Use MACE to Work with “Difficult” Parents


I haven’t done it, but my best guess would be that if I surveyed gym club owner and coaches and asked them why they got into coaching not a single one would say “because I love to deal with difficult parents.”  And yet, if in my theoretical survey I asked how many have to deal with difficult parents on a consistent basis, I suspect every single one would have plenty of stories! 

At times difficult parents make our jobs not only harder but can turn us into the cynical coaches we swore we would never be.  Unpaid bills, gym hopping, entitlement and just plain bad parenting are an on-going part of the job with which we must contend.  While gratefully the percentage of difficult parents is usually quite small, the effect that they can have on our business and our personal life can be huge.

So what is a owner or coach to do?

What is the best time to plan for an emergency?  Before it exists, of course!  Being proactive can head off many difficult parent problems.  So get your M.A.C.E. ready. 

Ok, I am being a bit tongue and cheek here.  I actually love gym parents–I was one myself for many. many years!  So, no I am not suggesting you gas gym parents!  Instead, MACE (Match, Advise, Character, Educate) is a quick way to remember some techniques that can help you work with parents, even the ones who are “difficult.”

M is Match.  Often conflicts occur simply because the match between the family’s philosophy and the gym’s philosophy does not exist.  When the parent’s goals and the gym’s goals are at a crossroad it can feel a lot like jamming a square peg into a round hole.  An open discussion before crisis regarding philosophy and goals can later avoid conflict.  When a gym is clear about mission and philosophy it makes it easier for parents to determine if the gym is a good match for their goals for their child.  And, if conflict does occur, it is easy to point to the multiple times mission has been discussed as evidence for lack of match.

A is Advisory role.  Be proud of your role as an advisor to parents.  The parent is the expert on their child but you are the expert on the child as a gymnast and as their coach.  Together you are trying to raise a happy, healthy child-athlete.  As a result, do everything you can to avoid making the relationship adversarial.  I repeat: This is not an “us against them” relationship, but instead one of collaboration.  Making parents aware of this makes them much more likely to understand that you are also interested in the best interest of their child.  Additionally, if you are not already familiar with developmental stages of kids, it is a good idea to do some reading so you are able to best understand what a parent and child are going through at each stage of development. 

C is Character.  It is up to you to develop a gym atmosphere that is consistent with mutual respect, caring and is a community.  Treat all clients with respect and honesty and insist that they do the same.  

E is Educate and Empathize.  Many “problem” parents are developed because people are not educated with respect to gym policies, expectation and procedures or they are not given a clear understanding over move up criteria or the plan for their child.   And, as I am fond of saying, in the absence of information, people will make things up, things that are seldom favorable to you!   Communicate all policies, rules, changes in schedule clearly and openly, have a defined scholarship program, explain how kids progress levels, about judging, about skill progression, about the benefits of gymnastics beyond winning competitions, getting a scholarship or making the Olympic team, about dealing with their frustration  etcetera and do it often!

Finally, have Empathy.  Parenting is a difficult job, made that much more tough by the judgements that are hurled against and among parents.  And, as Elizabeth Stone noted, “Making the decision to have a child — it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.”  Remember that quite often parents’ difficulties are stemming from the irrational love that they feel for their child.  A love that every child deserves to have.  Be gentle with them–absolutely set boundaries, but do so with kindness and understanding.

A little MACE can go a long way in having a happy community in your gym filled with families who respect and understand the great work you are doing with their kids!