Pushy Parents – What’s the correct balance between supporting and pushy?

Guest Blog: Sam Holmshaw

Topic: Pushy Parents – What’s the correct balance between supporting and pushy?


First of all, I’d just like to thank Richard for giving me the opportunity to write for The Sporting Influencer, a huge honor for me to share some of my research & work!

So the topic for discussion in this blog is all around the term ‘pushy parents’. As a coach involved in youth football for the last seven years, I have seen it all! My Dad ran a junior football club for 15 years and I saw both the best and the worst side from parents. When I attend coaching courses, conferences and webinars, coaches tend to associate parents as the biggest problem within youth sport, and It’s hard to disagree with that! I’ve had my fair share of conflict and confrontations with parents from all different backgrounds over the years.

What is their role?

Honestly, it got to a point for me personally where I stopped creating relationships with the parents, I kept them at distance saying nothing more than a hello or goodbye. However, as well highlighted in sports coaching academia, parents are a vital part of positive youth development! And as coaches, we need to learn how to best manage parents, to help create this optimal environment for youth development. In this blog today I’m going to share with you some of my work for a coaching workshop I delivered in my final year at University, where I explore levels of parental involvement and their effect on youth development.

The role of parents

So, let’s start with Parents!, what is their role? Well both Fredricks & Eccles (2004) and Cote (1999) highlight that parents are:

  • Educator’s
  • Investor’s
  • Interpreter’s
  • Provider’s
  • Role model’s
  • Emotional supporter’s (for the child)

Parent’s clearly hold a huge role in positive youth development and as coaches we often forget this! Parents have a significant impact on many of the positive outcomes of their child’s sport participation (Horn & Harris, 1996). Parents can provide that individualisation or 1 on 1 support that sometimes we coaches get so little chance to! Parents can educate and lead by example to teach their child values that we might hold in our own coaching philosophy (for example honestly, respect, kindness ect) and provide that emotional support to players when we as coaches are unable to! Ultimately, we only work the children for a set number of hours in a week! So if managed correctly, Parents can be ‘coaching’ their own children at home with the same principles and values that we use in our sessions, helping to create that positive youth development for the child!

Parental Involvement


Okay, so parents have a huge responsibility in positive youth development, but what is the correct or ideal level of parental involvement that we want?

Well before I answer that, let’s first explain the different levels of parental involvement. Hellstedt (1987) highlights 3 levels of parental involvement that are commonly seen within youth/grassroots sport. These levels are:

1) Under involved
2) Over Involved
3) Moderately Involved.

The Under Involved parent

An under involved parent is one who clearly lacks an interest in the child’s performance! An under involved parent has a lack of attendance in games and shows a lack of ‘supportive behavior’. They often will not attend coach/parent/club meetings and hold an unwillingness to help the club out Disinterest in child’s performance (Hellstedt, 1987).

The Over Involved parent

An over involved parent is one who holds an ‘excessive amount of involvement, particularly in the athletic success of the child’ (Hellstedt, 1987, P154). Traits of the over involved parent include:

  • Making offensive gestures
  • Attempting to coach the child
  • Frequent yelling, disagreements with coach/officials
  • Criticizing Children
  • Excessive attendance at practice sessions/games
  • Intimidating and violent
  • Become angry and disapproving if children don’t perform well
  • Display Negative verbal and non-verbal behavior
  • Excessive amount of involvement, particularly in the ‘athletic success’ of the child

The Moderately Involved parent

The moderately involved parent may be described as the parent which is supportive, but not excessive! This parent holds realistic goals and expectations for the child, they call the coach to develop and athletes skills. Ultimately, this type of parent trust’s the coaches judgement/ experience and will allow the coach to perform their role (Hellstedt, 1987)

So what level of parental involvement do we want to create in our coaching context?

The Athletic Triangle represents ‘the interpersonal relations between the coach, the parent and the athlete. Ultimately, for positive youth development to occur, the athletic triangle must have an equal balance between each stakeholder within the triangle. Hellstedt explored how each level of parental involvement affects the ‘athletic triangle’.


