10 Things to Understand About Sports Parents (Hint: Most Parents are Good)

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One of my most popular speeches at gymnastics coaching conferences is called “Sometime I Wish I Only Coached Orphans…Thoughts on Dealing with Difficult Parents.”

The title of this talk came out of a conversation I had with one of my gym’s coaches.  After a particularly frustrating interaction with a parent he said exasperated, “Why didn’t you open the gym next to a orphanage then we wouldn’t have to deal with this!”

After I explained why that wasn’t a great business model, I did start to think about how many of our frustrations come not from the athletes themselves but their parents.  And, just as quickly I realized that these frustrations are just as often we as coaches and gym owners responsibility because we are so busy defending ourselves that we fail to see things from the sports parents’ perspective.  

So here are 10 things I tell coaches (especially those who don’t have kids themselves) about sports parents to help them understand a little what it is like to be sitting in the bleachers.

 1. Nobody is rational when it comes to their own kid.  We can’t be.  We love them too much.  So even when we are trying to be rational, it is not possible to be completely so.  And we shouldn’t be.  Every kid deserves to have at least one person who loves them so much that they cannot see straight.  So be gentle with us coaches.

2. You cannot blame a parent for loving their child too much.  See above.

3. Even the most grounded parent  becomes a little unglued when their child is upset.  This does not make them “difficult parents” rather they are parents who are experiencing a difficulty.  

4. Parents will almost always be nice and care about people who are nice to and care about them and even more importantly their child.  So be nice coaches.  Treat the kids with kindness and fairness.  Care about them.  

5. Not every question a parent asks is an attack on your coaching or character.  Don’t be so prickly if a parent tries to speak to you or asks a question.  Sometimes a question is just a question.  

6. Sometimes parents are right.  Admit you made a mistake, apologize and move on.  

7. It is the parents’ job to look out for their child.  It is the coach/owner’s job to look out for all the children as well as the good of the program and the gym as a whole.  Sometimes this will put your interests at odds.  That’s okay.  Not reason to vilify each other. 

8. Reasonable people given the same information are likely to arrive at similar conclusions.  Often parents lack information.  Or even understand the rules of the sport, how the kids progress or really much of anything especially if the parent never played this sport.  Give them as much information as possible so they can understand what happens.  As, on the flip side, in the absence of information people will make things up (and they are seldom flattering about you).  While one on one talks are not always possibly, emails, newsletters and meetings are other ways to communicate as is a well versed office staff.

9. Sometimes there is more than one correct answer to a problem.  Be willing to consider other ideas.  You as the coach retain the decision in the gym.  The parent as the parent retains the decision for the child.

10. You and the parent do not have to have an adversarial relationship.  If you shift from an “us versus them” mentality to a collaborative mentality that welcomes parents to work together with coaches in the best interest of the child, you will see a huge improvement in the relationships with the parents.

Parents are not the enemy.  Far from it.  Yes, there are those who are toxic and abusive, but there are also coaches that are toxic and abusive.  The vast majority of all of us coaches, club owners and parents alike are just trying to do the best we can to benefit the kids in the gym.   Assume good faith in each other–it goes a long way in creating a happy and healthy atmosphere in which everyone can thrive.