Fatherhood and Youth Sports – A Balancing Act

Abstract of: Gottzén, L. & Kremer-Sadlik, T. (2012). Fatherhood and youth sports: A balancing act between care and expectations. Gender and Society, May 25, 2012.


tree11Youth sports have been seen as an arena for fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives. Indeed, in contrast to other child care practices, many men are eager to participate in some form or other in their children’s sports. This article provides an abstract of an ethnographic study of 30 families in the U.S. The study offers insight into how fathers’ involvement in their children’s sports draws on various cultural norms and beliefs about both fatherhood and masculinity.


The ethnographic study interviewed 30 American families living in the greater Los Angeles area from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, with a majority of white fathers (82%) and mothers (66%), and with middle-class backgrounds where 82% of the 60 parents interviewed had a college or graduate degree.

The study drew on a four-day ethnographic video recording of family members’ daily activities and interactions inside and outside the home. It also utilised semi-structured interviews with parents in which they discussed their family’s daily routines and their beliefs, goals, and practices related to issues of education and health, and their children’s sports activities and the meaning parents attached to these activities.

Key Themes and Findings
  1. Being an involved father: Many fathers described prioritising children in their lives, sometimes even over their jobs, and sports as one way to be involved or to be a good father. Fathers typically participated by volunteering as coaches, assistant coaches, and referees in sports their children play; driving their children to their practices; and attending their children’s games and matches.
  2. Caring through sports: Some fathers framed their support for their children’s sporting participation not as an interest in sports or in competition, but rather as a means of providing positive reinforcement, support, security or care. These fathers tended to emphasise the effort and skills their children demonstrated in sport, and encouraged them to continue even when their children’s sporting performance was not favourable.
  3. Applying pressure to perform: Some fathers displayed expectations that their children improved and played more skilfully. Their fathering through sport reflected a more critical, demanding, and evaluative component. This approach required a fine balance between showing support for children regardless of performance, and expressing expectations of high performance. This style of fathering through sports could occasionally be counter-productive – one of the families profiled described how the father’s intense involvement, high expectations, and overt critiques drove his children away from sports altogether.
  4. Learning important values: Another theme that emerged was the view that children’s participation in sports was a way to learn important values such as toughness, discipline, teamwork, and sportsmanship. As with the previous theme of applying pressure to performance, fathers witnessed their children’s behaviour, assessed whether it complied with sporting values, and exerted pressure on children to act in accordance with sports culture and expectations.

This study builds on previous research showing that fathers’ participation in their children’s sports is central to fatherhood in several key ways:

  1. Fathers’ sports participation is often motivated by a desire to spend time with their children and is seen as a key venue for fathers to get involved in their children’s everyday lives.
  2. Sports offer fathers and children a common interest to talk about and do things together, and thus build closer relationships.
  3. Sports offers fathers opportunities to teach their children skills and values related to performance, competitiveness, self-esteem, responsibility, and collaboration.
  4. Among various forms of parenting engagement, sport aligns easily with masculinity: it allows men to parent while distancing themselves from more feminine styles of caring, and is a “comfort zone” that men are likely to be familiar with and whose practices they can often master.

This study and its findings reinforce conventional wisdom that sporting activities are a rich and fertile starting point for father involvement, regardless of parenting style. The researchers, however, explore this “site” of fatherhood further. They argue that fathering through sport, and indeed, fathering in general, requires balance on two fronts.

Firstly, new ideals of fatherhood increasingly balance “inclusive masculinity” where fathers express their emotional care and support in general and through their involvement with their children sports, with “orthodox masculinity” where fathers emphasise traditionally masculine values and norms such as competitiveness and skill, which in the case of sport, support or enforce improved performance.

Secondly, the researchers observe an inconsistency between fathers’ growing participation in the outdoor parenting arena of their children’s sports, and their still limited participation in domestic childcare and housework responsibilities.

This situation, the researchers argue, enables fathers to assume more involved roles in line with growing cultural expectations of “good fathers”, even though “inclusive masculinity” has gained ground more slowly in the household realm. Opportunities and challenges thus remain for fathers, and those who work alongside them, including mothers and practitioners, to widen father involvement beyond sport to other parenting practices.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 04-07-2012.