When youth strength coaches discuss their barriers to success with young athletes, dealing with difficult parents and coaches is often high on the list.
In nearly 20 years as a youth strength and conditioning coach, I’ve had thousands of positive experiences with parents and coaches. It’s amazing to work as a team to create a 360-degree support system that functions to amplify a young athlete’s success in sports and life.
I’ve also had experiences that left me questioning if I wanted to remain in this profession. Overbearing parents, undermining coaches, and a dysfunctional interaction of all of the above can derail the unique opportunity we have to positively impact a child’s life.
Over the years, I’ve developed some powerful strategies to solidify and improve overall cohesiveness with parents and coaches. It’s important to realize that for the most part, everyone involved with the development of a young athlete is acting on what they believe to be the best for their child. Engaging in a constant battle of “who is right” always ends poorly.
A far more effective approach is to establish clear communication and expectations, so everyone involved understands the intended outcome and their values with the process are aligned. It’s also important to evaluate the role our own ego plays in making or breaking a relationship.
Below are 11 different strategies that have proven successful for me in my career to create a functional, positive relationship between myself, parents, and coaches.
1. During the initial consultation, focus the questions and conversation towards the athlete. At times, this may require respectfully and artfully “cutting off” the parent if they try to answer a question directed towards the athlete.
Even though this appears to be dismissing the parent, I have received repeated feedback that this made the parent feel at ease because they knew I was focused on the needs of their child. It also helps establish an initial dynamic without being confrontational.
2. When talking to parents and coaches, prioritize a “how can we help you?” tone as opposed to “this is what we do with athletes” tone. Ask questions like “What do you value in a coach?” “What do you see as the ultimate outcome of your child playing sports?” This not only provides valuable insight, it helps parents and coaches feel heard vs. spoken to. This makes them more confident that you have their best interests in mind.
3. Listen to the language that parents, coaches, and athletes use when describing what they need/expect from a program. This is the language they understand, even if the semantics are off a bit. Whenever possible, use their language when sharing the details of your program. Don’t’ start a battle of egos by coming off condescending. There will be plenty of time for semantics while training.
4. Develop an understanding of where their points of concern may be with your program before it begins. You may use play and games frequently. You may take time to build a progression. You may focus on general aspects of conditioning vs. sport specific training (as you should). While these represent the best approach to training youth, the parent or coach’s lack of understanding of the process may cause reason for question.
Address these concerns out of the gait. “We use a lot of games to teach athletic skills because…” “You’ll see them doing a lot of things you may have seen in physical education classes. We do this because…” Addressing these at the onset of a program both verbally, and in a concise take-home document helps establish an expectation. They may decide that your approach isn’t in line with theirs, right or wrong. This saves headaches down the road!
5. Communicate frequently with coaches and parents. Most parents and coaches start to become overbearing when they don’t know or understand what you are doing with their child. Learn to keep things brief and specific. If parents are not present at training, take video whenever possible. When a child is training in a group, make sure to check in with each parent at least once per week. A quick face- to- face or text puts their mind at ease and lets them know you are on top of things.
6. When a parent brings an athlete to train, get their coach’s email address and let them know you are working with the athlete. Ask questions and frequently update the coach. When the coach is in the loop and respects your work, parents (even difficult ones) are more likely to as well.
7. If working with a coach and his/her team, make sure you have a line of communication to parents. This could be an occasional email, newsletter, or other way to create value for your services. When you have parents support, coaches often follow suit. After all, most coaches are ultimately hired and fired by some form of parent intervention.
8. Consider the “optics” of your training environment to coaches and parents. Even if you’re doing what would be considered the “right” stuff, if athletes aren’t engaged, challenged, and moving it doesn’t look good. You may be practicing great squat technique but if the training room is silent, your athletes are dead-faced, and there’s no sweat on their brow, it’s a hard sell to everyone involved.
Learn how to do the right stuff in a way that leaves young athletes sweating, smiling, and smarter.
9. Don’t undermine a coach, even if you don’t agree with their approach. There is no positive outcome in this scenario. If differences arise, immediately have a discussion. If a solution cannot be reached, part ways ASAP. From experience, I can promise this will actually save time, money, and headaches. There are a lot of kids that need and want your help.
10. The same as above goes for a coach that undermines your work. Have a discussion and make a decision ASAP. Don’t go to war. Attempting to bash one another’s reputation can have nuclear implications to everyone’s ability to help kids. Take the high road and prove them wrong in your community with action and reputation. Trust me, they will sink their own ship.
11. Check your ego. I’ve witnessed so many strength coach/sport coach/parent relationships go south due to semantic arguments and over-dogmatic convention. The same bad experiences we’ve had with parents and sport coaches, they have probably had with professionals like us.
Resist automatically dismissing parent and coach concerns about your program. This is hard to do. It’s true that some relationships just aren’t going to work, but it’s important to evaluate your role in increasing or decreasing the likelihood of this.
While all of the above will dramatically decrease the obstacles you face with parents and coaches, “toxic” individuals still exist. Make sure you’re not contributing to the sludge, cut them loose, and move on. These decisions can be difficult because we truly care about their kids and we may depend on the income.
From experience however, I can attest that the time and energy drain from these relationships create a drastically negative net result on impact and income. A single parent or coach can derail your ability, energy, and interest in helping kids.
When we communicate, listen, and check our own ego more often, we have a greater opportunity to help more kids become active and athletic for life.
Brett Klika is a youth performance expert and a regular contributor to the IYCA who is passionate about coaching young athletes. He is the creator of the SPIDERfit Kids youth training program and has run successful youth fitness programs all over the country. Brett is an international speaker whose passion for youth fitness has helped thousands of people learn how to create exceptional training experiences for young athletes.
If you want to be better at coaching young athletes, the IYCA Youth Fitness Specialist certification is the industry gold-standard for youth fitness and sports performance. Click on the image below to learn more about the YFS1 certification program.