Remember when you first thought about enrolling your kid into a local sports club? Football, netball, hockey, whatever it might be. Imagining idyllic days watching him or her playing sport, and everything’s just dandy. Then you sign up to a club, and, for many, it never quite works out like that. Club politics is real, and at the heart of those politics is always the sometimes turbulent coach-parent-child triumvirate.

Pushy Parents

A coach might go into a club thinking his or her job is solely to work with the kids, but will quickly realise building a harmonious relationship with parents is an absolutely vital aspect of the job too.

Back in 2016, we wrote about pushy parents in sport – an all too common problem that rears its head time after time. It is natural to be pushy as a parent in sport, but the trick is to find a way of channelling those impulses and emotions in the right way. Sadly, there are precious few guides or resources dedicated to helping parents, and they are forced to learn through making mistakes.

The Blame Game

Coaches should make every effort to explain to parents the thinking behind their decisions, while parents must listen to, understand and accept the rationale behind those decisions. It boils down to communication, but as human beings – especially British human beings – it’s not always easy.

Gordon MacLelland is CEO of Working with Parents in Sport (WWPIS), and he often talks about ‘the blame game’. The inquest in the car on the way home is often where the blame game is played out. There is never a winner, but the child loses every time.

A typical blame game might see a parent berate their child for a below par display, or criticise the coach for picking the wrong kids or making the wrong substitution, who in turn blames the parents for their persistent shouting from the sidelines. It’s an unholy and unhealthy mess, but one that plays out in parks and pitches across the country every single weekend.

A breakdown in the relationship between coach and parent usually results in a vicious circle of negativity where everyone becomes a victim, in particular the poor child, whose enjoyment of sport is slowly eroded. On the court or field of play, if a player flouts the rules they are dealt with accordingly by the referee. In the blame game that kicks off at the same time on the touchline, parents are not remotely as accountable for their actions.

The parent / coach double act

It is increasingly clear that parents can be a coach’s greatest ally in the sporting development of their children. Gordon MacLelland is determined to push the idea of dynamic double acts who deliver the same common messages, demonstrate the same consistent and appropriate behaviour and emotional responses to children.

The most common issue causing rifts between coaches and parents is probably playing time – specifically those kids who get less playing time than the others, despite having paid the same subs / fees, and dedicate the same time to training every week. Having a consistent policy on playing time will spare coaches the full force of parents’ wrath.

MacLelland calls on real life experience to illustrate this point.

I have a real-life example of that. So my son has played at a decent level of football for the last three years. His club’s policy has always been equal playing time. Whether it’s a cup semi-final or playing a team who are top of the table, whoever it may be, if it’s your turn to miss the start of the game, you miss the start of the game; if it’s your turn to come off with 10 minutes to go, you come off.

In many ways it is a difficult thing for the parent to accept and there have been incidences where we have lost penalty shoot-outs and gone out of tournaments. But in the grand scheme of things you have been able to accept it because that is what was set out in front of you to start with. You have bought into it.

What you cannot have is a club culture saying, “We aren’t all about winning, we are about development”, and then have four coaches on four pitches giving everybody equal playing time and a fifth coach replacing who they consider to be the three worst players with 10 minutes to go with the three best because the team is a goal down. That is the sort of thing which causes a problem with parents and creates a negative reaction.

Some of this stuff might seem obvious but it is amazing how many clubs do not subscribe to this sort of thinking. In many ways, it boils down to prioritising person over performer, and fun over winning. Many coaches find this difficult – their ego desperately wants to win, and losses can be seen as personal failures. But in kids’ sport, especially young children, this is patently ridiculous.

For much more insight into working with coaches, parents and children in sport, check out the brilliant WWPIS website or look up more of Gordon MacLelland‘s insightful work.

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