ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
hey can create the best of times, they can create the worst of times.
Ask almost any coach at the middle school and high school levels, and they’ll tell you that the parents of their players can make almost as much difference between a positive and negative season as the players themselves.
A recent survey of area coaches revealed that positive parental involvement is the rule in most schools-but even a few parents who cross the line between parental involvement and parental interference can have an impact far beyond their numbers.
“The examples of parental support far outweigh the instances of parental interference,” one coach said. “But it only takes a few instances of parental interference to make an effect on a coach.”
Another coach said that if any one thing would drive him out of coaching, it would be inferring parents.
So, when does a parent cross that line? Consider these examples from the memory banks of our coaches:
— A parent is so vocal from the stands during a contest that the athlete-child is embarrassed.
— A coach finishes a post-game talk with the team and finds a parent waiting outside the locker room door to complain about the team’s performance or, more likely, the amount of playing time his or her child got.
— A parent yells criticism of other athletes on the team during a game.
— A parent gives technical instruction to his or child about the sport that contradicts the coach’s instruction-or is just flat-out wrong.
— Parents “gang up” and discuss the inabilities and faults of other athletes on the team.
— Discontented parents, whether individually or even as a group, go “over the head” of a coach to air their complaints to the athletic director or principal-without even talking to the coach first.
— A parent bad-mouths another player on the team-or criticizes a coach’s strategy-in the presence of his or her child.
— When the athlete comes home, a parent berates him or her for mistakes made during the game.
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Damage the results from that kind of behavior often extends beyond the relationship of the parent and coach or the athlete and coach. The chemistry of an entire team can be infected when a parent undermines a coach’s effort.
“When a kid is getting those two mixed views, they have to start doubting somebody,” said one coach. “If a kid is going to doubt someone, the kid will usually side with the parent. Now, the kid doesn’t believe in the system as much and it’s causing more problems for the kid to play for you because he’s not believing in the things you want to do. That kid starts talking to other kids and suddenly you have discontent on the team.”
“Children reflect what is practiced at home to a great extent,” another coach noted. “It is more likely that a child will be confident and hard-working if this is the attitude portrayed at home.
“A coach may not always know everything,” the coach added, “but athletes must believe that the coach’s actions are for the betterment of the team and individual.”
Without question, the No. 1 thing that pushes parents across the line from involvement to interference is concern about the playing time their children is getting.
“Nobody thinks their kid plays enough, whether the kid starts and plays the whole game and you take them out because they need a break,” one veteran coach said. “The more you coach, the more you realize that.”
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Some sports-like tennis, golf, wrestling, cross country and track-are less likely to spark that criticism because they have built-in, objective qualifiers. Team members compete against each head to head other to determine who has the better skills.
In sports where that doesn’t generally happen-like football, volleyball, basketball, softball and baseball-judgments are more subjective, based on the observations of the coaching staff.
Without exception, coaches agree that the last thing they’d ever purposely do is limit the playing time of an athlete who has superior abilities.
“Parents need to realize that coaches are trying to make their team as successful as possible,” said one coach. “They are human and make mistakes. But whatever it is they are doing, they are doing with the intent of improving the team.”
Asked one coach: “Why would I purposely sit a kid on the bench who could make my team better?”
Well, some parents charge, because the coach doesn’t like their child.
“To me, that’s a bizarre statement,” responded one coach. “It wouldn’t matter to me who that kid is. If they are my best player, I’ll play them.”
Coaches also agree that the root of parental interference is a parent’s love for his or her child. The parent assesses what is happening on the field or the court through the eyes of the child, and doesn’t like to see a child who is discontent, disappointed or frustrated.
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One way a parent can avoid interfering may be to adopt a different frame of reference.
“I think parental involvement is good when the parent is trying to see it through the coach’s eyes,” one coach said. “As coaches, we want a lot of the same things for our players that parents do. We want them to maintain good grades, to give us their best effort, to not sell themselves short on their potential, to be a positive influence in school, to be a leader on the field.
“But as coaches, we also see that not everybody can assume the same role on a team,” the coach added. “Some people are superstars, some people play a different role. But you need everybody to be a part of it. Even if a kid doesn’t play a lot but practices hard against those who do, the kid helps the team become better.”
Coaches said they try to diffuse potential parental interference by communicating clearly to the athlete what his or her role is on the team.
“My philosophy on coaching has been that I cannot always please the parent, but as long as the kids know where they stand-even if they don’t like what they’re doing but they know their role-then I’m OK,” said one coach.
Said another: “Many times our student-athletes are torn down after games when the go home, and there is little you can do about it as a coach. So you begin by being straightforward with them concerning their ability and their playing time. If it still affects the child, parents need to have a conference with the coach.”
But they don’t always do so. That highlights another frustration of most coaches: Parents who talk behind the coaches’ backs instead of coming to them.
“I think that’s my biggest frustration as a coach-that if a parent has a problem, they don’t give us a chance to defend ourselves,” one coach said. “They talk to everybody else except us. My thing is, if I could talk to a parent, I think that I could answer most of the questions in their mind.”
If a parent does decide to talk to the coach, attitude makes all the difference in determining if the conversation will be beneficial or destructive.
“I don’t care if a parent comes to talk to me as long as it’s in an inquisitive manner and not an accusing manner,” said one coach. “If they’re coming in an accusing manner, usually they’ve got a temper coming behind it.”
For some, a parent needs to earn the right to approach a coach about his or her child.
“It’s easier to have a parent approach me if the parent has been involved with things like the booster club, handing out candy, or being there after the game to say, ‘Congratulations, Coach, it was a good win.’
“Most parents know me well enough to know that we’re trying to do the right thing, trying not to belittle a kid, or slide a kid off,” the coach added.
Coaches said parents need to realize that in most cases an athlete doesn’t want a parent to confront a coach because it embarrasses the athlete. If a conference with a coach is deemed to be necessary, a parent should be discreet about it.
“You have to keep in mind that a child cannot help who their parents are and we are worried about the child, not the parents,” one coach said. “It helps us to know what is going on at home so that we can understand the attitude of the athlete.”
The best way a parent can make a positive contribution to a child’s athletic career-and an entire program-is simply to remain positive about the child’s involvement.
“Parents can really help us by being an encouragement to the kid,” one coach said.
Said another: “Parents should be supportive of their child even if they aren’t playing a lot. Be at their games. And when they do get in, compliment them about the good things they did and encourage them to keep working at it.”
One veteran coach noted: “Parents are so critical of their own kids when they play. I can remember riding home on a bus after we lost a game and a couple of the kids said, ‘Can we just at your house tonight?’ I said, ‘Why?’And they said, ‘Because we don’t want to come home and talk to our parents about the game.’
“I thought, isn’t it sad that they’d rather spend the night at the house of their coach-who should be the one who is more critical of them-than at their parents’ house.
“It may have been an exaggeration of what they really felt, but they we’re tying to get their point across to me.
“I think parents need to be positive with their kids and let us do our job,” the coach said. “I know that’s hard, but if they can do it, that’s a good thing.”