Enhancing Parent-Coach Relations in Youth Sports
Gregg S. Heinzmann, Ed.M.
Director, Youth Sports Research Council
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Conflict is unfortunate – especially when it occurs in organized youth sports between volunteer coaches and parents over a “kids’ game”. Yet, as much as parents strive to avoid disagreements with their child’s coach (and vice versa) it is inevitable that there will be differences of opinion during the course of a sports season. Typically, these differences involve issues such as coaching style or game strategy. Perhaps the most potentially volatile subjects, however, are disagreements over coaching philosophy, assigning positions or the allocation of playing time. Nothing irritates parents more than watching their child sit on the bench or “always playing right field”.
When conflict between coaches and parents is not adequately resolved, communication stops and animosity develops. Parents who think their child is not being treated fairly often feel “powerless” and frustrated that their concerns are not being addressed. Coaches who sense parental discontent often feel “persecuted” and unappreciated for all the time and effort that they devote to coaching young athletes. Left further unresolved, conflicts can escalate to verbal and, in rare cases, physical altercations that not only reflect poorly upon the individuals involved, but can also tarnish the sport, embarrass the sponsoring organization, and divide an entire community.
The purpose of this article is to identify some of the factors that can lead to conflict between coaches and youth sport parents, particularly, the misguided behavior of well-meaning volunteers and the unrealistic expectations of over-protective parents, and to recommend strategies for avoiding disputes or resolving disagreements before they become headline news.
The Role of the Administrator
Youth sport administrators are the unsung heroes of organized sport. They devote countless hours attending to the needs and concerns of their constituents including: athletes, parents, coaches, officials, and sponsors. Dedication alone, however, is not enough to ensure a successful league. Administrators must also be able to establish and maintain good relations with local elected officials, boards of education, and community recreation departments. Effective administrators need the skill of a business executive and the diplomacy of an ambassador in order to manage relationships and advance the mission of the organization. In fact, the reputation of an entire organization often depends upon the competence of the league President.
Conversely, if administrators lack the interpersonal skills, judgment, and/or integrity to carry out their responsibilities, then relationships suffer – particularly, the parent/coach relationship. For example, when a coach and parent are at odds and unable to resolve their differences, the league President must mediate the dispute and consult with both parties before rendering a decision. In addition to being tactful, the President must be impartial and recognize when they might have a vested interest in the outcome. Otherwise they risk alienating an important constituent. This scenario often arises in youth sport organizations when administrators also serve as volunteer coaches and are perceived as part of the “good old-boy network”. Many parents report feeling “victimized” and “powerless” by these circumstances and subsequently resort to extreme measures including contacting the news media, their attorney, and Rutgers YSRC for advice and support in arguing their case. Ultimately, it is the Board of Directors which must carry-out league policy and intervene whenever the league President is incapable or unwilling to exercise good judgment.
Coach Issues Impacting the Relationship
Come Prepared and On Time
Youth sport coaches are busy volunteers and they deserve our thanks. But a coach’s time is no more valuable than that of youth sport parents who have equally challenging schedules and hectic lifestyles. Accordingly, coaches must come to practice on time and prepared. When they are frequently absent, or chronically late, coaches invite criticism and resentment from parents who often make extraordinary efforts to be on time. Ironically, these same coaches “add insult to injury” when they tell kids who arrive late to run laps! Perhaps, more important, tardy coaches end up hurting their athletes’ performance, since youngsters often model the habits and behaviors of adults. Not surprisingly, then, the team is typically disorganized and commits excessive fouls/penalties. In short, the players are “undisciplined” through little to no fault of their own.
Similarly, coaches who fail to bring the basic equipment to conduct safe and effective practices are potentially negligent and subject themselves and their organizations to legal liability. At a minimum, coaches should wear a whistle and be prepared to use it during drills to effectively stop action, particularly in football, soccer, lacrosse, and basketball. Coaches must also be strategically positioned throughout the field or gym during intra-squad scrimmages so that athletes can hear the sound of the whistle when they’re “going full-speed”. Finally, coaches should wear proper clothing and footwear to effectively demonstrate technique and to avoid personal injury.
