Parents in youth football (2)

Blogs by Nick Veenbrink

Overly involved parents are increasingly becoming a source of annoyance in youth sports. In last week’s article I already wrote about this phenomenon. This article primarily focuses on how children are affected by overly involved parents.

Just like in last week’s article I want to underline that I am not trying to generalise all parents involved in youth sports. I am merely trying to highlight a wider (societal) trend that involves the increasingly prominent role of parents within youth sports.

We have all seen them, the parents eagerly coaching from the side-lines or the parents whom are scolding the referee. It may be clear that this behaviour does not have a positive effect on the children within those lines, nor does it increase their enjoyment in the game. The purpose of this piece, however, is to also describe the less visible effects caused by parents’ behaviour.

In my previous article I reasoned that the achievement-oriented society we live in can be (partly) held accountable for parents’ worrying and alarming behaviours. Within an achievement-oriented society sports serve as a perfect domain for measuring and comparing (a child’s) achievements and success. This may also explain parents’ behaviour and why they connect their children’s achievements to the way they were brought up. Put differently, parents consider themselves good parents when their children are doing well.

Unconscious influence

Parents exert a great amount of influence on how their children perceive (playing) sports. Excessive parental pressure and the absence of parental support are known to cause damage to a child’s behaviour and how he/she experiences sports. When you ask parents, what is most important in playing football the unanimous answer is: to have fun. This does not always correspond, however, with their behaviour. Apparently, parents seem to be unaware of the pressure they exert on their children.

Here is an example of a parent answering a question about whether he thinks it is important his son is playing in a selection-team (highest-ranked team within age category)

“R: I don’t think it is important, but that does not mean I would not like it

I: Can you explain that distinction?

R” Well, it is about having fun. That they all get along. It is a team sport and I think that is very important. But I do feel that you as a player must be willing to show maximum effort in playing sports.” Fragment from an interview with a parent of a non-selection player at an amateur football club

The son interprets his father’s message as follows. He answers a question about whether his father thinks it is important that he is playing in a selection-team.

“Well, I feel like it is two-sided. Naturally, it would please him very much if I could be playing for them, because he used to play on a very high level himself. On the other side he’d say, well, if you can have fun there then you can go for it and if you are not having fun then you can stay with your current team.” Non-selection player at an amateur football club.

The player feels that his father attaches great value to him having fun, but also notices that it is somewhat important to try and play at the highest possible level. The way in which the aforementioned affects a youth player depends on a lot of different factors, including the parent-child relationship. It serves, however, as a striking example of how parents’ expressions may cause confusion or serve as a pattern for expectations. And those expectations specifically put extra pressure on children and their performances.

“[…] if he plays poorly that may bother me more than it bothers him.” Parent of a non-selection player at an amateur football club.

Miniature grown-ups

When parents feel excessively responsible for their children’s performances in sports it causes them to treat their children as miniature grown-ups. In creating high expectations for children, sports are given a ‘serious’ character. Children are ought to show maximum level and effort. This change in perception or character of youth sports goes at the expense of the playfulness. It causes children to specialise in a single sport and train three to four times a week at very young ages.

“If you are playing in a selection-team, I do think certain things can be expected of you. Indeed, like attending training-sessions, be on time for games, listening to pre-match analyses. I think the ‘seriousness’ should definitely be there, […] Especially because you are already treated in a certain way by the club. You get to train twice a week, there are benevolent parents who lead training sessions, there are to some extent qualified trainers. So yeah, the club invests time and energy as well. You get to play on the best pitch. So yeah, it would be normal to give something back as well.” Parent of an U13 selection-player at an amateur football club.

Some parents believe that sports serve as a tool to prepare children for the competition-driven society we are living in. Parents attach great value to the competitive element that lies within sports.

“[…] it can also be considered in some way as preparing children for society. There is no getting around it, you are going to end up in a competitive society, whatever it is you do and wherever you are going to end up. Competition will not be as harsh everywhere, but it is definitely part of life.” Parent of a selection player at an amateur football club.

Indeed, competition, standings and the selection of players are all part of sports. The question is, however, at what age we think children should be confronted with these elements. An excessive amount of competitiveness in sports can also negatively influence how children perceive and refer to playing sports; It could cause children to lose pleasure and quit sports altogether.

Involvement of parents

The goal of this, as well as the previous article is to try and sketch a perspective which allows us to gain a better understanding of some parents’ behaviours. I do want to emphasize, however, that we really do need parents. Not many children would be able to practice the sports they love without their parent’s support and dedication. That is also why I think we should involve parents (even) more. By creating awareness among parents with regards to their role in sports we can provide an environment in which enjoyment and pleasure lie at the core of what youth sports is about. Within a next article I will delve deeper into this subject.

The quotes within this article stem from interviews that were conducted with amateur football players and their parents with regards to a research study into the policy of selecting players in youth football.

This article is a shortened version of a note about parents in sports. In case you want to receive this full version, with reference list included, do not hesitate to get in touch!