September 26, 2012 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Adjusting your philosophy to combat sports parents

Eight areas to focus your time to avoid conflict

The athletic director’s phone rings, sending a Pavlovian shiver down the spine. The scenario is familiar, as experience indicates the caller may be an aggrieved parent about to deliver conflict. Today’s athletic director needs the wisdom of King Solomon coupled with the patience of Gandhi. Unfortunately, in our “culture” and “system,” wisdom and patience are seldom enough to resolve conflict.

The “system” is defined as the process for conflict resolution in secondary schools. It allows an aggrieved parent access to the organizational hierarchy, ending with the board of education. Parents are asked to begin discussions with the coach, and if unresolved, meet with the athletic director, principal, assistant superintendent, superintendent and finally the board.

During this process, it’s not uncommon for the complainant to rally others in an attempt to support the cause. Letters, emails and petitions may arrive requesting a town hall meeting to fire the coach. The resulting disharmony forces parents and athletes to choose sides. Supporters of the coach begin to emerge and rally support for their cause. At some point, too many coaches decide to leave the profession, unwilling to be party to the insanity. Why do we allow this to happen?

On the youth sports side (period between the child’s first sport experience and high school), the “culture” is challenging, as examples of “parents gone wild” are numerous. Whether it is head-butting referees, running onto the field and interfering with play, physical assault on 12-year-old opponents or fisticuffs in the bleachers, some parents are simply out of control. Some leagues have taken the drastic step of banning all parents from attending games. How did we ever get to this point?

Parent behavior begins early

Parents are socialized early in the youth sport culture to vocalize their opinions of coaches, officials, players and league directors. Winning and playing time often are the determinants in parents’ perception of individual and program success. This early socialization creates normative behaviors that get reinforced through the secondary school system.

We are told the involvement of stakeholders in our organizations generates program support. We model consumer-satisfaction principles of Fortune 500 corporations to capture success. Schools solicit player and parent input with surveys to gauge satisfaction. The surveys are reviewed, and the coach is fired because the players and parents indicate he yells too much.

So a new coach is hired who doesn’t yell. The surveys now indicate the coach failed to motivate. The coach is fired and a new one is hired, who will motivate. At year’s end, the surveys indicate the players weren’t having any fun. The parents indicate the athletic director is at fault for not soliciting enough input, so parents and players are placed on a hiring committee for the next coach. The committee agrees and the new coach is widely accepted as a savior. The team finishes with a losing record, and the very same parents and players that supported the coach as members of the hiring committee before the season, now publicly condemn him.

The consumer-satisfaction philosophy has run its course in high school athletics. Athletic illiteracy is a common theme for most parents, yet some feel compelled to pass judgment in spite of that fact. What professional experiences do parents have to validate their opinion on athletic matters? Ignorance, arrogance and loss of perspective, combined with the culture and system, creates the combustible powder keg we call youth sports.

How do we affect change? Invest your time in the following eight areas.

1. Awareness and education.

Parents need information on a youth sport philosophy that focuses on the values for the participant.

2. In-service training.

Provide youth coaches with in-service training to deliver the accepted program philosophy. We can’t expect volunteers to be armed with the requisite skill set to successfully deliver program benefits.

3. Support coaches at all levels.

Youth sport volunteers give their time and energy, often making personal sacrifice. They deserve complete support. Secondary coaches are formally trained and certified. They enter the profession with an altruistic mission and single-minded purpose to help teenagers use athletics to become successful citizens. They spend years honing their craft by attending clinics and camps and are members of professional coaching associations.

Many are published authors and sought-after clinicians spending limitless hours working with players. They have earned the right to be called “coach.” They are the experts. We must disallow parents from criticizing their competency.

4. Change the secondary school problem solving system.

Why do we ask coaches to rationalize their decisions to parents in the name of public relations? Parents call and admit they know nothing about sports and in the next breath, criticize strategy. Playing time and strategy are discussions only resting with the player and the coach.

5. Create limited oversight.

If a parent has an issue other than playing time or strategy, the discussion begins with the coach. This step is non-negotiable. If a parent is unwilling to speak with the coach, do not allow another administrator to enter into dialogue. If the parent remains unsatisfied after meeting with the coach, then an appeal is made to the athletic director.

The athletic director investigates, renders a decision and communicates the decision to the parent. If the parent remains unsatisfied, an appeal is made to the principal. The principal holds the discretionary authority to unilaterally support the recommendation of the athletic director or grant a meeting at his or her level. If the recommendation is supported, no further meetings at any level are granted. If a meeting is granted, the principal investigates, renders a decision and communicates the decision to the complainant. This is the final oversight opportunity.

If a principal continually is granting meetings at his or her level, the problem rests with the athletic director, not the parents. Do not allow aggrieved parties to move through the chain of command ending with the board of education unless the issue involves violations of policy or the law.

6. Disallow petitions, town hall meetings, emails and letters as vehicles for conflict resolution.

Petitions often are signed by parents who no longer have children in the program or worse, by community members who never had. Revisionists only complicate conflict and group dynamics exacerbate emotions, making resolution difficult.

It’s all too easy to create an e-mail replete with emotional hyperbole and push the send button. This exercise, often a catharsis for the parent, becomes a permanent record for the coach, leading to entrenched, self-protective feelings. If issues are truly important, we must insist on personal conversations. Only use email to schedule a meeting.

7. Engage the culture keepers.

The vast majority of parents respect, support and appreciate the role of the coach. Continually engage these culture keepers in an effort to spread the good news of education-based athletics. In times of strife, count on these parents for support.

8. Parents need to police their peers.

If we asked every parent to place in an envelope the name of the parent on their child’s team who is a negative influence, they’d all arrive at the same name(s). Why do we sit idly by as a few parents ruin the experience for our players and coaches? If parents are not part of the solution, they may be part of the problem. What we permit, we certainly promote.

Make no mistake, we are in real trouble. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we will continue to get what we’ve always got.

Scott Kugi, CAA, is a former athletic director at Muskego Norway Schools in Wisconsin.

One thought on “Adjusting your philosophy to combat sports parents”

  1. Fantastic article!!! After 101 seasons of coaching on the high school level I finally woke up and retired from coaching. The number one problem in high school teaching/coaching is that administrators fear for their jobs and therefore are not willing to say “NO” to the parents.

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