Disagreements, verbal disputes, and physical confrontations have become far too common in today’s sports setting. Sadly, such acrimony seems more prevalent than ever before between adults—parents of athletes and their son’s or daughter’s coaches—that should be seeking many of the same aims. A rash of parent-coach incidents in 2005 prompted the New York Time to bring this problem to national attention, and anecdotal evidence suggests that since then, if anything, parent-coach relationship problems are even more numerous and intense now. Ask coaches what three things they dislike most about their role, and dealing with athletes’ parents is nearly always on the short list.
Why is this so? Some cite the general coarsening of manners and weakening of communication skills in American society. Others attribute such incidents to a growing investment many parents are making to ensure Sammy and Susie’s success on the court and field. The thinking here is, “If I’m going to pay for my child to participate, be it in school sports or on off-season traveling teams, then I should darn well expect more than playing time.” That means a featured role on the team and ultimately expectations of college scholarship offers. When the former fails to occur and the latter appears increasingly unlikely, parents channel their disappointment at the coach. Bruce Svare, director for the National Institute for Sports Reform, suggests another culprit: "Leagues that try to teach parents ethics and good sportsmanship are wasting their time until they deal with the real problem, and that is dialing back on our win-at-all-costs sports culture."
Coaches can certainly be culpable at times, as well. Lack of communication, arrogance and aloofness, verbal abuse of players, inconsistency—as in promises not followed by commensurate actions, and negligence of duties are frequent criticisms of riled parents. Even if such claims aren’t legitimate, the beefs raised by parents tax the time and patience of the accused. And the ripple effect of such public protestations puts all but the most senior and acclaimed coaches on the hot seat.
The aim, obviously, is to avoid letting any differences with parents escalate to that point. We recommend the 4R approach to coaches in an attempt to foster successful relations with parents.
Realism - Make honest evaluations of an athlete’s abilities and what requires improvement for a higher level of success and more playing. Have objective evaluative measures on hand to support this assessment. Also, don’t raise false hopes based on how proficient an athlete could be if performing at maximum potential. Even the best pros seldom play at the apex of their abilities for more than brief spurts.
Reassurance - Meet with parents in the preseason. Be forthright in explaining your philosophy, your knowledge of the game and ability to teach and work with developing athletes, team rules, the demands that will be placed on players, and how they will be treated. Assure them that the athletes’ well-being will always be a foremost concern, but point out that this does not include the child’s happiness. Stress that you will be fair and that your decisions and actions will be guided by what you truly believe are the best interests of the team, the program or school, and individual player’s third. Communicate
your assessment of their child’s abilities and how those abilities fit with other players’ talents on the team.
Respect - Convey your regard for them as loving parents that want the best for their children. Express your appreciation for the confidence they are showing in you and your staff to mentor their kids in the upcoming season. Vow to insist that everyone in your programs, including you, always demonstrate proper respect to other adults, officials, opposing players and coaches, and team members. Note that you expect similar respect in how parents behave at games and the manner in which they refer to you and other members of the program to their child.
Role Definition – Establish the nature and extent of parent involvement. Parent contracts in which at least the athlete’s primary caretaker agrees in writing to parameters of intervention and pledges support for the program reinforce in writing the aspects that are off limits. If a parent balks at any of the restrictions, explain the rationale for including them. Effective role definition helps ensure parents and coaches have delineated duties, thereby avoiding potential conflict and confusion for their son or daughter and your player.
Parents should have a strong interest in their child’s sports participation. And a coach should not seek to diminish that. What a coach must do, however, is channel that enthusiasm and support into the appropriate context before that child every dons a uniform. When handled properly and proactively, parent-coach relations can be a win-win for both parties and a play positive, unifying force in a sports program. When neglected, it can become the stereotypical adversarial situation coaches and parents too often complain about.
Most coaches can write at least one book about the challenges they’ve incurred with player’s parents during the course of their career. While we appreciate those experiences and the difficulties they pose, we’re more interested in solutions. So we
welcome your thoughts, and even more your stories, on encouraging healthy coach-parent interaction. We’ll share the best ideas and tales of success in this forum in subsequent Insiders.