Authors: Jerry F. Reynolds II, Kristin E. Trainor, and Matt Moore

Department of Social Work,  Ball State University, Muncie, IN, USA

Corresponding Author:
Jerry F. Reynolds II, PhD, LMSW
1613 W. Riverside Ave
Muncie, IN 47304

Jerry F. Reynolds II, PhD, LMSW is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. His research interests focus on family dynamics and parenting experiences in youth sport settings.

Kristin E. Trainor, PhD, LCSW is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Ball State University.  Her research areas of interest include exploration of family dynamics and barriers to service provision in therapeutic settings.

Matt E. Moore is Chair and Associate Professor of Social Work at Ball State University. His research focuses upon the integration of social work principles in sport-based settings.

The Influence of COVID-19 Upon Perceptions of Parent Identity and Role Among Youth Sport Spectators


Parent experiences in youth sport settings during the COVID-19 pandemic are a notable and understudied phenomenon. Parents had varied experiences as a result of safety mandates and protocols that limited physical presence and engagement in their child’s sports activities. These limitations proved to be an emotional challenge for parents – balancing the responsibilities of protecting the safety of their families and providing sports experiences to promote both normalcy and acquire the life skills gained from sports participation in a fluid environment. In some instances, parents engaged in virtual spectating experiences which sought to minimize physical risks associated with COVID-19, but also did not require their physical presence to participate. Research on the virtual experience of parents is novel and from a sample of 112 parents across youth sport sectors in 18 states   how the spectating modality influenced parental roles and identities was examined. Virtual spectating experiences reflected many challenges for parents, but also prompted much gratitude for allowing continued engagement in their child’s sports activities. This exploratory research prompts larger questions urging sport-based professionals to examine the influences of spectating modalities on experiences of parents. The authors captured retrospective parent reactions to their personal spectating experience and generated a grounded theory diagram to demonstrate relationships between factors shaping the parent identity and role in this context. Implications for sport-based professionals are discussed.

Keywords: youth sports, resilience, parenting, virtual spectating, COVID-19, identity


The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be especially challenging for parents. Due to health concerns from over 350 million cases worldwide (as of January 2022), significant life alterations to promote safety and well-being were made to manage exposure to the virus (38). These changes extended to one of the most prominent outlets for physical activity and life skill acquisition, youth sports. Due to recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Safe Sport and local protocols, sports organizations modified their practices for holding competitions, practices, and other sport activities. In a youth context, one study from summer 2020 noted 50% of parents had concerns about their children contracting COVID-19 as a result of sports participation and 46% of parents worried about contracting the virus as a result of attending their child’s events (33). However, the ability of parents to attend events were a significant variable in decisions for sports to resume (29). In general, youth sports organizations continued operations with modifications or temporary shut downs, often under the guidance of local and broader safety protocols. The CDC encouraged limiting and/or managing spectator presence to minimize exposure (6). To balance safety concerns and the ability of parents to view their children’s sporting events, many youth sports organizations implemented virtual (online) platforms. Virtual spectating was expected to promote health and safety, while providing continuity of sports activities, and opportunities for parent engagement without physical attendance (4). Within this study, the authors examined how spectator experiences of parents were influenced by the COVID-19 environment. More specifically, the authors examined  parental perceptions of their role and how their identity as a parent was shaped through spectating.

Family Dynamics In Youth Sports

Youth sports are important in shaping family dynamics and interactions (6, 11, 13,16, 35-36). Approximately 90% of U.S. children will participate in an organized sport by the age of 18 (20).  Parent investment in youth sports is a cultural norm in the United States (U.S.) and increasingly around the world (1, 33). Parents support their children in sports for the following reasons: (1) the promotion of physical fitness, (2) the development of physical skills, (3) new social interactions, and (4) the acquisition of life skills, supplemental to those learned in school-based settings (1).

Parent Role In Youth Sports

Past research affirms the importance of the parental role in youth sport settings. Dorsch and colleagues (2009) suggested youth sports serve as an agent of socialization for parents that shapes their identity and role. Wiersma & Fifer (2008) characterized parent experiences as being laden with joy, full of challenges, and shaped by the interactions with other parents.. Omli & Wiese-Bjornstal (2011) reported emotional regulation is a challenge in this setting, especially concerning feelings of anger stemming from a parent’s disagreement with officiants or from disappointing athlete performances. Holt & Knight (2014) found parents adapted their practices based upon the sport setting (i.e., level of competition) and aligned their behaviors___________ [A1] with their desired level of engagement. Elliott & Drummond (2017) urged parents to modify their spectating practice, as their research demonstrated parent engagement can support or conversely, detract from a child’s positive experience in sports. Knight (2019) supported future research on the role of parents in youth sports to capture the nuances associated with their behaviors and to develop a more robust evidence-based analysis that included diverse populations and settings. . Legg & Rose (2021) affirmed spectator activities of parents are laden with more negative than positive emotions.

