The role of parents in the sporting development of young athletes has been a focus of research in sport psychology for decades. Academic research and applied work has been transformed into books, manuals, pamphlets, websites and videos to provide a source of accessible information to parents based around understanding and enhancing their child’s experience in sport, positively contributing to their sporting development. At present, this kind of accessible information does not exist specifically for parents of disabled athletes. This can be attributed somewhat to the paucity of research on the topic of parenting in disability sport. The following article discusses the highly influential role that parents can play in the sporting development of disabled individuals, presenting results from the few studies that have taken place within this subject area. It should also demonstrate the need for similar and relevant sources of information and guidance to be made available for parents of disabled individuals
As is the case in non-disability sport, there are a number of intervening factors which can determine an individual‘s success in reaching this professional and elite athlete status – parental input and influence is thought to play a key role in the process. This is in regards to not only encouraging the child to initially participate in sport, but to sustain their involvement and progress through the higher stages of the sport. In non-disability youth sport development, parents are viewed as playing 3 key roles: the provider, interpreter, and role model (Fredricks & Eccles, 2004). As the provider, parents offer the physical means to allow the child to take up and maintain a new sport. This can include providing financial support and transportation to training sessions and tournaments. As the interpreter, parents form a set of beliefs regarding their child and their involvement in sport. The types of values a parent holds may in turn influence the child in terms of their attitude orientation, mental well-being, and thus their progression throughout the sport. Finally, parents as role models may influence their child’s reactions and behaviours in a sporting context, as well as by motivating their child to progress through sport from their own sporting experience and achievements.
As academic literature and many articles on the Believe Perform website demonstrate, parents can also be responsible for exerting both positive and negative influences on their child’s sporting development, through their parenting styles. ‘Pushy’ or ‘problem parents’ have been identified as major inhibitors to young athletes trying to progress through grassroots to sport to a more professional level. Emphasis on failure, lack of support and failure to deliver appropriate encouragement can discourage the child to prevail and remain resilient in the crucial stage of development, often resulting in drop out. Conversely, parents who can provide the appropriate level of support to their child, encourage autonomy, demonstrate understanding and foster enjoyment in the activity will facilitate their child’s progression in sport. For example, parents who were encouraging of their child’s physical activity participation raised children with stronger perceptions of their physical competence compared to children with less encouraging parents (Brustad, 1993).
But how does this parental role differ in the development of athletes in disability sport? In many ways, the role of parents in disability sport is thought to be even more significant. Firstly, this can be attributed to the often increased reliance on parents to provide assistance with matters additional to what is viewed as their key roles as identified by Fredricks and Eccles (2004) in the development of non-disability sport. This can include attending to medical requirements, transportation of equipment (wheelchairs, medical supplies etc.), strapping and assisting the individual with equipment for sport, and guidance around unfamiliar places. Depending on the classification and extent of an individual’s disability, this reliance may also continue after childhood and adolescence, when in the case of non-disabled individuals, parental provision generally decreases. Thus, the child’s ability to not only take up a sport, but to continue to participate and progress through a sport, is heavily dependent on a parents’ ability, willingness and commitment to provide the necessary support and physical means.
Parents of disabled children can also play a preventative role in their disabled child’s sporting development. Many parents view participation in sport and physical activity to put their child at increased risk of injury, and will thus discourage or prevent their child from participating in sport. This is demonstrated in a study by Boufous, Finch and Bauman (2007) who identified the presence of a disability to be associated with parent’s decision to prevent their child from participation in sport. Furthermore, parents who may initially see participating in sport to be beneficial for their child, may discourage them from progressing through the sport due to the increased physical demands it may bring.
Conversely, parents can play a facilitative role in their disabled child’s sporting development by viewing the benefits that sport and physical activity can bring to their child to outweigh the risks. Participating and competing in sport can provide a disabled child with a range of positive experiences. Research by White (2014) examining perceptions of parents of elite wheelchair tennis players, demonstrated that playing tennis has offered social opportunities and experiences that their child perhaps may not have otherwise had. For example, making friends through playing and traveling abroad for tournaments and training camps. Parents perceived this benefit to be particularly important in encouraging their child to continue playing sport if their child has attended specialized schools or has suffered isolation or bullying as a result of their disability, thus missing out on “normal” social experiences and interactions. The results of this study also demonstrated how parents perceived playing sport to provide their child with a purpose or pathway in life. For those individuals where their disability can prevent or hinder them from going to university or pursuing careers, playing sport was encouraging as a means of facilitating personal development.
Although it is clear that parents do play a significant role in their disabled child’s participation and development in sport, current literature on the subject is only a foundation for an area which desperately deserves more attention. Although applied research into the field of parenting in disability sport is gradually growing, it still remains fairly limited, particularly in comparison to the vast literature revolving around non-disability sport. The complex and heterogeneous nature of disability leaves open a wide area of study, and also presents difficulties in terms of makes generalising results of any studies. In order to provide a broader and more detailed picture of the role of parenting in disability sport, more research is necessary. With the accessibility and awareness of disability support rising through factors such as government funding and increased media coverage of events such as the Paralympics, it is perhaps even more crucial that more attention is paid to this important topic, in order to ensure that disabled individuals are really gaining the most from their sporting experiences.