Parental Oversight

Researcher aims to help parents support their children in sports

Growing up, Travis Dorsch played football, basketball, baseball, and soccer. And he ran track. In college, he was an All-America kicker for Purdue’s football team, setting him up to play a few years in the NFL. In adulthood, he’s taken up competing in Ironman triathlons.

Today, Dorsch (HHS’03, MS HHS’07, PhD HHS’13) is an assistant professor at Utah State University and a new parent, the father of daughter Josephine and son Bridger. But he has always been an athlete. Because of it all, the words his PhD adviser at Purdue, Al Smith, told him years ago probably ring especially true. “We all study what we are,” Dorsch remembers Smith telling him.

In his new career, Dorsch studies everything he is and everything he’s been, leading research efforts to investigate the complicated intersection between youth sports and parental involvement. Specifically, he is seeking to shine a light on families’ investment, whether it be tangible or intangible, in their children’s participation in sports and the issues that arise — or might arise — from it, for better and worse.

Casting a large net

It’s a broad field to examine; an estimated 35-plus million children between the ages of 5 and 18 participate in sports in some form. “Most families are doing it right, but parents are out there who may not be doing it so right,” Dorsch says. “So as I dipped my feet into the academic world, I thought that there might be a little niche here that I can address with my research and with what I bring from my own worldly experiences and mesh the two.”

It is a complex subject, one that very much deals in both the physical and emotional well-being of children across their formative years, as well as heavy matters such as status, identity, and vicarious fulfillment among adults.

The desired outcome of Dorsch and his team’s work: To help parents establish and maintain productive support structures around their children, in turn helping those children. “One of the primary philosophies in everything we do is that we aren’t looking at parents as a problem that needs to be fixed, but as a resource that can be enhanced,” Dorsch says. But there are problems.

There are horror stories, cases of children being pushed to their breaking points by parents, or chased out of sports altogether by families who probably meant well. “All parents come at this from a place of love,” Dorsch says. “We all want what’s best for our kids but sometimes just don’t come at it from an angle that facilitates it.”

Dorsch’s own parents, he says, did. Steve and Candis Dorsch were a foundation in their son’s youth sports career as he grew up in California, then Montana. They provided him “instrumental support” in all its forms, he says. But he also remembers the circumstances of some of his peers. “I had teammates who despised their parents and didn’t want their parents coming to the games,” Dorsch remembers, “and who were wrecked by their parents and the pressure put on them.”

It is a tricky subject. Few things can cloud people’s perspective more than their love, and expectations, for their children. The line between support and pressure can be a fine one. Parents may want the best for their kids, but may not necessarily know how to provide it from a support perspective. That’s where Dorsch has seen both an opportunity and a need.

It’s a noble and important pursuit to examine parents’ roles in their children’s sports activities, says Bill Harper, a retired professor of health and kinesiology who’s long worked with youth in sports.

“Self-esteem is a very important part of this,” Harper says. “A parent can break the self-esteem in a kid pretty quickly if they go about this wrong. It’s an area that just hasn’t been looked at very much.” Dorsch has aimed to fill that void. The founding director of Utah State’s Families In Sport Lab, Dorsch has initiated several studies into the topic.

Family dynamics

Dorsch has interviewed and surveyed countless families about their experiences; one family signed on seven years ago to keep a running play-by-play of its entire experience, complete with expense reports and all. That study continues to this day.

Of particular interest to Dorsch has been the subject of investment and its ramifications. The scope of the research entails financial commitment — he’s found families spending up to 10 percent of their yearly pre-tax income on children’s sports activities — and emotional commitment alike. The objective is twofold: To find out why parents are investing and what that investment might lead to.

“If you take your family to Disneyland, you don’t get to take the rides home,” Dorsch says. “It’s all about what happens that week, and hopefully you have some enriching experiences. The topic of youth sports is very much the same way. You’re buying those experiences and hoping that you’re putting your kid in a position where they learn a lot of valuable skills.”

As part of his studies, Dorsch asks parents why they’re investing and what objectives they’re hoping to meet. Are they doing so for the real-time experience of it, for their own enjoyment and for the betterment of their kids?

Or are they expecting return of some kind on that investment? When parents dedicate their time and resources to their children’s sports careers, are they doing so in hopes of those children defying the odds by growing up to be professional athletes, or at least a scholarship athlete in college?

How much do parents invest for their own sake, for the status bump that might come from their kid being the best? Children’s’ performance does tend to divide sideline social circles into cliques, Dorsch has observed.

Or has some sort of vicarious self-fulfillment agenda taken hold? These are all questions Dorsch has looked to answer in some form or another with those who’ve been part of his studies.

But also, what effect might parents spending thousands of dollars or hundreds of hours in a given year on youth sports have on the youths themselves? “In some way, shape, or form, the child is picking up on the fact that Mom and Dad are spending a lot of money and feel pressure because of it,” Dorsch says. “The pressure may not really exist, but the fact that the child perceives it is the most important thing.” The point is, pressure can exist even if it’s unintentional. It can grow organically from investment.

