Christian Augustsson has long been interested in questions about what makes athletes perform well and what makes them perform less well. He works as a teacher of athletics and education at Karlstad University in Sweden and is now submitting his dissertation Experience of Parental Pressure among Young Athletes.
Christian Augustsson wanted to find out if there was any truth to claim that children who participate in sports are pressured by their parents, a claim that had never been examined systematically. And the point of departure was to have children describe how they perceive it.
“Something that surprised me was how clearly children can understand and formulate things that we adults believe are difficult for them to express. But it turned out that the children immediately understood what I was asking about and they could also tell me verbally,” says Christian Augustsson.
“Sports are fun, and parents and children have a really great time with sports,” says Christian Augustsson.
Nevertheless, the study shows that between 5 and 30 percent of the children experienced some form of negative pressure from their parents and that one child in five felt discomfort connected with their participation in sports and their parents’ attitude. This could mean that nearly 75,000 children in Sweden alone feel pressure from their parents every week.
But there are exceptions, of course. Some kids have their own parents as their coach, including Swedish sports stars Stefan Holm and Anna Lindberg. What makes it work in these cases?
“It works if parents have the will of their children in focus,” says Christian Augustsson. There are studies that show that those who truly excel in sports have never felt pressure, but rather felt support and joy in connection with their participating in sports.
“Part of the problem is that parents obviously love their children and that children love their parents. But children know and understand much more than adults think, and therefore there are children who push themselves in their sports for their parents’ sake and not their own.”
“The children sense that the parents want them to achieve more than they are at present, and this creates feelings of insufficiency in them. This is not good, of course, and it can result in them giving up sports altogether. Parents and children want the best for each other but things can still turn out so wrong,” says Christian Augustsson.
“It is important to try to counteract this. What you can do, above all, is train parents and other adults,” says Christian Augustsson.
“Parents and other grown-ups need to be trained how to relate to child and youth sports. They need education. In Sweden alone, there are some 20,000 volunteer sports associations where more than 600,000 leaders get together. They are parents, coaches, and leaders. These associations would be ideal for training efforts.
One aspect that was not studied was the question of whether there is any connection between parental income and social status and the pressure children experience. On the other hand, the findings do show that the pressure was felt to be greatest in certain sports that can be seen as costing a lot, in terms of time, knowledge, and money, such as riding, tennis, golf, and swimming.