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Parents of NCAA Student-Athletes: How Are They Involved And Does It Matter?

By Katie Lowe, Independent Researcher; Travis E. Dorsch, Utah State University

Media stories abound on the overzealous and overinvolved sport parent.  These anecdotal reports, which personify typologies like the “Sports Agent Parent,” promote popularized notions that overinvolvement is commonplace and that it negatively affects athletes.  Insufficient evidence supports these sweeping generalizations, especially at the intercollegiate level. Rather, according to the recent and small body of research on parental involvement in college sport, most parents are appropriately involved and have a positive impact on student-athletes’ experiences and development.  While data suggest that some parents exhibit “full court press” involvement, which is linked to lower levels of maturity among student-athletes, these parents appear to be in the minority.


One thing is, however, quite clear: Active parenting continues through the twenties to support the modern, longer transition to adulthood. This transitional life stage has been dubbed emerging adulthood by developmental psychologists, and understanding parental involvement during this stage may shed light on student-athletes’ experiences and outcomes at the intercollegiate level.  Indeed, if we can identify positive aspects of parental involvement, then institutions and practitioners can move toward building programming to leverage it and, in turn, improve student-athlete’s college and post-college experiences.


Our team has been pursuing this endeavor since 2015.  Inspired by the fact that parents are integral components of the student-athlete experience, we have conducted two projects funded by the NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program to learn more about the characteristics and influence of parents’ involvement in the context of college sport.  Our long-term goal is to offer an accessible mechanism for campus-level programming for parents of NCAA SAs that promotes enhanced SA wellbeing on and off the field. To do so, we have interviewed coaches, athletics administrators, parents, and SAs. We have also collected survey data from SAs on their parents’ involvement and on their sport, school, and wellbeing experiences.


The five published or in press studies that have resulted from these two NCAA-funded research projects have shown that parental involvement in college sport is composed of four strategies: Parental support, contact, academic engagement, and athletic engagement.  Together, these strategies predict student-athlete experiences better than demographic factors, meaning that parenting matters most.  Importantly, each strategy has different associations with student-athlete experiences, suggesting that it is important for parents to tailor their involvement.


In the present piece, we review key survey data results from our most recent study.  Notably, this data reflects the perspectives of student-athletes across all three NCAA divisions.  These data are a crucial foundation as we move toward the design and delivery of a parent education program that can be disseminated across the spectrum of NCAA member-institutions.


Without knowing if parental involvement and its links to student-athletes’ developmental experiences are similar or different across divisions, any resulting education program may have null or even harmful effects.  Thus, our primary aim was to assess student-athletes’ reports of parental involvement at NCAA Division, I, II, and III institutions, while exploring whether and how the links between involvement and student-athlete experiences varied across divisions (See Figure 1).



Figure 1. Do links between parental involvement and SA experiences differ across divisions?


Sample and Procedures


We first cultivated relationships with athletic department representatives at institutions across the United States that reflected diversity in terms of NCAA division and geographic location.  The Division I institution is located in the Southwest and sponsors 26 varsity sports. The Division II institution is located in the Rocky Mountains and sponsors 15 varsity sports. The Division III institution is located in the Northeast and sponsors 17 varsity sports.  After receiving approval for the study at each university, the respective athletic departments provided emails for all current student-athletes or agreed to distribute our online survey link to their current student-athletes via listserve. The online survey was live for four weeks to allow student-athletes time to respond, and 10 respondents from each university were randomly selected as $50 gift card recipients at the conclusion of the study.


In total, 455 student-athletes (53% female; 81% Caucasian; Mage = 19.81, SD = 1.65) from the Division I (30%), Division II (37%), and Division III (33%) institutions completed the online survey.  Items assessed parental involvement, student-athlete experiences (See Figures 2 & 3), and key demographics (sex, gender, academic classification, parental education level).  Regarding academic classification, 32% of the respondents were freshmen, 24% were sophomores, 22% were juniors, and 22% were seniors or graduate students. Parents of these student-athletes represented a primarily married (85%) and educated cohort (68% of mothers and 53% of fathers earned at least a bachelor’s degree).




Figure 2. Example items and response scales for measures assessing parental involvement.




There were no differences in average levels of parental support, contact, academic engagement, and athletic engagement across NCAA divisions.  Regardless of division, student-athletes reported moderately high average levels of parental involvement.


Moreover, there were few differences across demographic factors: Females reported more contact and less academic engagement than males, and freshmen reported the highest levels of support, contact, and academic engagement.  No differences surfaced across racial groups.



Figure 3. Example items and response scales for measures assessing student-athlete experiences.


By digging into each involvement strategy, we found key ways in which parents were and were not involved.  For instance, 31% of student-athletes did not receive any socializing support and 19% did not receive any practical support from parents; however, 73% received emotional support at least once a week.  While email, video chatting, and social media were not used to communicate with parents (65%, 44%, & 40%, respectively), 58% and 76% of student-athletes talked with their parents via phone or texting at least a few times a week, respectively.  Parents were also more likely to be involved in student-athlete’s sport versus school lives, as 61% of student-athletes strongly agreed their parents were athletically engaged while 38% strongly agreed their parents were academically engaged.


