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Coaching the parents, what parents of athletes need to know

In athletics we coach the coaches, we coach the players, but we often forget to coach the parents. Yes, I said coach the parents. Far too often the narrative around the phrase “parents of players“ is marked by anecdotes of negative parent-coach interactions. Not often enough, do we provide parents with information about how best to support their athletes and their role as parents. 

Dr. Greg Dale, Director of the Sports Psychology and Leadership Program at Duke, provides a ton of insight on exactly this. 

One of the first things Dr. Dale asks the audience when he speaks to groups of athletes and parents is “what do you want your athlete to learn from sports?” Usually, parents respond with “life lessons”. If this is true, parents must be prepared for those life lessons to come in some uncomfortable ways for their kids. We know players learn lessons from sports, that's a tale as old as time. But we also must recognize as parents and as coaches that some of these lessons come from growing pains, things like a kid learning how to be a good teammate even when they didn’t get playing time or learning to take constructive criticism from a coach. Parents can support the mission of learning life lessons through sports by holding their kid accountable for those very same things. 

An example that Dr. Dale uses when talking about this is, when a kid sits the bench for a game that his/her team ends up winning. After the game if the player chooses to not celebrate with the team and instead sulks. That’s an opportunity for parents to have the hard conversation with their kid about being a good teammate. One of the benefits of educational athletics is the ability for a community of people to help develop young men and women. That means it's not just on the coaches to help teach those lessons in sports. The response from parents must match what they want their kids to learn and parents behavior must model what they want to see from their kids. Together coaches and parents can make educational athletics extremely impactful.

Now, onto the role of coaches. Dr. Dale emphasizes that coaches need to be able to coach. Parents, allow the coaches to do what they do. Sounds simple but in the heat of emotion that sports bring us, that can be difficult. The easiest change for parents to make Dr. Dale says, is to not coach your kid from the stands. It’s hard for an athlete to focus on the game and concentrate on what the coach is saying while a parent is yelling directives from the stands. It seems harmless and it’s done with good intention, but instead of yelling directives, parents should try to keep it simple like “keep hustling” “good work” and other positive comments. 

Additionally, Dr. Dale provides tips for how parents can best handle post-competition interactions with their athletes. He suggests that parents do not text or call their kid before a competition, unless it is to simply wish them good luck or to tell them to have fun. Again, Dr. Dale says “leave the coaching to the coaches”. Oftentimes we as parents are excited for our kids but we need to be reminded to let kids play and let coaches coach. Dr. Dale also says that the car ride home is another situation where parents can make slight changes that will be beneficial to their kids. He explains that talking to your athlete right after a competition that doesn’t go well, is one of the more damaging things that parents can do. Instead, he suggests giving the athlete space and then talking about it after he/she has had time to process. 

Of course the role of parents in athletics is extremely important. Coaches can encourage these types of cultural changes within their program and parents can make these adjustments on their own. These 3 simple changes aren’t groundbreaking, but they’re slight changes that can help shape an athletes trajectory and also help keep parents involved in positive ways that lend to good relationships with coaches. 

Thank you to Dr. Dale for providing insight into this. For more on this he can be found on twitter @gregdale919. As always, stay tuned to The Scoop.