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Build effective coach-parent relationships

This is an excerpt from Sport Club Management, by Matthew J. Robinson.


Coaches today have an enormous responsibility.In addition to meeting the needs of their athletes, coaches must meet the expectations of the clubs they represent. They must also engage with and answer to parents, who come with their own expectations and desire to be involved. Some parents want to be highly involved, others wish to be minimally involved, and a number can become overly involved. Coaches who have experienced parents who yell at their children to perform, try to coach from the sidelines, or consistently question coaching decisions understand how difficult it can be to deal with parents, particularly the most difficult ones who behave poorly during games. Accounts of parents engaging in inappropriate behaviors ranging from verbal to physical assaults on other parents, coaches, and referees appear frequently in the media. Sport club leaders who have experienced parental complaints about coaches understand how difficult it can be to bridge the gap between the needs of the parents and the coach’s need for a certain degree of autonomy.

Given the central role of parents in club sports (particularly when dealing with young participants who cannot drive), coaches and sport club administrators must be prepared to deal with parents on a regular and ongoing basis and to respond to their needs. This chapter is grounded in a philosophy that embraces parents as in important part of the club sport experience. Rather than casting them as peripheral to the sport experience, club leaders and coaches should consider parents valuable resources who deserve to feel valued, respected, and central. Research has shown that parents, along with coaches, peers, and siblings, play an important role in athletes’ prolonged sport participation (Cote, Baker, & Abernethy, 2003; Cote & Fraser-Thomas, 2007).

This philosophical approach departs from the “my way or the highway” model of coaching in which the coach is considered the expert and parents are expected to accept coaching and club decisions without question or explanation. Instead, the relationship between coach and parent is seen as a process of social negotiation that enhances the experience of the child. A study of junior tennis players revealed that 59 percent of coaches believed that parents contributed to the success of their children (Gould, Lauer, Rolo, Jannes, & Penniski, 2006).

Finally, this philosophical approach accepts that parents have the best interests of their children at heart regardless of their level of involvement or their motivations for enrolling their children in the sport. Too often, coaches and others assume that parents who don’t come to practices and games are not interested in their children’s sporting experiences, or that parents who are over-involved pressure their unwilling children. These negative assumptions must be suspended and replaced with one that assumes parents have the best intentions, not the worst.

Embracing Collaboration

The first step in embracing parent collaboration is to accept that parents have a right to understand and be informed about all aspects of their children’s experiences. Too often, parents are left to learn about the experiences of their children by listening to their comments or by observing their children, the coach, and their interactions during games and practices. Although both of these are important and valid ways to learn about the experiences of their children, this two-dimensional view does not allow the parent to fully understand how and why the coach and child interact the way they do, nor the reasons the coach has made the decisions she has.

For parents to fully understand the complex learning environment and specific cultural context that is unique to each team within the club, they need to be considered part of a communication triad that includes the child, the parent, and the coach (figure 4.1). Within this triad the parent and the coach work collaboratively to help the child learn (improve skills) and have a successful experience as an athlete. In the process, both coach and parent also learn—about themselves, about each other, and about the child. They are bound together because they both have the best interest of the child at heart while each holding beliefs and expectations (sometimes similar and sometimes different) about the child’s sporting experience.

Each member of the communication triad comes to the team experience with different knowledge, skills, and dispositions that underlie their temperaments and guide their behaviors. Children come with knowledge and skills learned through participation in physical education class and on other sport teams, extra coaching from their parents, or informal pick-up experiences with friends and family. No player arrives devoid of knowledge and skills, but each arrives with differing levels grounded in their own personal experiences.

Parents come with intimate knowledge of their children and parenting skills necessary to deal with them. They also come with variety of strengths that may include varying degrees of knowledge and expertise about the sport, an understanding of the developmental needs of a particular group of students, or skills in managing the athletes. An elementary teacher, for example, would have a great deal of knowledge about age-appropriate behaviors and complimentary pedagogies that a coach may not have.

Coaches arrive with varying degrees of sport-specific knowledge, skills, and pedagogies. Although paid coaches may have a higher level of experience and knowledge than volunteer coaches, all arrive with a well-intentioned willingness to teach the athletes.

Importantly, parents and coaches also come with parenting and coaching philosophies that underlie their dispositions and guide their decisions and behaviors These philosophies are grounded in their beliefs about a myriad of aspects that affect the child’s experience as an athlete. These include beliefs about discipline, work ethic, winning, determinants of playing time, what constitutes commitment and skill improvement, and even the role of the coach (figure 4.2).