Spectator behaviors of parents can serve as an asset or a challenge to the sport environment (10, 35-36). Parents engage with their children (e.g. the youth athletes), coaches, referees, and at times, other spectators (10). Parents may use  feedback from various entities to demonstrate the perceived role of sport in their child’s overall development. Prior research suggests parent expectations (communicated through spectating) are often misaligned with the goals of their youth participant (11-12). Communication in a youth sport setting is different from other family communication platforms because of the feedback loop which encompasses, coordination and maintenance of relationships among multiple adults and youth  athletes in one public space (6, 36).

The Influence of COVID-19 on Parenting Practices

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted changes to family routines, mainly because the home environment became the primary location for work and educational experiences. The pandemic  also challenged parents to modify their level of engagement with  the sports activities of their children. While research on in-person spectating practices of parents has been ongoing for several decades (12-14, 25-26, 31-32), research on virtual spectating experiences of parents is novel. Virtual spectating allow parents to stream and watch their child’s sports activities without being physically present. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted scholars to examine new approaches to  assessing factors within  sports  that promotes or hinders optimal parent engagement (17). Virtual spectating is one of these factors, as parent engagement is a contributor to optimizing youth experiences in sport (19). Previous research on optimal parent involvement in sport (17) suggests  ideal parent engagement requires an alignment with reasons for involvement, an emotional climate where athletes perceive parents understand their experiences, and behaviors while spectating  that support these goals. Through exploration of the  experiences of parents, the researchers were able to understand how spectating experiences influenced a parent’s identity and role in the context of a pandemic.

Wearing masks and observing their children’s participation through a smart phone or computer screen prompted changes to the nature of the child-parent relationship in sport. In non-pandemic settings, this dynamic is nuanced because children are actively participating in their sport while parents are communicating their feedback. The child must balance paying attention to events on the field, feedback from their coaches, and to their parents who are spectators (25-26). Additionally, communication in sports occurs in public spaces (24) and lacks both predictability and reliability (5). Recognizing these challenges, the authors turned to research methods used to study the experiences of parents in sport (26.



The research team was tasked with balancing the need to minimize potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus and the goal of accurately capturing the lived experiences of sport parents. As such, the authors used a convenience sample and virtual platforms to conduct this study. This approach allowed the research team the ability to reach a large sample in a cost-effective and safe manner (8). Eligibility for participation included  being the parent of a youth athlete (age 8-18) and residing in the United States (U.S.). The parent was required to observe their child’s sport events through a virtual platform and/or be willing to comment on their perceptions of virtual spectating. The total sample size was 112 with 34 of the 112 participants reportedly participating in virtual spectating.

Demographic Characteristics

Researchers recruited participants through social media and a digital university communication center hosted by the sponsoring institution over a two-week period. Participants were encouraged to share the survey via social media or email with participants whom they thought would take an interest in the study. EWhilehe study was based out of  a university community in East Central Indiana, survey responses were received from 18 (out of 50) states. Demographic characteristics including age, gender, and race were collected from the parent and youth participants. The median age of all parent participants was 43.1 years (SD=6.56) and the median age of  the child  engaged in sports was 13.03 years.  The parent sample was predominantly cisgender female (n=93, 83%) with  one participant self-identifying as non-binary. Indiana was the state of residence for more than half of the participants (64 of 112, 57%) and the second most represented state was Louisiana (n=19, 17%). The remaining 26% of participants represented 15 additional states. Ninety-five of 112 (84.8%) reported being White or Caucasian, and 17 participants identified as African-American, Hispanic, or bi-racial.