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In terms of the uninvolved parent, this can cause the following outcomes:

  • Over involvement​ between ​Coach and Athlete
  • No relationship​ between ​Coach and Parent
  • No relationship​ between ​Athlete and Parent
  • Conflict​ between ​Parent and Coach ​
  • Conflict​ between ​Parent and Athlete

In terms of the overinvolved parent, this can cause the following outcomes:

  • Conflict ​between​ Parent and Coach
  • Conflict​ between ​Coach and Athlete
  • Coach withdraws from any significant involvement​ with either the ​athlete​ or ​the
  • parent

In terms of the moderately involved parent, this can cause the following outcomes:

  • Good relationship​ between ​all stakeholders
  • Communication​ is ​open and productive​, share a common goal
  • Allows ​optimum child development ​to occur

So evidently, the correct level of involvement that we want from our parents is moderately involved, ​but how do we go about creating the ‘moderately involved’ parent?

Understanding the parents

First, we need to understand the parents!

I link the different levels of parental involvement with the ‘​Attachment Theory’​ (Bowlby, 2008). Attachment ‘refers to the unique relationship between an infant and their caregiver’ (Flaherty et al, 2011, n.p) Bowlby, (2008) describes attachment theory as an inherent biological response and behavioural system in place to provide satisfaction of basic human needs (n.p.).

There are 4 levels of attachment, these are:

Anxious-Ambivalent – ​Children who have an anxious-ambivalent attachment hold an insecure relationship with their parents, and usually exhibit emotions of anger and helplessness, particularly towards their parents. They are passive and insecure, and have no faith or reliance with their parents. These parents may switch from showing responsibility and interest with their child, to neglecting their child.

Anxious-Avoidant – ​Children who have an ‘anxious avoidant’ attachment do not trust their parents to fulfil their needs, they act ‘indifferent’ to their parents presence or absence. These children are emotionally distant and not explorative, their parents are usually distant from the child.

Fearful Disorganised – ​Children who have a ‘Fearful/Disorganised’ attachment often display emotions such as depression, anger and apathetic. Parents in this category usually exhibit varied extreme behaviours, such as passive aggressive, being scared or being violent.

Secure – ​Children who have a ‘secure attachment with parents’ are emotionally stable and happy, they hold trust in their parents as parents are ‘there for them’. These parents usually exhibit consistent behaviour which is sensitive to their child’s needs.

Bowlby, 2008

Although the attachment theory was created from studying infants attachments, I believe that this links with Hellstedt’s levels of parental involvement. I have linked the level of attachment to the levels of parental involvement (see table 1)

I believe that the level of attachment explains a parents level of involvement. Parents that have an anxious-ambivalent or anxious-avoidant attachment with their child are under involved parents. Parents that have a Fear-Disorganised attachment with their child are over involved. And parents that have a secure attachment with their child are moderately involved.

So from understanding and categorizing our parents ‘level of involvement’, we can typically categorize their level of attachment! By understanding this, this allows us to provide interventional measures, to try and create the ‘moderately involved parent.

Understand their needs

Now we understand parents’ level of involvement, we need to understand their needs!

On the Sports Coaching Course at Leeds Beckett, we are often taught to consider the needs of the athletes that we are working with and tailor the session to these needs. I use this working model with both under-involved and over-involved parents, we need to understand the needs of both types of parents, to best tailor intervention to these needs!

Understanding the under involved parents needs:

These parents become under-involved because:

  • Athlete has conflict to authority towards parent​, athlete & parent are distanced by this conflict
  • Large psychological space ​between members’​, no connection between athlete and parent
  • Parent has no emotional connection with the athlete
  • Separate individual​, Personality is typically unsociable or isolated
  • Parent believes the coach is taking over his or her parenting role, and therefore takes a distant role
  • Coach is seen as representing a value and interest system that the parent believes is hostile or contradictory to the child’s interests.​

Understanding the over involved parents needs:

These parents become over-involved because:

  • The coach is seen as representing a value and interest system that the parent believes is hostile or contradictory to the child’s interests.​
  • Not able to separate their own wishes, fantasies and needs from those of their children’.
  • The parent lives their dreams through the child.
  • Have a need that is satisfied through their children’s participation.
  • Self-esteem is based on their children’s success.
  • Unrealistic expectations.
  • A lack of understanding.
  • Parents tend to be child-centred.
  • Parents are overprotective.
  • Unsure about how they are supposed to behave​​.
  • Unsure about how their children want them to behave (think there being supportive)​.
  • The parent believes that it is important that the child wins. Improved performance is not the valued end​ for the parent.
  • Parents don’t realize their doing it.
  • General challenges parents face.

Harwood & Knight, 2009

Understanding the challenges

I believe that there is also a need to understand some of the challenges that parents face. It can be difficult for us as coaches to look through the lens of a parent, especially if we are not a parent ourselves. However, by understanding these needs, this helps us to design appropriate intervention for parents.

