While sport is generally considered a positive environment for the development of personal and social skills, research shows that there are multiple social and structural factors that can influence the development of positive outcomes among youth in sport, including parent education programs.
A study from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education examined the impact of Respect in Sport Parent Program on athletes’ psychosocial development among minor hockey players over three years. The RiSPP is a parent education program that was developed in 2008 and implemented widely in sport leagues across Canada to provide parents with knowledge on a broad range of topics to contribute to a positive sport culture and experiences among young athletes.
“Parents are thought to be a key target group for interventions to promote positive developmental outcomes among athletes,” says Katherine Tamminen, an assistant professor at KPE and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Sport Sciences. “There is a strong body of research documenting both negative and positive influences of parents in youth sport settings.”
For example, Tamminen explains, athletes may perceive parental pressure as a source of stress and parents’ presence at competitions can be associated with heightened competitive anxiety for young athletes. Conversely, athletes typically display higher sport satisfaction, intention to continue in sport, enjoyment, competence and confidence when their parents emphasize task improvement and effort over winning and out-performing other athletes.
The researchers surveyed athletes from minor hockey in Canada between 2014 and 2017. For comparative purposes, athletes were recruited from minor hockey leagues that had implemented the RiSPP education program, as well as leagues that had not implemented the program.
Athletes were invited to complete an online survey at three time points during each hockey season in order to capture the athletes’ experiences at the beginning, middle and end of each season between 2014 and 2017.
366 athletes between the ages of 14 and 19 completed at least one online survey during the study period and 83 athletes completed multiple surveys for longitudinal analyses. The surveys assessed athletes’ positive and negative developmental experiences, prosocial and antisocial behaviours, parental support and pressure, and sport enjoyment and commitment.
The study found that sport participation itself was associated with improvements in some developmental outcomes for youth athletes, regardless of whether or not RiSPP was introduced at the organizational level. However, the findings also demonstrated that the implementation of the RiSPP was associated with improvements in other aspects of athletes’ psychosocial experiences in sport, specifically the reduction of antisocial behaviours towards opponents and in athletes’ development of personal and social skills.
Tamminen, who co-wrote the study with Carolyn E. McEwen, an instructor in the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia, and Professors Gretchen Kerr & Peter Donnelly of KPE, thinks there may be differences in the impact the program can have depending on how it is implemented within sport organizations. According to her, a possible reason for the small effects of the program on youth outcomes could be due to the mandatory nature of the program. In other words, the extent to which parents engaged in the material may have been limited if they were not completing the program voluntarily. Another possible reason could be due to the broad scope of the program content and the online delivery format.
“Providing parents with information and education is a good step toward improving young athletes’ experiences in sport,” says Tamminen. “Moving forward, efforts may be needed to help educate parents on how to translate the information from the program into changes that would positively impact athletes’ experiences in youth sport.”
The development of online parent education programs that use multiple ‘booster’ sessions or that provide information spread out over multiple sessions may also help to strengthen the impact of these types of programs, she says, although participant retention and program completion may be challenging.
“The takeaway message for administrators within youth sport organizations should be to focus on systematic, structural changes over time. The effects of education programs targeting parents may take time to impact athletes’ experiences and outcomes,” says Tamminen.
“Additionally, parent education programs alone may not be sufficient, and changes to the culture of youth hockey may take time to show significant differences among athletes themselves.”