Study: Parental involvement in youth sports

Study: Parental involvement in youth sports


By Kourtney Sappenfield

Imagine this…

You’re a 14-year-old child who just played a basketball game and your team won, but you know that you made several mistakes during the game. As you grab your backpack to leave the locker room, you’re hesitant to walk out because you know your parents will want to talk about the game during the car ride home.

Now you’re sitting in the backseat of your parents’ car, listening to them give you feedback about the game. The feedback is positive and negative and includes instruction for your next performance. You’re silent. You’re thinking -- this sucks. All you can do is think about how much longer until you get home to escape. None of the feedback is helping. In fact, your positive feelings about the team success have turned into feelings of being upset about your own performance. You know they are trying to help, but they are taking all of the fun out of the experience.

Rather than thinking about how to implement their feedback in your next performance, you think about what you can do differently during the next game, so your parents don’t lecture you after the game like they are doing now.

In this instance, there is a disconnect between the parents and child. The parents in this situation may believe this feedback in the car ride home is important and helpful for their child’s growth in sport. They may even see it as something “good” parents are supposed to do to help their child get better.

However, the child is viewing this form of parental involvement differently. The child knows the parent is trying to help, but the lecture is making them feel bad. The feedback is not beneficial and will not benefit their future performance. Instead, it might negatively influence their experience in the sport and lead them to perform differently or to want to drop out completely just to avoid the future conversation.


As it turns out, perspectives of parental involvement often differ between parents and their children.

In my master’s thesis, I investigated this topic. I recruited 148 parents and children (11- to 13-years old) from two different leagues within the same soccer club (32 parent-child recreation pairs and 42 parent-child competitive pairs).

Parents and children completed an identical questionnaire focused on the parent’s involvement in the child’s sport experience. This questionnaire asked about parental involvement behaviors in general, before, during, and after a game. We compared each individual child’s score with his/her own parent.


Remarkably, children perceived that their parents significantly engaged in 11 behaviors more frequently than parents believed they did.

In general, children believed that their parents told them how to improve their technique, pushed them to practice harder, understood their feelings about soccer, and attended their practices/games more so than parents perceived they did.

Before a game, children perceived parents told them what to do to play better more than parents perceived they did. During a game, children perceived parents signaled or told them what to do from the sideline more than parents perceived they did. Lastly, after a game, children perceived parents told them what they need to work on, told them what they did badly, talked about the game in the car ride home, and instructed them as to how to play better in the car ride home.

Overwhelmingly, these questions reflect directive behaviors. These behaviors are seen when parents instruct about technique, give feedback of performance (positive or negative), or push to perform better. Parental involvement using directive behaviors was demonstrated to be seen in a variety of settings from before a game to the car ride home. However, it is clear that children perceived parents engaged in more directive behaviors than parents perceived they did.


On the other hand, parents perceived they engaged in three behaviors more frequently than children perceived they did. Parents perceived after a game they praised their children for the good things they did and for trying hard during the game more than their children perceived. Parents also perceived they encouraged their children to talk about problems/worries about the sport more than children perceived their parents did.

For parents, it’s clear they perceived they engaged in more praise behaviors than children perceived their parents did.

I am a parent of a youth athlete, what can I take away from this?

From this study it is clear there is a discrepancy between parent and child perspectives of parental involvement in competitive and recreational leagues in soccer.

Children perceived their parents engaged in more behaviors, especially more directive behaviors, than their parents perceived they did. Additionally, parents perceived they engaged in more praise behaviors than their children perceived their parents did.

So as a parent, what can you take away from this study? It’s possible that your intentions in terms of your parental involvement may not be positively received by your children. Your perception of your behavior may be different from how your child perceives your words and actions. For example, though parents may think they are being positive and supportive, their children may not perceive it the same way.

This also goes for directive behaviors. Parents may not believe they engage in these behaviors as often as their child perceives they do. It is important to recognize that what is important here is the child’s perception. If your child perceives that you are being more directive and providing less praise than you think you are, this could have a negative effect on your child’s experience in sport.


There is not a universal method of parental involvement that every parent must abide by. Children may have different preferences for parental involvement which may influence how they perceive their own parent’s involvement in their youth sport experience. As a youth sport parent, it’s important to remember that even though you might believe you are being helpful and positive with your child in sport, they may not be perceiving it that way.

Ultimately, it is your child’s perspective that influences whether they perceive sports as a positive or negative experience. One way you can assist your child in creating a positive youth sport experience at both the competitive and recreational level is by introducing a conversation about parental involvement with your child.

Questions to ask your child:

  • Do you enjoy participating in the sport?
  • How much do you want me to be involved?
  • Do you like when I attend your practices and games?
  • Do you want to talk about the game/practice before the game/practice?
  • Do you want to talk about the game or practice in the car ride home?
  • Do you like how I behave during your games?
  • How can I help you be successful?
  • How do you want me to react during the game?
  • Do you want to discuss your performance after a game?

Kourtney Sappenfield recently graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a Masters of Science in Kinesiology, concentration in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Prior to earning her Master's degree Kourtney graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Criminal Justice. Her research area focuses on improving the youth sport experience for future generations.

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