Parent Talk

When it comes to dealing with today’s parents, athletic directors must coach their coaches on how to foster positive relationships with this vocal group.

By Dan Cardone

Dan Cardone has been the Athletic Director at North Hills High School, in Pittsburgh, Pa., for nine years. He also has 17 years of experience as a teacher and coach.

Athletic Management, 13.5, August/September 2001,

For high school coaches, the ability to communicate with parents is clearly more important today than it was five years ago. In fact, in less than a generation, it has gone from one minor aspect of a coach’s job to an area that can lead them down the path to success, or contribute to their downfall.

In our athletic program at North Hills High School (Pittsburgh, Pa.), I closely watch our new coaches whenever parental concerns arise. An individual who handles parents successfully may be flagged as a potential varsity head coach.

But, beyond simply using parental relations as a measuring stick, there is much an athletic director can and should do to help coaches deal with this aspect of their job. At North Hills, we try to support our coaches in this area through several different efforts, including education, resources, and strategies for dealing with parents.

Understanding Today’s Parent
Much of our education on working with parents occurs during our preseason coaches meetings. The initial point of discussion is: What are the different reasons today’s parents get overly involved in their children’s athletics? Once coaches understand the motivations behind parental involvement, they can often handle any complaints in a more appropriate manner.

For some parents, the involvement stems from their assumption that athletics is the means to an end. With the expense parents face in paying college tuition, pouring a lot of money into private tennis lessons may be intended to result in a college tennis scholarship. Thus, the parent is prepared to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the child is the top player on the high school team, in the conference, or in the state. This kind of situation can be disastrous for a coach, and should be recognized as soon as possible so it can be addressed.

Other parents have an intense emotional attachment to their child’s success in sports. As University of Washington Psychology Professor Frank L. Smoll, an expert on coach-parent relations, explains, “The problem arises when parents take on a sense of over-identification. Parents are going to identify with their children—it’s part of the love bond that’s been established. And yet for some parents, the identification becomes excessive. So it’s not Johnny or Mary who’s out there competing, but an extension of the parent’s own ego. When that happens, the young athlete has to excel or the parent feels threatened.”

Some parents are also accustomed to being involved in their children’s sports endeavors through youth teams and want to continue in that role. These parents often appear very helpful at first, but can quickly become a burden. They may choose to frequent practices, never giving the child any breathing room.

Others only view their child through rose-colored glasses and feel their role as parents is to be an all-out advocate for their child. If the coach does not give their particular child a lot of attention, the parents may dislike and distrust the coach. These types of parents then may openly exhibit these feelings through repeated arguments with the coach.

With these scenarios in mind, we urge coaches to understand the underlying concern when a parent approaches them. In many cases, the initial question really masks a familiar complaint: “Why isn’t my son or daughter playing more?” Coaches need to understand the initial question may not be the real issue. They may be left to figure out why the child’s playing time is important to this particular parent.

Preseason Parents Meeting
Beyond understanding some of the underlying causes of unhealthy parental involvement, coaches need specific strategies for dealing with today’s parents. The best advice we offer is to clearly define rules and expectations in the preseason parents meeting. Coaches may vary in their exact guidelines, but it is critical that they always spell them out in detail to parents prior to each sport season.

“I do think each coach should set his or her own limits,” says Maureen Pritchard, Head Swim Coach at South Fayette High School, in McDonald, Pa. “That will vary according to personalities involved, which sport is being played, gender, and length of tenure of the coach.”

The coach should begin by outlining the overall program goals. For example, at the junior high level, participation is a program goal. Keeping the interest of the athletes in your program and developing skills can lead to future program success. At the varsity level, of course, there is a greater emphasis on winning. Parents should understand this difference from the outset.

Coaches can then define some of their more specific expectations of team members. For example, a coach who says, “We expect your child to be at practice every day,” has outlined the expectation of dependability. He or she may also want to discuss expectations about teamwork, positive attitude, responsibility, accountability—whatever is important to that coach.

At the same time, a coach can define what the parents can expect from the coach. Toni Yokitis, who has four sons in our athletic programs, lists six things she, as a parent, looks for in a coach: discipline, knowledge, enthusiasm, someone who gets the most out of the players, treats everyone the same (is fair), and treats everyone differently (knows them as individuals).

The preseason meeting is also the coach’s first chance to define him or herself as the authority figure within the program. It should be made clear that the coach (and his or her staff) alone will decide who plays what position and when. Something as simple as the tone of voice can let the audience know that this is not a subject open to debate.

Also important is setting the stage for how parents should communicate concerns. Coaches should not pretend that parents will not voice concerns. Rather, they should outline examples of what types of concerns are valid and which are not. Valid concerns could be: “My child says he is having problems communicating with you,” and “Other players are bullying my child.” Examples of concerns that are not valid might be: “Why did my child not get in the varsity game?” and “If my child batted lead-off, I think the team could be better.” Being absolutely clear up front should give the coach some negotiating power later on.

