Fight? Flight? Neither. There is a better way.
I’ll get to the strategies for disarming disgruntled parents in a minute, but I want to first lay a backdrop for where pitchfork parents are born.
Do you know what age groups seem to have the craziest sports parents? Well, in my findings, there are two hot spots for emotional craze: when kids are about ten or eleven and then again when they are in high school. There are certainly other times in a child’s athletic journey that can be difficult, (8th grade for instance…probably because it is a transition year) but by and large, those two age groups seem to be the most emotional times for parents.
Why is that? I think it is because there are windows of development, advancement, and opportunity that are opening and closing, and parents know it. Whether they acknowledge it out loud or not, they know that those two chapters in an athlete’s story are pretty important. One is the first chapter and the other is usually the last.
When kids are about ten, they are at the age where they can actually start to look like competent athletes. They are generally really excited and passionate about what they are learning to do and the growth on the learning curve is significant. Parents start to see potential. Many parents do not have a good grasp on the big picture, or patience for the entire story to play out, but they do become involved heavily at these ages. Parents are generally as passionate and excited as their kids when they reach about fifth and sixth grade. Anything that seems as though it might be an obstacle to the trajectory of where kids are headed at that point, can rile up parents incredibly fast.
The high school sports parent craze is multi-faceted. The development of a kid between freshman and senior year is incredible. If you have ever taught or coached in a high school, or raised teenagers, you know the maturity, the confidence, and the growth of independence happens with leaps and bounds throughout the high school years. This can be incredibly emotional and difficult for parents.
If families struggle to have solid communication, if they are challenged to respect a child’s autonomy, or if they are unable to healthfully encourage the independence kids are pursuing, dysfunctional emotion can spill over in buckets around sporting endeavors. That and high school sports are riddled with drama, injury, higher level of competition and rows and rows of parents who are still as passionate and excited for their kids’ athletic pursuits as they were when the kids were little. Maybe more than anything, everyone loves a happy ending and not all sports stories end well.
It matters that coaches pay attention to the emotional phases of the athletes and families they coach. When faced with emotional conversations, it is best if coaches communicate well, because the fight and flight responses are ineffective.
The Fight Technique of Coaches
I, with a few other concerned moms, requested a parent-coach meeting when our oldest son was ten. He was on a Squirt A team for hockey in Minnesota and I had observed some rather disturbing coaching decisions. One incident included an assistant coach being ejected from a game which then led to screaming and ranting his entire trek to the locker room as well as when he was leaving the building. The other incident involved a physical punishment for the chronic tardiness of a player. As each player (who was on time to practice) took to the ice, the assistant coach instructed them to skate sprints until every skater was out of the locker room. The punishment stopped as soon as the late offender arrived.
Now, it should be noted that I was a parent of a kid in an “emotionally-charged stage” where emotions (including my own) were running higher. The coaches we approached for a meeting were parents of kids in that same age group. I was unprepared for the high level of emotion that landed in the room.
,The coach came in with gloves raised. It was made clear very quickly that the coaches were the authority in the room and they were confident in the decisions they were making. The head coach could hardly wrap his head around being accosted in such a way, disregarding most of what I, or anyone else had to say.
I do remember at one point there was an exchange that went something like this: Coach: “What makes you think you can effect any change with a meeting like this?” Me: “Because the boys are still little enough that the coordination of adults can have an effect.” I believed we could have had a group approach that would have been positive for those boys, but the coach fought parental involvement to the bitter end. He lost the respect of many parents that night.
The fight technique continued through the season, including monologue emails, contentious one-on-one conversations and eventually the coach’s was the only voice being heard by the kids. (except for the confused and frustrated conversations happening in everyone’s homes) It was a growing experience in our house, but it truly did not have to be as negative as it was.
Coaches who intimidate or run roughshod over parents can sometimes maintain that posture, but eventually it denigrates the culture of the team or program and causes more harm to kids than good.
The Flight Technique of Coaches
I attended another hockey-parent-called meeting last night, this time for our sixteen-year-old daughter who is a goalie on the high school team. I was more prepared for what I believed would be another emotionally-charged evening.
Initially, the meeting was announced (not by me, I might add) via email. My husband queried whether the coaches were invited. The parents said that they had tried to talk with the coach, but he did not want to talk to them and had directed them to the Athletic Director. The question was then posed about the Athletic Director’s attendance and when an open invitation was sent to the AD, he replied, cc’ing the coaches that he could not attend. Everyone was aware of the meeting.
Neither the AD nor the coaches attended. Several parents noted disappointment in that fact.
I was relieved when, right at the start, a few voices of more seasoned parents calmed the room so that emotions could be somewhat settled and reasonable discussion was possible.
One of the main complaints in the room had to do with communication from the coaches, both with the players and certainly when any of the parents approached for a conversation. I cannot say I completely blame the coach for being hesitant to engage in conversation with some of the parents because he has had heated, in-your-face screaming encounters with a couple of them. He is younger than probably everyone who gathered in the meeting and, at least from my perspective, he is not comfortable with conversations that might be emotionally charged.
However, when it comes to dealing with sports parents, the avoidance technique is as ineffective as the fighting technique. Flight may work for self-preservation, but it is a disastrous coaching technique. One of my friends put it best when she commented on a recent Instablog post: “I often think communication, or lack of…in fact, cutting the parents out of the equation exacerbates these issues.”
Positive Communication Disarms Pitchfork Parents
Ok, so here is the scoop, in brief, for how I address parent communication with my high school boys soccer team and my approach has been generally well received.
Open, honest and consistent communication is key.
- The pre-season meeting is important. It lays out expectations and philosophy. I make sure I stay consistent with the information I present there.
- Parents are invited to get involved with a number of in-season activities and then they are assigned tasks as requested. I thank them profusely.
- I try to be transparent about efforts the staff and team are making throughout the season: explaining some of what we work on throughout a week, what we are facing in our opponents, and plans to address challenges.
- Most of my communication is delivered in Sunday night emails. They take me about an hour to compose and will lay out the schedule for the week as well as any issues that might be bubbling.
- I engage in conversation with athletes regularly. When there is a change in lineup, a plan for subbing or an expectation with opponents, I make an effort to talk one-one with the players most affected by those decisions. I explain my reasoning, field questions and seek input.
- I actively listen to the feedback from players and especially from the captains. Where it is appropriate, I will allow the players to influence decisions that affect them as a team. (i.e. violation of team rules, etc.)
- I have an open door policy. I do not shy away from conversations that have potential to be difficult. As long as we are not in the 24-hour window post-game, I invite parents to bring concerns to me. Except for rare circumstances, I request the presence of the player at any parent-requested meeting. Many times they want to vent frustrations and I work hard to engage well when they are emotional.
Now, even though I am trained in communication and have studied it extensively for the books I write, even my approach is not a perfect system. I am getting better with experience and practice. I don’t know whether what I do will work as well for other coaches, but what I do know, without a doubt, is disarming emotional sports parents starts with a coach’s willingness to become an effective communicator.
Copyright Choosing to Grow 2018 www.meaganfrank.com