This type of sports parent has the most success.

Parents should get involved in their child's sports. 

This post is written by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, M.D. who is a practicing Sports Medicine Physician and the Board Director of the non-profit Pickup Sports Foundation. 

The role of parents in a child’s experience has changed significantly over the last 20 years. 

Parents now are seemingly over-involved in their child’s sports experience; painted in negative pictures of controlling and forcing their children to play a single sport at young ages. We’ve all seen videos of parents yelling and screaming at their kids’ youth sports practices and games. However, this culture has made us think that a parent’s involvement in their child’s sport experience is a bad thing. The reality is that a parent’s involvement in sport is more likely to result in a child’s involvement in sport. There is so much value in parent’s involvement in their child’s sports, for example, introduction to the sport, active involvement, positive reinforcement and encouragement1. Additionally, physically active parents are more likely to have physically active children. In fact, we found that parents whom play sports with their children are 3 times more likely to have multi-sport children and meet ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) exercise recommendations2.

What kind of sports parent will you be?

Sports parents have been classified into essentially two types (Directive behavior vs Active Involvement)1. Children of parents with directive behavior feel “controlled” by their parents and feel higher amounts of pressure. This may then also lead to lower self-esteem and decreased enjoyment which puts children at risk for quitting sports prematurely. This would be the perverbial “over-involved” parent who may be vocal at every practice and game. These parents may be “directive” in determining the child’s sports path, expecting outcomes for their “investment” in sports, and express disappointment if their goals are not achieved to the child. However, living vicariously through children’s sports experiences, especially at a young age can have damaging effects on their future sports participation and even relationships.

Parents who have active involvement results in children whom typically react more positively, are happy and satisfied. This can be through “parental participation” where there is more collaborative parent-child play. Here there is more praise and understanding as well as increased enjoyment and motivation to play sports3. Examples would be their first experiences in throwing, catching or hitting a ball. These parents are not outcome-focused but rather encouraging in the positive experiences they can provide WITH their child through sports. These children may recall these positive experiences, and continue on with sport, physical activity and overall healthier relationships.

Unfortunately, we have gotten away from the era of parent-child play, and casual instruction of sports to children by a parent to create more positive supportive experiences and family involvement. In a prior study of young athletes (8-18 years old), we found that ratio of organized sports to free play (sports training ratio) was 2:1, which is essentially a reversal of those days where children mostly played for fun and had less organized sports activities4. In interviews we conducted of sports families, parent-child interactions even in elite specialized athletes can be positive if it is supportive, not focused on winning, and the children are resilient5.  

How do I play sports with my child if I don’t know what to do?

While there is little scientific research to support this, I suspect it is fair to say that most every parent is better than their 5-year-old at sports. Parents are able to get comfortable doing reading, math and science with them, however it seems that even those parents with sports backgrounds have handed over teaching their children the basics of sports to coaches at younger and younger ages. “Parents are the premier “experts” for their children and they look to us for that guidance (in being active in sports with them),” says Dr. Brian Vernau, pediatric sports medicine physician and father of two young children.  In fact, some parents may not realize that often their child’s youth sports coach is another volunteer parent, very much like you. 

Dr. Andrea Stracciolini who is a Pediatric Sports Medicine Physician, researcher on parent-child dynamics in sports and mother of three feels that “Free play/sports play with children at home, allows for family time that is active, while encouraging positive and fun interaction.”

 Are organized sports right for my 5-year-old?

 “Children under 6 do not really understand the sports team atmosphere, and the short interaction period makes it difficult for many to stay engaged. Playing at home opens the options to keep it short and interesting.” says Vernau. Some experts say that children have an attention span of about 3-5 minutes per year of age (i.e. a 5-year-old would be able to sustain approximately 15-25 minutes of attention).  This does not support the idea of a 5-year-old doing an organized sports practice for 45-60 minutes, not including the argument with the child about getting their uniform on, drive to the sports facility (with the fear your child will fall asleep on the way), parking, and then the worry that your child “won’t feel like it” that day and waste some of the $150 you spent for that session. Social interactions with other children are a common goal for parents who may enroll young kids into sports programs, but exploration with a child on playdates may often be just as effective, as most young children under 6 don’t really understand team-based concepts. 

