Parent expectations in youth sport programs

Understanding parent expectations does not mean changing the athlete development process. It means understanding who the client really is and what is or isn't driving them your way.

What do parents expect when their child joins a youth sport program? The answers vary and change the longer a family is involved in an activity. One thing that sport practitioners can count on though is that many parents look at youth sport involvement as an investment due to significant time and financial commitments, and sooner or later they will expect some kind of performance-based return. This is in line with what most coaches expect too but reading various forums and articles makes it seem like the two sides are in constant conflict.

Part of the reason for this conflict is the process versus outcome focus common to most long term performance endeavors. At the beginning of a young athlete's sport participation the outcome of training takes center stage because better performance is almost immediate, even the smallest bit of instruction prompts improvements. This is normal at the beginning but it soon becomes expected amongst the young athletes and their parents, and why not? They are not familiar with long term athlete development and the various ups, downs, and pauses involved in performance trajectory so they expect improvement to be linear and when this doesn't happen parents wonder why.

A good example of how this split focus goes wrong is when coaches address an outcome question with a process answer like the cliché of just as long as the youngsters are having fun then all is well. Fun is a process component -- important at every level of any sport -- but using it to answer an outcome question doesn't help parents understand why Junior is not performing well. Coaches know that time is the most important factor in sport success and that having fun is a catalyst for young athletes to spend their time in the sport to the point where they become invested. However, if parents suspect that the coach is only interested in having fun then they can probably find another club or sport to spend their money on, or worse they may feel that they are not being taken seriously. Confounding this situation is that coaches often see the athlete as the customer. In youth sport the athlete is never the customer. No matter what the training process is or how well the athlete is performing the athlete's parents will always be the real customer.

Parents have almost no control over the process parts of their child's sport participation, so it's normal for them to be more outcome oriented. Coaches and athletes can quantify some process elements since they're usually actions made worthwhile by their frequency i.e. coming to more practices, doing more repetitions etc. But no matter how good the process is, achieving desired outcomes is an infrequent happening so to a parent who doesn't have any control over the process the lack of what might be considered a desirable outcome is an enduring problem in youth sport.

It's better if parents understand the process leading to desired outcomes but coaches should never assume that this solves the problem completely. In fact, there is no solution to this kind of problem. Parents will always have outcome questions, so coaches and clubs should develop strategies to help parents understand what's going on almost as much as the athletes.

Commercial youth sport should understand parent expectations

The successful youth sport product must incorporate the contradictory nature of long term athlete development and its uncertain outcomes, and couple it with result-oriented, client-focused programs into a marketable package that makes sense to families. This represents an evolution from the days of selling youth sport as having a mostly participatory benefit. Participation is still one of the primary benefits, it's just not a good marketing factor because of the time and cost involved. And unlike what many coaches and clubs think most families are not joining to become the next hotshot, high performance, potential Olympian either. That may come later but in the beginning their reasons for being there are different.

Jay Coakley, a noted sport sociologist writes about some of the social and cultural changes that have occurred not only in youth sport programs but in parenting in general. Among them are (a) the traditional belief that sport participation involves positive character-building experiences, (b) an emerging view that parents are solely responsible for socializing their children and that a child's development is shaped by parenting strategies, and (c) an increased visibility of high performance sport represented as important cultural events and athletes represented as cultural heroes.

It is probably safe to say that in many situations what parents are buying is usually different from what practitioners are selling. When Coakley writes about positive character building he's referring to the idea that sport builds character. Though heard less today this is still a popular belief. So when families seek out youth sport opportunities the hope is that participation will be a positive socializing experience for their children. One of Coakley's other factors is that the "world outside the home is a dangerous place for children," thus adult supervised activities are seen as a good, if not the only, option. Crafting marketing strategies that address these factors might be more successful than touting the number of training sessions or travel opportunities the club offers.

Consider the "emerging view that parents are solely responsible for socializing their children and that a child's development is shaped by parenting strategies". This is where the process/outcome disconnect begins but sport practitioners should keep in mind that it's not specific to sport, it shapes a parent's worldview about a number of things such as progress and awards at school, diets, college applications, first jobs, lately vaccinations, and, yes, sport outcomes. So when parents wonder why Junior is not on the 'A' relay or why he has less playing time than a teammate, practitioners should recognize that these are questions deserving thoughtful answers.

Understanding parent expectations does not mean changing the athlete development process. It means understanding who the client really is and what is or isn't driving them your way.