Happy Sport Parents?

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.

The Case of the Pink Hockey Gloves

pink glovesA couple years ago a student in my Psychology of Coaching class told me a story of a local youth hockey coach. This coach wanted to make his team of U12 boys “tougher.” To accomplish this goal, he decided to give the least tough skater on his team (in his opinion) a pair of pink gloves to wear for the next practice. He named this honor “the pussy gloves.” A majority of the time, the pink gloves were awarded to the same boy. I wish I were making this up.

There are so many reasons why this motivational tactic is the farthest thing from motivational, aside from the fact it is sexist and homophobic. Unfortunately this type of coaching behavior is not uncommon and often goes unchallenged as the status quo.

Social Media & Sport Apologies

Discussion in the Tucker Center this morning was very lively around the topic of Serena Williams’ U.S. Open semifinal outburst, fine, and subsequent apology via her blog and Twitter account (also see picture here).

serena apology

I have a few other thoughts on Williams’ ill-timed and ill-fated outburst.
1. From a sport psychology perspective one cannot control the calls made by the umpire or referee, regardless of if a “bad” call occurs on match point or the first point of the match. Let it go. An athlete can only control his/her reaction to the call. This particular reaction showed a lack of mental toughness. In her blog Williams wrote, “We all learn from experiences both good and bad. I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.” I’m sure it will also make her an even better competitor than she already is.

2. How has social media changed the way athletes interact with fans and the media? Even though Serena lost control of her emotions on the court, she took control of her “brand” off the court by quickly posting apologies using social media tools. It left us wondering if these tools existed when John McEnroe was in the heyday of his outbursts (which were much more frequent, prolonged and arguably egregious), would he of used social media to apologize? (NOTE: In a Google search for “John McEnroe apologizes” I found one result for apologizing for bad behavior, and one story of an apology for bad play.)

3. Then it got me thinking how race and gender intersect with the outburst issue. Do we expect female athletes to apologize more frequently than we do male athletes? We certainly expect female athletes to act “ladylike”, refrain from grunting loudly, not throw tantrums or have outbursts. How much of the criticism leveled against Serena Williams has to do with the fact she is African American? Would the public react similarly if the outburst came from a White female tennis player–for example Maria Sharapova? After perusing one of my favorite blogs–After Atalanta–it seems I am not the only one who noticed or is thinking about these issues. What do you think?

One Sport Voice Concluding Summer Thoughts About Sport

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!

Multiple Perspectives About “The Injury Epidemic” Facing Female Athletes

Given the continuing discussion about injuries of female athletes, particularly ACL tears, I decided to revisit a blog piece I wrote before One Sport Voice was born.

kneeinjuryIn 2008, a controversial book—Michael Sokolove’s Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sport—was released, along with a companion article which appeared in the May 11 issue of the New York Times Magazine. The premise of the book asserts that “[the] immutable facts of anatomy and physiology? cause girls to incur significantly more sport injuries (e.g., ACL tears, concussions) than their male counterparts, resulting in what Sokolove terms a female “injury epidemic?

As a response to the underlying premise (and purported facts) of Warrior Girls, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport felt it necessary to provide a scholarly critique from relevant academic disciplines. The TC invited internationally recognized scholars from the U of Minnesota in Public Health, Sports Medicine, Sport Psychology and Sociology to read the book and respond independently. You can read all the pieces, including Sokolove’s detailed responses and rebuttals here. The intellectual exchange is very interesting as it is from multiple persons perspectives, not all of whom agree. I’m going to post my sociological critique below, with some added updated information and thoughts.

A Sociological Perspective on Warrior Girls
Let me begin by stating that sport injuries and sport injury prevention are very real and important issues—for both girls and boys. I am aware of the data which states female athletes are 8 times as likely as male athletes to tear an ACL. However, framing the issue of sport injuries as an inevitable biological difference based on the sex of the athlete is sensationalistic and irresponsible. First, an argument based primarily on biology and physiology altogether ignores that sport performance (and therefore injury) is also shaped by social forces such as coaches’ and parents’ beliefs about what it means to be a “female athlete?” Second, this sort of deterministic approach assumes that males, by definition, are naturally (physically) superior to females. In this framework, male athletes are the norm to which females are constantly compared, and any gender differences are therefore constructed as inherent female deficiencies. The consequence of such biology-is-destiny arguments? Professor Cheryl Cooky, Purdue University, sums it up best: “Concerns regarding the supposed biological limitations of the female body to withstand rigorous athletic competition have historically served to justify restricting girls’ and women’s access to sport”.

Though Sokolove does indicate that we should also be concerned about sport injuries males sustain, rarely, if ever, are books published devoted to the negative consequences of sport participation on the health and well-being of boys and men. Interestingly, a search for a similar book or article on the “epidemic” of male sport injuries yielded nothing, despite published research which indicates that NFL players’ life expectancy is 15-20 years lower than the general American male population and that many suffer ill effects from playing professional football, including obesity, heart disease, chronic pain and crippling arthritis. I prefer Mark Hyman’s blog and book Until It Hurts: Americas Obsession With Youth Sports, as both provide a more gender-balanced approach to youth sport injuries-including much discussion about “Tommy John” syndrome in boys’ baseball.

