How to deal with Over-Involved Parents, by Roy Stevenson, note by Larry Eder

Epreuve d'athlétisme au Detroit Athletics Club...

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I worked with Terry Ward, the former coach and AD at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, California from 1978-1981. Terry was a superb coach, but, more than anything, he was a keen observer of his athletes, the sport and world around him. I do not remember any real parent problems while I worked with him. Terry knew how to calm a parents' fears, and let them know, that he was the coach, they were the parents, and both jobs were quite important.

I seem to recall a story told to me by a coach friend. The coach had a young miler, who, after a great frosh season, was just not running up to par in his sophomore year. After some investigation, the coach found out that a parent was getting the young man up in the morning to run an extra five miles.

The coach was incredulous. But, he recovered quickly. He asked the parent to come to workout. In short order, the coach suggested that the young man might do better using that time for sleep, as he did not seem to be recovering very well. The parent was not getting it. The time spent running with the son was a cherished time.

The coach went home and slept on it. The next day, the coach suggested a compromise. The parent could run five miles with the son on Sundays, but, during the season, morning runs were verbotten. The parent got their time with the son, and the son's racing, after a couple weeks of extra sleep, improved!

Roy Stevenson is a contemporary of Rod Dixon and John Walker, two of the great New Zealand distance runners of the 1970s and 80s. A journalist for the past three decades, Roy has joined the team of AT&F to help us provide coaches resources from which they can improve their coaching technique. As coaching is both scientific and anecdotal, this column is a bit of both. We hope you agree.

Dealing with Over-Involved Parents--Getting Parents to Work With You and Not Against You in High School Track and Field

By Roy Stevenson

There's not a track coach in the country that hasn't come across overzealous parents at one time or another. I've heard coaches refer to some parents as tp's (terrorist parents), cp's (controlling parents), or hp's, (helicopter parents who hover over every moment of their teen's life). This over-involvement and interference with athletes, and coaches who are just trying to do their job, can be a major burden on the unprepared coach.

Some of these over-involved parents are simply misguided; thinking their son or daughter is the best, when results indicate otherwise. Others expect their athlete offspring to win everything so they can get a scholarship at University. Many parents want their kids to win as an extension of their own ego, or for bragging rights in their social circles, or because they were good athletes back in their day.

Whatever the reason for the parent's expectations, their behavior is often shocking. You've seen it before: chewing out the coach, swearing at him or her, or even their child or athletes on other teams. Here are some tips on how to deal with overzealous parents. Following this advice will make your life easier and take some of the stress off the teenage athletes. Onerous as it may be, it is your responsibility to clarify your expectations with parents.

First, realize that 99% of all parents are sane and workable; they just need to be trained like their athlete progeny. A common strategy is to actively educate them with verbal and written material.

State clearly, in writing, your coaching philosophy and style, and school policies regarding athlete and parent conduct, including meet and practice behavior and consequences of breaching this code. Emphasize that parents should show respect for athletes competing against your school, and they should cheer their athletes in a positive manner. Some coaches have parents sign an agreement stating that they understand the commitment their teen athlete is making, and that they agree to support it.

State that you promote strong ethics, sound principles and high ideals through track and field and cross-country. This should include mentioning that coaching is something you do and parents don't, and parenting is what they should be doing, and that it is your job to run things the way you see fit.

Define a common mission for your team, and how parents can help you and their children reach these goals. E.g. booster club, officiating at meets, ensuring that the athlete is getting good nutrition, etc. Tell the parents that you expect their cooperation, support, and loyalty and that you expect parents to be role models of sportsmanship.

Establish your coaching credentials and your expertise. When parents challenge you, be the expert in a non-defensive way and be professional. This means you do not respond to problem parents emotionally, and you must always maintain self-control.

Avoid crisis intervention mode with parents at all costs. Waiting for problems and emotions to arise before you are forced to deal with them is a disaster in the making. This means you must . . . . .

Communicate with the parents. This means keeping the lines of communications open with parents and being approachable. Encourage them to discuss any problems with you, instead of taking them over your head. Listen to them, and let them know that you hear them, even when you don't agree with them. Always do this respectfully.

Following these basic guidelines will avoid most problems you are likely to encounter with overzealous parents. Over time you will develop additional skills to work with parents, to support your efforts.