Use Positive Discipline vs. Physical Punishment
Young athletes make mistakes not unlike the errors made by highly-paid professionals. Accordingly, a parent might wonder, “Why is my child being punished for being a kid?” Coaches who routinely make children run laps for “misbehaving”, or do push-ups for committing “mental errors”, have no place in youth sports. Accordingly, parents who observe coaches resorting to such measures should approach the coach after practice, respectfully ask for an explanation, and discuss their concerns. Each party must strive to reach a consensus about what is in the best interest of the child.
Thereafter, coaches should consider using age-appropriate alternatives to physical punishment. For example, instead of making everyone run a lap when certain kids aren’t listening, coaches could try the “Whisper and Wait” technique. Teachers have mastered this approach for years and their students dutifully comply. Rather than constantly yell, “Listen Up!” a coach should speak in a quiet voice and then pause briefly to gain the athletes’ attention. The low volume and awkward silence will usually draw attention to the speaker. Athletes who cannot hear, or who notice the coach waiting for quiet, will “shush” teammates into paying attention.
Ideally, the goal of corrective instruction should be for children to not only discover “the correct way” of performing the skill, but to learn “self-discipline” (vs. obedience to authority). Self-discipline refers to the child’s ability to understand the consequences of his/her actions and be willing to accept those consequences after having decided upon a course of action (i.e., choices, decision, consequences). Coaches who view themselves as facilitators of this process - as “educators” committed to developing their athletes, rather than as “disciplinarians” charged with “making boys into men” - are more likely to recognize the value of positive discipline as a teaching tool.
As previously mentioned, volunteer coaches often make significant sacrifices to fulfill their duties, including rushing home from work and postponing meals. However, coaches should not make phone calls (except emergencies, of course), handle personal business, or visit the snack stand during practice. Parents have a legitimate concern when they observe volunteers constantly socializing or “stuffing their faces” rather than coaching their child. Furthermore, eating in front of the athletes, who may not have eaten their dinner, either, is at the very least, distracting and undermines the learning process. Such behavior is also poor public relations for the league because it sends an unintended and counter-productive message to parents that their youngster is not the coach’s highest priority. Finally, coaches who engage in frequent casual conversation with their peers, rather than “doing their job”, cannot effectively supervise the youngsters to whom they’ve been entrusted – one of the major causes of athlete injury and subsequent lawsuits brought by angry plaintiffs against volunteer coaches.
Avoid Sarcasm and Public Criticism
John Wooden, the revered UCLA basketball coach once said, “Praise in public; criticize in private.” This does not mean, however, that coaches may “trash” kids provided no one is watching. Embarrassment is the worst form of criticism and virtually guarantees resentment from players and rebellion from parents. In fact, youth sport parents expect the coach to teach and build their child’s confidence, rather than ridicule and destroy their self-esteem.
In addition, although some age-groups, especially young teens, may find a coach’s sarcastic sense of humor “funny”, most adults find it distasteful and inappropriate. For example, a volunteer coach was reported to have said the following to an 11-year-old after he missed an assignment, “Hey Smith, he beat you worse than his ex-girlfriend.” (Evidently, the coach had never met a victim of domestic violence.) Imagine the parents’ reaction? While the children laughed at the so-called “humor” in the coach’s remark, the adults were appalled and justifiably incensed. Coaches must avoid using off-color jokes and sarcasm, especially with impressionable youngsters. Although the kids might “relate” to this style, it erodes respect and undermines the coach’s credibility. Moreover, some parents will question whether or not the coach is, indeed, capable of teaching constructive life-lessons through sports. Finally, coaches must be certain that conversations about a player’s performance are not overheard by teammates or shared with other parents. Keep this information strictly confidential.
Strive to Be Fair
While clearly a subjective matter, coaches must strive for fairness – in playing time, position, and when assigning leadership roles. Fairness does not mean equal, but, rather, equitable. For example, certain sports require mandatory minimum playing time (e.g., baseball – 6 defensive outs/1 at-bat; football - 8 plays, etc.). Within that framework, however, coaches have considerable discretion over which players will receive the minimum and which will play more during games. Ideally, the decision regarding “who plays more” should take into account, not only the player’s ability to help the team achieve its goals, but also the effort exerted at practice during the previous week.