Next, coaches should communicate rules on how they would like to be approached. We tell coaches to inform the parents it is not a good idea to approach them immediately after a practice or contest. Each coach must decide whether he or she will allow parents to call them at home. As a former coach, I know a great day at practice can be ruined by a phone call from a disgruntled parent. So, we encourage coaches to tell parents that it is best to call the school to set up an appointment.

There should also be a procedure for handling concerns that are not easily resolved. The parents should first contact and meet with the coach, then with the athletic director, then the principal. I recommend that the athlete not be involved in these meetings. The parent may ask for frankness, and the player may have his or her feelings hurt.

One final idea for the preseason meeting is to ask a parent, with a positive attitude, and a senior student-athlete to speak. The parent may be able to articulate what he or she does when his or her child complains about a coach.

Parent Toni Yokitis says she tells her kids, “You are choosing to go out for the sport—there are no guarantees. Every coach is different, just like every teacher is different. You are the one who has to adapt and adjust to their coaching style. I tell my children the best way to have greater success in any endeavor is to work harder than everyone else.”

It can also be quite revealing for parents to hear a student-athlete speak. Most athletes are embarrassed by parents who are overly involved and prefer their parents’ involvement be positive. When parents hear such words directly from a student, it can be very effective.

Responding to the Angry Parent
Even after outlining all the rules and discussing the procedures mentioned above, coaches are certain to have at least one meeting per year with a disgruntled parent. I tell our coaches that when I talk to visibly upset parents of an athlete, I picture someone above me on a cliff who I am trying to help bring down. Part of that endeavor is to speak to them in a calm voice. They need to have their emotions coaxed down so that we are speaking at the same level. When emotions are high, it is difficult to make any headway in getting to the facts.

We also tell coaches to maintain direct eye contact and listen as long as they have to. Rephrasing what the parent is saying is another prompt to use. “So what you are saying is ... (Repeat what they just said).” Or “Am I hearing you correctly? Let me repeat what you just said so I have a clear understanding of what you are feeling.” By guiding the parent through the conversation, the facts start to emerge.

It is important for the coach to remain calm and congenial even if an agreement cannot be reached. If a meeting becomes counterproductive, the coach should close the meeting as best he or she can. If the parent wants to pursue the matter, the coach should provide him or her with the next step in that process. When a coach takes this positive, helpful attitude, parents may see that the coach is really doing the best he or she can. They may even begin to ask themselves, “What do I win if I win?”

Along the same lines, the coach should be careful to always follow through with parents. We instruct our coaches to return all phone calls promptly. If they say they will get back to a parent about something, they need to do just that. If they do not know the answer to a question, but promise to get back to them, they need to make sure that happens. If a coach lacks follow through, the athletic director will have a tough time defending the actions of the coach.

If an angry parent approaches the coach in a public setting, the situation is obviously more difficult to handle. The coach needs to make a decision on the spot as to what to do (what I refer to as “Fight or Flight Syndrome”). In some cases it is best to walk away, in others to stand ground.

I tell coaches to immediately let me know about such incidents. We have informed parents by letter that if such behavior persists, they will not be permitted to attend contests. For the overly involved parent, this can serve as a wake-up call. There are limits to what a parent can do, and the lack of a demarcation line sends the wrong message to parents.

Be Caring, Accessible
We also remind coaches that no matter who the parent is or what the circumstances are, they are a role model and need to exhibit caring behavior. If a parent insists that their child quit the team because he or she only sits on the bench, the coach should take time to discuss the benefits of being part of organized sport. This may change a parent’s perception that the coach was not interested in their child’s development.

For example, we had a student who did not make the final roster in basketball, so the coach encouraged him to be a manager. As a manager, he was able to work on his shooting daily, and was even used by the junior varsity coach when they were short a player. The next year, he made the team.

Pritchard tells a similar story: “I had a parent take her son out after the first day of practice two years ago. The parent called me at home saying practice was too challenging. Luckily, I had her son in class that year, so he got to know me and came out for the team the following year. He is now a top swimmer and his younger brother even joined the team. They helped recruit four others on our team!”

In their discussions with parents, we encourage our coaches to be understanding. The child may be displeased with their role on the team and bring that discontent home. This can make for an unhappy household. A parent may have a tough time dealing with the effect this is having on their child. Coaches can often help by relating how other parents have dealt with this problem.

We also feel that a coach should be accessible and approachable. This means that there are times when the coach puts him- or herself out there to the parents—through a preseason team picnic, for example. Getting to know the parents enables the coach to establish some common ground and shows that he or she has an interest in the development of their child. Those coaches who take the time to get to know parents seem to have less problems.

