The parent, coach, athlete relationship is not as straightforward as you think

Transformative youth sport programs exist because of the people involved in them and their own agency within the role they play.

As I wrote in 2017, sport development is a transformational process and requires leadership that understands the long term relationships necessary to achieve sport success. National governing bodies have to attract youngsters, eventually turning them into young athletes, and nurture as many as possible to the high performance level. This takes a long time. The process involves the main themes of many of the articles I write here: Retention, athlete investment, governance, and long term development. You can read the original article here. NGBs don't have granular control over local development programs so they focus on developmental metrics that can be manipulated at the national level rather than performance to lead the sport in the way the NGB wants it to go.

The concepts of transaction and transformation can also be applied to what is perhaps the most important relationship in youth sports, the parent, coach, athlete (PCA) triumvirate. We tend to talk in generalities about this relationship and assume the roles are fixed. However, in real life each role has its own agency. And while youth sport can be transformational--this is why it's generally seen as a universal good--it doesn't mean that it always is. A lot depends on what each corner of the PCA triangle brings to the table.

What might parents want from a youth sport program?

Most youth sport participation begins as a simple commercial transaction. When parents register Junior for an 8-week summer program they're not expecting a life-changing experience. They've purchased some instruction, training, maybe a few fun events, and when it's done it's done. The relationship is purely transactional. The fact that the program may be fun and enjoyable, and that Junior is looking forward to doing it again next summer doesn't change the transactional nature of the relationship. Buying a pair of shoes is almost the same thing.

It's easy to see how this relationship can sour if the club or coach offering the commercial service sees the transaction as something different. For example, the coach may consider what is being offered as the beginning of a sport career. But mom and dad just want something healthy to keep Junior occupied. If there is to be a career it will come later. In the initial stages of youth sport participation the agency of parents has to be respected. If they want a strictly transactional relationship with their youth sport provider then that should be what they get.

This doesn't mean that the program isn't transformational; that it can't be structured to introduce youngsters to a sport and then nurture them to the highest level they can attain. It simply means that not everyone involved with a program will have the same long term outlook. Another way to say this is that they might not care if it's transformational or not. But as I wrote earlier this year:

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.

Later, after athletes have had a chance to become invested in the program, transformational buy-in will become much more important, but not at the beginning.

What do coaches want from a youth sport program?

Coaches are often assumed to all have the same long term outlook, the same goals, and the same needs from a youth sport program. The youth sport narrative sees coaches helping youngsters choose the right colleges, or become good citizens, team members, and healthy adults all while shaping them into high performance athletes. Coaches become a Mother Teresa/Obi-Wan Kenobi character in their ability to address current social ills and guide youngsters along the right path to adulthood, or a college scholarship, or both.

Reality is different. Like all jobs, careers, or professions--sport coaching can easily be classified as all three--the degree of commitment to the job varies, thus what coaches expect to get from youth sport also varies. Those who consider coaching a profession usually find a good fit within a transformational framework. But due to stagnant salaries, long work hours, increasing certification requirements, and little free time, youth sport coaching is not a sought after career or profession. Commitment to a transformational model is gradually disappearing.

What about the athletes?

Athletes probably have the least agency in the PCA triangle during the initial stages of participation. These early programs are where coaches have an excellent though limited opportunity to get youngsters interested enough to come back for more eventually leading to investment in the activity. As I wrote in 2021:

Investment occurs after the athlete gains some of the necessary skills, becomes fit enough to actually play the game, and participates often enough to gain experience. Parents also become invested mostly due to their child's interest but also because of aspects affecting other parts of family life. If NGBs can consistently give families a reason to stay involved they will.

Prior to the pandemic, athlete investment was becoming easier in my opinion. This was because families were looking for an easy youth sport choice that they could get the whole family involved with and not have multiple sport practices and different competitions every weekend. The youth sport smorgasbord has disappeared in many places and early specialization is now happening simply as a matter of convenience. It's still good practice to participate in multiple sports at young ages but unfortunately it may not be practical any longer. However, the pandemic changed a lot. We've all heard about businesses that are having a hard time filling job vacancies and this phenomenon may not be peculiar to employment but apply to other social institutions as well. As a result I suspect that NGB registrations will be lower for 2022, especially in the youngest age groups.

So what?

When we talk about transformation it's usually in relation to NGB policy and structure. But policy has to be carried out downstream of the national office by people who may have limited understanding of what a transformative youth sport program is or varying degrees of commitment to implementing one. One factor affecting NGB policy is the parent, coach, and athlete relationship and how each might value a transformative framework.

Sport practitioners recognize the value of creating transformative youth sport programs, however it's not something that occurs simply through policy and practice. It depends on the people who will ultimately have to carry out various policies and their own agency within the role they play.