeks to make sports safe and positive

for America’s youth.

National Recreation and Park Association

National Programs Office

22377 Belmont Ridge Road

Ashburn, VA 20148-4501


NRPA’s Fun First! program promises

high-quality sports in communities.

North American Youth Sport Institute

4985 Oak Garden Drive

Kernersville, NC 27284-9520


Web site for people who work with kids in


Parent Institute

P.O. Box 7474

Fairfax Station, VA 22039-7474


Publishes a variety of materials designed to

encourage parent involvement in the education

of their children.

Positive Coaching Alliance

c/o Stanford Athletic Department

Stanford, CA 94305-6150


Seeks to transform youth sports so sports can

transform youth.


Felson, R.B., & Reed, M. (1986). The affect of parents on the self-appraisals of children. Social Psychology Quarterly, 49, 302-308.

Fishwick, L., & Greendorfer, S.L. (1987). Socialization revisited: A critique of the sport related research. Quest, 4, 108.

Fraser, M.W., Hawkins, J.D., & Howard, M.O. (1988). Parent training for delinquency prevention. Child and Youth Services, 11, 93-125.

Green, B.C., & Chalip, L. (1997). Enduring involvement in youth soccer: The socialization of parent and child. Journal of Leisure Research, 29(1), 61-77.

Hasbrook, C.A. (1986). Reciprocity and childhood socialization into sport. In L. Vander Velden & J.H. Humphrey (Eds.), Psychology and sociology of sport: Current selected research (Vol. 1, pp. 135 147). New York: AMS Press.

Hawkins, J.D., Catalano, R.E, & Miller, J.Y. (1992). Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: Implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 64-105.

Horn, T.S., & Harris, A. (1996). Perceived competence in young athletes: Research findings and recommendations for coaches and parents. In F.L. Smoll & R.E. Smith (Eds.), Children and youth in sport: A biopsychosocial perspective (pp. 309-329). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Howard, D., & Madrigal, R. (1990). Who makes the decision: The parent or child? Journal of Leisure Research, 22, 244-258.

Kazdin, A.E., Siegel, T.C., & Bass, D. (1992). Cognitive problem-solving skills training and parent management training in the treatment of antisocial behavior in children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60, 733-747.

Kosterman, R., Wawkins, J.D., Spoth, R., Haggerty, K.P., & Zhu, K (1997). Effects of a preventive parent-training intervention on observed family interactions: Proximal outcomes from preparing for the drug free years. Journal of Community Psychology, 25(4), 337-352.

Loeber, R., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M.S. (1986). Family factors as correlates and predictors of juvenile conduct problems and delinquency. In M. Tonry & N. Morris (Eds.), Crime and justice: An annual review of research (Vol. 7, pp.29-149). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCullagh, P., Matzkanin, K., Shaw, S., & Maidonado, M. (1993). Motivation for participation in physical activity: A comparison of parent-children perceived competencies and participation motives. Pediatric Exercise Science, 5, 224-233.

McPherson, B.D. (1986). Socialization theory and research: Toward a “new wave” of scholarly inquiry in a sport context. In C.R. Rees & A.W. Miracle (Eds.), Sport and social theory(pp. 111-134). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Olds, D.L., & Kitzman, H. (1993). Review of research on home visiting for pregnant women and parents of young children. The Future of Children, 3, 53-92.

Rothschild, M. (1999). Carrots, sticks, and promises: A conceptual framework of the management of public health and social issue behaviors. Journal of Marketing, 63, 24-37.

Spaccarelli, S., Coffer, S., & Penman, D. (1992). Problem-solving skills training as a supplement to behavioral parent training. Cognitive Therapy & Research, 16, 1-17.

Sports Illustrated. (July, 2000). Out of control. Sports Illustrated. 87-95.

Steinberg, L. (2001). The role of family in adolescent development: Preventing risk, promoting resilience. Invited keynote presentation, Children, Youth and Families at Risk Program Initiative, Cooperative Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, San Diego.

Stipek, D., & Maclver, D. (1989). Developmental change in children’s assessment of intellectual competence. Child Development, 60, 5211-538.

RELATED ARTICLE: Research into action: working with parents.

Reports from across the country appear to indicate that youth sport service providers are experiencing an increasing number of negative encounters with youth sport parents. While the causes of unruly sport parents are still unknown, youth-development and parent-intervention literature offers guidance for taking preventative and corrective action.

Parents are Important

The research is clear and unequivocal: What parents say and do matter to their children. One of the most important things to remember when talking to parents is to be positive. Nearly every parent believes that they’re doing a great job of raising their child. Start with a pat on the back, and then communicate how parents can help create a positive sport culture that will benefit their child. Most parents involved in youth sports are doing a great job. Celebrate parents and encourage positive participation.

Set Behavior Expectations for Parents

The literature on parenting clearly shows that a vast majority of parents want to do the best for their children. Authoritarian parents, in particular, are likely to become involved in their children’s activities and will seek out information on how to help their children get the most out of their involvements. Youth sport service providers can use a parent orientation meeting to provide information on everything from how to become involved to how to help their child maximize their sport experience. Service providers should also take this opportunity to clearly articulate the philosophy of their youth sport program (i.e., emphasis on fun, equal playing time for all participants, respect for coaches and officials, etc.). If parents know the behavior expectations, they’re much more likely to conform. All information directed at parents should be positive and should outline how behavior conformity will benefit them personally. Social marketing literature suggests that success is most likely achieved when the target audience believes that behavior conformity will yield personal benefits. Consequently, any initiative or program designed to work with parents to improve youth sports should emphasize how the positive and supportive involvement will help their child get the most out of sports.

Socializing Parents

The literature on youth sports and socialization suggests that while parents play the largest role during the formative years of their child’s sport involvement, long-term sport involvement may be due to the quality of the parents’ experience and their interaction with the youth sport organization. Parents invest a great deal of time and money in their children’s sports. While much of the literature suggests that a parent’s satisfaction with and enduring involvement in their child’s sport is dependent on their child’s satisfaction with their sport experience, the most recent work of Green & Chalip (1997) suggests that the sport organization serves as a more powerful socializing agent for parents. Also, the literature supports the notion that more is better when working with youth sport parents. When parents are positively involved, children are more likely to enjoy their sport, participate longer and keep their parents happy and involved longer.

Michael Kanters, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University. His current line of research examines factors associated with youth development through sport. He developed NRPA’s new national sport parent education program Fun First! Sports for Kids and has conducted several seminars on working with parents in youth sports. For more information about Fun First!, contact Raymond Harris at 703-858-2162 or

Research Update is edited by Cheryl A. Estes, Ph.D., assistant professor in recreation and leisure studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group