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

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

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.

The Role of Fathers in the Lives of Youth Athletes

DAd & Son golfers_iStock_000004230306XSmallA great deal of research outlines how important father’s are in the lives of their child athletes. Here is a quick summary five positive findings (there are many more of course!):

1. Fathers typically take on the direct and active roles in sport-i.e. “the coach”. Fathers are the majority of coaches in youth sport and by most recent estimates, fathers comprise 80% of more of all youth sport coaches.
2. Fathers can be important active role models for their children. Active dads increase the likelihood of active kids.
3. Fathers’ values, beliefs, & expectations greatly influence the actives lives of their children. For example, children’s perceptions of their father’s beliefs in their sport ability can predict the child’s belief in their own abilities. This is important because children who feel competent and perceive they are good at sport, are more likely to keep playing!
4. When fathers focus on the learning and enjoyment inherent in (most) youth sport, children are more likely to stay in sport, demonstrate better sportsmanship, worry less, and have more fun.
5. Most of all sport provides a meaningful opportunity for fathers to spend quality time with their children in a context most children love and enjoy!

For some great information about the role of fathers in the lives of their children, check out The Dad Man-a.k.a Joe Kelly-who also writes a blog called Dads & Daughters. TCRR-Cover-cover

For a summary of research on the influence of sport parents in the lives of girls, including fathers, you can download a free copy of The 2007 Tucker Center Research Report: Developing Physically Active Girls (see pages 26-28).

Happy Father’s Day and thanks to all the dads who positively influence their own and other people’s children in youth sport contexts.

3 females prevail in male sport domain

3 cheersI have a trifecta of GOOD and exciting news pertaining to girls and women in sports.

1. Justine Siegal became the first female coach in pro baseball

2. Hannah Berner has won nearly every high school tennis match she has played…all against boys.

3. In April, Mackenzie Brown was the first girl in Bayonne Little League history to throw a perfect game. She retired all 18 boys. Read a blog she wrote about the experience.

Perhaps just as noteworthy is the fact major news outlets traditionally reserved for the sporting endeavors of men, have given coverage to these stories (Boston Herald, NYT, MLB.com).

What if the athletes were boys, not girls?

question_mark_3dIn a previous blog, I wrote about a male soccer coach in Minnesota who had his U12 elite girls’ team throw a game to the U13 girls’ team in the same club (Minnesota Thunder Academy).

A great MN female youth soccer coach I emailed with has a great point about this scenario. She writes,

Could you imagine if a coach had told a team of highly competitive boys to purposely throw a semi-final game to get an invitation to go on to a regional tournament? I believe people would be outraged – I definitely don’t think the sentiment would be “ Let’s move on, we have learned from the mistake.” This team he asked to purposely lose is a hand picked, highly skilled, immensely competitive group of girls and he asked them to bow out of a game – and most people seem to be okay with it! I can pretty much guarantee this would have NEVER happened if this was a boys team. I am not even touching on the fact that this was against any and all spoken/unspoken rules regarding coaching ethics. I am very concerned that a coach of his caliber would have his girls team lose on purpose because it was the “classy thing to do” – I ask myself would he have done this if he was coaching boys? That question hasn’t even come up in the communities because, I am saddened to say, I think most people still look at girls sports on a different level than boys. The playing field definitely does not seem to be level.”

Well said Coach!

How Not to Coach Soccer: A Lesson From Minnesota

iStock_minority girls soccer_XSmallWhen I’m not writing about gender, the other part of my research, teaching and outreach pertains to youth sport—mainly studying and trying to improve sport parent sideline behavior, and helping coaches be more effective. When a story broke last week about a Minnesota club soccer team, many of my colleagues and former students forwarded the story link to me which got quite a bit of press here in Minnesota and around the country.

In short, two of the Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA) teams played each other in the State Cup final to see who would advance to the Regionals—it was the 12-and-under girls v. the 13-and-under girls. The game ended with penalty kicks, when Coach Abboud asked the younger girls to pass the ball nicely to the opposing keeper, in essence throwing the game to the older U-13 team, instead of taking the penalty kicks to win the game. Chaos, tears, frustration, confusion, emergency meetings at all levels, commentary, opinions, anger, a public apology from Abboud, and parental support for the coach ensued. To read all the details go to, the Inside Minnesota Soccer article, the Star Tribune article, and Coach Mark Abboud’s own contrition on his blog.

Let me put this incident into a broader context of youth sport trends. The MTA is one of the most elite of soccer clubs, for “serious soccer players”, meaning they hand pick the best kids from other clubs around the state. In fact, the MTA girls recently joined the inaugural Eilte Clubs National League…yes, “national” league for 13-year-olds.

Winning_iStock_000005893466XSmallSome would argue this type of sport club is the poster child for everything that is wrong with youth sports-specialization, not developmentally appropriate, a win at all cost philosophy, year-round training, privatization, overuse injuries, burnout due to high stress and anxiety, dropout, overzealous parents, highly paid coaches with big egos, treating children like “mini-professional” athletes, and highly structured and governed adult-run clubs and organizations (to name a few).

red card_iStock_000003976608XSmallSport provides many “teachable moments”. Good coaches teach athletes to give full effort, focus on what they can control, treat opponents with respect regardless of the situation, and accept the outcome with grace. One decision by a coach does have an impact on everyone involved, and this is a cautionary tale of how not to coach because, simply put, it taught the wrong lessons. In soccer terms, this coach deserves a red card, and possibly more severe sanctions.

