Closing the Coach-Parent Divide

Ahh, coaches and parents. At times, it’s beautifully symbiotic, gives kids optimal sports experiences and builds terrific young adults. “Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!” (If you know the quote, we can be friends.)

This experience, however, is uncommon and at times conflict-ridden. More frequently, the relationship is full of unsaid assumptions about what the other side is, does and thinks leading to suspicion, animosity, or an outright rejection of their relevance. And it’s all kinda absurd. Let’s try and fix it, but before we do let’s get all the unsaid things out of the way.

The All-Too Common View of Coaches

Most coaches have a healthy dislike for parents. They’re overly critical of everything the coach does despite having no background in the game, coaching license, or firsthand understanding of what it takes to teach kids the game for how little coaches get paid. They cheer for the wrong things, frequently undo what coaches are trying to teach the kids, constantly yell at refs, and are quick to ‘go to the club’ or ‘club-hop’ about any little thing. Other parents totally lack engagement. Their kids are unprepared, late, undisciplined, selfish, and immature leading to babysitting instead of coaching.

“PARENTS ARE NOT COACHES. THEY NEED TO GET OUT OF THE WAY LET US DELIVER OUR PROFESSIONAL SERVICE. THEY WOULDN’T TELL THEIR SURGEON HOW TO OPERATE.”

Coaches that think any part of this stuff are completely right…and completely wrong.

The All-Too Common View of Parents

Most parents have a healthy dislike for coaches. They’re money first, more interested in winning than developing ALL kids and think their C license is some kind of Wharton MBA that gives intellectual and societal superiority over the serfs unable to achieve such heights. They communicate terribly, giving parents no idea what they are trying to do or what is going on and rarely even give player evaluations so our kids can know where they are and what to work on. Most coaches would never talk to parents if they could get away with it despite being all-too eager take money from these irrelevant obstructionist people. They care more about their coaching reputation or when they get their next check than the kids they coach.

“PARENTS KNOW WE’RE NOT COACHES. BUT WE’RE ALSO NOT METEOROLOGISTS AND DON’T HAVE TO BE ONE TO KNOW WHY THE PORCH IS WET IN APRIL.”

Parents that think any part of this stuff are completely right…and completely wrong.

Stop. Collaborate and Listen.

(Another chance for us to be friends if you get the headline reference).

Both sides of this relationship are creating ‘personas’ where the overwhelming majority of these perceptions aren’t actual people or direct experiences. They’re an amalgamation of the worst experiences of each group and assembled into a stereotype they can drop on all people in that group whether it’s deserved or not. In all areas of life and society, including youth sports, this is cancer. Stop it. People are more complicated and nuanced than one-sized fits all assertions on their behavior and character. Sure, almost all coaches and parents are guilty of a few of things above, but that’s not license to pile all other crappy assumptions about their group onto them. Please stop it. This helps no one and both sides do this.

Saying that, we all must recognize these stereotypes are there for a reason. Some parents do yell at refs too much. (That’s a foul on me BTW. Don’t do that.) Some parents will actively work against what coaches are trying to do despite having less soccer knowledge and at times leave coaches to babysit kids that are not prepared to be taught. Some coaches ‘money grab’ constantly and more coaches communicate terribly or only do it through a team parent (not a good look BTW). Some coaches do overly invest in the best players leaving the rest to toil and care more about coaching accolades than the kids they coach. But more often than not, we have the same goal. I wonder if we can collaborate for good instead of evil.

To say that the average coach-parent relationship is broken and beyond repair because of the original sin of each side is going too far. Many of the problems here are fixable. I know this because after seeing the Greek tragedy stereotypes play out with my girls, I’ve also lived the coach-parent relationship ‘Disney’ movie and I think with a little forethought and listening you can get close to it too.

Break The Old Mousetrap

To build a better mousetrap, we must leave behind a few elements of the old mousetrap that just don’t work. Coaches that are unwilling to consistently talk to parents as a group and about their kid individually are a non-starter. Expecting them to sit down, shut up and have no opinion while handing over their wallet for an activity involving their children is preposterous. Without shaping parent expectations through sound and consistent communication of the experience at what everyone’s roles should be, and the progress being made, coaches are asking for problems.

Parents need to scooch out of the way, compliment and add to what coaches are trying to do, and make sure the kids are prepared to be coached. You are NOT a soccer coach or trainer. Too many parents are focused on X’s and O’s and winning versus losing more than whether their kid has the right work ethic. More on this later, but parents must focus on the areas they influence most, leave the soccer teaching primarily to soccer people while having honest, supportive and rational conversations with the coach that align with the coach’s efforts.

