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You’ve been ‘volun-told’ to coach junior sport – here’s how to best handle the parents involved

With winter sports swinging into action, adults around the country have volunteered or been volunteered by others (humorously known as being “volun-told”) to coach junior sports teams.

While most coaches are eager to work with children to build their skills, confidence and passion for sport, one aspect of the job that coaches may approach with trepidation is working with parents.

This can be especially difficult for the many coaches who are also parents, as they need to balance dual roles and relationships.

As researchers in sports coaching and family psychology, we know parents play a central role in supporting children’s participation, enjoyment and development in sport.

However, as coaches of junior teams ourselves, we understand that working with parents can be challenging. Indeed, lack of support from parents has been identified as a major reason for coaches deciding not to continue.

Community sports clubs rely on volunteers to coach teams but coaches often receive limited or no training or guidance about how to work effectively with parents.

Our approach is to consider the coach-parent relationship a positive dimension of the job, working together as partners to develop young people through sport.

So, what can coaches do to build strong partnerships with parents?

Help parents feel a part of the team

In the past, most parents had an arm’s length interest in their children’s sport. Today, parents develop social connections via their children’s sport.

Parents build an identity as a “sports parent”, viewing active involvement in their children’s sport as an important part of the parenting role, helping to cultivate their child’s character and development.

As a result, parents are looking for ways to be positively involved, but may not be sure what will be most helpful. Some parents may not have the confidence to assist directly with training or games.

As a volunteer coach, you can think of practical ways parents can help and actively invite them to give you a hand in ways that support, rather than interfere with your coaching. This might include asking them to assist with setting up and packing up after training, taking turns bringing fruit for halftime, or running the player substitutions on and off the field.

For younger children, you can ask parents to assist with “crowd control” at training, keeping younger children on task and listening to the coach. And for older children and teenagers, parents can be asked to keep team statistics and provide input into the player-of-the-day award.

As many leagues don’t keep score, this last suggestion presents an opportunity for teams to focus on things beyond winning or losing – parents might record the number of “touches” each player gets or note “highlights” for each player based on what they worked on in training.

More adventurous teams might work out how players can rate the performance of their parents as spectators.

It helps to view the team you are coaching as an extended team of players and parents. In the same way you would build your relationship with a child by praising and encouraging them for being valuable team players, remember to show your appreciation for parents and family members for their efforts.

Parents need to be on the same page as their children – and coaches – when it comes to junior sports.

Get on the same page as parents

Parents invest considerable time, money and emotional energy into their children’s sport.

Our research has shown that in some cases, this significant personal investment can result in unhelpful sideline behaviour from parents, like yelling and shouting, contradicting the coach or giving unsolicited advice.

Coaches sharing with parents their goals and expectations for the team is a good way to turn their personal investment into positive and constructive involvement.

In our experience, an open conversation at the start of the season about everyone’s expectations can help build alignment on goals between coaches, players and parents, providing a strong foundation for establishing parent and coach relationships.

A coach might say to parents:

As coaches of junior teams, we face a few trade-offs. We need to consider the different objectives of winning and performance, sports skill development and children’s personal enjoyment and development. I would be interested in your views on this. If you had 100 points to allocate, what would be your priorities regarding the number of points to: (1) winning the game, (2) sports skill development, and (3) player personal development?

While the weight of priorities might differ between parents of an under-7s team compared to an under-16s representative side, parents’ responses will help coaches see what values are important to them.

Coaches can then share their goals and invite discussion about how this might be similar or different to the priorities among parents or between parents, players and the coach.

Keep the communication channels open

Such a frank conversation sets the stage for open, transparent and regular communication throughout the season.

Encouraging parents to listen to post-match team debriefings is a good way to continue that communication, as are informal check-ins with parents sharing your observations about how their child is progressing.

Many coaches use messaging apps to stay in touch with parents about games and training schedules, but these can also be useful tools for reviewing team goals for the week or reinforcing expectations and priorities.

This effort from the coach to share goals and maintain open communication may not reduce the prospect of having difficult conversations across the season. But it should help parents feel comfortable approaching the coach in a way that is respectful and considerate of the partnership that already exists.

Building coach-parent partnerships is about finding constructive ways for helping parents feel included, positively involved and valued in their children’s sport.

An effective coach-parent partnership will help coaches stay in the sport and support children to have a positive sporting experience into the future.

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