Developing a Shared Understanding

By recognizing and acknowledging the reciprocal and sometimes competing influences of coaches and parents, the club and its coaches can work toward developing a shared understanding with parents. This is different from working to change the beliefs of parents. We know that beliefs are strongly resistant to change (Pajares, 1992), sometimes regardless of new experiences. As such, the club’s focus should not be on changing beliefs but rather on being explicit and straightforward about what parents might expect of the coach. A change in fundamental beliefs may happen, but ensuring appropriate interactions and behaviors is the ultimate goal.

For example, parental coaching from the sidelines is not only disruptive and inappropriate, but has also been shown to influence the dropout rates of adolescent swimmers’ sport participation (Fraser-Thomas, Cote, & Deakin, 2008). To reduce or eliminate these behaviors, a coach must explicitly state his expectations about parental behavior at games and practices. Simply put, he must communicate that parental coaching from the sidelines is unwelcome because it distracts the players from focusing, and further, that parents who continue to do so will not be welcome at practices or games. The parents may continue to believe that coaching from the sidelines is appropriate and beneficial to their children, but they may choose to reduce or stop their behaviors at the behest of the coach.

Developing a shared understanding in the coaching context is also different from negotiating and consensus building. Not everything is negotiable, and coach–parent consensus is not always required. Sideline coaching is one example; another might be playing time (who gets it and under what conditions). Coach–parent consensus about playing time is not the desired outcome, nor should parents be allowed to negotiate on behalf of their child for more of it. Instead, a shared understanding is achieved when parents understand exactly how players are granted playing time and the coach understands that she will be held accountable for applying playing time rules equitably.

Developing a shared understanding does not happen by accident or default. Rather, it is a multidimensional process that begins with self-reflection and ends with a commitment to building relationships with parents that extend beyond the coaching context. The remainder of this chapter outlines four ways coaches can intentionally work to develop a shared understanding with parents to ensure positive interactions and a successful and enjoyable experience for the athletes: (1) being transparent about one’s coaching philosophy, (2) engaging in appropriate and ongoing communication, (3) collecting data to guide decisions and assess athletes’ progress (and select athletes for the team), and (4) providing social opportunities outside of the coaching context.

 

Being Transparent About One’s Coaching Philosophy

A coach who shares an articulate and reflective coaching philosophy with parents (both verbally and in writing) has taken an important first step in helping parents understand her behavior. The philosophy statement should articulate what the coach (and club) values and believes. It provides a window into the experiences the coach is committed to providing the athletes during the season. The philosophy statement is also informed by the club philosophy. Where possible, a coach’s personal philosophy should be congruent with that of the club in order to avoid surprises and conflicts later in the relationship. A discussion of coaching philosophy should be a part of the hiring process, and both parties should fully understand any points of difference.

The creation of a coaching philosophy is an important precursor to communicating openly and consistently with parents. A coaching philosophy is an honest reflection about what the coach and club value. It helps parents fully understand what they can expect from the coach so they are able to clearly see similarities and question important differences. If, for example, parents value equal playing time and the coach’s philosophy is that every team should experience the thrill of winning regardless of the fact that some children may not play, then a discussion with the parents will be required. The difference in philosophies may not be reconcilable and the child may be moved to a different level of competition or team, but ultimately that decision may be in the best interest of all concerned.

When crafting a coaching philosophy, coaches must be truly honest and reflective because the goal is to ensure that their coaching behaviors reflect and align with their philosophies. (See the sidebar on page 75 for an exercise that will help you craft a coaching philosophy.) They might begin by asking themselves what they value as a coach, such as hard work, winning, teamwork, effort, knowing their athletes and how to motivate them, being a positive role model, or providing athletes with a certain degree of autonomy. There are no correct responses, just honest ones.

Next, coaches should consider whether their coaching behaviors actually align with their values. A coach who says he values hard work should reward it. He needs to ask himself how he currently encourages and rewards hard work in practices and games. Does he allocate playing time based on an athletes’ ability to work hard in practice, regardless of their technical or tactical ability, or does he play only the more highly skilled athletes who he thinks might help the team win? Does allocating playing time truly reward hard work? Are there other ways he might consider rewarding hard work in practice?

By reflecting on their behaviors and how those behaviors align with their philosophies, coaches are also forced to answer the fundamental questions that link the two: How will I know hard work when I see it, and how will my players know I am valuing their hard work? and, What can I do to be a positive role model, and how will my players know I am being a positive role model? Answering these questions is an important part of the reflection process and will assist with effective communication with the athletes and parents. A coach might decide, for example, that being a good role model requires refraining from yelling at officials and setting a rule that requires athletes and parents to do the same.

 



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