The most common sport settings for  the youth athletes were baseball (n=22), basketball (n=21), soccer (n=21), swimming (n=13), and softball (n=10). Seventy-five (67%) of participants reported their child competed in sports outside of a school setting. A total of 39 ( __35___ %)  competed in a travel setting as opposed to a recreational or vlub-based setting. Of the 71 participants who reported their children participated in school-based sports, the majority (n=54) did so in a public-school setting. Among those who reported participating in virtual spectating, 19 of 34 (56%) shared the specific virtual platform through which spectating occurred. Facebook Live was the most common platform used for virtual spectating (42%, n=8) while other platforms included: YouTube (n=7), Gamechanger (n=2), Zoom (n=1), a paysite (n=1), and Livebarn (n=1).


After the sponsoring university’s Institutional Review Board granted approval, the research team posted recruitment information about the study on social media and multiple public community pages. Specifically, this step included posting information on the study on Facebook, a University Communication Center, and on two community-based sport Facebook pages. All postings provided details on the nature of the study, described the inclusion and exclusion criteria, and provided individuals with a secure link to the  survey. Informed consent was collected via the survey software prior to participation. Participation in the study was voluntary and anonymous, as IP addresses were not tracked and subjects self-reported their state of residence.


Parents provided demographic information about themselves and their children as noted in the previous section. Parents also answered a question about the virtual platform used for spectating. Following these demographic questions, parents read an open-ended prompt (26) about their spectating experience. The prompt read:

The past year and the COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for families whose children participate in sports. One of the most notable challenges is the inability for parents to attend events in person. Instead, many parents had to watch their children virtually through various streaming platforms. Recall your experience as a virtual spectator over the past year (even if it was a one-time occurrence). Describe your experience with as much detail as possible. Feel free to include any thoughts regarding what you liked or disliked about the experience.

The open-ended question sought to prompt robust descriptions of emotional experiences and the lived experiences of the population being studied (25). A pilot test with five parents not involved or included in the research herein was conducted,). This preliminary information provided the research team an opportunity to evaluate and clarify the wording of the open-ended question. No changes were made. The authors elected to include a one question prompt guided by Omli & Lavoi (2012) who focused on the spectator experiences of parents that evoked anger. In a similar way, the one question prompt encouraged parents to narrow the focus to a one-year period of the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasized an evaluation of their personal experiences, which were expected to vary  across geographic settings.


Given the topic of virtual spectating is novel, researchers employed an exploratory design. A grounded theory approach was selected to explore how the data would be analyzed (8-9, 23-24, 30)Grounded theory is different than typical theories in the social sciences in that it often does not include casual relationships between variables (8) and is appropriate for analyzing responses from a sample of more than 30 participants (23-24, 30). This approach is important when the phenomena associated with research has limited precedent  (8, 9). Specifically, the research team followed these procedures for data analysis (26):

  1. The research team retrieved participant responses from a secure online database (Qualtrics). Responses ranged from one sentence to  the longest response which was over 400 words in length. Qualtrics did not place limitations on the number of characters participants could write.
  2. Members of the research team read all data entries multiple times  to become familiar with the virtual spectating experiences of parents.
  3. Each member of the research team reviewed participant responses response by response and line by line. Members of the research team created a preliminary code for each unit of meaning (i.e., a sentence or paragraph used by a participant to describe a specific event). The research team triangulated these preliminary codes.
  4. During the coding process, members of the research team grouped data themes with common properties into a single code until a set of three emerged that provided a comprehensive account of the data while minimizing conceptual overlapping among themes.. The consolidation of data themes involved a constant comparative process which isa hallmark of grounded theory (23-24, 30). Throughout the constant comparative process, codes that emerged from participant responses were repeatedly compared to the raw data (e.g., responses from other parents) and researchers revised responses until the codes most accurately described a collective summarization of the participant experiences (9). Three themes emerged to broadly describe the spectating experiences a) sense of loss and connection within the sporting environment. b) gratitude for the opportunity for continued sport activity engagement, and c) inadequate access to online spectating. These key themes were central to shaping parent identity and their role as spectators.
  5. After finalizing lower- and higher-order themes, the research team developed a theory to provide a holistic representation of the data. According to Creswell (2003), a grounded theory can “assume the form of a narrative statement, a visual picture, or a series of hypotheses or propositions” (p. 56). For this study, a visual diagram was developed to illustrate the relationships between variables (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Parent Spectator Interactions During COVID-19

Figure 1

Trustworthiness of Findings

The research team exceeded protocols for grounded theory research and exceeded the requirement for at least 20-30 participants (9). This result allowed for the development of a theory grounded in the experiences of a large sample of informants. “The research team employed triangulation to ensure greater veracity of interpretations than would have been possible if a single investigator had developed the theory alone” (26, p.14). To establish greater trustworthiness of the findings, researchers engaged an additional individual with experience in qualitative methodology to review and validate the suggested themes.


