Some bad egg parents have made coaches draw a hard line, cutting parents out of our communication. As a coach I understand it, and I’ve felt that need to escape the microscope. The majority of coaches are in the mindset that the less contact we have with parents, the less we get dragged into the middle politics that swirl around those bleachers, kitchen tables, and practice parking lots.
“Don’t talk to coaches about playing time”
“Don’t question where we play your kid”
“We only want to hear from the player”
In a struggle for structure and to keep the peace, those statements have become a universal preseason expectation list set in any number of sports and at every age level. The problem is, we aren’t stopping the drama. On the contrary, we are driving and feeding it but choosing to stay out of and ignore it.
The sentiment behind those statements is meant to be positive for the team experience. We want to let the coach do the coaching and make the tough decisions. We need to keep everyone in their lanes. We ask parents to help kids navigate life lessons, we hope to teach kids to self-advocate. Those are qualities of a strong program.
But I believe cutting the parents out is causing more harm, not less.
Much of the drama that starts among parents comes from misunderstandings, misreading, and misinterpreting. Without open communication, speculation runs wild and suddenly your great plan that makes total sense but is a complete mystery to your parents, becomes rumors about your ego, your intentions and your favorites. Your closed door is simply a blindfold, it’s not a solution.
It may sound like a scary idea, but try an open door policy one season and see if it doesn’t squash a lot of the drama. You can’t stop the bully parents no matter what you do, but you can head off the well-intentioned but totally confused ones, and build a strong support system in the process. If your players’ parents know that they can make an appointment with you and ask you questions about their own child then they are less likely to jump to conclusions and stir the pot with other parents. In fact, they may come to your defense because they will be armed with the truth. They are less likely to have that kitchen table talk that makes your player lose respect for your authority. They feel secure in your best interest for their child. They may still disagree with you or your coaching staff’s choices, but knowledge is far less painful than ignorance when our kids happiness is at stake.
How can we ask parents to work with their kids on life lessons, which is where we are asking them to focus, when they are confused and frustrated themselves about what’s going on.
For example: “Son, I know you are frustrated about not playing much lately. The coach says you are struggling on ground balls. While I know you and I feel you are very good at grabbing them and you didn’t agree when he told you that when you met with him after practice, I spoke with him for more clarification. He is noticing that you don’t have great body position when you are in a group of players and attempting to scoop. That’s something we can work on and maybe watch some videos together so you see what he’s talking about. See if he has some suggestions for you as well at the next practice, and ask specifically what he wants you to work on.” In this instance there seems to be a miscommunication about what the coach meant when he told the player his ground balls weren’t up to par. Kids are learning to interpret feedback and I can’t tell you how many times the message a player is given is completely different when they get home and talk to mom and dad. Because the parent had an open door, used it, and got clarification, he was able to use that to work with his son on skill improvements and learning to ask more questions. Drama averted, life lesson activated, team and coach trust is stronger.
Rather than a “don’t talk to the coach about playing time” speech in the preseason, try an alternative player-centric approach that allows parents to work inside their lane through the power of knowledge-
Our coaches have an open door policy. That means that we would like players to request a meeting with us if they have any questions. We may also request a meeting with a player if they are struggling or not playing much. We have a mutual interest in your kids becoming great athletes and want our subs as strong as our starters. Parents may also make a meeting as long as it is more than 24 hours after a game for a cooling off period. It is very possible that as a parent you won’t agree with our reasoning, but we respect you and your choice to allow and pay for your child to play for us. We believe you deserve to not feel left in the dark. We will never discuss players other than your own child or compare skills as that would be disrespectful to the team. We will not entertain any conversations that involve disrespecting the coaching staff or the knowledge and hard work of that staff. Honest, open communication is always welcome in the right setting, and so we will always respond to requests for meetings whenever a parent feels upset, confused or needs clarification or even feedback on their child’s progress.
In addition, players who are not receiving regular playing time will be asked to meet briefly with a coach once a week to go over what skills, attitude or other adjustments are needed to earn more time. They will be given an action plan that may include work needed outside of practice. At the next meeting the coach and player will evaluate if improvements are being seen and make corrections or additions to the plan if neccesary. It may be a quick fix, it may take a season or two. Improvement speed depends on the player’s desire to work hard, the time they desire to put in and their athletic abilities. Parents may attend these meetings but it is not necessary as they will be quick and the player will be given a written action plan to take home. Any clarifications on action plans can be talked about via a phone call with the coach if needed.
I’ve had hard conversations with parents. It’s hard to be told by the coach that their awesome kid has been screwing around at practice, or not trying their best, or is consistently failing to improve on a specific skill. But being able to hear from the coach how much they value your child and want their child to succeed is often something parents just need to hear when their kids are struggling. No matter how hard that conversation has been, I’ve always come out the other side of it with a deeper bond with that family and positive unified goal to make that kid a better player. It’s not just the parent that learns from these conversations, as a coach I learn more about if my coaching style is not meshing with a player or if they are misunderstanding something or worse, think I don’t like them. My open door has saved my relationship with many players and built an unbreakable trust with them, and I’ll never go back to the other way.
We need to break the Coach vs Parent cycle. We need to open the communication doors between our lanes. Focus instead on the need for mutual respect in these conversations, having it at appropriate times, and zero in on the common goal of keeping players motivated, growing, learning, and loving their sport. We are all in this together, and a few rotten apples aside, we really do want the same things.