The right balance: Parental involvement in sport

By Jess PinchbeckLecturer in Sport and Fitness at the Open University

As the London Olympics approach, the Open Universityexternal-link looks at the importance of parental support in the development of a top class athlete.

"OK, as long as you don't embarrass me". My daughter's words when I tell her I'd attend her school sports day.

Herein lies the perpetual question regarding parental support - what is the right balance and tone?

Researchers have devised a sliding scale for ideal parental involvement but we only hear about those at the extreme end - the pushy parents.

Tennis provides the best examples of excessive behaviour. Monica Selles's father was banned from WTA events and Andre Agassi revealed in his autobiography how his father's pressure made him 'hate' tennis.

Early experiences

Research recognises the importance of early experiences since mainly parents introduce children to a sport or club, buy equipment and accompany them to competitions.

Evidence suggests that those who have 'sporty' parents are more likely to take part in sport and those with parents who have achieved sporting success are more likely to excel.

For the past two years, the BBC's World Olympic Dreams series has been tracking American gymnast Shawn Johnson as she prepares to defend her Olympic title in London.

Shawn acknowledges the importance that both family and geography played on her Olympic success:

'If it hadn't been for how close our local gym Chow's was to our home I probably would have never been a part of the sport to begin with," she said.

"My parents had a very strong belief in family coming first over everything so the thought of looking for a gym somewhere else or finding a coach would never have crossed their minds! You never know, I'd probably be a soccer player!"

Age of specialisation

Some parents do not offer support or are unable to do so in a constructive manner. This is often due to lack of interest or knowledge of the sport.

Conversely, there are parents who are over-involved and somewhat fanatical regarding their child's sporting career. Pushy parents normally encourage children to specialise in one sport at an early age.

Managed appropriately, early specialisation can be a good thing - see Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters - but generally the evidence suggests that pushy parents typically create unbearable pressure for the child to win, hold unrealistic expectations and can be over-critical.

Researchers now recognise the value of children trying a range of sports before specialising in their mid-teens or later to avoid burnout. For example, Andy Murray eventually chose tennis over football and Usain Bolt athletics over cricket.

Family sacrifices

As the athlete develops and performs at higher levels the family often have to make emotional, financial and time sacrifices.

Shawn Johnson's mother, Teri, illustrates this emotional rollercoaster when she recalls her reaction to Shawn's gold medal success in Beijing.

"I was just relieved it was all over," she says.

Surveys reveal that almost nine out of 10 parents admitted cost was a major factor in selecting a sport for their child. Football was viewed as the most affordable.

Some parents overcome cost as a barrier by ramping up the pressure on themselves. They take on another job and remortgage their homes to provide funds. Perhaps the secret is to not project this pressure onto their child.

In Shawn's case she is an only child and therefore the sole beneficiary of her parents' resources.

Motivational climate: Results or progress?

Parents, knowingly or unknowingly, create a motivational climate for their child by placing emphasis on either results or personal progress.

Winning and results are inevitably a feature of sport but research demonstrates that a focus on personal progression is more effective. At my daughter's sports day I should therefore focus on the process of how she progresses, such as effort and attitude rather than the result.

Psychologists have found that generally children whose parents place a greater emphasis on winning often develop low self-esteem, anxiety and the tendency to drop out of sport. Children whose parents encourage them to focus on their own progression show greater well-being and self-determination.

Shawn's parents generate a positive environment by emphasising that life is not centred around world titles or Olympics but, "the person you are and the heart you have".

A study involving junior tennis players, revealed children felt parents should avoid providing any technical and tactical advice: they wanted parents to comment on effort, attitude and offer practical support such as making sure they had eaten properly.

Further research concluded that it is the quality of involvement that was most important rather than the quantity.


A crucial part of successful parental involvement is allowing children to enhance their identity as a part of the family providing balance to their identity as a top athlete.

Shawn Johnson clearly relishes that, at home with mum, 'I'm not a gymnast to her, I'm just Shawn her daughter'.

In the end, it is about pushing your child whilst pulling back from being 'pushy'. It is the coach's job to offer the technical advice and the parents' job to supply the financial, travel and emotional support.

So, when I attend my daughter's sports day I should stick to my role as a parent and resist any temptation to compare her to classmates.