The role of parents in youth sport has recently been thrown into the media limelight following Gary Lineker’s article for the Newstatesman (link to the article available below). He apportions part of the blame for England’s lack of international footballing success to a negative culture at grass roots level, specifically involving “pushy parents”. It is Lineker’s belief that this culture; a parent’s lack of support and encouragement, over criticism, negativity and disrespect for the referees, leads to the nation’s “footballing loss” of the creative midfielder who has the potential to be a skilful trick-master. These players fail to receive the support and encouragement they need at a crucial (early) stage of development, and as a result fail to reach their potential. If they are criticised every time they attempt a trick/when the trick doesn’t come off, the player will give up and fail to develop into the skilful player.  Consequently at professional level, the England manager’s selection is limited since these players have not made it to the top level. Lineker calls for “patience, nurturing and understanding” from young players’ parents, so that enjoyment can be brought back to the game, and so that as a country we can nurture these skilful youngsters and develop them into our future saviours of English international football!

Not surprisingly, the academic literature in this area fully supports what Mr Lineker has proposed. Omli and Wiese-Bjorstal (2011) for example purport the parental role in youth athletic development; when a parent fails to provide the appropriate level of support and encouragement, their involvement becomes a source of stress their child must deal with. A stressed young athlete is more likely to both burnout (Gould, Tuffey, Udry & Loehr, 1996) and drop out of the sport altogether (Greendorfer, 1992); exactly what Lineker warns we should be preventing at all costs if we are to remain a genuine competitor against countries like the Netherlands and Spain.

Omli and Wiese-Bjorstal (2011) directly discussed the “sporting parent” with child athletes, hearing their thoughts on parenting in sport. Three “types” of parents were established. First of all, the “supportive parent” who would give praise on the side line (but in the whole would stay quiet), display empathy and show encouragement. The second parenting type was the “demanding coach”, a parent who is instructive, gives advice as well as critical encouragement. The final type was the “crazed fan”; a parent who would shout at players (including their child) and the referee, would cheer fanatically and ultimately disrupt their child. When asked which parenting style they would most like their parent to adopt, the children answered with resounding preference for the supportive parent.

Furthermore, Knight, Boden and Holt (2010) concluded in their study that a parent should refrain from providing technical knowledge or tactical advice to their child (the demanding coach?), and instead should respect the game, comment on effort and give praise when praise is due (the supportive parent). This study related specifically to young tennis players, which goes to show that parenting across sports in general should be positive and supportive.

Finally, paternal support positively relates to the level of enjoyment the child feels whist playing their sport (Hoyle & Leff; 1997). Youngsters are motivated to play a sport/ to try hard in what they do when they enjoy the experience, since children are predominantly intrinsically motivated (Gottfried, 1990). If they enjoy what they do, performance improvements can be observed (Gottfried,1990; Hoyle & Leff, 1997). When too much pressure is placed on the child to succeed by their parents, both reported levels of enjoyment and measures of performance suffer (Brustad, Babkes, & Smith, 2001), so clearly positive parenting is a key factor in ensuring levels of elite success from today’s sporting youths.

In summary, I would say Gary Lineker has hit the nail on the head, highlighting the need for change in parental behaviours observed in youth sport environments. His key points of enjoyment, support, nurturing and encouragement are supported by the academic literature, showing that when these aspects are put across to children by their parents, the consequences are positive and significant.

In trying to change “parenting” though, we are faced with difficulty. How exactly can the behaviours and actions of parents across the country be changed for the better? And whose responsibility is it to attempt to enforce the change?

– Should it be the role of a sport psychologist? – but then the parent would have to gain access to the psychologist, pay the money, whilst accepting what they are currently doing pitch side is wrong. To me this seems unlikely to happen, since you would expect a parent to stop behaving the way they were outright, if they acknowledged that their behaviour was inappropriate.

– Should the responsibility lie with the child’s coach? – but they receive criticisms from the parents themselves, and how likely is it the parents will listen to a coach criticising the way they treat their own child (my belief is the parents wouldn’t listen at all, and such a comment from a coach may in fact make matters worse; make the parent more irate and angry at the system, more negative of the way their child’s sport is being run).

– Then is it the responsibility of the child? – we can most probably agree it is not the responsibility of a child to speak to their parents about the way they are behaving on the side line. The parents are the adults and should be behaving like one.

Maybe it is not a question of responsibility, but a question of who could encourage or initiate such a change in parenting behaviour on such a large scale. Perhaps Gary has gone half way to solving this himself; a man with power, influence, nationwide respect and access to immense media coverage, is he not the best person to initiate a change in youth sporting culture? We can hope that “pushy parents” with children in sport (and importantly not just in football!) read his article and are inspired to make a change in the way they behave, for the good of their child and their child’s development. But ultimately they cannot be forced into doing so, and unless something as drastic as touchline bans are enforced upon “bad” parents, then such a change is perhaps unlikely to be seen across the whole of youth sport.

ReferencesShow all

Brustad, R. J., Babkes, M. L. and Smith, A. L. 2001. “Youth in sport: Psychological considerations”. In Handbook of sport psychology, , 2nd ed. Edited by: Singer, R. N., Hausenblas, H. A. and Janelle, C. M. 604–635. New York: Wiley.

Gottfried, A. E. 1990. Academic intrinsic motivation in young elementary school children. Journal of Educational Pschology, 82 (3), 525-538.

Gould, D., Tuffey, S., Udry, E. and Loehr, J. 1996. Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: II. Qualitative analysis. The Sport Psychologist, 10: 341–366.

Greendorfer, S. L. 1992. “Sports socialization”. In Advances in sport psychology Edited by: Horn, T. S. 201–218. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hoyle, R. H. & Leff, S. S. 1997. The role of parental involvement in youth sport participation and performance. Adolescence, 32 (125), 233-43.

Knight, C. J., Boden, C. M. & Holt, N. L. 2010. Junior Tennis Players’ Preferences for Parental Behaviours. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22, 377-391.

Omli, J. & Wiese-Bjornstal, D. M. 2011. Kids Speak: Preferred Parental Behaviour at Youth Sport Events. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82 (4), 702-711.

Link to Gary Lineker’s Article: