the parent/coach interface – part 1

In youth club soccer, one of the biggest challenges a coach faces is the management of parent interactions, behavior, expectations, and communication. Over the course of the next few posts, I plan on putting forth a few opinions and thoughts on the issue from my perspective as both a coach and an educator. Today I have some thoughts on parental behavior…

First, it is worth listing the various friction points that may exist between coaches and parents – these are universal and can happen in the case of superstars or reserve players at all levels of the sport.

  • Parent sideline coaching
  • Parent undermining of the coach
  • Parent abuse of referees/coaches/other parents
  • Player field time
  • Player position
  • Player development/improvement/challenge
  • Coach style/philosophy
  • Coach knowledge and ability
  • Coach preparation/behavior
  • Team success (wins)

I am sure I have missed some items, but I think these are the main ones. The first three on the list are parent-related; poor parent behavior is nearly universal in US youth club soccer. The next three are player-centric and relate to differences of opinion between the coach and the parent, with the player caught in the middle. The next three are coach-centric and are likely intertwined with the player-related points, as the coach’s style, abilities, and performance will certainly impact the player’s situation (and the parent’s mood). The last item on the list is the only team-centric point: is the team winning or losing? But to be honest, few parents are really thinking about the team when they ask that question. Most parents are only concerned that their child’s team has lost, with the emphasis clearly on their child.

There are some interesting parallels between the youth soccer experience and another situation where parents rely on others to impart knowledge to their child: school. I argue that some of the same friction points can exist between parents and educators:

  • Student grades
  • Student discipline (fair vs. unfair)
  • Student development/improvement/challenge/preparation
  • Teacher style/philosophy
  • Teacher knowledge and ability
  • Teacher preparation/behavior
  • School/class success (e.g. test score “wins”)

Here, with respect to school “success”, most parents are again concerned about school or class quality only because it impacts their child (or perhaps their real estate value) – either way, the motives are still self-centered.

The most glaring difference here is that the poor parent behavior points are missing. What happened? Why are “problem” parents suddenly angelic when it comes to dealing with educators? Why are parents so passionate about youth soccer that they might resort to physical altercations, but often stand idly by while their kids receive a formal school education? Shouldn’t we be more involved and passionate about education, which will shape our childrens’ future, instead of soccer, which they might stop playing tomorrow? Do soccer parents just not care about formal education?

Probably not.

In fact, parents who are passionate about youth sports are likely just as passionate about education. The passion stems from their love of the kids, and a desire for them to succeed in everything they do. So why the disconnect? There are a few possible explanations. First, all parents experienced school. They know what it is like and they know what to expect. There might be some hand wringing when a new curriculum, school calendar, or report card is introduced, but by and large the interference is minimal. In contrast, most parents did not experience club soccer, so every change and every step forward is a new experience. If something happens that they don’t understand or seems illogical, the immediate reflex is to oppose it.

Schools are also typically set up with rigid guidelines regarding what constitutes good teaching and teachers, with good oversight by administrators and well-defined minimum qualifications for hiring educators. Soccer clubs are often structured much more loosely, and the “classrooms” are spread over such a wide area that coaches are able to operate without constant oversight. Even if a coach is doing a fantastic job, any parental perception that he/she is doing things poorly will lead to parent/coach conflict; the parent has no assurance that the technical director is there ready to reign in a ‘rogue’ coach.

When considering the school analogy, the parental bad behavior becomes even more absurd. Sideline coaching is equivalent to yelling answers to your kid during an exam. Not only is it confusing, distracting, and annoying, the parent may not even know the right answer! Why on earth, therefore, would you yell at your kid to pass or shoot during a game? It is distracting, confusing, annoying, and you might be telling him/her the exact wrong thing.

Undermining of the coach is similarly absurd. Yes, we might tell our kids that their math teacher is teaching a concept differently from how we learned it, but it is rare that our children will have completely ignorant or incompetent teachers who we feel the need to directly contradict. Such behavior in the context of soccer should therefore also be eliminated. You may not agree with the coach’s preference for zonal marking on set plays, but you do the player and team little good if you tell your kid to go ahead and man-mark on his/her own while everyone else is zonal.

Finally, the parents need to remember that they are not just role models for their own children, but also for others. Yes, there are examples of parents getting abusive at school board meetings, but those events seem far less common than the verbal abuse dished out by countless parents at weekly matches. We all lose control during the heat of competition, but remember that the stakes are pretty low in the grand scheme of things. Losing your mind over a bad PK call is probably not worth it.

In the next post, I will look at other aspects of this issue, especially as it relates to coaching/education philosophy, and how philosophical differences can lead to a truly toxic training environment. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts below.

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