Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
LOGAN — Softball coach Dan Higgs didn't know what to say to a player who repeatedly confided something to him:
"I don't even want to play anymore, but my family says this is my only ticket to college. I don't know how to tell my dad I don't want to play."
Luckily, the girl went on to get a college scholarship, he said, but at the price of playing a sport she didn't enjoy.
"It's sad to see, especially from a coach's perspective," said Higgs, who has coached in Utah for 15 years.
Researchers may be getting closer to understanding why some kids' enjoyment in sports is dwindling. A recent study at Utah State University found that young athletes get less enjoyment from participating in sports when they feel pressured to win because of their parents' financial contributions.
This is especially true when a significant portion of parents' total income — as much as 10 percent in some cases — is spent on their children's sports activities.
"It wasn't necessarily about spending more, but it was those families where parents exhibited more forms of parental pressure ... seeing their kids' sport as a commodity," said assistant professor Travis Dorsch, who headed the study. "They put the money in and they expect something out of it, and that's where those pressure behaviors were coming in."
About 160 families across the U.S. participated in a survey for the study involving both the children and their parents. None of the parents responded as having knowingly pressured their children, but the young athletes gave "mixed responses" when asked how much satisfaction they got from sports, said Ryan Dunn, a doctoral candidate for family studies at USU.
Parents were often oblivious to the phenomenon, which manifested itself uniformly across a wide range of sports, according to undergraduate researcher Kevin Rothlisberger.
"It was never the parents' intention to pressure their child," he said. "They were investing in something and they wanted to see the fruit of it and be successful. When they weren't successful, that added stress to the parent and was magnified to a certain extent in the young athlete."
On the other hand, youths who saw their parents' involvement as encouragement rather than pressure found much more pleasure in their sport.
"The physical contribution is not nearly as important, at least in our measurable way of seeing it, as the child feeling like their sport is as much an interest to mom and dad as it is to them," Dunn said. "Their interest tends to grow as those close to them are supporting them."
Former UCLA two-sport All-American and Olympic gold medalist Natalie Williams, who is now the director and coach for Flash Basketball Academy in Salt Lake City, says negativity and a lack of effort are common signs among children who are being pushed too far. When these arise, she said, it's time for parents to re-evaluate the time and money being spent on the sport.
"It's just about parents knowing their kids and what they're capable of doing, especially if they're in more than one sport," she said. "Making sure kids have times throughout the year when they're not expected to be practicing is also important."
With club sports and skills clinics costing hundreds to thousands of dollars, Higgs said parents can make their expectations known to their children while still being supportive.
"There's often a direct correlation between what (parents) pay and what is expected" of the athlete, he said. "I tell my kids, 'If you're going to do something, you're going to do it right. You're going to give 100 percent.'"
Williams said it's easier for kids to maintain their enthusiasm when they're comfortable with the environmental conditions of their team.
"I think the biggest thing is having good coaches, enjoying their teammates, feeling like they're in a situation where they're respected, liked and part of the group," she said.
At home, parents can express encouragement to their children by emphasizing self-improvement over public recognition, according to Dorsch.
"As parents, often the first question we ask is, 'Did you win?'" he said. "We can reframe that to be, 'Did you have fun today? What did you learn?' This reinforces to the child that we're focused on the process and not the outcome."
Researchers agree the concept is not unique to sports.
"I believe in any number of activities, there's the success that comes from improving and scoring. The voices we pick out of the crowd are going to be the ones familiar to us," Dunn said. "Find out what is in the heart and soul of your child's abilities and help them achieve enjoyment, satisfaction and success."
Dorsch hopes the study, which will be submitted for publication this summer, will be used alongside other research as part of a future parent education program based out of USU.