P.S.-A critical gender note. Notice the Minnesota Thunder Academy that houses both boys’ and girls’ teams is the namesake of the men’s team (the Thunder), and not the women’s team (the Lightening).thunderightning

Why Mothers Coach

iStock__mom coach soccer_XSmallIn a study where we interviewed mothers who were also youth sport coaches, we wanted to know why they were coaching. A majority of the time the primary focus, including my recent posts on female youth sport coaches, is on the barriers that limit or prevent mothers, and females in general, from coaching. So, in honor of all the mothers everywhere who spend their time and energy coaching their own and other people’s children—Happy Mother’s Day and thank you!

A major reason many mothers coach is because it provides time for them to spend with their child(ren). One mom said, “You know it gave us another chance to spend time together in a different way other than just being at home or being in a social situation, and so I really enjoyed it and she did, too. Even though she was the coach’s daughter it worked out.”

Mothers in our study coached because they saw a need for female coaches and good coaches in general, and felt coaching provided an outlet to share their experience, passion for sport and sport knowledge with their children. Mothers discussed the importance of providing positive role models—particularly for girls—and felt coaching was fun and rewarding.

Thanks to the many women—mothers and non-mothers alike—who coach our children and youth! You are the missing piece of the youth sport puzzle.

Snacks & Youth Sport: What message does this send youth athletes?

snacksI’ve been thinking about snacks at youth sport events since last summer. Why?—primarily because when I asked youth sport parents what made them “angry” at their child’s sport events, snacks came up with some frequency. We thought, “Snacks? Anger? Really?” At one point we dubbed it “Snack Wars”….too many snacks, not enough snacks, the wrong snacks, who is bringing the snacks?, and who is in charge of organizing the snacks? We were quite surprised (and amused) by this emergent finding. I need your help in thinking through this issue. Why have snacks become such a common and ubiquitous part of youth sports? When did this start and why? What is your opinion about snacks at youth sport events? Leave me a comment and enlighten me. In the meantime, watch this “McDonald’s Victory” commercial on YouTube…this is what I’m talking about! What message does this send youth athletes?

“You Gotta Be Tough”

3-fingers1I thought a triad of blogs about female coaches in youth sport was appropriate given the amount of emails I received and blogs written in response to this topic. It seems like there is a need to continue the conversation.

To that end, the video of Michael Messner’s talk delivered on April 22, 2009 for the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport 2009 Spring Distinguished Lecture, “You Gotta Be Tough”: Challenges & Strategies of Female Coaches in Youth Sport, is now available to view free of charge. Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California.

Youth Sport Needs More Female Coaches

swim-girl-under-water_istock_000006357654xsmallA lot of my research is done in youth sport contexts, including examining the barriers that prevent females from entering into youth sport coaching. While the under representation of female coaches at the collegiate level is given attention (See Acosta & Carpenter’s longitudinal report and the 2009 NCAA Report on Gender Equity in College Coaching and Administration:Perceived Barriers), less is known about the youth level.

In some recent research I’ve done combined with that of colleague Michael Messner (Professor of Gender Studies and Sociology at USC) we found that less than 20% of all youth sport coaches are female. Messner’s new book It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sport is a must read on the many barriers female coaches face and how gender hierarchies and inequalities are reproduced in one of our most popular social institutions—youth sport. Messner recently wrote a great op-ed in a So-Cal newspaper titled “Let’s have more crying in baseball” which is also a must read.

How is it that despite record participation numbers for girls and women across all levels of sport, that females are not entering into youth sport coaching? (look for a future blog on barriers..it is a complex issue!) The vast numbers of Post-Title IX women and former female collegiate athletes who clearly have experience and expertise to offer youth athletes are not translating into more coaches. Both Messner and I discovered that when women do coach youth sport, they are often relegated to “less prestigious” teams—recreational level, girls’ teams, or younger age groups.

Why does it matter if less than 1 in 5 youth sport coaches are female?

istock__mom-coach-soccer_xsmall Female coaches provide a rich opportunity to influence social change, challenge stereotypical beliefs pertaining to gender and leadership, and provide visible, active role models for children and youth—especially for girls. Access and exposure to female role models in positions of leadership (i.e., a coach) is particularly important to girls, as they have fewer such role models in their lives than do boys—and this is especially true in sport contexts. Girls are more likely to emulate and identify with a matched-gender role model (i.e., daughter-mother rather than daughter-father)—therefore the visibility of female coaches may have a positive impact on girls’ motivation and self-perceptions. In the absence of female coaches and role models, female athletes may devalue their own abilities, accept negative stereotypes, fail to realize their potential, and limit their own sport career aspirations.

In order for youth sport to be realized as a mechanism for social change, females must be seen in equal numbers in all positions of power within this important social institution. Much work remains to achieve this important goal that will benefit all children.

If you are in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Area and want to hear Professor Messner talk about “You Gotta Be Tough”:Challenges & Strategies of Female Coaches in Youth Sport on Wednesday, April 22, 2009 7-9pm, visit this website for more information. You can also read Rachel Blount’s column Studies blow the whistle on lack of women coaches in the StarTribune.