Let’s get off on the right foot. I am not a parent, but I know enough to recognise that it’s a tough job. And then there’s being a sport parent…
Accordingly, several of TheSportInMind articles emphasise the value and importance of sport parents roles and, aligned with Fredricks and Eccles’ (2004) research, sport parents are portrayed as providers (an all encompassing role which arguably centrally infers excellent taxi services), interpreters of their child’s experiences and role models. In recognition of, and beyond, these articulations, the following article aims to share research based coping strategies that can help sport parents to effectively manage the multiple demands of supporting their child’s sporting experience.
Undoubtedly, the world of competitive youth sport is a magnificent and fruitful one. It provides tremendous opportunity for children to develop a range of psychosocial skills, such as discipline, the ability to cope with pressure, resilience and social skills, which are highly transferrable to other life domains such as education and employment (Johnston, Harwood & Minniti, 2013; MacNamara & Collins, 2010). In essence, sport is full of challenging situations that enable children to not only develop themselves as athletes, but also as people.
However, this impressive vehicle of competitive youth sport is fitted with it’s own, unique set of challenges for parents, which, given their extensive role involvement, can be sources of stress. Whether it’s traffic, tournament scheduling, travel and accommodation arrangements, player favouritism, non-selection or seeing your child upset or frustrated over poor performance or injury; there is a lot of time, financial and emotional commitment required to support your child’s sporting dreams. A number of applicable coping mechanisms have been identified and are offered below towards helping sport parents become better equipped to manage these stressors.
Being non-judgemental about performance, empathising with your child’s feelings (hard as I am sure I made these for my mum at times – sorry mum) and by both parties communicating their goals, a level of shared understanding can be created between parent and child. Similarly, appropriate competition behaviour encouraged, every athlete is different, and discussing your child’s preferences for your tournament behaviour can ensure that you know how you can best support your child’s goals (cf. Knight & Holt, 2014).
Cognitive restructuring refers to the process of disputing negative thought patterns (which often occur automatically as a result of stress) and reframing them to be more positive (Beck, 2011). Accommodating a stressor through acceptance can be a first step to reducing stress. Next, try to reappraise the stressor, for example, by viewing losses as learning experiences, focusing on the positives of a situation and committing to learning from mistakes (and putting them behind you to maintain confidence). Notably, it is the exposure to these difficult experiences that can make your child the stronger, more resilient athlete they want to be. After all, “A setback is a set up for a come back” (T.D. Jakes).
Considering difficult situations that may arise and planning how to respond to them prior to their occurrence can make such situations appear more familiar, thus increasing your sense of control and leaving you feeling less stressed. To engage in this strategy, ask yourself a series of “What if?” questions before a competition. For example, what if an unfair decision is made against your child(‘s team) – how might you respond to that situation most favourably?
Reflective practice can help you to recognise when you are becoming stressed, and provide the self-awareness to enable you to select appropriate coping strategies to reduce stress and re-gain control in the future. Taking 5 minutes of your day to reflect on: how well you handled a difficult situation, the effectiveness of the coping strategies you used, and whether there is anything you would do differently next time to respond optimally; may save you future stress and help you to self-regulate.
Relaxation facilitates a state of increased calmness and reduced anxiety. On realising that you are becoming stressed, consider taking a time out (going outside, for a walk, or to the car) for 5 minutes and engaging in breathing exercises to help reduce stress. Practice is a necessity for optimal effectiveness of relaxation strategies and their application to induce calmness when required.
Seeking social support and information
This strategy can involve advice from the coach or discussing a stressor with your partner or other parents (perhaps those with older children, who may have been through similar experiences). In addition, consulting governing body resources about youth transitions in the sport, rules and general sport knowledge can serve to increase your understanding, and provide reassurance or an alternative point of view.
Finally, it should be noted that parents position as role models and interpreters suggests that parents ability to cope will be linked to how their child experiences a situation and copes with certain sporting demands. Therefore, it is imperative that the sport psychology community support sport parents in a positive and productive fashion, such as by sharing and promoting relevant tools and resources that can assist parents to respond optimally to difficult situations in competitive youth sport. Ultimately, this endeavour aims to keep more children in sport longer and having more healthy youth sport experiences, towards the development of key psychosocial skills and leading successful and fulfilling lives.