by Travis Dorsch, PhD, developmental sport psychologist and assistant professor at Utah State University

As an assistant professor at Utah State University, I, with the help of colleagues and students in my lab, am studying the role of youth sport participation on family relationships, family financial investment in organized youth sport and parent provisions of support and pressure in competitive contexts. Our findings have been used by youth sport leagues, administrators and parents to construct more developmentally appropriate youth sport contexts and to evaluate the role of parent involvement in organized youth sport.

Families in SportThe issues we are investigating are important because organized youth sport is perhaps the most common context for family interaction in the United States. Indeed, 90 percent of youth in our country will participate in organized sport during childhood and/or adolescence. Importantly, athletes are not the only ones who participate — parents are also active participants, exhibiting a range of involvement behaviors over the course of children’s development. As parents continue to invest a growing percentage of family resources into the athletic development and success of their children, the “appropriate” level of parental involvement in youth sport has become a polarizing cultural debate. This debate is significant because proper quality and quantity of parent involvement has been linked to positive developmental outcomes in children.

Our and other scientists’ research suggests a number of strategies parents can employ to enhance their children’s sport experiences. Based on these findings, I am pleased to share the following “10 commandments” for organized youth sport parenting:

  1. Work with coaches to create a climate for success. Emphasize learning, effort, individual improvement and cooperation early in development.
  2. Define success and failure based on effort rather than ability. Success does not equal winning and failure does not equal losing.
  3. Base your goals on your children’s goals. The top three reasons children list for participating in organized sport are: having fun, learning new skills and making friends. Winning ranks sixth.
  4. Enhance your children’s autonomy by allowing them to make decisions regarding their sport participation. As they develop, your role should increasingly be to facilitate their involvement and to provide emotional support.
  5. Make the most of communication opportunities. An open, honest exchange of thoughts and feelings will allow you to support your children without becoming overinvolved or overbearing.
  6. Foster feelings of competence in your children by reminding them of things they do well and helping them seek opportunities in which they can be successful.
  7. Embrace the relatedness that comes from organized youth sport participation. Sport is an opportunity for you and your children to meet new people, make new friends and pursue goals.
  8. Monitor your feedback following your children’s successes and failures. The key is to provide immediate feedback that is contingent on their performance (don’t patronize them) while maintaining a positive tone.
  9. Manage your post-competition emotions. What you react to (wins and losses) and the way you react (angry or pragmatic) impacts your children’s enjoyment and motivation. Remember, your children will model your emotions and behaviors — so choose them wisely!
  10. Tell your children two things after every game: “I love you!” and “I love to watch you play!”