Five questions sport parents should ask themselves at the start of every season

Last updated: 08/04/2021

With the start of another sports season just around the corner, it’s a great time for parents to equip themselves with the skills and knowledge that will provide their child (and themselves) with a positive experience this winter.

Parents play a key role their children’s sporting experiences, whether that’s as a supporter, coach, volunteering to help the team or getting players to and from games and tournaments. For many parents, it’s many or all of these things.

These roles give parents an ability to have massive contribution to how much children – theirs and others – enjoy the sports that they play. Here are five questions we think will help parents use their role to make winter 2021 a great sports season:

  1. Do I know my child’s ‘why’ for playing sport? And do my behaviours support their ‘why’?
  2. How will I, as a parent, keep actively and positively engaged throughout this season? 
  3. Is my child getting enough variety? Do I need to be a ‘pully-parent’? 
  4. Do I know the signs of and how to mitigate overuse injury and overtraining syndrome?
  5. How will I ensure that my child’s sport is safe, fair, and inclusive? 

1. Do I know my child’s ‘why’ for playing sport? And do my behaviours support their ‘why’?  

We’ve previously spoken about the importance of understanding your child’s why for playing sport? Ultimately, it’s important to understand your child’s why so that your behaviour matches with what drives their motivation for playing sport. The key thing here is having a conversation with your child about why they play sport / a sport? Following that, reflecting on how your behaviours support or undermines this why, and if necessary, ask for feedback from your child about how you can continue to support them. 

Read more: Parent’s: Time to talk about your child’s why 

2. How will I, as a parent, keep actively and positively engaged throughout this season? 

We know happy parents are a key part of the equation when it comes to supporting young people to have great sport experiences. We also know that sport places many demands on parents, whether that be emotional, logistical or financial. So, what are some ways parents can keep actively and positive engaged?  

  • Become more knowledgeable about youth sport – has been developed just for this. For parents new to a sport, something as simple as getting a coach or your child to explain the rules or strategy might help provide you the understanding you need to make sense of the youth sport experience.
  • Do not let the winning and losing get in the way of the wider lessons that sport can teach us. In the face of adverse moments (e.g. losing, deselection, bad referee decisions, etc) role model emotionally intelligent responses to your child, other young people and other parents, by framing these instances as a teachable moment.
  • Connect, share and ensure transparency around logistics and commitments between the ‘wider team’. Most sports these days are pretty good at outlining at the beginning of the season what athlete commitments look like, and parents will quickly figure out what that means for them. Often this might come in the form of an email induction or induction evening. If your coach/club/school does not host a meeting, we would encourage you to ask for one. These meetings are good forums for logistical commitments to be clarified, as well as other expectations around behaviours and codes of conduct. It’s also a great forum to meet other parents (if you haven’t) and coordinate shared logistics where appropriate (travel, washing of uniforms, etc).
  • Financial stress in sport is a real barrier for many. People’s varying contexts are so different here, that it’s hard for us to provide any supportive advice, though for parents in need, it’s worth knowing that most clubs and schools have hardship grants or provide support that can help ease some of this pressure.

3. Is my child getting enough variety? Do I need to be a ‘pully-parent’? 

Parents play a key role in supporting their children to find sports that they grow to love, and this starts with encouraging them to sample different sports.  Research of New Zealand athletes on the verge of entering high-performance sport showed that, on average, they were playing five different sports in their primary school years and at least three different sports through secondary school.

Ultimately though, it’s about facilitating a balanced approach to development. The term pully-parent (as opposed to pushy-parent) was coined by David Epstein, when he talked about Roger Federer’s parents. As the story goes, Roger’s parents were very mindful to make sure his youth sport experience was full of a variety of sports, even at times hindering him from trying to commit singularly to tennis at an earlier age. Not only does early specialisation come with increased risks of overuse injury and overtraining syndrome, but there may also be an opportunity cost for not having a variety of experiences in development. For a discussion on this, see the excerpt from the TED Talk below to hear more from David Epstein talking about Roger Federer’s development experience:

Recommended reading: Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein 

4. Do I know the signs of and how to mitigate overuse injury and overtraining syndrome? 

If your child would love to have ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner, would you let them? Sometimes as parents, we have to say, “that’s too much”. For motivated and aspirational young athletes, there is often the risk that they will want to do lots (and sometimes too much) of a sport. When your child wants to do an activity they love, understandably, it is hard to say no.

One suggestion for parents of children who want to do lots of one sport is to actively encourage them to do other types of activities and sports in an informal setting.  Variety of activities and sports is one way to mitigate the risks of overuse injuries and overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining syndrome, as it sounds, is simply doing more than the body can recover from – often to the point of declining performance and potential injury. A rough rule of thumb is that a young person is overtraining if the number of hours they spend doing training and competing in a given week is more than their age. Parents should use this number as a bit of a risk radar – that is, as the number of training and competition hours a young person participates in gets nearer to the upper threshold, parents should increase their monitoring for signs of overtraining.

These signs include: 

  • Decreased performance in sport or/and school  
  • Chronic muscle or joint pain  
  • Rapid weight loss  
  • Mood swings  
  • Fatigue  
  • Lack of enthusiasm or change in motivation to be involved in a sport  
  • Sleep change  
  • Decreased appetite  
  • Increased injuries, illness or infections  

Parents are best placed to look out for these symptoms. Ideally, even before any symptoms occur, parents should have a conversation with their child’s coach about how much training and competition load their child is doing.

Parents should also be aware that young people with multiple coaches are at greater risk of overuse injuries and overtraining syndrome because the different coaches often don’t know how other sessions are impacting an individual young person. If your child has multiple coaches, we suggest you share your child’s training and competition schedule with all their coaches.

5. How will I ensure that my child’s sport is safe, fair and inclusive? 

There are a lot of factors that can threaten the integrity of youth sport and make it less safe, less fun and less fair for young people. Issues like child protection, avoiding harassment, and dealing with complaints aren’t just for club administrators or national bodies – they’re things everyone involved with young people in sport should know about 

For parents, knowing what good practice looks like for safeguarding young people is important. Likewise, so is being able to direct coaches and organisations towards resources so that they can develop their own good practice to safeguard young people. 

That’s why Sport NZ has created a Community Guidance Portal. This features information, policy and procedure templates and eLearning modules to support you in dealing with all matters of integrity. These resources are free of charge and suitable for individuals and organisations from grassroots to national bodies.  

Article by Kelly Curr, a Sport Development Regional Consultant at Sport NZ.

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