Meet the Parents

Working with today’s parents can be the toughest part of a coach’s job. But things get a whole lot easier when the ground rules are clear and everyone knows their roles.

By Lem Elway

Lem Elway is a member of the Washington State Coaches Hall of Fame. Currently Head Baseball Coach at Black Hills High School in Turnwater, Wash., he has coached several sports at the youth, middle school, high school, and college levels. His first book, The Coach's Administrative Handbook, was recently published by Coaches Choice.

Coaching Management, 15.1, January 2007,

Dealing with parents is one of the most overlooked aspects of coaching. From the dad who questions the coach’s methods for teaching hurdles to the mom who believes her booster club efforts should gain her daughter special status, parents rarely accept their children’s lot in sports just because someone says so.

This generation of moms and dads wants logical explanations for every action a coach takes. They have questions about why certain decisions are made and concerns about how the coach’s actions affect their child. Correctly handed, these situations can make for a positive experience. Handled incorrectly, they can cause a lot of sleepless nights.

For many coaches, a natural first response is to tell parents not to interfere. But this strategy usually backfires. It simply makes the parents distrust the coach. I’ve found a better solution is to make parents part of the team’s success by educating them on their role and on the procedures for raising questions.

Communicate Roles
The first step in educating parents is delineating roles. It helps immensely when parents know their responsibilities as well as those of the athletes and coaches. These may vary depending on your particular school and support staff, but I’ll explain how I break it down in my program as an example. (See Sidebar “Rules on Roles” below for a complete list.)

The coach’s role is to be the leader and communicator. They lead by acting professionally at all times, being good teachers, making fair rules and decisions, staying organized, and setting a good example through their actions. As communicators, they must exhibit good listening skills, be available to athletes and parents, clearly outline rules and expectations, and be in touch with all administrative guidelines. Another constant responsibility of the coach is to reduce all risks associated with the sport and follow safety rules. And, finally, coaches alone make training and competition decisions.

The role of the parent is to be a support system for the athletes and coaches. This entails respecting the rules and decisions made by those in charge, staying positive about every aspect of the team and all of its athletes, and keeping any negative thoughts to themselves. It also entails thoroughly understanding the role of the coaches and knowing not to interfere with that role.

The athlete’s role is to be a responsible member of the team. This includes having a good attitude, following team rules, and asking questions of the coach when needed.

Be Proactive
Once you’ve outlined the responsibilities of the three major groups, you need to communicate to parents and athletes exactly what these roles are. With athletes and assistant coaches, opportunities naturally arise to talk about roles and responsibilities, but with parents, you need a more proactive plan.

The first step is accepting that parental involvement comes with the job. It is very important to make parents feel comfortable about asking questions and to provide good answers. We all know that many parents who ask questions will never be thoroughly satisfied, but as coaches, we need to provide the answers, whether or not they are accepted.

Coaches also need to be ready to justify their actions when dealing with athletes (which also helps to ensure that we are doing the right things in all situations). We need to be ready to respond to the disagreeable parent. And we need to be patient with the parent who has coached or is an active runner, and thus thinks he or she is an expert on the sport.

At the same time, we need to realize that most parents’ experiences are very limited. Something that seems obvious to a coach may need extra explanation to a parent. In addition, parents, by nature, have tunnel vision—they see only their child’s needs and don’t have the ability to be objective when dealing with a situation. It falls on the coach’s shoulders to educate and lead parents through this experience.

Meet Often
Being proactive in dealing with parents also means opening up the lines of communication from day one. I do this by setting up three or four group meetings with parents. This may seem like a lot of extra work, but it actually reduces the number of one-on-one discussions I need to have with parents.

I start with a preseason meeting for potential athletes and their parents. I cover expectations and procedures; the responsibilities of coaches, athletes, and parents (as outlined above); and my coaching philosophy. I also explain some of the details that come with participation on the team: paperwork that parents have to fill out, dates of future parents’ meetings, procedures athletes need to follow, and meet schedules for all levels.

This is not a time when I answer many questions. Rather, it sets the tone that, as the head coach, I am in charge and these are my rules.

Periodically throughout the season, I hold more parents’ meetings. This is a time for me to further explain procedures or address new circumstances. And, unlike the preseason meeting, it also allows parents a forum to express their concerns and give me feedback on the program.

I use a printed agenda so we stay on track. The topics change depending on the time of year and what situations have arisen, but they mostly focus on what rules we have and why. For example, I might talk about our training schedule, expectations of athletes during meets and on bus trips, the consequences of missing practices, plans for spring vacations and field trips, and my expectations of the team.

