Jean Cote

The Big Idea

Early in the 21st Century support for children of families with a parent who was deployed in the United States Military was identified with the slogan “We Serve Too.”  The big idea of this research paper on families of elite athletes by Jean Cote could easily be captured by the same slogan—only in this case it is the families of deployed athletes Who Serve Too.  Families are often forgotten as having significant influence on the social context of developing athletes.

Cote conducted in-depth interviews with four families, and a combined total of 15 family members (the athletes, siblings, and parents).  The athletes were all at the junior national level.   Three types of constraints were used as the framework for the open-ended interviews: motivational, effort, and resources.  And three progressive stages of family development were identified—all of which resulted from events and family conditions that may have had impact on the young athlete’s participation and achievement in sport.


  • Before researchers can provide any reasonable explanations for the various causes and origins of excellence in sport, knowing more about elite athlete family dynamics is essential.
  • This study helps fill that literature gap.
  • While incomplete, this study of four families of junior national level elite athletes in rowing and tennis suggests a number of significant findings. The families were intact with roughly middle class incomes.
  • Through open-ended and free-ranging interviews, this researcher created three stages of elite athlete development: the sampling years; the specialising years; and the investment years.
  • All three stages of sport participation are important in the progressive development of elite athletes.
  • The sampling years are marked by a lower frequency of deliberate practice and a higher frequency of deliberate play.
  • The specialisation years are defined by nearly equal frequencies of deliberate play and deliberate practice.
  • The investment years are found to be far more frequencies of deliberate practice and far lower frequencies of deliberate play.
  • The role of parents in this study during these three temporal stages evolved with the gradual progression of motivation and talent development of the elite youth athlete.
  • These stages are a somewhat consistent pattern in the context of positive family involvement in youth sport expertise.
  • But the caution is that these select families may not represent the larger population of families in general. There are certainly dysfunctional families who do not provide positive dynamics for the development of talent in sport.

The Research

Most previously published research on the family service of children who were heavily involved in youth sport has focused on a variety of topics, such as: proposed typologies of parent influence in sport; the extent to which parent support is positively related to children’s enthusiasm and enjoyment in sport;  the role of parental modelling of positive values and attitudes toward sport on children acquiring such values and attitudes; how children’s actual levels of participation in sports are influenced by parental expectations; and the extent to which the family can actually be a positive developmental influence throughout different stages in the young athlete’s career.

However varied this earlier research is there is little question that families matter in the development of elite young athletes.  But little is known about how parents and siblings should support a young performer; even less is known about how the young athletes perceives family, or what types of family behaviours are perceived by the athlete as support and what type are perceived as  pressure.

Cote argues that what is missing in the surveys or observations on the influence of the family on developing talent in sports is the actual voice of the families themselves.  To this end, Cote designed an in-depth qualitative study of the whole family environment of young athletes.

Two questions are asked:

  • What actual roles do the family members (parents and siblings) play in the initiation and development of a child’s pursuit of excellence in sport?
  • Are there identifiable patterns of family dynamics in the various stages of player development?

How the study was conducted

Small qualitative studies can be powerful because we hear the direct voices of the selected participants.  In this study there were four families; three families were of elite rowers and one family was of an elite tennis player.  Only families of junior national elite athletes were selected.  Altogether there were 15 participants: four athletes; four siblings; four mothers; and three fathers.

In-depth and open-ended interviews were conducted.  Each participant was given an interview guide in advance of the conversation.  Three types of constraints to talent development were used as the framework for the interviews: 1) resources, 2) effort, and 3) motivation.  The idea was to give the participants a common basis for the interviews.  So the questions were in reference to how the family members dealt with these three types of constraint.  All interviews were one-on-one and face-to-face.


After transcribing and coding all of the interviews, three distinct stages of sport participation

surfaced.  They were: 1) sampling years (ages 6-13); 2) specialising years (ages 13-15); and 3) investment years (ages 15 and over).  What follows are the brief highlights of each developmental stage.

The Sampling Years:

  • Parents provide opportunities for their children to enjoy sport no matter what sport
  • All children within the family participate in various extracurricular activities.
  • Parents recognise a “gift” in the child-athlete.

The Specialising Years:

  • The young athlete begins to commit to only one or two sports.
  • Parents emphasise school and sport achievement.
  • Parents make financial and time commitment to their child athlete.
  • Parents develop growing interest in their child-athlete sport
  • Older siblings act as role models for the necessary work ethic.

The Investment Years:

  • The athlete increases commitment to one sport.
  • Parents show great interest in child-athlete’s sport.
  • Parents help athlete fight setbacks that hinder training progression.
  • Parents demonstrate different behaviours toward each of their children.
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