The official blows the whistle and loud boos come flying from the bleachers. The player has just picked up her fifth foul and is now out for the remainder of the game. She goes to the bench and sits down, frustrated that her team is still losing.
As the official whistles for play to resume, one irate fan can be heard above the noise. It could be any number of sentences, but the focus is clear – attack the high school coach, the officials and even teammates. It is the voice of the challenging parent.
No coach or administrator signs up to work with students in a critical environment such as this; however, as part of the landscape of high school athletics, educational leaders must find ways to appropriately respond and educate parents.
Creating successful relationships with parents takes time and practice. It does not happen overnight; but when coaches take the time to create and share their plans with parents, they increase the chances of a successful partnership.
There are four steps coaches can follow to improve parent support and promote healthy student growth: 1) predict and share the challenges and benefits of athletic participation in a preseason meeting; 2) designate appropriate time for parents to voice concerns; 3) share and promote why coaches make decisions in an education-based athletics program; and 4) model accountability and honesty.
Share Challenges and Benefits of Athletic Participation in Preseason Meeting
Successful coaches almost always run preseason parent meetings. It is in this initial meeting that the coach can share his or her excitement, goals for the season and purpose for coaching. It is also at this meeting that the coach sets the tone for the relationship between parents, athletes and the coaching staff.
Questions that a coach should cover at the preseason meeting include the following:
Parents don’t have to know every coaching decision, but they need to understand what types of questions are appropriate and how they can communicate their concerns.
What can be beneficial to parents is when coaches take the time to explain the benefits and challenges that may present themselves over a season. When a coach shares scenarios of how a season can be both rewarding, jubilant and challenging it gives parents the opportunity to understand that an athletic season can be filled with all kinds of physical and emotional learning experiences. However, the key is that these experiences are designed for the athlete to grow rather than for a parent to direct.
Whenever anyone learns something new, it is logical to feel uncomfortable, and in some cases, even defensive or retaliatory. It falls on the coach to not only prepare parents for adversity, but also to share that parents play a key role in how their students learn to comprehend challenge. In many ways, what coaches do in a preseason meeting is just as important as what academic teachers do at Back to School Nights; they establish a positive relationship with parents by sharing how students can and will grow from active participation.
Designate Appropriate Times for Parent Communication
The dynamics of parent communication have changed over past generations. Where once coaches only had to worry about being interrupted after the game (which has never been appropriate), technology has added a new dimension of inappropriate contact time. Through text messages and email, parents can receive instant gratification as they can contact coaches at any time during the day or night.
Although coaches cannot stop parents from engaging in this type of behavior, coaches can choose to set the parameters. For coaches, it is important to show parents that they care about their athletes, but it is equally important for coaches to set limits of when they will respond. Coaches can create rules that promote healthy limits, allowing them to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy.
Most coaches find their emotions run high after a contest, and entire athletic departments have established rules that prohibit parent-to-coach communication after a game. Furthermore, some schools even ask parents to put their concerns in writing so that school leaders can adequately prepare the topics and parameters of a given parent meeting. In addition, some schools clearly delineate that a response to written concerns will not be sent until a minimum of 24 hours has passed to investigate the matter. This type of rule allows coaches and parents to distance themselves from their emotions and bring a clearer focus to potential issues.
Whether a team plays on a Friday or Saturday, it is also important for coaches to designate a day of respite. Coaches have lives too and should not be expected to be “on-call” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When coaches set a clear boundary that there will be no response to any communication that occurs on their designated day of respite, they allow themselves to not only be mentally healthier, but role model successful appropriate adult behaviors.
Share and Promote Why Coaches Make Decisions
Whether in preseason, midseason or postseason conversations, one question that inevitably arises is “Why?” This question is not unique as athletes, media and even school officials may want to understand a coach’s rationale. While some may create elaborate answers, it can be simplified with one key word, “growth.” Coaches want students to grow, to learn how to respond in certain situations, to learn about their limits, and to learn how to be a better teammate.
When coaches clearly communicate why they coach, their efforts have a clear purpose. Creating and sharing statements that demonstrate empathy and a focus on growth provides parents the opportunity to distinguish the difference between high school athletic participation and those of collegiate, pro or other community sports programs.
Accountability and Honesty
One of the pillars of being a successful coach is showing students the importance of accountability. Coaches must model accountable behaviors if they are to achieve lasting success. With parents, this means that what a coach says at any time matters. If a coach says he or she will answer emails or phone calls by a designated time, it is important to do so. It is here that both parents and schools share similar expectations as they want coaches who are dependable and reliable.
When giving feedback to parents, coaches also have an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and better understand concerns. Not all parent concerns are valid, but sometimes being a coach who makes time to listen allows parents to better understand that their student is being led by a caring adult. To better understand parent concerns, it is helpful for coaches to paraphrase or restate the concern in his or her own words. This allows coaches to demonstrate understanding and give honest, respectful answers. Listening to parents may take time, but it is far better to listen and respond honestly to a concern than to have it evolve into a distraction that has the potential to derail an entire season.
Although coaches will not be able to solve all parent concerns, coaches are expected to address challenging parents. Some parents still may elevate their concerns to athletic directors, administration and even school board members, but when coaches are open and honest, effectively run preseason meetings, share times of when to communicate, and lead their profession in a way that demonstrates accountability, they increase the likelihood of creating parent advocates who promote athletics and support student growth.
Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA, is an assistant principal at Freedom High School in Oakley, California. He previously was an English content coach, athletic director and tennis coach for the school. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.