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Nurturing parental engagement in sports

Lisa Fathers, Bright Futures Educational Trust Co-Principal, outlines the importance of parental engagement in sports

Posted by Hannah Vickers | January 05, 2017 | Sports & leisure

The value of sport and wellbeing has been recognised for some time in the field of education. As an English/Drama teacher who is a Fitness Instructor in her spare time and a huge sports fan, I'm delighted: physical education has so many benefits - on the playing field, in the classroom and outside of school altogether. It encourages a team ethic, improves health, increases concentration, forms bonds and drives confidence in young people. I've seen first hand the incredibly empowering effect it can have on students of all ages and abilities.

The key though, is for educators to now empower the parents. I recently spoke about this at the UK Sport and English Institute of Sport (EIS) Pathways Symposium, presenting to staff working in GB performance pathways about the involvement of parents in a young person's sporting development and ongoing education.

Research by the Department of Education has shown that educational failure increases with lack of parental interest. Without it, we see more behavioural problems, lower self-esteem and increased disengagement. This is amplified in sport: elite youth sport development quite simply fails without the support of the family. The extra curricular practice, travel and pure commitment relies on  backing from home and without it, the student may not reach their full potential. These parents often put their own lives on hold too and this needs recognising.

As some pupils clearly have the ability to pursue sport as a professional career, it is our job as educators to ensure that the sports coaches and managers involved understand the sacrifice the family may be making - and work with them. It is also our job to assist the families themselves and there are a number of simple ways to do this.

1) Involve the parents from the start

We do this by involving them in the life of the school and building strong parent networks; with the PTA, steering groups, reading champions, extended family and parent governors.

2) Communicate

On a practical level, this means good communication from the word go. Parents or guardians need to know that there is an expectation that they will be involved. A strong communication strategy including a number of channels works well - letters are great, but texts and verbal reminders are needed and a relationship will need to be built.

3) Recognise the individuals

Every family is different. Assessing the level of their engagement, and discussing any concerns they have, will provide the platform from which an educator can build a bespoke comms strategy.

4) Adapt to a parent's needs

Recognising that some parents or guardians may themselves struggle with certain areas - literacy, mobility, social media, for example - means that we can help in providing or connecting to resources. For example, in formal meetings such as parents' evenings, we let less engaged parents know that they can bring someone else: a grandparent, a sibling, a neighbour, if this makes them feel more comfortable.

5) Use non-threatening language

Sport is a naturally competitive area. Some non-sporting families may feel threatened. Our aim is always to reassure as much as possible. Every conversation needs to be meaningful and language is key - 'next steps' is a more friendly term than 'targets', for example.

6) Advise

Parents or families may not know how they can help in a non-practical way. Here we advise that they can be a role model without being a sporting role model. This is through building positive relationships, listening to the child's feelings and demonstrating unconditional love. We recommend that they focus on the non-physical and seek to reassure the child that they won't be missing out if they focus on their sport - and then ensure their friendship groups are kept strong.

7) Build a network

If a child is excelling in sport and a coach is looking to help them reach a professional level, it could involve a huge sacrifice on the part of the family. They may put their own interests on hold, other siblings may suffer and they may feel like a constant taxi service. We can help with this as we can encourage 'teams' of families with sporting children. These teams can share the role - the pride and joy and sometimes the burden they may feel it brings.

School children are naturally more aware of sport now. The legacy of the UK Olympics was illustrated perfectly by the medal haul in Rio. At a grassroots level, we see schools bringing sport into the classroom and making it a part of everyday life. There are initiatives going on all over the UK and a number of organisations such as The Youth Sport Trust that are facilitating and encouraging this. The older generations may have had different experiences in school sport so involving them in all of this can really help build enthusiasm.

As educators, we need to act as the conduit between sports coaches and parents, and facilitate the progress of young people to make it as smooth as possible. In doing this, we can continue to build on the Olympic legacy, and make sporting careers for young people a reality, instead of a dream.

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