One Boy’s Perspective About Youth Sports

19 03 2010

A colleague sent me this video of a young Canadian hockey player describing his “magic hockey helmet”. I thought I’d pass it along…enjoy!

Speaking of helmets…. stay tuned to this blog for upcoming information on the first-ever Mayo Clinic Ice Hockey Concussion Summit, to be held October 19-20, 2010 in Rochester, MN. I’m on the planning committee and I can tell you the program is excellent!





Two Triggers of Background Anger in Youth Sports

15 02 2010

Over the weekend a Minnesota sport parent assaulted a youth basketball commissioner following an in-house game played by sixth graders. The the father was disgruntled over the officiating during his son’s game. From some of the research I’ve conducted with colleagues pertaining to what we call “Background Anger” the spark to this parent’s violent behaviors is consistent with our data.

We’ve found that many things make sport parents angry, but two big themes are more likely to set off sport parents: 1) their perceptions of injustice and, 2) their perceptions of incompetence.  This father was was upset because he perceived “the  timekeeping of the game” at the end of overtime was not correct (incompetence), and most likely felt it disadvantaged his son’s team (injustice). Based on what data exists, I would argue this combination of sport parent perceptions along side the fact the game was in overtime and probably emotionally charged, provided a perfect storm for an egregious background anger incident to occur.

Our data shows background anger incidents by sport parents are more likely to occur with travel, not in-house levels of youth sport. However, this example illustrates that no level of youth sport is immune to background anger. Requiring research-based education for sport parents, like Minnesota Parents Learning About Youth Sports (MN PLAYS™) or the MYSA Parents And Coaches Together (PACT™), can help to reduce the liklihood these type of incidents.

To see a video clip of me discussing this issue on Fox News 9, click here.





Paying Youth Athletes for Performance

16 01 2010

A colleague forwarded me an e-news from sports-media.org that contained an article titled Cash For Goals in Youth Soccer: Adults Gone Wild. When I give parent education clinics as part of a research-based educational program I helped develop called Parents Learning About Youth Sports (PLAYS), I always include a brief section about paying children for performing.

Why is it brief?

Because the take home message for sport parents is this: NEVER pay your child for scoring goals, winning matches, or accomplishing some performance standard…NEVER. Just don’t do it.

The sports-media.org piece gets at some of reasons why this is not a good practice, but I’d like to elaborate.

Researchers have demonstrated that giving extrinsic rewards (like $$) for an activity that is already inherently fun and enjoyable (like sports), can undermine intrinsic motivation. We want kids to play sports and be physically active because they love it, its fun, they meet friends, learn new skills, enjoy competition and thrive on striving to be the best they can be. If adults offer monetary rewards for scoring goals, the primary focus is on scoring goals and success is defined in terms of scoring goals…not because sport is fun and enjoyable. The classic studies around this phenomena involve collegiate athletes who obtain an athletic scholarship. Many collegiate athletes are good at their sport because they love it, but some play only in hopes of obtaining a full-ride. For some of the very few who actually do obtain an athletic scholarship (and the odds are VERY low according to the NCAA), they often face diminishing intrinsic motivation. They’ve worked so long and hard to get the scholarship, and that is how success was defined, that once they get the scholarship, sport has no meaning and is no longer is enjoyable. I’ve seen this far too often with collegiate athletes in my classes.

When intrinsic motivation doesn’t exist or is undermined by adults, athletes will more likely to experience anxiety, burnout and dropout, and will also experience less enjoyment, satisfaction, well-being and optimal performance, and positive development.

If you want to read on your own about the self-determination theory, and learn about the complexities pertaining to why paying youth athletes is a terrible idea, I encourage you to go here.

What should parents do to foster intrinsic motivation, instead of paying their child-athlete?

Based on the evidence, I suggest a few simple things as a starting point:

  • attend the event and look like you are engaged (i.e., don’t read the paper or talk on your cell phone)
  • cheer only when someone does something good & cheer for everyone’s children, not just your own
  • refrain from yelling instructions or “coaching” from the sidelines
  • offer unconditional care, regardless of the outcome or the performance




Advice for Sport Parents: How to help your athlete make tough decisions

6 01 2010

Recently one of my hockey teammates asked me advice on how to handle a situation with her 14 year old teenage son.  The son is a high level gymnast who has potential for a collegiate scholarship. He must travel out state to attend meets at his level, and often misses out on social events with friends.  One of the biggest meets is occurring next month in his home state, a meet that would give him exposure to college coaches.

The dilemma: he was asked for the first time to attend a Sadie Hawkins dance (where the girl asks the boy). He was elated but it conflicted with the important meet in his own backyard. His absence from the meet, since he is an in-state standout, would raise eyebrows from the coaching community.  His parents feel he should attend the meet but he is so excited to be asked out by a girl for the first time that he really wants to attend the dance.

