The coach versus parents problem has almost always plagued youth sports. Here’s how to solve it.
By Rick Traugott
Finally, one successful high school coach had had enough.
Coach Kristen McDonnell, who had coached the Braintree, Mass., high school basketball team for 8 years—winning 2 state championships and compiling a 166-25 record—simply had taken enough abuse from some parents of players on her team. Although her statement of resignation talked about the wonderfully supportive families she has worked with over the years and speaks positively about her experience, there is an underlying suggestion as to why she resigned. It appeared that it was parental upset about the way their daughters were being treated and played that pushed McDonnell out the door.
One parent, who had two daughters play for Coach McDonnell at the school, commented:
“The parents are so involved in the day-to-day goings-on of the team. They go and watch the games and they all consider themselves experts, even though they don’t have any credentials. These parents, their hearts get in the way of their heads. They see their kids sitting on the bench and they feel bad for them and so they lash out at the coach.”
But I want to be clear: I certainly understand that there are two sides to every story. There are coaches out there working with young athletes who should not be doing so, mostly because they have difficulty understanding how to treat their players with respect and fairness. But I would argue that those coaches are tougher to find than the parent who treats their children’s coaches unfairly and with disrespect.
I think, for the most part, I have been very lucky in my 30-plus years of coaching to have had very few issues with parents. Coaching for 17 years at a boarding school meant that parents were always a little at arms length. I can count four times that I had any issues that led to a coach versus parents problem.
One was a situation where a parent called me with his feelings on a decision I had made. I understood his viewpoint and changed my mind on the decision after our conversation—not because I was wrong but because his solution was a better one where his son was concerned. Two other parents, of my two goalies one season, both complained within days of each other that since I only played their son against the toughest teams his record wasn’t very good. Unfortunately, we weren’t that strong that year and every one was “the toughest team.”
Coaching minor hockey is a totally different animal. I often joke that a day with only four issues with parents was a good day! One season I had a group of parents—maybe five or six families—who undermined what my coaching staff was trying to accomplish from the start of the season to the end. At the conclusion of that season, I vowed to never coach minor hockey again. It was just not worth the aggravation.
But here is the real downside of the Coach McDonnell story. By all accounts, the game lost a terrific coach and leader of young women. Sure, there will be a few parents in her program who will be happy to see her go. But I suspect that for the most part, this was a loss to the young women who were being coached and would have been coached in the future by McDonnell.
Enough negativity! At the end of the day, as coaches our goal is to teach a game we love to our athletes; to make them better in all facets of playing the sport; to let them have fun coming to practice and playing games; and to allow them to grow and learn to be better people. To elaborate on the “better people” part, here is a list of life lessons that athletes will learn by playing team sports that, as coaches, we should be fostering:
1) Becoming achievement oriented
3) Just because life isn’t fair, doesn’t mean you quit
4) Being a player versus being a performer
5) Setting short- and long-term goals
Of course, the best way to handle a parent group is to over-communicate all of the time. And it is crucial that parents know that you are open to one-on-one dialogue. In my most difficult season, one of the things that stands out is that only one set of parents, who certainly had issue with the way I was coaching, asked to meet with me to discuss their son and the team.
It was a very cordial conversation at a local coffee shop, where we both got to explain our positions and share our feelings. We didn’t agree on everything but we came away understanding each other more. I will always remember that conversation, not because we solved the coach versus parents problem, but because I had two parents who cared enough about their son and the team community to take an hour to sit down and communicate with me in an effective setting.
With the hope of eliminating or even reducing the coach versus parents problem, if I could deliver one message to parents at the start of the season, it would go something like this:
“I believe it takes a village to raise a child. You have all entrusted me to work with your athlete to teach the sport and help them to become better people, and for that I am humbled and grateful. Please presume good intentions in everything I do with the team this year. I have chosen every player because I want to work with them and provide for them a safe learning environment, where they can grow and enjoy being with the team.
“If I have issue with your athlete I will communicate that to you in person. If you have issue with anything to do with the team I ask the same—that you communicate with me in person. My coaching philosophy is to be as positive as possible in all situations. My hope is that it will be your philosophy too with regard to the team. I look forward to working with you in ‘raising your child.’”
Rick Traugott is a frequent contributor to CrossIceHockey.com. He has served with Hockey Canada as a camp coach, with both the National Women’s U18 and U22/Development teams. His teams have won numerous championships and medals in international competitions. For more information visit his website, www.ricktraugott.com. Reproduced with permission of Rick Traugott.