Allowing a lot of time for parents to ask questions is key. The important thing is that they don’t feel embarrassed to ask something. I don’t want them to have that excuse, so I try to let them know I’m open to any and all questions. During these meetings we have the parents sign in so we know who was there and who was not. That way, if an issue comes up from one of our disruptive parents we can say, “If it was that important to you, why didn’t you come to one of the meetings?”

I’ve found these meetings clear up many of the misconceptions parents may have. Most important, though, they create an environment of openness, which most parents equate with fairness.

Outline the Rules
Although these group meetings usually set the right tone and answer most parents’ questions, a handful of very involved parents will have individual questions and concerns. They will want to talk with you, argue with you, and challenge you. And you will have to deal with them in a positive manner.

Therefore, as a smart coach, it is important to educate parents on how, when, and why to communicate with you. In addition, they need to understand the guidelines for questioning the coach so it’s done professionally and positively rather than as a confrontation. I’ve found that the more guidelines I give parents on how they should communicate with me, the better these discussions go.

First, I ask them to do a little thinking. “If you have a question or concern,” I tell them, “please take the time to think about exactly what your question is.” Next, I ask them to follow our athletic department’s three-step process:

1. If appropriate, talk with your child about your question. What is his or her perspective? Can your child solve the problem without your help?

2. Set up a meeting with the coach if you still have questions. This should be an informational meeting where you ask questions, listen, and have a discussion. But, emotions and language must remain professional. Remember that the coach makes decisions for the good of the team based on practice, ability, and attitude.

3. If questions remain, set up a meeting between the athletic director, the coach, and yourself.

For any of these meetings, I also explain four simple guidelines:

1. Conversation must be professional with regard to both language and conduct.

2. Everyone gets a chance to talk, but everyone must listen as well.

3. Emotional control by all parties is imperative.

4. Meetings are by appointment and must not occur on meet days.

Finally, I also give parents guidelines on what questions are appropriate and how they might ask them in a positive manner. For example, it’s fine to ask about the treatment of their child. They might ask, “What was your reasoning for doing what you did in this situation involving my child?” or “Were there any situations or conditions that led up to this?”

They are also welcome to ask about how their child can improve. I give them examples about how to best phrase these questions:

• “Does my child work hard and have a positive attitude at practice?”

• “What areas does he need to improve in?”

• “Do you have some suggestions we could use to make these improvements?”

Asking about their child’s behavior or attitude is also acceptable. They may ask, “Is my child a positive addition to the team?” or “Is there something I can do to help you?”

Working with and educating parents is an ongoing process and must be done in a proactive manner. Coaches must encourage communication and make the process comfortable and positive for everyone. Being questioned in a forthright manner can be a growing process for a coach, so don’t shy away from it.

Sidebar: Rules on Roles
A great way to get parents to become positive members of your support system is to get them to understand their role, as well as the role of the coaches and the athletes. In no particular order, here is how I outline responsibilities for my athletes’ parents:

1. Set a good example for athletes and fans to follow.
2. Be positive, fair, and consistent with the athletes.
3. Make decisions with thought and care.
4. Establish and organize practice for the team on a daily basis.
5. Be a good communicator with athletes and parents.
6. Protect the safety of all athletes.
7. Know and employ injury-prevention procedures.
8. Make sure athletes know expectations, procedures, rules, and lettering requirements for the program.
9. Make sure everyone has practice and meet schedules.
10. Be a professional practitioner in dealing with situations in the sport and stay current with training techniques.
11. Keep inventory of equipment.
12. Work to help assistants improve.
13. Keep track of the academic progress of athletes.
14. Be available to talk with athletes and parents.

1. Be a fan of everyone on the team.
2. Respect the coaches’ decisions.
3. Respect other fans, coaches, and athletes.
4. Talk to their child if they have any questions and, if they still have questions, contact the coach through agreed-upon athletic department procedures.
5. Don’t poison the water toward a coach, the program, or teammates by your conversation.
6. Don’t talk to coaches on meet day about a complaint.
7. Understand that the coaches’ responsibility is to make certain that students are safe and become better people and athletes, not to win every meet.
8. Be supportive of their child.

1. Be positive and have a good attitude.
2. Support their teammates.
3. Work hard at practices.
4. If they have any questions, ask the coach.
5. Know and follow school and team rules.
6. Challenge themselves as athletes and as people.
7. Meet classroom expectations.
8. Notify the coach of any scheduling conflicts in advance.
9. Talk to the coach about any special concerns about philosophy or expectations