Sporting Parents are Influential Role Models

By Bo Hanson - 4x Olympian, Coaching Consultant & Director of Athlete Assessments

One of the most popular presentations we’re asked to deliver for clients is all about the parents’ role in their children’s sporting life, whether this be at the youth level or elite level.  Since this is a burning topic for many of our clients, we thought you might also be interested to find out more about this important topic too.  You may be a coach or sporting official dealing with parents and/or a parent yourself.  Read on to learn the top five critical things parents are to be aware of so they can best support their children’s involvement in sport.  This is relevant for little league or at the Olympic level.

As a parent, a key fact to remember is that you can either make or break your child's sporting experience.  Whilst there are many exceptional examples of parents doing the best by their children in their sport, there are numerous examples of parents being the reason why children drop out of sport.

Watch Bo Hanson speak about Why Kids are Dropping out of Sport

One of the most critical aspects of being a parent is how we role model behaviour to our children.  One thing is for sure, our children are always watching, observing and learning from you – the good, the bad and the ugly!  I know from my own experience the joy of how I feel when I see my children copying something I do well and the bitter self-disappointment when I see them copying my not-so-good behaviour.  

When it comes to sport and our children, we need to know how to be the type of role model who supports our children to enjoy sport and understand what the true meaning of success in sport is.  Here are our top five tips for parents to be their best when it comes to their children’s sport.

1.  Understand why, the real reasons, you want your children to participate in sport.

According to recent research, sport can provide four vital opportunities for our children to develop. 

  • Children learn how to improve their social interactions with others.
  • They can increase their level of self-confidence.
  • They can improve their communication skills.
  • Children can improve their health.

The fact is, children who play sport from a young age are more likely to be healthy and well- adjusted adults who can make more meaningful contributions at work and in society in general.

Please note, the reason why we should want our children to participate in sport is not so they can “beat” their competition, win at all costs or improve your status as a sporting legend amongst the other parents.

We recommend being very clear in your own mind about ‘what is your outcome’?  What is it that you want your child to take from their sporting experience?  What do you want from your child’s sporting experience?  Up until the age of around 14, most children just want to have fun in their sport. When they are around 14 years old, they start to understand more about what it means to compete. With a considered and deliberate outcome for your child’s involvement in sport, you can always check in with yourself about whether you are closer or further away from that meaning when you look at how you are behaving and interacting.  This is also an extremely valuable discussion (which can be easy or it can be a strong debate) to have with those closest to you and who also have a close connection to your child.

2.  Be strategic by planning what "life lessons" you would like your children to learn.

Studies universally find that sport is an excellent vehicle for promoting the following life lessons:

  • The value of creating and possessing a consistently Positive  Attitude
  • The Concept of Fair play
  • What is Sportsmanship: how to win and lose with pride and dignity
  • The Importance of Practice
  • Dedication and Commitment

A quick exercise you can do is to gauge (ie give a score out of 5) how your child is developing with their current sport in the above life lessons.  If they are doing well in some of the areas (what you rate 4 or 5) and need support in other areas (anything 3 and below), look for opportunities to help them further develop.  It might be how you talk to your child and what you focus on when chatting about their training or competition.  So much of our experience and perception of things is what we focus on.  Doing this in an encouraging way can benefit other areas of their life too (and potentially, help you with other parenting issues too!).

As an aside, you might be interested to read the article “Delivering Feedback to your Athletes”. While the article is written for coaches, it contains a useful strategy which is to always start with a positive comment, then provide something they can work on and finish with a positive comment (whilst using real life examples of behaviour rather than overall descriptive words such as ‘attitude’ or ‘motivated’). Keep in mind if you think it is your role to provide this feedback first of all…

3.  Be there for your children and reward effort (not results).

This is an obvious one. All it means is to turn up and be part of your child’s sporting experience as an objective observer – that means, not as their coach (unless you formally have this role). Parents do their best for their children when they support what the coach is trying to achieve and do not contradict their coach’s messages. If you want to be a coach, then by all means do some study and learn how to be a coach.

Research shows that the most significant contributing factor to sporting success is the quality of the coach-athlete relationship (See our article on the Canadian Olympic Study for more information.)

Remember to consider how you answered your ‘outcome’ in 1 above.  Even if the coach is not the most technically brilliant coach, if your outcome for your child is to have fun and get some physical exercise, and they are getting that, then there is no need for you to interfere on specifics of a training session with the coach. 

Parents also help their children when they simply encourage and reward their child’s effort – not their results. What lesson are you teaching your child if you congratulate them for winning a race when they did not try their best. Once again, this comes down to the lessons you promote in the actions you take.
There is enormous, consistent and very persuasive research on rewarding effort rather than results with children.  We highly recommend the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.  You might be interested to read our book review and summary (go to:  The Talent Code” By Daniel Coyle – Book Review & Summary.  There is an excellent section in Chapter 6 which you can skip down to in this book summary – it is eye opening research and they re-tested the experiment five times as they couldn’t believe the results initially).

4.  Do not be there all the time.

I know… it seems a contradiction here with the previous point.  What we mean is there are times when all you should do is drop your children at games or practice and pick them up afterwards. Nothing need be done in between. How can we help our children develop independence when we as parents never leave them alone…

5.  Control yourself.

The most critical tip I have for all parents is to stay calm and composed when watching your child participate in any sport. Fact is, there will be times when the referee makes a wrong decision…so what…that is life.  Live with it and you can teach your child that life is not always fair and the judge sometimes sees things in a different way to how you may see them.

Know that every loud screaming parent or adult spectator is viewed by young children (under 14 years old) as being aggressive.  Studies show that children can’t tell the difference in behaviour and simply group it as violent.  As such they feel emotionally and even physically threatened.  I can assure you, children do not perform well when they feel like this (no one does). So above all, remain in control of your emotions!


Wrapping Up

Remember you can either make or break your child’s sporting experience.  Our children are always watching, observing and learning.  They are more likely to do what you do, than do what you say! 

Sport provides an important opportunity to teach vital life skills to our children.  Parents have the opportunity to enhance the experience for their children and to promote these positive lessons. From what we hear from sports associations and clubs, the reality of many sports today, is parents promoting the wrong lessons to their children.  

So to re-cap, here are our top 5 recommendations:

  • Understand why, the real reasons, you want your children to participate in sport.
  • Be strategic by planning what “life lessons” you would like your children to learn.
  • Be there for your children and reward effort (not results).
  • Do not be there all the time (let them develop independence).
  • Control yourself (children under 14 years old see aggression as violence).
Watch Bo Hanson Present an 8-Part Video Presentation on Coaching Youth Athletes. Bo looks at topics including the Limitations of Traditional Coaching, Why Kids Dropout of Sport, Burnout in Athletes and Adapting Coaching for a Younger Generation. Watch the Presentation now!

We’d value your comments and advice on the above article.  Please Contact Us to share your perspective. 

If you’re interested to know more about the presentations we have done for other clients, please contact our office and we’ll share more with you on this topic.

For more great articles, read on within the Videos & Articles section of our website.

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