“Allowing the student and parents to know you on some personal level really helps,” says Pritchard. “They soon learn that you only want what is best for their child and best for the team.”

It’s also important to be accessible to parents throughout the season. We once had a coach who told the parents that he would not discuss with them any topic dealing with team or player performance. This, of course, did not leave much else to talk about. The parents became distant from the coach, which led to mistrust. While coaches need to set the stage for dealing with parents, they cannot simply close the curtain before the play begins.

Allowing parents to help can also turn them into allies. An old saying divides people into two groups: doers and complainers. Doers are usually too busy to be naysayers. A few years ago, the parent of a baseball player was critical of the coach’s efforts to provide driving directions to away games for the parents. The coach explained how busy he was during the season and asked the parent if he wouldn’t mind putting together a direction packet for all the parents. The parent easily agreed and did a great job. When a parent comes forth to lodge a complaint, he or she may have the solution as well.

The Overly Involved Parent
I read recently about a parent, a police officer, who attended the little league baseball game of his son. When his son’s team was affected by an umpire’s call, he went home and changed into his uniform. He then tracked down the car of the umpire and cited him for a traffic violation.

Although this is an extreme example, we are seeing more and more parents act irrationally when it comes to sports and their child. They may move their child from one school to another because they do not like the head coach, continue to want to “coach their own,” or constantly question how their son or daughter is being used. This is what I call the overly involved parent, and the sooner you can identify this situation, the better hope you have of resolving it.

What can a coach do to make the environment better for the athlete of the parent who is too involved? Certainly, a cautious approach is needed. The coach needs to decide what is the best method to form a working relationship. One option is to draw a subtle line. This can be done by body language or by intentional avoidance. It is hoped that the parent may come to feel that they cannot invade the privacy of the coach at their whim.

The parent may even tell a coach, “I noticed you are avoiding me.” The answer, depending on the situation, can invite or restrict the interaction. One response might be, “Oh, did you want to ask me a specific question?” This is a gesture to encourage conversation, but on a limited basis. Saying, “Oh, what did you want to talk about?” leaves the dialogue too open-ended.

A parent may ask a question with a negative connotation: “What do you have against my kid?” That is an attempt to get the coach’s emotions to rise. We recommend to our coaches that their answer be something like, “You must really be upset about something. What is it?” If you are in a place where there are a number of people, delay the interaction by adding, “Could I call you or do you want to call me later?” Or, “I do want to speak to you, but I have to be somewhere in 10 minutes. Could I call you later tonight?”

Pritchard gives this advice: “To deal with an overly involved parent, I treat them with respect and speak to them directly about any issue I might have with their behavior. I back up anything I have to say with data, reports, statistics, articles, and so forth. After trying all of that, I ask for administrative support and ideas.”

The AD’s role
I also encourage dialogue between the athletic director and coach when a problem arises. If a call comes from a parent in the form of a complaint, a coach may want to engage someone they trust to play out the course of the conversation. In the preseason coaches meeting, I encourage coaches to let me know whenever there is a confrontation with a parent, even if it means calling me at home. The adage, “None of us is as smart as all of us,” usually applies here.

Athletic directors can also help by practicing the same strategies they have given their coaches. For example, if a parent asks you a question, be sure to follow through. My approach is to underpromise and overdeliver. I might say, “I may not be able to get that information for you for a few days.” Then I work to get it to them that same day.

I also always thank a parent who has come to me with a concern. It’s still better to have a parent who cares deeply about his or her child than one who does not care at all.

Ultimately, I strive to make the experience a learning one for the parent: Today’s parents often want to draw comparisons, but sports (and life) are not always fair and equal. If they allow their child to learn this important lesson on their own, we have done our job.

A Student Speaks

In researching and writing this article I spoke with Alexis Maddox, a student-athlete whose parents have been involved in her sport in a positive way. I found her comments insightful and thought I would share them. They may work well as a handout to parents at the preseason meeting.

What would your parents tell you if you said you had a problem with a coach?

They would say that I should go to the coach and tell him what my concern was. This way, I learn to accept responsibility for my problems. Later in life they will not be there for me, and I need to learn to stand on my own.

Your parents seem to be involved in a positive way.

Yes, and I like it that way. Kids who have parents who are overly involved can be a disruption to the team. If they cause a change, then the team resents the athlete whose parents caused the commotion. It is easier for a coach to like kids whose parents are supportive. They tend to shy away from players whose parents are overly involved.

What if your parents were overly involved?

If they are overly involved in a positive way, that is a good thing. It shows they care about our team and me. If they were disruptive, it would be embarrassing. I want to be proud of the way my parents are involved in my school activity.