Impact of higher investment

One finding of particular interest came in response to the question of whether “rich kids have all the fun,” due to their access to superior resources. Quite the opposite, Dorsch has found. That study suggested that the greater the financial commitment, the greater the feeling — or perception — of pressure. “It appears that the more families spend in proportion (to income) on sports, the less the kids want to participate in that sport,” Dorsch says. “It seems so counterintuitive. Parents then ask, ‘What should I do then, spend no money?’ But it’s not about the money. It’s about the child’s perception of pressure.

“We encourage parents that it’s fine to push that money across the table to further their children’s sports experience. But then it’s how you behave and interact with that child. Are you saying, ‘It’s your choice, we’ll support you no matter what’? Or are you telling them they can’t quit, that they have to be a starter, because they spent all this money?”

Never in history have there been more ways for parents to invest their time and money on their children’s sporting lives. Travel-based competition has exploded in the modern era. The “best” kids are just as likely to compete against those from across the country as those from across town. That’s inevitably a family commitment.

At the same time, emphasis seems to have shifted toward separating the most talented or advanced children from the rest, then guiding them down a path toward specialization, a singular focus on one sport in particular over all others. That’s created the market in which individualized coaching, advanced training methods, and exclusive competition have become big business. Youth sports events alone are a $7 billion industry, according to a Sports Facilities Advisory study.

This climate has been widely pointed to as a contributing factor in participation numbers declining, a trend youth sports advocates would obviously prefer to stop, if not reverse. And it’s a climate that can lead to more trapped doors for well-meaning parents than ever before.

Support comes in many forms

It might be spending big money and maxing out vacation time to attend a tournament a thousand miles away, or it might be paying for that personalized coaching or training. The flip side of support is pressure, whether it be overtly applied by parents or perceived by a child conscious of all his or her parents have put into it. Pressure is a dangerous road to go down for youth. One potential product of pressure: burnout.

Burnout can be physical, but also, and perhaps more damaging, emotional. J.D. Defreese (HHS’12), a health and kinesiology graduate and now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of North Carolina, studies that topic and has collaborated with Dorsch on past work.

Defreese says that burnout in young athletes can lead to decreased physical activity, which can lead to health problems or self-esteem or motivation issues, in addition to social consequences. It’s reasonable to deduce that it could then lead to bigger problems such as depression, anxiety, physical disrepair, ostracism, or any number of other unfavorable outcomes.

“Athlete burnout in and of itself is about your response to sport,” Defreese says. “If your motivation is low and your self-esteem isn’t good in one venue and your moods are being combated, it certainly could affect other areas of your life.”

The value of sports for children has been proven time and time again, whether it be the obvious physical benefits amid troubling childhood-obesity trending or the life lessons that can come from learning about teamwork at an early age. Sports can be a socialization tool, if nothing else.

Healthy inside and out

Children’s participation in sports has been strongly linked to the issue of self-esteem, which can then bleed into any number of other issues, positive and negative.

The reality is that sports can provide an excellent springboard for children during some of the most important years of their development. But it can go either way, as anyone who studies youth sports and all that hangs in the balance might tell you.

“How do we achieve all of these positive outcomes that sport deals? Things like learning to be a team player, learning how to win and lose with humility?” Dorsch asks. “These are things that we think sports automatically provides, but it really doesn’t. It’s no different than going to school. It can be good or it can be bad in the same way. It’s up to the adults.

“My focus has been on how parents can create a context that fosters positive development.”

And to head off potential damage. Dorsch’s work is rooted in that desire to prevent productive environments from turning counterproductive. Parents are a key, if not the primary key.

It comes down, largely, to interaction, Dorsch says. If a parent signs his or her child up for soccer hoping it’s the first step toward the Olympics while the child just wants to run around and make new friends, it would seem like common understanding between the two sides might be important.

Dorsch believes problems can be sidestepped through simple communication, from parents talking with their children about what they hope to get out of sports and how they can help. “I think that conversation happens less than it should,” Dorsch says, “and it is a valuable conversation to have.”

Dorsch, and certainly those like him looking into such matters, prefers to focus on positive interactions. But with that being said, it’s difficult to put the outliers out of mind, like the anecdote Dorsch picked up of an 11-year-old tennis player shouting mid-match into the stands at his father, urging his overbearing parent to leave and doing so with particularly salty language.

“That’s an elite (player),” Dorsch says. “You wonder if he has achieved that elite status because of that parenting style or in spite of that parenting style.” He intends to find answers to such questions, then share them through the academic community, through educational programs, through an ongoing partnership with the NCAA — he’s contributed to creating educational materials for both parents and administrators for college athletics’ governing body — or whatever avenues he might find.

Dorsch hopes to help not only parents productively deal with their children’s sports careers, but also coaches, schools, leagues, and so on. He hopes to help improve communication between children and parents, to help parents better engage their children in two-way, open-ended discussion.

“I always rhetorically urge parents to think about what questions they are asking little Johnny when he comes home,” Dorsch says. “When he walks through the door, is the first question you ask, ‘Did you win?’ That’s a logical question to ask. But the better question might be, ‘What did you learn today?’ or ‘What did you enjoy most?’”

Dorsch’s hope is to help make the average interaction between parents and children as they relate to sports productive ones. “I think the word ‘positive’ is huge,” says retired professor Bill Harper. “And what Travis has done is give that a big, capital P with regard to parents.”