Are pushy parents needed to develop elite athletes?
When listening to interviews with Tiger Woods, you will always here him comment positively about his Father’s influence in his development as a golfer. Earl Woods is one example of a pushy parent and had encouraged his son to play golf from an early age. In the documentary video Tiger Woods: Son Hero Champion (2004), Tiger explains how supportive his Father has been to him. However during this intimate insight into Tigers growth into a global superstar, evidence of what some would call pushy parenting (and others may consider to be bordering on cruelty) starts to come to the surface.
In the documentary Tiger describes times where his Father would not let him eat his dinner until he had hit numerous golf balls. In the documentary, Earl Woods described a time where he would purposely try and torment his son whilst playing golf to try and build on his mental toughness . Earl Woods seemed set on his son being an elite golfer and at the age of two Tiger had already made a TV debut on the topical programme The Mike Douglas Show. This appearance could have been interpreted as a circus like freak show and the presenter and guests seemed amazed at the ability of such a young child.
Tiger Woods is just one example of how parents are needed for the development of elite athletes. Parents are an integral part to the running of many youth sport programmes (Barber et al, 1999). The parent’s role in the development of an elite athlete can have them be the child’s chauffer, nutritionist, therapist and even coach (Barber et al, 1999). The deliberate practice theory proposed by Ericsson et al (1993) has been used as a guiding framework for tracing the development of expert performers. This model proposes that performance is directly related to the task specific practice that a person performs. A parent involvement can make this possible and by pushing them towards a particular sport they are able to engage in this practice.
Cote at al (2007) found that early specialisation in a sport is essential to becoming elite and this will be aided by parental involvement as they can influence them when choosing which sports to participate in. Through meta-analysis the researchers proposed the Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP) which holds two pathways to skill acquisition in sports. In the early specialisation pathway it has been identified that expert adult performers will have specialised their engagement in one sport from an early age (e.g. 6 years old) and due to this have took part in more hours of deliberate practice n one sport. As parents steer their children’s attention to a sport that they feel will lead to them to being successful (Eccles & Harrold, 1991), they will for that reason have the opportunity to engage more hours of sport specific directed practice.
The involvement of a parent in their child’s sporting activities shows how important they deem the activities to be (Barber et al, 1999). Parents who take a more passive role in their child’s development are showing the child that the activities are less important and so it can be proposed that the child will be les likely to dedicate time to one sport and so not put in the hours of practice needed to make them elite.
It may be argued that over-involvement would be detrimental to the child’s development. Hellstedt (1987) suggested a parent’s involvement in a child’s athletic experiences can be placed on a scale from under-involvement to over-involvement. Hellstedt described over-involvement of parents with such negative traits as an emphasis on winning and helping the coach from the sidelines. From a different epistemological perspective it may be proposed that these traits could aid the development of elite athletes and when looking back at Tiger Woods we can easily see how these can have a positive impact on elite progression.
One way in which a parent can be directly involved is to be the coach of their child. When looking at a squad list of a youth sports team it is not uncommon to find a matching surname for the coach and one of the players. Parent involvement in sport has often been looked upon in a negative light however research into the impact of parents in youth sport is limited (Barber et al, 1999). Barber et al (1999) examined motivation and anxiety differences between parent coached and non parent coached children and found that there were no significant differences in either element. Their research into youth soccer found that children who perceived their parents to be more involved in their participation reported less pressure to perform and more positive psychological responses.
A significant amount of practice time and effort is required for those wishing to make the elite level (Williams and Hodges 2005). In both academic and wider reading it has been proposed that an individual needs 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to reach an elite level (Williams and Hodges 2005). Although the benefits early specialisation in youth sport has been contested (Baker & Robertson-Wilson, 2003; Frser-Thomas et al, 2008), a deliberate practice regime has been found to assist in minimizing or alleviating the negative implications associated with early sport specialisation (Christianson & Deutsch, 2012). Surely parents can only be instrumental in getting this and ultimately aiding their children’s progression?
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Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363–406.
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About David Faulkner
Sports Lecturer based in Birmingham (England) with an interest in peer effects and flow states. UEFA Licenced coach and keen golfer.