Mental Games: navigating the emotional challenges of competitive sports
From parental rage to supporting emotional regulation, UOW PhD graduate Jordan Sutcliffe has been untangling the mental health aspect of raising young athletes
Many parents of athletic children run ragged by their kids’ competitive sports schedules and the financial burdens of their participation in sports. There are weekends devoted solely to tournaments and practices, family dinners spent fretting about the results and team grievances, money and time sacrifices and a delicate act of tending to the emotional ups and downs of a young athlete.
For Canadian-born Jordan Sutcliffe, a recent PhD graduate at the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) School of Psychology, the sport has always been a part of his daily life. Growing up in North Bay, a charming small city in north-eastern Ontario, he didn’t realise how lucky he was. His parents were active members of the local sporting community – Jordan’s stepdad played recreational hockey, and his mom was a competitive figure skater.
“Being active and participating in many sporting events after school and on the weekends was normalised for me. We all loved it. My parents were very supportive but also quite relaxed about it all. The sport has always been a big part of our bond,” says Jordan.
UOW PhD graduate Jordan Sutcliffe and his mother travelled to UOW from Canada to attend Jordan's graduation ceremony in person.
As a child, Jordan grew up playing ice hockey and soccer, transitioning into American football and playing at the university level. And that’s when he realised not all parents are as mellow and supportive as his have been.
“In Canada, sport is a serious matter, an integral part of our culture, and many families become over-invested in their children’s performance, especially when they start competing at a more competitive level. They end up having extremely high expectations for the young athlete, the coach or the team,” Jordan explains.
The cultural significance of sports in Canada and the belief that sports participation can lead to future success and opportunities both mean that children are often introduced to sports at a young age and encouraged to participate in organised leagues and competitions. Families sacrifice money and time to support a child’s athletic dreams – which can be a detriment of the household.
“There have been many incidents of parental rage reported in the Canadian media over the years, and I knew many young athletes whose sporting dreams were ruined by parental over-investment,” Jordan says.
One high-profile incident occurred in 2018 when a brawl broke out between parents after a hockey game in British Columbia. The altercation was reportedly sparked by a dispute over rough play on the ice and resulted in injuries and charges being filed against multiple people. Another time, a parent was banned from attending his child’s soccer games after assaulting a teenage referee during a match in Alberta.
Over time, researching this psychological aspect of sport became the focus of Jordan’s research. He enrolled in a master’s degree in sports psychology at his local Nipissing University in North Bay. From there, he got an opportunity to collaborate with Associate Professor Stewart Vella from UOW’s Global Alliance for Mental Health and Sports (GAMeS), and the rest is history.
Jordan moved to Australia in 2019. Today (Tuesday 11 April), he is proudly reunited with his UOW colleagues and teachers at the graduation ceremony on Wollongong campus, finishing with a PhD in sport psychology.
“GAMeS is one of the most-funded research labs in mental health and sport globally, particularly in community sports. With high-quality research, it is a place to be for studying mental health. I am very proud to have done my PhD here,” Jordan says.
His research under Associate Professor Vella’s guidance focused on how sport and physical activity can lead to the positive development of young people and their family members’ wellbeing, specifically exploring the mental health of parents whose children participate in youth sports.
Jordan's research is centred around the mental health aspect of raising young athletes.
While his PhD work has aimed to untangle the complexities of this relationship and to understand how having children in sports affects the whole family, he says that in real life, there is no definite answer to whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
“As a parent, when you enrol your child in organised youth sport, there are many demands, including financial, time and emotional ones, and other contextual factors that could make the experience more challenging. Sport engagement can be very demanding for the whole family, but it can also bring meaningful and enriching moments. The overall mental health outcomes are related to factors like the level of engagement, the social environment of the youth sport program, and how far the child progresses in competition,” Jordan explains.
For example, Jordan found that a strong social identity with the team was associated with positive mental health outcomes among parents. The second contributor was a good parent-child relationship.
Jordan’s research also pointed out that mothers of athletes are often disproportionately burdened by their participation in sporting activities, especially when they don’t have sufficient help with the responsibilities tied to sports. The parents’ wellbeing is good if there’s enough balance between the couples in sharing the parental load. But when there’s a disproportion, the mother’s mental health is affected.
One of the most interesting parts of Jordan’s PhD journey has been his observations about the differences in sporting cultures between Australia and Canada.
“While Australia is very much an active and health-oriented society – everyone here exercises and spends a lot of time outside – I noticed much more laidback attitudes to sports, especially in the youth sports realm. In Canada, there is a high expectation and intensity towards sports, especially ice hockey, which is taken very seriously, almost too seriously,” Jordan says.
Both winning and losing in sports can be an emotional experience for a young athlete.
Jordan also found that Australian parents were more social and relaxed during their children’s sports activities, often forging friendly relationships with other parents and socialising while their kids compete. In his opinion, such attitudes can be leveraged to promote good mental health and wellbeing initiatives, and they benefit both the parents and children.
“On average, I’ve noticed that Australia is very open about mental health struggles and possible solutions. The national conversation about mental health, also in sports, is quite inspirational,” Jordan says.
Towards the end of his PhD research in Australia, Jordan did some interviews with parents about their mental health and wellbeing in sport. In one of his studies called The Car Ride Home (which is currently undergoing peer-review), analysing the parent-child debrief conversations in the car after the game, he found that parent and an athlete's emotions often get intertwined. For example, when athletes go through a strong emotional experience, such as being cut from a team or having a conflict with a coach, parents can feel the weight of their child’s negative emotions. Based on that study, Jordan became interested in researching the complex web of emotional co-regulation between parents and children in sport.
“I realised how important parents are in helping their children navigate the emotional challenges of competitive sports and learn valuable life skills of resilience and emotional regulation. I hope my research can promote healthier and more positive experiences in youth sports,” Jordan says.
Now in a postdoc role back in Canada, Jordan is not ruling out his comeback to Australia one day.
“I want to stay in academia for life, so possibly, one day, I’ll be back at the University of Wollongong,” says Jordan.