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An autonomous style of sports parenting: The way forward?

With latest research suggesting a far happier and more successful time for children when their parents lean towards a more autonomous style of sports parenting, we thought we would investigate a bit further.

Autonomous parenting pulls together principles from positive child development theory and practice and gives parents a style to reflect on when making decisions about child development and behaviour.

Autonomy is typically defined as functioning independently without control by others; however, autonomy is not just about allowing your child to be totally independent. It is about parenting in a way that a child feels comfortable to be their self and are comfortable in their own body.

The reality upon digging deeper is that most parents will manoeuvre between parenting styles depending on the situation or context. What may well work for you with your eight-year-old may well be very different by the time they are a teenager.

However, if the research suggests this may be the way forward then how can we implement it with our own sporting children:

Provide acceptance: children are loved and accepted unconditionally 
This is probably the most important of all of these. We must recognise that our children should not be defined or valued based upon their sporting prowess. Their value should be on how they are as human beings and not what they achieve in the sporting arena.

Help your children feel competent: our children need to know they are having a positive impact on their world
As parents I am confident that we all want to raise happy, confident and multi-faceted young people.

Rather than judge them purely on the outcomes of what they achieve, can you celebrate those moments when you see great elements in their character and approach. Sometimes in sport, it is all too easy to get sucked into the outcome game and done too often we soon send the message to our children that this is all that we really value. If you see your child working hard, showing determination, being a good teammate or being creative then let them know that you have seen it. Discuss it and celebrate it with them.

Support your children in achieving independence: your child has a sense of control, as opposed to feeling like they are being controlled by you
Obviously in their early days we have a more prominent role to play in our parenting, perhaps pushing our children towards a number of different sports and activities. However, as time goes on and our children start to find what is fun for them, we need to be able to step back and allow them to pursue what they truly love. We often challenge parents to ask their children what really motivates them when it comes to their sport? Armed with this information it then allows us to take on more of a supportive role.

Asking our children what their goals are when it comes to their sport is also key. Children can have very different goals than their parents and a healthy conversation around this topic will help ensure that you have shared goals ensuring a far more positive experience for both parties.

As time moves on and our children get older, helping them learn key life skills and giving them greater ownership around things such as the organising of kit, the type of food they eat, the amount of sleep they need and the balancing of all the different things they have going on in their life all lends itself to them taking ownership of their own sporting experience.

Treat your child like a unique person: every child is different and should be treated as unique and special
Every child is on their own unique journey. Particularly in a sporting context it is easy to make comparisons with other children. This is not always a great approach, but it can be understandable why we do it. We know that there are many discrepancies during these early sporting experiences.

Some children are well ahead of the game due to the amount of time they may have spent practising a specific sport or they may be physically and emotionally more developed for their age.

We have to accept as parents that there will always be someone better. However, our children need to understand more that they must not compare themselves to others! They can enjoy playing with these players, competing against them and indeed even learning from them but they must never feel a failure or threaten to walk away from a sport just because they are not as good as someone else. We play a key role in getting this message across.

Support your child in being compassionate towards themselves
Children should not be too tough on themselves, encourage them not to dwell on the past or on things that may have not gone according to plan. Mistakes and failure will always be part of growing as an individual, but these should be merely seen as opportunities to learn.

You can certainly help this by not being too hard on yourself as a parent when you make a mistake. Having conversations with our children and speaking to them about some of our own failings will certainly help with this part of the process.

Taking on the above approach will go some way to helping create happy and independent young people.

Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit



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