Results also showed there were no differences in links between parental involvement and student-athlete experiences across divisions, which is important for creating programming that is appropriate for the NCAA as a whole. Furthermore, demographics explained as little as 1% of student-athlete experiences while parenting explained up to 30%, suggesting that parenting trumps demographics for understanding student-athlete experiences.  Involvement strategies had different associations with student-athlete experiences (See Table 1):


• Parental support was strongly and negatively linked to independence such that student-athletes reported less emotional independence, functional independence, and attainment of adult criteria when their parents provided high levels of support.  Contact had different associations with the types of independence: More contact predicted lower levels of emotional independence and higher levels of attainment of adult criteria.


• Parental academic and athletic engagement both positively predicted student-athletes’ academic confidence.  Only athletic engagement predicted athletic satisfaction and this link was positive. Regarding wellbeing, student-athletes reported less depression and risky behaviors when their parents were more involved in their athletic and academic lives, respectively. Regarding independence, more academic involvement predicted lower levels of both emotional and functional independence and higher levels of attainment of adult criteria.  And, more parental athletic involvement predicted less emotional independence.


Table 1. Summary of links between parental involvement and student-athlete outcomes across divisions.



What does this mean and why does it matter?


Our findings provide novel evidence that parental involvement and its associations with student-athlete experiences is comparable across the spectrum of intercollegiate athletics.  Thus, despite differences that distinguish divisions and alter student-athletes’ experiences, (for instance, time demands for sport participation and scholarships opportunities), parents seem to be equally involved with and similarly influential to Division I, II, and III student-athletes.  Our data supports past work that has characterized parents’ involvement as generally moderate and appropriate, rather than overbearing, which tempers popularized notions of the overinvolved sport parent. And, this involvement promotes student-athletes’ academic, athletic, and wellbeing outcomes, but detracts from their gains in independence.


Altogether, this information is integral for building a parent education program that has the potential to be relevant for parents of student-athletes across all three NCAA divisions.  The fact that we did not find differences in average levels of involvement and its links to student-athlete experiences is a good thing because it means that (a) parental involvement in intercollegiate sport is a generalizable phenomenon, and (b) programming can be streamlined for all NCAA divisions.


In conjunction with our previous work and other contemporary scholarship, we have identified some practical “best practices” for parental involvement in intercollegiate sport.  For instance, texting is an efficient and preferred tool for student-athletes and parents to touch base during the week. Relatedly, inquiring about school and sport endeavors via texting is common; but, parents should focus conversations on course learning (versus grades) and student-athletes’ feelings of sport enjoyment (versus performance).


While frequent provision of emotional support is commonplace, our findings caution that more support is not always better for student-athletes’ independence.  Rather, parents should encourage their children to be their own advocate and strive to provide them with opportunities to do so, thus promoting greater gains in student-athletes’ independence.  Day in and day out, this may look like parents providing advice on how to talk with coaches about a problem rather than parents intervening between coaches and student-athletes.


We also identified a specific factor that supports student-athlete’s mental health: parental athletic engagement.  Because student-athletes are more likely to experience mental health problems than general college students, it is important to pinpoint factors that may help protect student-athletes from depression.  We recommend parents are aware of and respect their children’s sport-related decisions, as this may reduce student-athlete’s depressive feelings.


Collectively, the results of our work with NCAA administrators, coaches, parents, and student-athletes justifies a need and an appetite for parental education in college athletics.  Helping parents garner an informed perspective on their involvement and its effects may be a viable, low-cost means by which student-athletes’ risks for academic stress, athletic burnout, and decreased wellbeing can be mitigated.  As such, we have launched the first evidence-based, online education program for parents of NCAA student-athletes.  The educational website offers interactive modules (e.g., videos, audio vignettes, reflective exercises) on the best strategies for parenting in college sport.  Importantly, the web portal is equipped with back-end functionality to assess learning via quizzes and user data that will offer a snapshot of parent learning and engagement.


Now that this resource exists, we seek to evaluate its quality.  Specifically, we need to know if what we have designed suits parents’ needs and gather information on patterns of website usage.  These data will be a crucial aspect of assessing the website’s potential to leverage positive parental involvement and in turn enhance the student-athlete experience across divisions.  We are gearing up to carry out this project, and we invite you to be a part of it.


We are seeking consultants to represent Division I, II, and III institutions from all corners of the United States.  As a consultant, you will work directly with our research team to design and carry out the project and build rapport with the athletic program of your institution to facilitate study viability. Together, we have a great opportunity to create positive change in intercollegiate sport.  Please contact us for more information about our continued work with NCAA administrators, coaches, parents, and student-athletes!


This article is a summary of findings from the following article: Lowe, K., Dorsch, T. E., Kaye, M. P., Arnett, J. J., Lyons, L., Faherty, A., & Menendez, L. H. (2018). Parental involvement among collegiate student-athletes: An analysis across NCAA divisions. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 11, 242-268.