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Worried about how to parent your student-athlete child?

The parents of student-athletes face challenges – but they can be dealt with effectively if you know how. Here, the Mediterranean College of Sport speaks to former basketball player and coach, now university lecturer on physical education and sport, Dr Ivan Riolo, to discover what could work best for you and your family. 

Dr Riolo is a font of knowledge when it comes to parenting young athletes. His own interest stems from his passion for sports, and from his own parenting journey to two sports-loving children, now adult athletes. “This is a sensitive area of parenting that is sadly undervalued,” he says. “After all, sport parenting deserves meticulous attention across the developmental stages of the student-athlete. Get it right, and it will make all the difference!”

The development of a student-athlete

Student-athletes face many challenging selection processes throughout this pivotal period in their lives. “Across a well-planned long-term athletic developmental programme, the processes and timings of selection need to align with the readiness of a student-athlete. These include physical, cognitive, social and parental readiness, which all play an important role,” Dr Riolo explains. 

“If a student faces a selection process too early on, this could have a traumatic effect on how they perceive their athletic abilities,” he continues. “It is therefore crucial to consider all relevant age-appropriate aspects of readiness when assessing them for athlete selection. Failure to do so could mean that potential talent is suppressed.” 

Dr Riolo explains that the physical challenges endured in sport training – such as the development of skill, strength and fitness – are easy to evaluate. The less obvious psychological aspect of training, on the other hand, presents its own challenges, and cannot be overlooked. 

“Just as student-athletes depend on coaches to help them improve their physical condition, they also need psychological support to help them build resilience, belief in their own selves, and coping strategies to ensure they get back up and push forward when they face moments of hardship,” he stresses.  

Parenting a student-athlete 

There comes a time in the development of young athletes when their selected sport becomes very important in their lives. It provides personal satisfaction, and makes them feel good about themselves, appreciated, and wanted – all factors that impact their sense of identity.

“This is a delicate phase during which conflicts with parents are likely – conflicts that are perfectly normal and can be avoided or at least managed,” Dr Riolo asserts.  

Striking a balance between the dynamic life of an athlete and the structure imposed by academic studies is one of the biggest challenges that parents face. Dr Riolo admits that “obstacles do present themselves, at times without warning; however, proper planning and setting smart goals will avoid turbulent mishaps and disappointment.”

No parent likes to see their children struggle between their studies and sporting commitments. After all, post-secondary school life is a demanding time for any student, let alone a student-athlete. Dr Riolo believes students can manage their free time in a profitable way – by working out, fitting in that extra training session, or catching up on some academic work. 

This approach should provide some consolation to parents. “Absorbing demands of time management at this point in their studies is an essential lesson student-athletes will carry across all their entire athletic career and beyond,” he states. 

Sports vs studies? A better approach 

“There is no such thing as an equal divide between sport and academics,” Dr Riolo says. “The dynamics of both fluctuate across the journey. There are times when studies are a priority, and others when athletic preparation before a major competition is needed for students to get ahead.” 

Over time, student-athletes become better tuned-in to their own bodies and can more accurately determine the right time for sleep, study, working out, cognitive engagement and so on, helping them to plan their day more efficiently. 

“But students also need to forge an education path that supports their participation and competition in sports,” emphasises Dr Riolo. “Moving beyond the scope of a ‘traditionally set’ education journey ultimately serves to enrich their educational path and should be celebrated as an example of holistic education.”

Some children may wish to take time off from their studies to focus on their sport and Dr Riolo lauds this as an important step in their personal development, offering them vital exposure to the outside world. However, some parents may insist their child first complete their degree. “This is a traditionalist version of academic progress,” cautions Dr Riolo. “It belittles sports itself, bullies the holistic ideal, and suppresses those inclined towards active and competitive sport. Dismissive and misguided comments such as these, even if well-meaning, can be damaging.” 

The importance of communication

Communication is critical when it comes to staving off conflict. Dr Riolo emphasises the importance of setting clear, short- and long-term objectives and regularly re-evaluating them. These targets must be discussed between the student, parent, coach and educational institution to ensure everyone is on the same page and clear on what could lie ahead. 

“Of course, the older a student-athlete gets, the more self-directed they become. This is when communication has to evolve to match, and it becomes more important than ever for parents to openly listen and discuss the changing ambitions of their children.”

Aside from that, Dr Riolo understands it may be easy for parents to get carried away with their own ambitions for their children. He stresses it’s important to be realistic and talk together about what they hope their sporting future could look like, as this may be very different from what the parents envision.”

Finally, Dr Riolo highlights the crux to ensuring success for all involved: “In my experience, both as an educator and as a sport parent, I feel that two key words – ‘voice’ and ‘choice’ – should be kept in sight at all times. These words help us relate more closely and effectively to the needs of the future generations of student-athletes and brings everyone closer to the goals that they crave.”


The Mediterranean College of Sport is set to be one of the most pioneering educational and sporting facilities in the Maltese islands, aiming to develop future athletes of international calibre. The co-educational college is set to open its doors to students in October 2024 and will be housed adjacent to St Aloysius College in Birkirkara. For further information please send an email to .