Montana State University

Parents have conflicting goals for their child's sports experience

February 25, 2004 -- by Carol Flaherty


Craig Stewart   High-Res Available

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Parents tend to be schizophrenic about sports.

Even though Craig Stewart says he uses the term "schizophrenic" very loosely, he also adds that when you ask parents what they want their child to get from participating in a sport, they often give responses that don't jibe with reality -- they want the team to win, but also want every child to play and have a good time.

"That's virtually impossible," says Stewart, interim head of Montana State University-Bozeman's Department of Health and Human Development. "You can't have the best possible team and have every child play. Parents and coaches have to talk over and clarify their goals for the team." Without such a discussion, a coach can feel both stress and confusion. That probably is contributing to the nationwide high turnover among coaches, which in Montana ranges from 25-40 percent a year, Stewart says.

Stewart works with many coaches and is a coach himself. He also has developed a Web-based curriculum to teach Montana coaches about the "other 50 percent" of coaching -- the part that deals not with the game but with the players and the parents.

He says that the "athletic triangle" of players, coach and parents is prone to miscommunication or, even worse, no communication. Society needs to wrestle with the purpose of sports, and parents in particular need to consider how sports for youth are different than the entertainment industry of most professional sports, Stewart adds.

Stewart has done several surveys of Montana parents who have children participating in sports. Those surveys show that the goals of parents change depending on whether the child is in a competitive or recreational league. The more competitive the league, the more parents expect the coaches to be preparing their child for the next level of competition. That means that the clarification of goals between members of the athletic triangle needs to occur multiple times.

In general, the surveys indicate that neither the parents of high school youth nor the youth themselves believe that winning is very important. Few said that taking athletic ability to the next higher competitive level was important, Stewart says.

Contrary to the stereotype, there were many men who said it wasn't important for their children to be ready to compete at the next higher level and many women who said it was important.

One of the surveys showed that men's competitive aspirations for their children were still somewhat higher than women's, but there wasn't much difference between male and female competitiveness.

"That surprised me," Stewart says. "Some mothers were just as adamant in their expectations, and when you listen to parents talking, it's also apparent that, within households, parents would disagree about the purpose of sports."

The very competitive parent is in a small minority, Stewart says, and it is the extreme minority that gets so out of control that it ruins the game for others on the team.

When the goals of the coach no longer match that of the youth or parent, the family has options today that weren't there 20 years ago, Stewart says.

"There are now more opportunities for kids to participate in private-sector (club) sports than there are in public school sports for every sport except football," he observes.

Contact: Craig Stewart (406) 994-3242