These days the relationship between parents and their children's sport coaches is often troubled. Coaches sometimes feel heavily scrutinized and patronized by parents whom they see as badly biased and as lacking the knowledge to judge them. Many coaches can reel off stories about parents who advocate fiercely for their own child without thinking for a second about what's good for other children or the team. Coaches can also resent parents who treat them as babysitters. "Some parents dump their kids with us. They just want their kids off their radar," is how one Little League coach puts it. On the other hand, many sports parents I know bristle about a coach who failed to appreciate or blatantly mistreated their child.
What's more, there are strong, colliding undercurrents that can make this relationship fractured and difficult. In important respects the closed culture of sports conflicts with modern parents' desire for much more involvement in their kids' lives. While for decades most teachers have been expected to be responsive to parents who ask about their practices and decisions, coaches have never in the past been expected to be transparent with parents about playing time and other key decisions. The coach is high priest; the court, rink, or field is his or her sanctum. At the same time, coaches, especially serious high school coaches, sometimes try to keep parents at arm's length because they are trying to quickly create a sense of family on a team. Many coaches also quite explicitly see sports as a kind of oasis for children from the pressures of the outside world, including parental ones. Sports psychologist and consultant, Jeff Beedy, says that what most coaches want to say to parents is, "Go home and mow the lawn."
Yet because we also live in an era when more and more parents are deeply invested in every aspect of their child's development and are micromanaging their children's lives, the potential for conflict is very high. For some parents in middle-class and affluent communities who expect to strongly influence other adults in their children's lives-teachers, babysitters, piano instructors-the closed culture of children's sports is maddening-and some of these parents are openly defying it. While some parents are insistent and even threatening when they feel stonewalled by a coach, many of us as parents, bridling under communication restraints, may trespass the traditional boundaries and attempt to manipulate coaches in far less obvious ways, ways that we may be only partly aware of. We may ask to assist coaches, for instance, knowing in the back of our minds that it may give us an opportunity to advocate for our kids. Not infrequently, I have also seen parents try to slip in a nugget of advice to coaches after and even before games (coaches especially don't want parents' questions or input while they are engaged in last-minute game preparation).
There is much that can be done to prevent and help heal these rifts. It's important that coaches keep firmly in mind that mistreatment of children in sports is not rare-that parents have good reasons to be anxious about handing over responsibility of their child to a virtual stranger who, in the majority of informal leagues, has not been screened in any way. Coaches should recognize, too, that while there are advantages to creating a temporary space where children are insulated from family pressures, ultimately their job is not to rescue children from their families but to strengthen the tie between parent and child that is at the backbone of children's healthy development. That means that coaches should not only engage parents when a child is struggling, for example, but vigilantly avoid undermining parents and actively appreciate parents in ways that are visible to children. In more informal programs it is helpful to include parents at times in team events, such as getting pizza after a game.
Just as important, though, parents' challenges to the traditional culture of sports can initiate a long-overdue conversation about what aspects of this culture should change. The nature of boundaries and the degree of exchange between coaches and parents should clearly depend on a child's age and the competitive level of a specific program. Yet there are examples of coaches who have constructively shifted these boundaries at every level, creating alliances with parents. I have seen coaches, for example, gather parents together after games to share with them what they said to their players about a victory or a defeat, describe the strengths and weaknesses of their team, explain their reasons for disciplining players, describe how they are seeking to motivate the team. Some coaches also define their values and describe to parents how they intend to nurture them in children. Sports consultants Jeff Beedy and Tom Zierk recommend that coaches in informal leagues send letters home to parents before the season, articulating their values and how they intend to promote them.
Further, coaches can both encourage parent involvement and clearly delineate what kinds of involvement are appropriate. Because coaches are commonly opaque about their beliefs and decisions, many parents, including large numbers of mothers who have never been immersed in a sports culture, have reasonable questions that go unanswered: Should I say something to a coach if my child is anxious or uneasy? Should I intervene if my child feels excluded or degraded by other members of the team? Should I speak to a coach if my child feels that she is playing the wrong position or believes that she is playing less than another player who is less skilled? Coaches can clarify that, while it's not appropriate for parents to get involved in decisions about children's playing time relative to other players or team strategy, it is perfectly appropriate for them to talk to a coach if their child feels anxious or excluded on the team. Sports consultant Greg Dale recommends that coaches also designate a specific time during the week when it is appropriate for parents to voice their concerns.
And there is much that we as parents can do to strengthen this critical relationship. We should, for one, find a way to pause and reflect if we become infuriated with a coach. Dale recommends to parents the "twenty-four-hour rule." Before lashing out at a coach, "give yourself twenty-four hours to think it over." While it's important for us to be clear-eyed and discerning about a coach's strengths and weaknesses, we can also work to take coaches' perspectives and to help our children take that perspective, including understanding what coaches have been asked to do and the conditions under which they have been asked to do it-that coaches are often inexperienced, that coaching, like teaching, requires a great array of complex skills and that few individuals possess all those skills, and that coaches are often volunteers with other major commitments. Finally, in choosing whether to talk to a coach, we should also ask ourselves what kind of precedents we are setting for other parents.
Greg Dale, The Fulfilling Ride: A Parent's Guide to Helping Athletes Have a Successful Sport Experience (Durham, NC: Excellence in Performance, 2005).
Jeffrey Pratt Beedy and Tom Zierk, "Lessons from the Field: Taking a Proactive Approach to Developing Character Through Sports," CYD Journal 1, no. 3 (2000)
Richard Weissbourd is a family and child psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's School of Education and Kennedy School of Government, and the author of The Parents We Mean To Be, How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermind Children's Moral and Emotional Development. To learn more, please visit www.richardweissbourd.com