Both Wuerth et al (2004) and Clarke & Harwood (2014) highlight the the challenges parents face, these are:

  • Accepting child’s disappointments.
  • Sharing the child with a coach.
  • Show their child self-control.
  • Giving their child time to develop.
  • Experiencing different roles and going through different developmental stages with their child (toddler, child, teenager, adult).
  • Letting their child make their own decisions.

Intervention for these parents

Now that we understand the parents needs. In my university work, I first composed goals for both the under & over involved parent, in order to provide appropriate intervention aligned to this!

Goals for under-involved parents

For the under-involved parent, we have two main aims:

  • Increasing parental involvement (financial, functional, emotional​)
  • Coach setting limits on the relationship with the athlete to avoid the coach becoming a “sub-parent” ​

Goals for over-involved parents

  • For the over-involved parent, we have three main aims:
  • View the parent as someone to work with, not against
  • Avoid open conflict with either the parents or the athlete – try to build an alliance with them​
  • Work toward a separation between the athlete and the parents.

Intervention strategies for the under-involved parents

  • Make clear your expectations of parents​
  • Engage parents into meetings
  • Invite them to attend games and events​
  • Get them involved! – let them know your involvement is welcome​
  • Refer the athlete to parents when he or she asks you for assistance or support​ Intervention strategies for the over-involved parents

Intervention strategies for the over-involved parents

  • Maintain open and direct communication with all parents
  • Give frequent feedback to both the athlete and parent​
  • Set & Discuss realistic goals for athletes with the parents​
  • Make it clear to parents what their role is​
  • Establish a process for dealing with individual problems​
  • Tell parents your philosophy​

How keep parents involved? 

Finally, I think it’s also important to provide some tips on how to keep parents moderately involved! After all, parents may slip into a different form of involvement at any time:

Keeping parents moderately involved

  • Be honest with parents​
  • Provide feedback regarding skill development
  • Make clear expectations regarding child attendance​
  • Meet with parents a few times over season to discuss development ​
  • Provide feedback regarding skill development ​

Resources coaches parents can use:

Luckily for us, we now live in a world where research within academia is available to support an argument for our coaching philosophy, and what we are implementing within the players. Physiological youth development models such as the Long Term Athletic Development model (Bayli, 2011) and the Youth Physical Development model, Psychological models such as cognitive development (Piaget, 1969), Harwood’s 5C’s model (2008), Developmental model of Sports Participation (Cote, 1999); Composite Youth Development Model (Lloyd & Oliver, 2015) and Social models such as the stages of Psycho-Social development model (Erikson, 1959) & the Teaching Personal & Social Responsibility model (Hellison, 2011). These models can be used to determine where our players are at physically, psychologically and socially, and evidently be used to justify our coaching with a certain age group to the parents.

Coaches can also create or use analysis tools (behavioral checklists, performance profiles, player questionnaires etc.) National Governing Bodies are also now beginning to release information and guidelines for ‘What’ & ‘How’ to be teaching players on different age groups.


My advice, use these resources, models and analysis within your coaching, they provide great evidence to justify what you are implementing to the parents.

Concluding Remarks

On my own podcast ‘The Sports Coaching Podcast’ one of my guests Owen Mooney spoke about seeing parents in a positive light. We all know parents can be difficult and cause challenging and confronting situations for us coaches, but as Owen said in my podcast ‘getting the parent onside and engaged in the right way is like having two coaches working with the children, you, the coach at practice, and the parent, the coach at home. Parents might not have the knowledge on the technical or tactical, but if they ‘buy-in’ to what you’re implementing from a physical, psychological and social viewpoint, they can reinforce these values and principles with their children at home.

Over the last 7 years I’ve learnt that in this crazy profession of coaching that you have to be positive in every situation, it’s easy to fall out with the challenging parent, avoid them at practice, distance yourself from them! But what’s the impact on the player? Positivity is key in any youth developmental context, Coaching adults is easy, you just have to get them to buy-into you, but children, you have to try and get children, parents and a range of other stakeholders to buy-into what you are trying to implement. At the end of the day, it’s all about education, trying to help parents understand, why you are doing what you’re doing, and the impact of their own actions and behaviours. It’s probably the most challenging thing about coaching in youth development, but ultimately, it’s all a part of the job!

I hope you have enjoyed this article, any questions or if anyone wants to chat further please contact me on my website ​https://samuelholmshawfootballcoach.wordpress.com/​ or my twitter account @samholmshaw_msc

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