In fact, in all long-term athlete development models, children 6 and under should really be in an exploratory phase with introduction to sports and attempt to work on basic physical literacy prior to organized sports. “Sports physical literacy, or what we call ‘MOBO’s’ (motor and ball control) are the foundational sport skills such as throwing, jumping, catching, and running that allow young children to be confident in themselves when they do decide to make their exploration into organized or even school-based recreational sports” says Pickup Sports CEO and Founder, Lakshmi Jayanthi.  Pickup Sports (a mission-based company out of Atlanta) curates sports starter kits and provides 4-week home based curricula for parents and children to explore a variety of sports in the comfort of their own home.  “Based on our surveys of hundreds of parents of young children, we know that parents have a strong desire for their children to be physically active in sports, however can identify some barriers such as time, cost, and interest.

Can I just play at home with my young child and still be able to be successful?

YES!!  STAY AT HOMEPLAY AT HOME!  The benefits of young children up to 6 years old to explore a variety of sports related activities at home include key elements of motor and ball control skills. Such physical literacy is getting missed in much of early introduction to sports in organized and restricted sports settings. Children have been asked to compete at young ages prior to age 6 in organized leagues where many of them do not have sufficient motor development and socio-emotional development to compete. Long-term athlete development does not support organized competition prior to 6 years old and may contribute to early exit from sport if children have a negative experience in such environments. It may be overwhelming for some parents to come up with sports games for their child, determine what equipment is age appropriate, while teaching their children the basics of sports.

What is the future?

 “Exercise deficit disorder is a big problem for our country, and it's going to get worse”, Dr. Vernau warns.  It is unknown what type of access there will be for youth sports in different parts of the country, and in fact what comfort level parents will have in bringing their children to public sports environments in the post-pandemic era.

So, what is the solution?  A different model may be necessary for more parent engagement in the process.  “Free play and or “sports play” with young children while at home demonstrates to children the physical benefits of sports play for both the parent(s) and the child, notably, this is much different than parents sitting on the sidelines,” says Dr. Stracciolini.

It is entirely possibly for parents to introduce their children to sport to develop basic motor and ball control skills in the comfort of their own home until at least 6 years old. This concept to allow for accessibility to all children to have the opportunity to be introduced to sport regardless of socioeconomic status, geography, or physical/intellectual ability or disability is the mission of a number of youth sports organizations. (Pickup Sports Foundation, Inc., Aspen Institute Project Play, InCourage Sports, 2-4-1 Sports, and many others)

It is unclear what the future will hold for children and sports given today’s environment and the results of the pandemic. Will parent’s feel comfortable sending their children to organized youth sports, particularly at young ages?  Will household’s financial situations allow them to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on youth sports again for a 6-year-old? 

What is clear is that it is a great time to rethink what a parent and child can do together in sports. Not every child needs to be a competitive athlete in sports, but every child should be introduced to a variety of sports at home with their parents so at least they have a chance…if they want to!



  1. Transmitting Sport Values: The Importance of Parental Involvement in Children’s Sport Activity Francesca Danioni,*,a Daniela Barni,b and  Rosa Rosnatia, Eur J Psychol. 2017 Mar; 13(1): 75–92. Published online 2017 Mar 3. doi: 10.5964/ejop.v13i1.1265
  1. Sánchez-Miguel P. A., Leo F. M., Sánchez-
    Oliva D., Amado D., García-Calvo T. (2013). The importance of parents’ behavior in their children’s enjoyment and amotivation in sports.Journal of Human Kinetics, 36(1), 169–177. doi:.10.2478/hukin-2013-0017
  2. Jayanthi NA, LaBella C, Fischer D, Pasulka J, Dugas LR, “Sports Specialized Intensive Training and the Risk of Injury in Young Athletes:  A Clinical Case-Control Study”, American Journal of Sports Medicine (Feb 2. 2015), published online, ahead of print.
  1. Patel T, Jayanthi NA, “Health-Related Quality of Life of Specialized Versus Multi-Sport Young athletes: A Qualitative Evaluation” Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, August 2018, ePub ahead of print.

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