Researchers received 112 responses and grouped according to certain characteristics and three distinct groups of spectators emerged. The first group (n=4) reported their child’s athletic activities had not resumed at all at the time of data collection.. The second group, participants who reported they were able to attend sports in person, but with modifications and required adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing protocols, consisted of 66% (n=74) of respondents. The third group, participants who reported their child athletic activities offered virtual spectating at least once throughout the course of the pandemic, consisted of 30% (n=34) of respondents.

In general, participants shared mixed reviews of the spectating process, with three major themes emerging. 1) Sense of loss and both connection and disconnection within the sporting environment, 2) Gratitude for the opportunity for continued sport activity engagement, and 3) Inadequate access to online spectating. The unique lived experiences of the participants demonstrate the varying context that the role of sport plays in the lives of families.

The first theme, sense of loss and connection within the sporting environment, brings awareness of the identity and connection spectators develop to sport. One respondent reported,

The cowbells of football weren’t ringing, the student section of volleyball and basketball were empty, and we are holding onto the chance to see our children play in the dirt one last time before they graduate. I do not want to watch softball online, I want to be with my child.

Another respondent echoed the frustration of virtual spectating sharing:

I was devastated when told that we would only be able to view via Facebook Live. I cried, my daughter cried and we cried together. I was angry, but ultimately sad that I would be missing out on watching her play as I would never have this opportunity given back to me. After watching two games online, me and a few other parents decided to make spirit signs and placed them around the gym. The players/team loved the signs as they felt they weren’t alone and they were reminded that we were watching from home.

Virtual spectators often cited concerns of empty seats and lack of support influencing athlete outcomes which, again, demonstrated  the loss and connection within the sporting environment. 

Virtual spectators reported experiencing a loss not only in the season of the sport, but also a loss in the process of youth “graduating” from the sport.  Spectators typically spend many years cheering and supporting their athlete, but eventually, the athlete leaves the sport and the spectator loses their role.  One respondent noted,

I’m glad we could watch virtually at least for a few of the events, but it is not the same as being there. Especially for those that are seniors and really the last two years has not been normal for them and there is no next year.

COVID-19 curtailed much fanfare and affected the transition process for not only the athlete, but also the parent that invested much of their time, money, and identity as a spectator. While new protocols (e.g., allowed events to continue and offered an alternative viewing option, the sense of loss and connection remained for many spectators.

While loss was strongly rooted in the lived experiences of many spectators, there was also a sense of gratitude. Specifically, the theme of gratitude for the opportunity for continued sport activity engagement emerged. Spectators noted that with the challenges of COVID-19, the ability to allow even a small level of normalcy created feelings of gratitude, hope, and engagement.  One respondent remarked,

I was able to watch my child participate virtually. I was very thankful for the opportunity to be able to watch even though I was not able to attend in person.  I’m also thankful that our children could still participate in any sport due to the pandemic. I am appreciative to the schools and coaches for being able to arrange safe environment for our athletes to continue playing during a worldwide pandemic.

While virtual spectating was not the preferred viewing options, respondents continued to share their gratitude and appreciation that a sense of connection could remain. One respondent noted,

My son swam sectional finals and qualified for HS state. With all the turmoil with COVID-19, including isolation for our swimmer after he contracted it, we were just grateful for the season. The webcast from IHSAA were very professional, and though we couldn’t see him swim in person, hearing his name school and event announced was a good way to end a tough, tough season.

Appreciation for the efforts made by the sport associations and teams encapsulated the overall gratitude that spectators shared. A respondent noted,

My wife and I were 100% content with the virtual experience. It’s always a better view to watch in person but we had no problem watching remotely. Our commentary was good and with no fans in the stands or limited fans the amount of annoying comments were almost non-existent. We always used Facebook Live which seemed to be a good stream to use. It was fun to leave comments and also see that many grandparents and other family members watching from afar.

Another respondent, echoing the same sentiment shared,

I watched my 14-year-old niece play basketball virtually. I have never been able to see her play because we live far away. I was so excited to finally see her play and thankful that her school was willing to do Facebook live. Each home team player was only allowed to have two spectators so it was nice that everyone else was still able to see the game.

