Youth sport is unique because it involves communication, coordination, and maintenance of relationships among multiple adults, all of whom are key stakeholders in a child-athlete’s sporting experience (Blom et al, 2013). The interpersonal relationships between the parent, coach and athlete are often referred to as the athletic triangle (Wylleman, 2000). Specifically in football, although it is recognised that the player-parent-coach triad is an important system that determines youth athletes’ sporting experiences, it is unknown how parents can influence the development, maintenance and dissolution of the athletic triangle.
If youth football academies and other sporting organisations wish to optimise the role of sport parents, then it is vital that they acknowledge and appreciate parental constructions of stress and explore the stressors that may influence the parent’s own performance within the athletic triangle and ultimately, their child’s sporting development (Holt & Dunn, 2004).
There is a common misconception in youth football of ‘dealing with the parent’ rather than ‘working with the parent’ in regards to influencing young players’ development. Frequently, the parent is seen as a secondary object or a distraction that may inherently negatively affect player development through their involvement. There seems to be a negative culture, at grass roots level, involving ‘pushy parents’ and their behaviour; common parental behaviours that may be problematic include ‘coaching’ from the sideline, being overprotective of their child-athlete, being overcritical and becoming over-involved (Harwood, 2008). However, it is rarely recognised that the vast majority of parents are a positive influence on their child’s sporting development. To shift from the notion of ‘dealing with parents’ to ‘working with parents’ it must be acknowledged that parents and coaches can work together to assist the development of young athletes.
Although parents and coaches fulfil different roles, these alter over the course of the athlete’s career (Côtѐ, Baker & Abernethy, 2003). Specifically, parents move into the background and coaches play a more prominent role as the child matures and it must be suggested that both parents and coaches influence talent development. It is therefore essential that researchers, practitioners and organisations alike understand the social influences exerted by parents and coaches associated with talent development in young athletes.
Côté (1999) created a sporting participation model that is sensitive to the sport-domain and transitions experienced by players, parents and coaches. The framework encompasses three stages of youth sport participation; sampling, specialising and investment. The sampling years phase was characterised by little pressure to achieve, as parents provided avenues and opportunities for their child to enjoy sport and develop fundamental motor skills. In the specialising years, parental involvement increased, as their child focussed on one or two particular activities, developing an interest in the child’s sport. Parents at this stage sacrificed their own leisure time and provided financial support and access to coaches who provided informational support to the child in their given sport. During the investment years, a child became committed to a single sport with aspirations of achieving elite status. This involved building a close relationship with his/her coach, whilst their parents tended to move into the background, yet still were present and able to provide emotional and tangible support
Specifically, the middle stages of development are the most complex for parents, players and coaches because roles of these significant adults are beginning to change (Wolfenden & Holt, 2005). This altering landscape provides parents with challenging issues and circumstances which need to be understood, with a view to fortifying the parent-player-coach relationship to allow a young athlete to achieve their potential.
Organisational-based work by Hanton & Fletcher (2005) forwarded five dimensions of organisational stressors in sport: factors intrinsic to the sport (e.g. finances, travel & training); roles in the sport organisation (e.g. role ambiguity & expectations); sport relationships and interpersonal demands (e.g. with other parents, coaches); organisational structure and climate (e.g. selection policies and autonomy in decision making) and athletic career and performance development issues (e.g. security of position and funding support). Research into parental stressors in a football youth academy found that organisational stressors held a day-to-day prominence in the lives of specialising stage academy parents (Harwood, Drew & Knight, 2010). Components of the five dimensions put forward by Hanton & Fletcher (2005) resonated greatly with parents’ narratives specifically around academy processes and communication.
Parents can evidently be instrumental in the formation, development, solidity and indeed the termination of the relationships in youth sport. It is unmistakeable that parents can be a huge determinant of whether their child attains positive sport experiences.
Football academies and sport organisations worldwide work hard to provide high quality coaching for every youth prospect, but clearly they cannot do it alone. In order for young athletes to reach their potential, parents need to take an active role in their sporting development. However, this raises the age-old debate of how much do you involve the parent, especially in the day to day academy processes? I will be covering this in my next article.