The anatomy-is-destiny perspective also ignores the reality that some female athletes are stronger, have better motor skills, and are more coordinated than some male athletes, and that risk for injury runs along a continuum, rather than a sex-determined binary. In the final analysis, males and females are more similar than they are different—both compete in sports and both get injured in a variety of sports and physical activities. As a result, concerns relating to all the correlates of sport injury, social and psychological as well as biological and physiological, need to be given equal consideration.

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

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.

Women Coaching Sports: A New Educational Series

Currently I am working on developing the first Women Coaching Sports workshop. Research shows female athletes who have never been coached by a female often believe that male coaches are more competent than female coaches. In the absence of female coaches and role models, female athletes may devalue their own abilities, accept negative stereotypes, fail to realize their potential, or consider coaching as a viable career path. In addition, research indicates that coaches cite formalized mentoring as the most important factor in their acquisition and development of coaching knowledge and expertise. Less than 20% of all youth sport coaches are female, and many female coaches face personal, familial and structural barriers that prevent or impede them from entering and remaining in coaching.

U of M coachTo help address these barriers, I’m developing an educational series for women who coach sports at the youth and interscholastic levels. Some of the curriculum utilizes ideas from youth sport mother-coaches I interviewed as part of a research initiative. The series mirrors the NACWAA/HERS Institute for collegiate coaches and administrators.

The purpose of the Women Coaching Sports workshop series is threefold:
1. To provide cutting-edge, research-based educational workshops for females who coach at the interscholastic and youth levels
2. To provide an opportunity for female coaches to build community, network, and develop on-going support for each other throughout their coaching tenures
3. To attract, develop, retain and empower diverse female coaches

The series is a collaborative outreach project of two entities at the University of Minnesota—the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport and the Minnesota Youth Sport Research Consortium.

I would love to hear your ideas about content to include in the workshop series or ideas you may have. Stay tuned for more information about this exciting venture!

Tweets during sport events: A sport psychology perspective

Carolyn Bivens,the LPGA Tour Commissioner recently stated in an interview, “I’d love it if players Twittered during the middle of a round,” and “encourages” players to use hand held devices to post content on social-media Web sites such as Twitter or Facebook during tournaments, even if it runs counter to golf etiquette. The LPGA is not the first professional women’s sport to enter the world of social media. The WPS has dabbled with tweets during games, and many female athletes, leagues, and coaches have Twitter pages (To see them all visit the Twitter Lounge at Women Talk Sports). sport psychology image 2While the effectiveness of Twitter in marketing and promoting women’s sport is still rages, I’d like to offer a sport psychology perspective on tweeting during competition.

Psychological skills in sport include (but are not limited to) managing energy and anxiety, self-talk, visualization, goal setting, and attentional control. Perhaps tweeting between holes, during halftime or between periods, or if a player is on the bench, might be a good idea but even that is stretching it. If an athlete is tweeting (to interact with fans, give fans what they want, make athletes accessible, make the sport more appealing…or for whatever purpose it is supposed to accomplish), even on the bench, she is not paying attention to relevant information in the game that she might need when called upon. I can see it now…

basketballCoach: “Why did you miss that defensive coverage? She has been doing that same move all night long? I sent you in there for your defense, you’re our stopper!!!”
Athlete:“Sorry Coach, I’ve been busy tweeting while on the bench so that more fans will come watch our games and the league is ‘encouraging’ us do it”
Coach: “No one will come if we are losing games because players off the bench have no clue what is going on!…give me that IPhone!”

In golf, a player must maintain mental focus the entire round. One errant shot, wrong club, mis-read can be the difference between making the cut and making travel plans to the next tournament. Some athletes do have the ability to refocus attention quickly, but some do not. Why take the chance?

golf puttCoach: “What happened on the back nine? All you had to do was to make par all the way in to make the cut!”
Athlete: “On hole 14 I stopped to tweet how I was doing to my tweeples, and then I was rushed for my shot and had to go through my ritual quickly. I lost focus and before I knew it, my second shot was in the water which made me so mad because I knew it was because I had lost focus, which made me more unfocused and angry at myself and it spiraled from there.”

Athletes that are mentally tough (the ability to perform on command regardless of the situation), have developed psychological skills which include highly detailed and systematic rituals that are practiced. These rituals increase the likelihood of optimal performance. Will competitive rituals now include tweeting?

Athlete:(golfer through pre-shot routine) Assess yardage, wind direction and lie. Pick club, take practice swings, repeat cue words, address ball, take a deep breath, see self hitting ball perfectly, see ball flying on right trajectory, exhale, relax shoulders, loosen grip on the club, hit it. Pick up phone to tweet result. Repeat.

Tweeting during competition has nothing to do with optimal performance. Energy and attention focus are limited quantities. The more energy and focus that goes into tweets, the less the athlete has for performing well. If I saw an opponent tweeting during a competition, I would be elated! The excitement around Twitter during games seems to driven by “what the fans want” rather than “what is best for the athletes”. After all, professional athletes are there to compete and perform the best they can on any given day–anything that distracts them from doing so is a bad idea.