My advice: Talk with him openly and ask him to identify the pro/cons of attending or not attending the gymnastics meet. Let him come up with both sides, rather than telling him what you (the parents) think. Tell him the decision is his and there is no wrong/right decision, only the one he makes. Tell him that whatever he decides, you will support his decision and love him unconditionally. The skill of making hard decisions, being able to weigh both sides, be comfortable with the decision, and live with the outcome is a life skill. Allowing for and teaching the child-athlete some autonomy in decision making is important for optimal development. If he does indeed attain a college scholarship, the ability to make the “right” decision and deal with conflicts between social engagements, training and competition will inevitably occur, so teaching him decision making skills as an adolescent will serve him well later. I also stressed to the parents that one meet will likely not make or break his scholarship opportunities.

What should he do? What should the parents do? How would you handle this situation?





Mother-Baby Workout Solution!

30 11 2009

This morning I saw a segment on my local TV affiliate about a program called StrollerStrides, “a total fitness program for new moms that they can do with their babies”. The program seemed like a perfect physical activity solution for mothers with stroller-age children, and also solves many of the barriers to physical activity many women face due to afforadabilty, accessibility and availability.

StrollerStrides workouts are conducted by certified instructors in large indoor public spaces (mostly shopping malls in off hours) which cuts expensive gym memberships. Mothers can work out alongside the strollered child which cuts the need for childcare. It also provides  mothers with a social support system and affords the opportunity to get out of the house to a safe, warm space (this is key during Minnesota winters for those of you who don’t live here!) to get physical activity. The workout combines strength, flexibility and cardio components along with fun songs and activities that engage the children and keep their attention.

It also got me thinking what a better way to start a love of physical activity for infants! Researchers have proven time and again that parents are very important physical activity role models for their children. If parents are active and value and believe that being active is an important part of life, their children are more likely to be active. I also recently came across another resource from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport & Physical Activity, Mothers in Motion, a program “dedicated to physical activity promoters working with mothers of low socioeconomic status”.

Many women must overcome a host of barriers in order to be physically active, which is why females are less active than their male counterparts at all ages and within all types of physical activity. Assisting women in starting and sustaining physical activity can lead to a host of positive physical and mental health outcomes. You can also read more about Developing Physically Active Girls, a report I helped to co-author and produce in my role as the Associate Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

Picture from StrollerStrides





Found! Pictures of REAL Female Coaches

3 11 2009

DSC_7517In a previous blog I was lamenting about the scarcity of pictures of real female coaches, especially at the youth level. I’m pleased to report I found some! A photographer for the University of Minnesota’s College Education of Human Development Connect Magazine shot some GREAT pictures of females coaches for a story they ran recently on some of our research. To read the story “The Sporting Life: Research Helps Families Adjust to an Increase in Youth Athletics” and see the pictures of two great female coaches in action, on the field, and in coaching attire click here (and scroll down to the link below the picture that states “enlarge picture and launch slide show”).

Most remarkable is that in some of the pictures, Coach Kari Ornes is pictured coaching high school boys! Even though females coaching males at all levels of competition occurs about 2% of the time-you never see it. We need more pictures of this nature to be taken and portrayed in traditional and new media outlets. Both Kari and Julie are part of the We Coach advisory board and two exemplary female coaches!





Happy Sport Parents?

6 10 2009

While most media attention focuses on the negative and angry behaviors of sport parents on youth sport sidelines–not all sport parents are angry and yelling. I have an ongoing research line on the emotional experiences of youth sport parents with some colleagues and students. Last summer we looked at what made sport parents happy; it was a nice change of pace from examining background anger in youth sports.

MCNAIR_Blankenship Poster_2009_Final

Kelli Blankenship, a member of the University of Minnesota Women’s Hockey Team and 2009 McNair Scholar, helped us  analyze the happy parent data. You can see a nice story about her on the U of MN website. We found that child-athlete performances and experiences more frequently made sport parents happy, than did athlete development.  You can see the full results of our poster by clicking on it. We’ll be analyzing the full data set soon, but this will give you a taste of what is to come.





One Sport Voice Concluding Summer Thoughts About Sport

7 09 2009

Where did summer go? As a new school year begins tomorrow, I’d like to share a few things I’ve been thinking about over the summer.

1. After giving parent and coach workshops this summer, I’m more convinced that ALL coaches and ALL parents should attend research-based educational workshops that help them create a positive climate for youth athletes. Schools, athletic associations and club teams have to mandate attendance, otherwise the folks who show up are predominately the choir. Anything less than a mandatory attendance policy is not effective in creating the kind of change needed to ensure that sport is done right.

rural-road2. More research is needed on the issues that arise in sport for rural communities. Nearly all of our youth sport research includes suburban or urban communities. Very few researchers have focused on issues particular to rural communities and sport participation. I can only think of the Women’s Sport Foundation report Go Out And Play: Youth Sports in America by Sabo & Veliz (October, 2008) that includes data about rural kids and sports. After giving workshops in a small Minnesota community—with NO stoplights—I learned small rural communities have many of the same issues as their city counterparts, but I think unique issues exist. I talked with parents and coaches, many of whom approached me with stories of sport gone wrong and told me their stories with misty eyes, pain, frustration, and helplessness.

