BLOG: Parents in sport: A socio-cultural discussion

BLOG: Parents in sport: A socio-cultural discussion

11th Jul 14

by Sam Elliott, Lecturer in Sport, Health and Physical Activity, Flinders University


The topic of parents in sport or ‘sport-parenting’ as it is commonly referred to in the academic literature, represents a significant issue for sport providers, physical educators and policy makers globally. While the sport-parenting precept has been well researched internationally, only recently has an Australian perspective contributed to broader discussions. In the absence of evidence, parental involvement in children and youth sport is often portrayed negatively, evidenced by numerous reports in the Australian news media, perpetuating the view that there is a ‘growing’ problem with parental behaviour. Such a perspective can be misleading, yet claims of parental violence, abuse and aggressive behaviour cannot be ignored. 

There have been numerous attempts to explain poor parental behaviour in youth sport, ranging from motivational to psychological. For the record, and contrary to popular opinion, the literature shows that there is limited evidence to support the notion that parents live vicariously through their own children. There is moderate evidence to suggest that winning and competitive success (in all its forms) is associated with negative parental behaviour. The latest evidence also suggests that children and youth prefer different parental behaviours before, during and after sport. This means that parents must acquire and demonstrate a range of temporal behaviours if they are to truly support a positive sport experience. While these findings add perspective to this longstanding debate, what is less clear in the literature is the influence of broader society and culture on sport-parenting. 

For the past five years, I have been engrossed in researching the subject of parents in sport. My research is situated in a typically Australian sport setting – junior Australian football. I have interviewed over 100 children (aged 12-13), parents and coaches from across remote, regional and metropolitan South Australia. It has been fascinating to hear about the largely positive experience football engenders for so many people, reiterating the potential ‘goodness’ of sport which should not be forgotten in the context of this discussion. Indeed, parents clearly have a great capacity to make a meaningful and positive contribution in this regard. However, nuances of negative parental influence are equally significant, corroborating previous studies. 

Importantly, and beyond individualism, it is clear that there are a range of social and cultural imperatives which play a role in normalising certain attitudes and behaviour in sport, including those considered problematic. One only needs to consider the cultural representation of elite level sports such as the AFL, which according to Light and Pickford (2004) is characterised by high levels of verbal abuse, images of violence, and a win-at-all-cost culture. As such, elite sport as a tier of broader society and culture can be seen as a reinforcing agent in the way that spectator behaviour is socially constructed and maintained in the Australian football context. From a social constructionist theoretical perspective, how sport maintains its social and cultural representation is implicit in how parents interact and behave in similar contexts i.e. youth sport. Consequently, nuances of negative parental behaviour in youth sport may be somewhat permissive given that they reflect social constructions that are widely practiced and therefore preserved in broader society (i.e. elite sport), highlighting a significant barrier for sport policy makers and sport providers. 


Sam Elliott is a Lecturer in Sport, Health and Physical Activity at Flinders University. His research interests surround sport sociology, youth sport, Australian football and community engagement through sport. Sam has presented his work internationally and has recently submitted his PhD for examination. Follow Sam’s blog at

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