This post looks to dissect this article in a more user-friendly manner in order to dial in on what may be some of the best directions parents can go in terms of successfully supporting their young performers. O'Rourke and Colleagues (2011) took a look at a fairly large sample of youth swimmers and provided them with questionnaires on the perceived behaviors of their respecitve parents and athlete reactions based on these behaviors. Given that I work with a substantial number of swimmers and swim parents at my practice in The Woodlands, I had to give this article a thorough read...
Before getting to the findings, something I found interesting about this article is that the term "parental pressure" is used with a more open connotation; it is examined as both negative (as one typically would associate parental pressure) and positive. Interesting concept, don't you think?
A common topic in research yeilding consistent findings is negative parental pressure (NPP). Obviously, this can result in a range of effects, from competitive anxiety, burnout, underperformance, and a learned fear of failure. NPP occurs in what experts call an "ego climate";meaning that success is often defined by terms of outperforming others and winning. Mistakes are seen in an ego climate as negative and sometimes punishment results because of them. When too much emphasis is placed on how an athlete performs instead of how much they improve, enjoy, and master a given set of skills, they run the risk of never achieving their true potential.
What has not received much attention is the notion of positive parental pressure is analogous to encouragement and pushing a young athlete to be their own best performer, versus practicing and focusing on beating others, times, and placements. I myself tend to view this as more of 'guidance' rather than 'pressure'. According to my own interpretation, these parents are quite invested in their young athlete's success; but take an approach that is more in the athlete's best interest and emphasize growth and enjoyment. This type of parental pressure occurs in what is often called a "mastery climate" which is an environment where effort, enjoyment, are emphasized and mistakes are viewed as chances to learn and grow.
Could there be times when a little "positive" pressure is a good thing-such as when a young basketball player asks to skip practice following a bad game? Results of the study found the definition of "parental pressure" to be a behavior pattern of complex processes that differs along a positive-negative continuum depending on environment, amount, and perceptions of the young athlete.
The researchers found lower levels of anxiety in those athletes who's parents were considered "high pressure/high mastery" and "high pressure/low ego" (meaning high emphasis on learning and self-direction). Fancy terms aside-across all groups, it was those parents who were high in mastery orientation and low on ego orientation that resulted in greater enjoyment and lowest anxiety over time in their young athletes.
How can this be put into practice? Some typical characteristics of positive sport parenting include the following:
- Avoidance of punishment for mistakes and losses.
- Comparisons used in a constructive manner; emphasizing individual improvement and not against other competitors or teammates. each athlete develops at their own rate.
- Encouragement and investiture in the child's success with a sensitivity to "how much is too much".
- Willing to provide a "push" when needed, for example: making sure the young athlete keeps their commitment to their team and season, even when they'd rather sleep in.
- Ask their children what they learned following practices and competitions.
- Emphasize and model themselves the enjoyment of sports.
- Remember each individual athlete is different-know which approach produces best, most consistent results.
In short and with definitions of "pressure" aside, parent approaches that allow their athletes to improve without fear of failure, letting their parents down, of losing creates higher instances of success and lower overall levels of anxiety in and out of the sport context. Call it what you want, for a young athlete to continue to enjoy their sport with minimal anxiety levels, proper emotional support and direction are necessary.
Source: O'Rourke, D., Smith, R., Smoll, F. & Cumming, S. (2011). Trait anxiety in young athletes as a function of parental pressure an motivational climate: Is parental pressure always harmful? Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 23 (4), 398-412.