3. While in an antique store this summer I found James Michener’s book Sports in America written in 1976. He details the state of female, youth, collegiate and pro sport in the US (among other topics) just a few years after the passage of Title IX. It was a very interesting read and my take away was–The more things change, the more they stay the same, and some of the issues we think are “new”—such as the professionalization of youth sport—have been problematic for over 30 years.

So as I start the new school year, the focus of my work is ever sharper. Stay tuned for many new blogs that incorporate additional summer musings!





Family Meals on the Run: Is the mini-van the new dinner table for families involved in youth sports?

19 07 2009

Did you know that researchers of the University of Minnesota have found that sitting down as a family at the dinner table appears to play an important role in promoting healthful eating in kids? Among children ages 11 to 18 who eat meals with their family consume less snack foods, higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains and nutrient-dense foods than those who eat separately. Additionally, family meals are related to healthy weight control (and less prevalence of eating disorders for girls. More on the girl-specific findings here), better academic achievement (GPA), and less substance abuse in children.

mini van dinner tableHowever, sitting down at the family dinner table is not a reality for many families involved in youth sports (especially with multiple children!). This week my college tennis teammates got together with our families for a picnic. One of my friends with 3 children in youth sports all under age 10 said, “I don’t even know what sitting down at the table together looks like anymore! This is our dinner table (pointing to her “cooler” that looked much like a giant padded purse).” So it got me thinking—

Do the benefits of family meals ONLY accrue when families sit down together at the dinner table? From some data I’ve been collecting, 15% of youth sport parents report youth sports “never” interfere with family meal time, and 7% report it “frequently” interferes—leaving a majority of parents to claim it “somewhat” interferes. Is the mini-van the new dinner table for families involved in youth sports? I feel a future research project brewing…





Silent Sidelines: A Band Aid Approach To Controlling Youth Sport Parents

14 07 2009

sideline parents arm around_iStock_000002126386XSmallMany strategies are commonly discussed to help change parental behavior on youth sport sidelines. Such strategies include: developing and enforcing a code of conduct; appointing a volunteer sideline monitor; leveling fines for inappropriate spectator behaviors; restricting spectator interaction with athletes (e.g., fans are required to sit on the opposite side of the soccer field from the coaches and team); restricting attendance (e.g., parents are not allowed to attend competitions or practices), and/or encouraging parents to suck on a lollipop if they feel like screaming at the referee or coaching from the sidelines.

Another strategy that gets quite a bit of attention is restricting spectator behaviors—i.e., “Silent Sidelines” or “Silent Sundays” (see the 2009 Toronto Star article or the 2004 NYT article). After reading yet another article lauding Silent Sidelines I felt compelled to give a critique of this and other strategies. In short, putative parental strategies are a terrible idea and provide a Band Aid solution to a deeper internal, chronic wound—the problems which arise on sidelines as youth sport becomes increasingly professionalized (Note: poor sport behavior of parents is not a new phenomena. For a balanced historical account, read Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports by Mark Hyman and read his blog on youth sport parents). While reversing the professionalization of youth sport is beyond my capabilities (for now at least!), changing parental sideline behaviors IS possible.

BandAidsMany of these Band Aid strategies are employed without any research-based evidence of effectiveness or consultation from the sport science community. For example, barring parents from competition is not an optimal or effective solution because research indicates that a majority of children and adolescents enjoy when parents attend and watch competitions and parents are a vital source of support for children. The mere act of signing a “code of conduct” does not change behavior because it does not address the underlying or preceding feelings or thoughts of parents. To change behavior, parents must be provided with evidence of how their sideline behaviors—what a colleague and I call “background anger”—affects not only their child, but everyone else in the sport landscape. This information can provide motivation that increases the likelihood of behavioral change. Research seems to indicate that potential negative outcomes from exposure to youth sport background anger may include—anxiety, stress, decreased performance, loss of focus due to distraction by parents, confusion, embarrassment, frustration, less enjoyment, burnout and perhaps even dropout of sport altogether.

The important point here is that a Band Aid approach to changing the climate of youth sport sidelines addresses only the behavior (i.e., don’t yell = complete silence or silence by lollipop). An effective strategy promotes change through education and provides parents with research-based information as to what triggers angry parental responses, why it is important for example, not to yell on the sidelines, and how this behavior can affect everyone. For an exemplar educational program visit the University of Notre Dame’s Play Like a Champion Educational Series website and stay tuned for new research on the emotional experiences of sport parents and background anger from myself and colleagues of the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.