Not only were direct spectators (i.e., parents) able to participate in their child’s events, but the virtual component allowed increased spectating by family and friends.  

The option for virtual spectating was often met with either a sense of gratitude or loss; however, the emergence of the third theme, inadequate resources and availability to offer online spectating was consistently noted in both those experiencing gratitude and loss. This theme encompasses such components of poor video quality, inability to access the streaming system, and inconsistent virtual spectating options and resources. 

Poor video quality often resulted from cameras unable to capture the entire playing field. One respondent shared, “It was very difficult. It was really hard to see who was swimming and what their times were.”While another shared,

The livestream link was not always dependable. Not only would constant buffering occur, but often times, the link was not available. Most times, there were technical difficulties, such as not having sound or not having a clear picture.

Similarly, a respondent shared feelings of discontent due to the access of virtual spectating.

I tried watching my son play indoor basketball virtually and it was a disaster. A parent volunteered to use Facebook Live to allow us to watch. Setting up the TV to Facebook was a challenge and watching from the phone was next to impossible due to the size. In addition, some of the games were played in a remote area, and the WiFi was not working in the gym.

Inconsistencies in technological abilities often led to frustration. One respondent noted, “I watched my son’s swim meets virtually. Some were good quality streaming, some weren’t.”While another shared,

School organized virtual broadcasts were not typically available at the middle school level, so it was often up to one of the parents to stream the game so others could watch via Facebook Live. This was not ideal, but better than not being able to watch at all.

Again, another respondent stated similar concerns,

Lack of consistency made it difficult to know what to expect from venue to venue. If all high schools showed games virtually that would have helped not only keep numbers down but also help engagement and mental health.

The limited consistency in the delivery of virtual spectating may be due to  quick implementation of new protocols and technology for streaming sport activities necessitated by  the contact limitations from the COVID-19 pandemic. Sport teams quickly transitioned from limited, to no virtual spectating, to only virtual spectating. The results of the research herein demonstrates how sports organizations pivoted during a time of crisis andattempted to make the most appropriate accommodations in a fluid environment. The research allowed the opportunity to visually demonstrate the relationship between spectating experiences and the  identity and role of parents. It appears sports play an intricate role in the identity of the parent spectator from cheering and supporting their child athlete to being part of a community  connected to a particular sport. Virtual spectating highlights both the sense of loss and reemergence of gratitude during a time of uncertainty while also contributing to the emergence of a potential new role and identify for parents..


This novel study explored the experiences of parents during the COVID-19 pandemic whose children participated in youth sports. As demonstrated in Figure 1, within these lived experiences, the identity and role or parents were shaped by the spectating modality and varied emotions associated within each spectator setting. Within these lived experiences was a strong desire of parents to attend and have a physical presence at their children’s sporting events, despite the potential risks related to the virus. The spectating modality appears to be a key variable in shaping (and modifying) and reshaping of the role and identity of parents in youth sports. 

The findings of virtual spectators, while novel, aligns with previous studies suggesting youth sport spectating is both as an agent of socialization (12) and an emotional experience (19, 37, 25-26). For parents, it serves as a source of continuity amidst fluid times. Additionally, youth sports contribute to the shaping of the role and identity of parents and their actions as spectators are influenced by the sports setting (19). However, it is important to note that in this study, emotions arose when the parent spectator role was modified by the provision of  technology. Future research should examine how technology influences not only the experiences of parents, but also the experiences of coaches and youth sports participants.


COVID-19 urges scholars to consider new approaches to research regarding factors which hinder or promote engagement in sports activities (17). This study focused on an area of sport with limited literature and makes an important contribution during a complex and challenging time for sports organizations and parents.

This research focused on the nature of the role and identity of parents as youth sports spectators and warrants further exploration of associated dynamics, especially when technology is the vehicle providing spectator experiences. Given the importance of parents in the provision and maintenance of the youth sport system in the United States, sport professionals and volunteers such as youth sport administrators and coaches, should be mindful of how spectating modalities impact the identity and role of parents.. In addition to considering the experiences of youth on the field, youth sport administers should explore ways to capture or re-create meaningful socialization experiences for spectators. Interestingly, some parents found the virtual space to be ideal, as it allowed them to reduce negative interactions with other spectators and mitigate potential hostile environments. The spectating experience for parents is one to be considered, especially as the pandemic persists and the provision of youth sports retains a central role in American culture.


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