When the referee blew the final whistle of the 2019 Champions League Final, Liverpool fans within the Bernabeu Stadium erupted in a wild and frenzied celebration. In the midst of the chaos, Jordan Henderson was filmed tearfully hugging his father, Brian. It was scene that moved all that viewed it. We all understood the incredible human connection, the power of the shared experiences behind that moment. Yet does football embrace the role that the parent/child bond plays at the beginning of the dream?

There is sometimes a perception that coaches may view parental input as being more of a hindrance to a player’s professional development rather than comprising a key component. I put this opinion to clinical psychologist Dr James Bickley of Changing Minds during a discussion we had about the influence of parental-child bond and how coaches can better interact with this. Dr Bickley and Changing Minds have worked closely with the FA, ECB, and several Premier League clubs with the aim of helping to develop Psychologically Informed Performance Systems.

Dr Bickley responded: “Parent and carer relationships are absolutely key to a young person’s development and I think there is a risk that football, and maybe sport in a broader sense, can sometimes miss the opportunity to understand the significance of those relationships on future outcomes.”

The pathway into elite sport is challenging and unique. With this in mind Dr Bickley highlighted how a proactive and positive relationship between sport systems and parents/carers is important in forming a broader system of support around a young player’s development.

“If you are looking to develop characteristics in an individual such as independence; healthy self-esteem; decision making capabilities; effective emotional regulation, then clearly parents and carers play a key part in developing those skills and traits. Sport systems need to be proactive in guiding parents on how to support their children through their sporting journey and to identify some of the benefits and risks their involvement might have. Through this we are more likely to have productive relationships to help us work together.”

One area of discussion centred on the impact of parental approval and validation. It was sparked by comments made by NBA star Stephen Curry where he claimed that he always looks to the stands to see his parent’s reaction when he does something great on court. 

Dr Bickley first wanted to help clarify the distinction between approval and validation. In doing so he also highlighted important contrasts in the language used and how it affects young people.

He said: “The key part of the relationship between a parent/carer and child is validation. That is the validation of your child’s experience as being real and true to them whilst holding a position of unconditional positive regard, as opposed to offering approval or judgement.”

Dr Bickley added: “Sometimes seeking approval from parents; ‘do you like what I have done?, can be unhelpful if there is a judgement attached to the person or behaviour. This differs from validation of the persons experience, such as; ‘I can see you are really pleased that you managed to achieve this’ or ‘I can see that you are anxious about doing something that is difficult or challenging.”

In the USA, the Currys are seen as the ‘first family’ of the NBA and an ideal to aspire to, however a stable, supportive family dynamic is not a common denominator amongst elite athletes in basketball, football or any other sport. What is common is that the relationship quality and availability a young person has with their parent/carer will be a factor in their development.

Dr Bickley said: “The research emphasises the importance of the quality of parent/carer responses and the impact of these on developing views of self, mental health and well-being and performance later on in life.”

Given the importance of these relationships, how can parents and coaches support their young athletes? Dr Bickley highlighted the importance of not prescribing to a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

“We need to be careful of assuming one approach or style is good or bad. Whilst we know the benefits of relationships where we feel connected, validated and supported there is also a view that a number of people in sport have developed a level of ‘I’m going to cope and do this by myself’ because of some of their early experiences and parent/carer relationships have not always been positive, responsive or available. These athletes can be driven and motivated, so we don’t necessarily want to give the view that a nice responsive system of care and support is always going to guarantee a successful athlete because that is not always the case.”

This will not be a revelation for coaches used to dealing with driven young athletes from diverse family backgrounds. The point here is how to tune in to the different parent/player relationships, to hold those individual perspectives in mind and not play into any negative aspects of a relationship with the way you coach.

To help do that Dr Bickley highlighted an approach adapted from the work of clinical psychologist Dan Hughes on how parents connect with their infant children through playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy – PACE – to create safe environments for them to explore.

He explained: “From a coaching perspective, we talk about the concept of PACE. Rather than just falling into teaching mode or correcting and judging what a young person is doing, you are actively curious in terms of what is going on for them internally. Questioning how they come to some of the solutions and behaviours that they are showing us and bringing a level of playfulness and lightness to the session, rather than overloading with pressure and judgement.

“We know that when young people are free from pressure and judgement they are more likely to be creative and will want to explore new approaches and techniques. This freedom of creativity will be key to developing new and better skills. Whereas, if you judge behaviour and correct it too soon and too intensively, you close down that curiosity and young people just do what they think they need to do to get your approval.”

This type of ‘actively curious’ approach has been adopted by coaches across the globe who recognise the benefit of empowering players to come up with solutions rather than simply judge and correct their actions. But where does it fit in with gaining an understanding of a player’s relationship with a parent/carer and how that plays into their development?

Dr Bickley said: “Part of it could be where does a behaviour come from. If you notice a player constantly looking over for approval, it might be helpful to understand that in the context of their relationship with their parent or carer. So if they have an over-involved or over-critical parent, it may help the coach to understand what that behaviour is about and then think; how do I make sure that I don’t play into that dynamic in the way I give feedback or coach that young person when they are in the environment with me?”

To avoid feeding into an overly critical dynamic, Dr Bickley suggested a coach could set up tasks and exercises that are less likely to have a high level of judgement attached to them and avoid over coaching or over commenting on what the player is doing. But he stressed: “This is not saying that you are trying to compensate for their experiences but what you are trying to do is bring an awareness of where they are having experiences of feedback and support elsewhere into the sport performance environment.”

There is of course a real practical challenge to this approach in terms of the number of players football coaches work with at any given time. Dr Bickley acknowledged: “It is hard to hold all of the internal worlds and perspectives in mind when you are trying to come up with something that is going to involve a group collectively as opposed to one-on-one for example. But at least you can bring that awareness into how you go about setting your environment and the tasks that you give to young people in that environment.”

There is no short-cut to dialing in to the effect of a player’s relationship with their parents, it takes experience and understanding. Dr Bickley likened the process to reacting to a crying baby, whereby parents very quickly learn to distinguish between a bored cry, or a hungry cry, or an overtired cry, or a my nappy’s wet cry, while everyone else just hears a baby crying.

He explained: “What the parents are doing is attuning to their child’s needs, so they become more responsive as a carer because they are a little bit clearer as to what it is their child needs from them in that moment. The thing about that is you can’t fast track it. It is learnt over multiple experiences of being in that situation with a child. What is difficult for coaches is that they are having to figure out very quickly what is going on with this young person through some of their non-verbal behaviours and the way they are interacting. They have to learn how to pick up those subtle cues.

“I suppose it is that simple law of you get out of it what you put into it. The more you understand about the journeys young players have been on, the experiences they have had, then the more likely you are going to be able to attune to what is going on for that young person and then match your support, your coaching to the right level of need in that relationship.”