Parent-coach dynamic: How to deal with difficult parents

Posted by Matt Krumrie on Oct 16, 2017 3:12:38 AM
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Every wrestling coach has dealt with that one parent who makes things difficult. In fact, many coaches may cringe when they think of the difficulties they have had with certain parents over the years.

Perhaps not as difficult as dealing with Lavar Ball, who USA Today just declared the worst sports parents ever.
But nonetheless -- every coach knows who that difficult parent is. Dealing with challenging parents has always been a part of coaching, and always will be.

Chad Beatty, head wrestling coach at Forest Grove High School in Forest Grove, Oregon, and a former University of Iowa wrestler, said difficult parents should be handled similarly to how you deal with difficult athletes:

With patience, understanding, and a little bit of caution.

"We have all had athletes that have pushed our limits," said Beatty. "Whether that's because they break team rules or they have poor sportsmanship, they still bring value to the program. Our job as coaches is to pull those positive attributes out of our athletes. With parents and adults, though, it's easy to become frustrated because we feel as if they should know better. But just like those difficult parents, we as coaches still have growing to do."

Coaches can use these difficult interactions as opportunities to build relationships, says Beatty.

"In conflict situations everyone's emotions are running high, so it's important to check our own egos, approach the situation with an open mind, and be thoughtful with our word choices," said Beatty.

There are certain developmental guidelines that parents and coaches should work on together based on the age of the athlete, and that can help dissolve and potential parent-coach conflict, said Mike Clayton, Manager, National Coaches Education Program for USA Wrestling, and owner of Session 6 Wrestling, a company he created to help wrestlers set goals, focus, gain confidence, organize, and prioritize their training to help them reach their goals on the mat and in life.

In many cases, a simple misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or unclear goals or guidelines can often lead to problems between parents and coaches who because of whatever reason, are suddenly not on the same page. This can be especially true at the youth wrestling level.

"Some parents and coaches want immediate success at a young age for their kids," said Clayton. "Winning at a young age does not guarantee future success. Often, it actually hinders that athletes future opportunities. For every one young athlete that was successful, you'll probably find dozens that did not pan out in the long run."

The reality is, coaches should never underestimate the emotional attachment a parent has with their child. Parents want the best for their children, and when things don't go well, they may not be able to handle their own emotions. That's not the fault of the child, and something a coach can't control.

"You see it at tournaments all the time where a parent believes their child has been treated poorly by a coach or an official, and often they lose their temper," said Clayton. "Many of these parents often regret their actions after the fact, but unfortunately the damage is often already done."

When a wrestler competes in a big tournament, or travels to an event -- such as an out of town tournament, parents may raise the expectations of the athlete, and put more pressure on them. Coaches should try and remind parents before these events that these elements should not be relayed to the kids.

"When we take our athletes to big competitions, we take vacation, spend tons of money on transportation and hotels, and entry fees," said Clayton. "We don't often intend to, but parents will say things that put the pressure of these expenses on their kids. We've heard parents say things like, 'We spent $3,000 on this trip and you only took fifth place.'”

Kids don't really understand these costs and making them aware of these costs might cause them to feel like they must win in order to feel their parents love, said Clayton.

"Make sure kids know that we are not spending money on them and looking for a return on our investment, other than allowing the athlete to develop at their own pace," said Clayton. "We don't all learn math and science at the same rate, and some kids take longer to develop wrestling skills than others."

Through pre-event parental meetings, coaches can remind parents the goal of traveling to tournaments or big events is to advance as a wrestler, and compete as a team or against top competition. That way, it doesn't appear as if a coach is singling out one parent. Parents can be sensitive, so the team approach can help avoid what would be perceived as "singling out" a parent or parents. When these messages are relayed to a larger group, in many cases, the larger group can work to discuss these scenarios with parents who may feel slighted, or that the coach "is out to get them" and other parents can help diffuse potential issues.

But … like many aspects of life, and sports -- conflict, perceived conflict, or potential conflict, often comes down to communication. In cases where there are issues, it's usual lack of communication, or understanding.

So when in doubt, over-communicate, says Jim Thompson, CEO and Founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a national nonprofit working to provide all youth and high school athletes a positive, character-building sports experience. The PCA article Making Parents An Asset By Avoiding Parent/Coach Conflict, discusses these scenarios in greater detail.

"Coaches run into problems when they assume parents understand why they coach the way they do," says Thompson. "Don't assume. If you have rules about playing time or missing practice, for example, tell them. Ask parents to contact you with concerns rather than share them with their child. Give them your contact information and let them know when to talk with you (for example, not right before practice). Over-communicating will save you time over the course of the season, and it will enhance your players' experience."

Keep an open mind, if possible. And look at things from a different perspective, because parents are not always difficult -- they are just passionate, says Lee Pritts, assistant wrestling coach at Arizona State University.

"As a coach you do not have to deal with difficult parents -- you have to deal with difficult situations," says Pritts. "The student-athlete, the parent, and the coach all want success and sometimes there are pitfalls, and as we all know that can become uncomfortable sometimes for everyone involved. All situations are different, but at the end of the day it comes down to trust and communication amongst all parties."

Keep in mind, parents, like all of us, want to feel heard, says Beatty. Authentically listening to their frustrations or opinions may be the catalyst to total buy in of your program.

"Once parents feel heard and acknowledged, we then have an opportunity to explain our philosophies and expectations," said Beatty. "It is important to communicate to parents, with both words and actions, that we as coaches have their child's best interest in mind. But, we also need to explain that when we make decisions, we need to ensure a positive impact on the entire program. Staying consistent with these decisions is the most important part of having good boundaries with athletes, parents, community members, and friends of the program."

It's important to not simply dismiss a parent's input simply because they are more aggressive, loud, demanding, or in some cases, selfish. Assess the situation. Can this parent, while difficult, add value?

"Focusing on and utilizing each person's strengths can help refocus their energy to give you and the rest of your team relief while building or strengthening aspects of your program," says Beatty. "By doing this, it will increase program buy-in and show these parents that you value their participation, which will hopefully mean more cooperation between them and your staff."

If these strategies and approaches don't work, however, there is a time to draw the line, and boundaries must be made.

"If the situation escalates to this level, all conversations should be in person with a third party present, preferably your Athletic Director or school Principal," said Beatty.

Dealing with difficult parents will always be a part of coaching that no coach signs up for. But when that time comes -- and it will come -- use these tips and strategies to manage and make the most of a difficult situation.

Topics: Coaching, Parenting

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