We Ain’t Buildin’ Rockets

Set clear goals and expectations. Communicate. Measure progress and be accountable to expectations. Communicate. Then do it all over again.

Not rocket science.

Coaches should have goals for their team and their players. They should be written down. Kids (assisted by parents not established by parents) should have goals. They should be written down (a great life lesson for the kids here). Coaches should have clear expectations for their team, the player and their parents. They should be written down. Parents must know their role in all this—not defining it will lead to enormous and the very familiar problems of the old mousetrap.

I have a proposal on doing this below but before we get there, let’s be super clear: kids own their development on and off the field. Becoming the best person/player they can be is guided and shaped heavily by parents and coaches. The ‘shaping’ of the person prepared to be the best soccer player they can be is the ultimate responsibility of parents and complemented by the coach. But the ultimate ownership of the activities required to grow as a person and player lies with the young man or woman in the mirror. Saying all that, our roles as grown ups helping to shape these kids is essential and knowing where parents and coaches should be driving versus influencing is outlined below.

Without the foundational things that are mostly the parent’s responsibility, the coach doesn’t stand much of a chance. And the hard truth is that few parents are deliberate enough about how all those ‘orange sections’ are being handled. Parents should do better (me too) and spend far more time there than on things soccer coaches do or don’t. But coaches also influence those foundational elements. In fact, a coach can enhance one of these elements more powerfully or destroy one more effectively than parents can in many cases. It’s not their primary responsibility, but the good ones help parents build better kids—not just better soccer players. While the orange sections are overwhelmingly the parents’ responsibility, coaches have a role.

On the other side of the ball, the ‘black’ sections are the soccer stuff. Coaches should drive this—without a doubt–but parents have a role. No, not telling your kid how to make angled runs in the box or screaming at them when they lose possession on a bad touch, but giving kids maximum opportunities to learn the game, practice the game and love the game. Don’t tell them how to make runs, take them to a pro or college game. Watch a game or games on TV with them. Show them how to establish a training to-do list based on coach recommendations. Build/buy a rebound board in the garage that will help them get touches in. And yes, if they are already doing work on their own, potentially invest in private training as well. (the whole private training thing is a topic for another day)

The whole ball is the kid’s responsibility. The orange is primarily shaped by the parents with influence from the coach and the black is primarily shaped by the coach with influence from the parents. Voila. Roles defined. And notice that 80% (in this example) of complete development is on Mom and Dad. If we can’t agree on 80%, surely, we can agree it’s at least MOSTLY on Mom and Dad. Quit blaming coaches because your kids don’t work hard.

Talk. Talk. Talk.

Once goals and expectations (roles) are clearly defined, talk about it. There should be a discussion between coach and team, coach and player (with parents present), coach and parents (as a group) to discuss those goals and expectations. Half way through the season, let’s reconnect on our progress. If we’re off, let’s recalibrate. Then, do the same thing at the end of the season. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

As a professional person yourself you get this, right? These are table stakes leadership and management tactics successfully deployed since the dawn of time that somehow seem to find resistance in youth soccer. Maybe it’s because all parties want to avoid accountability, maybe because they think it’s just a kid’s game and all this is overkill, maybe it’s because people are lazy and want the maximum output for the minimum input. Well, whatever, here’s the deal. In all things you get out of them what you put into them and we’re all certainly investing big time, money and our children into this, so why not do a little more to get a better result for your investment? Or at least try?

Where Does This Fail?

I’m sure there are lots of ways to improve the parent-coach thing. This is only one idea and it’s far from fool proof. Models like this look and sound great but fail in the hands of people because people are…well…people and they’ll screw it up because they’re screwed up. Some coaches will say they don’t have time for all this but spend 10x the energy batting down the behaviors these activities would prevent. Some parents will still complain about lack of results when their kid has a bad work ethic, bad attitude and terribly immature. But youth soccer rarely offers any structure around improving this key relationship and instead yields to the assumptions, stereotyping and animosity that has people doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Insanity. Unreasonable and often unnecessary insanity. The only way you can really fail is to not try something.

So, whether you’re a player or coach, try this. I think you’ll like the results. If you really like this and there is a systemic gap at your club, send this article to your club DOC or Board folks or other parents or whoever wants a better experience out of all this. Maybe they have a better way to do it—great! But do something. And what if only one ‘side’ puts the effort in? Do your part anyway. You’ll be a better person for it and if the only result is being more deliberate about the things that make kids prepared to be winner on and off the field, that’s a good thing.

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