Although it may seem self-evident, coaches should use players in order to maximize the team’s chance of success, but also to maintain good relations with parents. In other words, it may be prudent to avoid having a friend or assistant coach’s child play a key position (e.g., pitcher, quarterback, etc.) or receive preferential playing-time over other equally deserving players. Similarly, coaches should not select their own son or daughter as a “Captain” unless they are absolutely certain that their child has earned that distinction! Doing so not only jeopardizes a coach’s credibility with parents, but it can also undermine the motivation of other players on the team who demonstrate leadership qualities and superior athletic ability. Although children do not fully understand “politics”, they often know it when they see it. Parents, on the other hand, “get it” all too well and bristle at the “injustice” to their child.
Admit When You’re Wrong
Coaches are role-models. They have an obligation to teach sportsmanship by their words and, most importantly, by their deeds. Yet, we’re all human and in the heat of athletic competition, reasonable people sometimes say, and do things, that they otherwise wouldn’t. There is, however, no justification for using profanity, abusing officials, or berating children. Coaches must recognize when their behavior has “crossed the line”; be able to say, “I made a mistake”; and accept the consequences. In turn, parents are more likely to “forgive and forget” if the apology is sincere and the coach’s behavior subsequently changes. Coaches who rationalize their own inappropriate behavior by saying, “I was just trying to teach them a lesson” are more likely to raise skepticism and further erode parents’ trust.
Finally, if a coach’s offense draws a league sanction, such as a suspension or ban from attending future games, then parents expect the coach to “do the right thing”. He/she should accept the penalty and privately reflect on how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Defiantly ignoring the ban by attending the next game in “street clothes” demonstrates contempt of authority and is contrary to what coaches expect of their players.
Parent Issues Impacting the Relationship
What Coaches Wish Parents Knew
While volunteer coaches are occasionally responsible for conflicts that arise, youth sport parents share equal responsibility for ensuring that their child’s season will be beneficial and rewarding. Accordingly, coaches should address a number of “realities” with parents regarding their child’s participation in organized youth sports during a preseason team meeting.
- 1.Your child is not as talented as you think. Parents get upset when they think their child is not getting a “fair shake”. However, it’s impossible to be completely objective about our own children. Parents, therefore, must trust the coach’s judgment when it comes to assessing athletic ability and apportioning playing time.
- 2.Your child is more resilient than you think. Parents should be advocates for their children. However, they can’t and shouldn’t attempt to solve all of their children’s problems. In addition, parents must recognize the benefit of letting their child make mistakes. Sport provides an opportunity for children to develop character, but only if parents allow youngsters to experience occasional failure.
- 3.Your athletic career is over. Whether you were an accomplished high-school athlete or constantly picked last at recess for kickball, parents must not attempt to “right past wrongs” or relive their youth through their child. Experiencing the joy and sadness of a child’s athletic career can bring us closer to our children and make life more rewarding, but it’s their life – let them live it.
- 4.Your child’s coach is doing the best they can. Rarely, is a coach “out to get your child.” Parents must remember that the coach is a dedicated volunteer and strive to keep their criticism constructive. It’s also a good idea to say, “thank you” once in awhile.
Volunteer coaches are not paid professionals. Yet, parents have a right to expect that their child’s coach will act responsibly, given their significant influence over young people. Likewise, although parents have the primary responsibility for the health and well-being of their child, they are not the coach. Unless parents are willing to volunteer themselves, they must accept their role as spectator, chauffeur, etc. and allow the coach to do their “job”. While disagreements between coaches and parents are inevitable, they can be resolved through dialogue based upon mutual respect. No one likes conflict, however, delaying or avoiding communication usually erodes trust and escalates tensions. When disagreements cannot be resolved, youth sport administrators must be ready to intervene and act impartially. All adults have an equal responsibility to set a good example and uphold the virtues of sport.