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USU Researchers: High Sport Spending doesn't Equal High Enjoyment

Thursday, Apr. 03, 2014

soccer illustration for USU research project
USU undergraduate education student and researcher Kevin Rothlisberger

USU undergraduate Kevin Rothlisberger was part of a research team that looked at family spending and sports involvement satisfaction.

USU undergraduate student and researcher Michael King

Fellow undergraduate student Michael King said he jumped at a chance to join a research study that explored sport and family.

If money can’t buy a young athlete’s love, what can it buy?

Sports equipment, maybe. A tournament entry fee. A personal trainer. But it all may come with a hidden cost: The child’s perception of parental pressure.

A group of researchers from Utah State University set out to discover more about the impact of family spending on their children’s sport experiences. They discovered good things — parental support was a significant, positive factor in a child’s enjoyment and motivation to continue.

But they also found an indirect correlation between high sport spending on the family’s part and lower enjoyment for the child athlete.

The researchers surveyed 163 parent-child pairs. They reached out across the United States in hopes of getting a varied sample. The surveys asked parents about family demographics, household income and sport-related spending. Children were asked about parent support and pressure, sport enjoyment and motivation to participate.

“What the child may call pressure, the parent may call support,” said Travis Dorsch. He heads up the USU Families in Sport Lab and led the research team, which included two undergraduate students and a doctoral candidate.

Increased spending didn’t hurt a child’s enjoyment or her motivation to stay with it if she perceived the spending as support, he said. But too often, kids associated the money with parental pressure.

“I don’t think a parent would put in the money and pressure their kid to do something they didn’t want to do,” said Kevin Rothlisberger, one of the undergraduate researchers who worked on the study. He majored in elementary education and is currently working in Farmington, N.M., on a leave of absence. “All the parents reported that they didn’t feel like they were pressuring their child.”

Doctoral candidate C. Ryan Dunn said some parents may view their sports spending as an investment.

“Parents have a goal with their kids’ sports involvement, whether it’s socialization or a scholarship,” he said. “Support toward that isn’t necessarily going to result in a child saying, ‘You wrote a check for me, I’m loved.’” 

Family finance is Dunn’s specialty. Before coming to Utah State University to get his doctorate, Dunn was a financial advisor — but the families he worked with interested him more than the stock market.

Michael King, another undergraduate researcher, remembers his own experience in high school sports. He saw some parents who were awfully “invested.” Sometimes they behaved badly on the sidelines, though.

When the Family, Consumer, and Human Development major saw a chance to join a research project that explored sport and family, King jumped at it.

“It’s been an awesome opportunity,” he said.  “We sent out the internet surveys, but I also got to take part in the writing. I hadn’t had much experience in research writing up to that point, so it was really neat.”

Rothlisberger agreed. The research was fascinating, but the experience of carrying it out will leave its mark on him as a scholar. The survey went out in October of 2013, and the team worked pretty hard to get respondents.

“We called in personal favors, we looked up coaches, it was quite an experience,” Rothlisberger said.

They combed sports websites for coaches’ names, made a spreadsheet and started contacting people.

Both King and Rothlisberger said their experience with the project played into their plans for graduate school. King wants to be a licensed marriage and family therapist and, later on, do research at the doctoral level. Rothlisberger wants to be a teacher and ultimately an administrator in education.

The survey results showed that the amount and percentage of income that families spent on sport varied widely. The range went from zero percent of pre-tax income to 11 percent. The research team expected the money to go toward shoes and gear, but they discovered some families were paying for trainers, coaches and camps. And for some families, the sport expenditure was a real sacrifice.

Dorsch said it’s true that investments in sport pay off from time to time.

“But for every child who gets a scholarship or plays professionally there are probably a thousand families that don’t get anything,” he said.

The research team members all said their ultimate goal is to provide parents better information for their involvement in their children’s athletics. The manuscript stemming from this research has yet to go through the peer review process, but their work continues. Their goals are twofold: First, to gather the data that helps them understand the best ways to make sport a good, uplifting experience for families. Next, they want to put the results in the hands of parents and children.

“We want to do more than build better athletes,” Dorsch said. “We want to build better people.”

Related links:

USU Department of Family, Consumer and Human Development

USU Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services

Contact: Travis Dorsch, (435) 797-3465,

Writer: JoLynne Lyon, (435) 797-1463,

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