Coach’s Corner: Parental Influence in Swimming
Effective swim coaching is not an easy job. Long hours, limited pay, many athletes, and the need to remain highly educated in the field are among the daily challenges coaches face. Yet for many, the most difficult part of the job is dealing with parents, most notably for those in age group and high school settings. Crazed youth sport parent has become a major problem throughout youth sports. Anecdotally, many would suggest crazed swim parent is near the top of the list. For coaches, parental relations are delicate issues since parents are often ones paying for the coach’s salary. Even a coach with esteemed record can find himself or herself without a job if they find themselves on the wrong parent’s bad side.
One reason for parental zealousness is that high level swimming tends to attract kids of former swimmers. Baxter-Jones (2003) studied elite soccer, gymnastics, tennis, and swimming and found that swimmers were most commonly the offspring of swimming parents (70%). However, only 6% linked the transition from introductory training to intensive training to parental involvement.
What this study doesn’t tell us is the role parents play in whether a swimmer remains in intensive training. Many kids easily transition from “learn to swim” into a competitive program, but even fewer last until high school age. Both due to transportation and finances, a young swimmer simply cannot advance without intensive parental involvement. With any parent investing heavily in both time and money for swimming, it’s hard to remain a dispassionate observer (For related posts see, What Motivates a Team, and Why do Young Swimmers Burnout?).
It’s obvious that parents can poison a young swimmer’s experience and can make coach’s life miserable (but to be fair, parents offering healthy support can be extraordinary assets for athletes and coaches). Many kids are reduced to tears not by the challenge of time cuts or the physical demands of gruelling practices, but instead by the emotional demands heaped by their parents. But what’s less frequently discussed is HOW parents can shape these perspectives.
Lee (1997) studied 34 male and 48 female competitive swimmers by providing a questionnaire on parent attitudes. Authors found that “Subjects perceived an excess of “Directive Behavior” and “Pressure,” insufficient “Praise and Understanding,” but satisfactory levels of “Active Involvement.” Multiple regression analysis indicated that discrepancies between desired and perceived “Directive Behavior” and levels of “Pressure Desired” predicted pressure experienced. Authors concluded, “the quality of parental behavior rather than simply its intensity is critical in provoking feelings of pressure.”
Subsequent literature has confirmed these relationships: “when parents’ employed greater directive behavior and pressure, players showed a dispositional ego orientation, whereas when parents used supportive behavior, the players displayed a dispositional task orientation (Roberts, 2001, Sanchez-Miguel 2013). By this conclusion, the implication is that when parents employ directive behavior, swimmers are more likely to link their personal identity and self-worth to their performance, which is potentially unhealthy for many reasons. In contrast, swimmers whose parents use supportive behavior are more likely to create a healthy dichotomy between their identity and their performance.
Many coaches, for good reason, choose to keep parents “at arm’s length.” But what really matters, is not how much the parents are involved but instead the nature of their involvement. Certainly activism is often tied to increased pressure, but it is everyone’s best interests to embrace the positive elements of activism and funnel that into effective support infrastructure. One simple suggestion, after each practice have your parents ask their kids: “What did you do well today?” This simply question provokes positive reinforcement and self-reflection.
- Sánchez-Miguel PA, Leo FM, Sánchez-Oliva D, Amado D, García-Calvo T. The Importance of Parents’ Behavior in their Children’s Enjoyment and Amotivation in Sports. J Hum Kinet. 2013 Mar 28;36:169-77. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2013-0017. Print 2013 Mar.
- Baxter-Jones AD, Maffulli N; TOYA Study Group. Parental influence on sport participation in elite young athletes. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2003 Jun;43(2):250-5.
- Martin Lee, Sandra MacLean. Sources of Parental Pressure Among Age Group Swimmers, European Journal of Physical Education Vol. 2, Iss. 2, 1997
- Roberts GC. Understanding the dynamics of motivation in physical activity: The influence of achievement goals and motivational processes. In: Roberts GC, editor. Advances in motivation in sport and exercise. Champaign: IL: Human Kinetics; 2001. pp. 1–50.