This is the last of three articles Idaho Education News published from a West Ada educator and coach offering insights from decades working with student athletes.
We have all seen the news stories: the parent who cusses out the coach after the game. The parents who get in a fight with the referees. The parents who punch the coach. The parents who cuss out the team as they leave the field, calling the coaches every name in the book — when those same parents would never stand for those coaches to act that way towards their children or to themselves.
One lens to help see this problem is understanding parents’ motivations.
Every parent comes from a place of love for their child. I believe no one wants to be “that parent.” However, our love and need to help our child sometimes causes us to act in ways we shouldn’t. We minimize and justify our decisions because we are looking out for our children’s best interests.
I call this the “mama bear syndrome.” Everyone is a mama bear, protecting his or her cubs. I see it all over social media, many times in situations that don’t justify the intense over-protection the term indicates.
Those mama bears aren’t just protecting their cubs from legitimate danger. They are trying to pave the road for the cubs, so they don’t have any hardships or problems. Some parents see their role as road graders, smoothing out every bump in the road so nothing jostles the cub. Road graders and mama bears can easily become “that parent.”
Do we want to raise cubs or bears as high school athletes? Are we allowing our cubs to grow by protecting them from everything?
It’s the exact reason we have the transfer portal in college and why we see players transfer around high schools. People are looking for the path of least resistance for their children. No longer do we want them to strive and overcome the adversity in their life — we want them to transfer so they can be the starting pitcher on the softball team. Too many good players on a team? That’s easy: start another team. Start another club. Transfer to another high school.
Coaches have families, too
In my time as a high school teacher and coach, I have been called every name in the book by parents — both to my face and behind my back. I have been the dumbest coach to ever coach. I have been a bully and a jerk, out to get the players. None of these things are true or my bosses would have fired me.
However, coaches have no recourse in this. We are expected to have thick skins and just take whatever the parents throw at us, even though we have been coaching our entire lives and a lot of parents have been watching sports on TV their entire lives. “That parent” most often believes he or she has a lot more content knowledge about coaching than he or she actually does — and even more content knowledge than the coach, sometimes.
Parents demand that coaches respect their families. However, parents forget that coaches have families, too. My family has always gone to my football games. My family sits next to “that parent.” My mom, my dad, my wife, my kids — they have all sat in the stands and heard me called every name and my integrity and intelligence called into question.
Every week. Every game. Every season.
Once, after a loss in the playoffs at an away school, I was walking off the field after a winnable game. I felt horrible. To make sure I felt horrible, lots of parents told me how stupid we were, how the coaches had lost the game, and how we had pissed away a state championship. “Nathan White, you better make changes on defense! You’re terrible!” is about the most PG example I can give in this forum.
I quickly found my wife on my way to the locker room. I told her “Get the car and move it as close as you can. Get the kids in and wait for me. We are getting the hell out of here as fast as possible.” I waited in the locker room for our players and other coaches to get on the buses and got the heck out of Dodge as fast as I could.
I wasn’t worried about the rival fans — I was legitimately worried about my family and our parents. I wasn’t worried about physical harm: it was more about trying to protect them from having to hear how horrible their husband and dad was. And my wife and kids sat in the car and listened, unwillingly, to every vile thing every parent had to say.
On the drive home, my daughter innocently asked, “Dad, why do all the parents hate you so much?” I didn’t know exactly what to say. These were parents of her friends. These were people she had known her whole life. These were people who invited her over to swim at their houses. These were parents of the teams she was on.
“Sweetie, they don’t. They are just upset we lost. And they need to blame someone and it’s always easiest to blame the coaches. It’s all right; I’ve got big shoulders. They need a scapegoat and it’s us.”
I don’t know if I believed my words to her. It isn’t fair that my family had to sit and listen. It isn’t fair that parents can rip coaches with no immunity. It is what is wrong with our world of social media and keyboard tough guys: It’s easy to say things when it isn’t face-to-face and there are not any consequences for one’s words. Coaches’ kids shouldn’t have to hear how stupid and lacking in integrity their parents are, especially when it is lies.
Coaches’ family members have ears to hear all the poison thrown at us
I have had parents march into the coach’s office unannounced, demand to be heard, and cuss the coaches up and down hotter than the fiercest flame. Instead of working on planning practice, or watching film, or something that would legitimately help the team win, coaches are berated and beleaguered. They are cussed and questioned.
And they are expected to sit and take it and not react because if we react we could lose our job.
See, this is our livelihood. We are not coaching volunteer youth sports here. We all have to pay the mortgage and this is how we do it. Would you allow someone to show up unannounced at your job and bitch at you for 15 minutes in the middle of your day? No, most people would have some security system in place to stop this from happening. But it happens to us before and after practice, before and after games, at the school in the front office, and sometimes at the grocery store.
Good coaches are being driven out of the profession by instances like this. Gone are the days where the same coaching staff taught and coached at a building for 5, 10, 20 years together. That’s how it was when I was in high school and when I started coaching.
Now, coaches are lucky to stay for a year or two. Large coaching staffs, like football, are constantly trying to hire assistants to fill their program. Large 5A football programs have 20–25 coaches on staff. The turnover is incredible and “that parent” is one of the reasons why.
So how do parents avoid being “that parent?” While my kids were playing sports, I have wanted to intervene with other coaches on behalf of my kids. In lots of cases, I really did have a lot more knowledge about the sport, or how to teach and coach, than the volunteer who was coaching my kids. I had to remind myself : this is about growth and development. This is about trying and failing. This is about letting athletes play and supporting the team and coach, no matter what.
I think to avoid being “that parent,” parents need to focus on what is best for the program and team. That’s what the coaches are doing. And it is really hard, especially when our kid isn’t playing much, to do that.
However, look at everything objectively. Is it going to help your son or daughter get better if they hear you bad mouth the coach and tell him or her that the coach doesn’t know what they are doing? Will that improve your athlete’s chances of playing more? Will that improve your teams’ chances of winning more? Will that improve the odds that your athlete buckles down and works harder, or are you giving your child an easy out?
Usually, when the dinner table is tearing down the coach and program, the player is put in a tough spot. Do I side with my family or my team? My dad or my coach? Putting a 16-year-old in that kind of tug of war is unfair.
So… what’s the answer?
I don’t know but I’m a teacher so I believe education — like this article I’m writing — is one of the steps. I do know that the best parents of some of the best Varsity football players I did not meet until that player’s banquet his senior year. And I’m not using “best” to define the player athletically. I’m talking academically, emotionally, leadership, growth, and being a stand-up young man.
That meant for four years of football while they played for us, the parents left the coaches alone and let them coach. That meant that for four years, the parents trusted us to help their kid. Usually, those parents come up, say they just wanted to introduce themselves to me after all this time, and thank me for the work I put in with their child.
This always makes it so I remember a different kind of “that parent” — the ones who support and believe in the lessons and the work high school coaches put into their athletes.
Common language to avoid being ‘that parent’
What should I do if I have a problem with high school athletics?
Step 1: Talk to your player. Is the problem the parent’s problem or the player’s problem?
A lot of times, the player who is at practice every day and sees the bigger picture has a much better feel for playing time and scheme than the parent does. Is it really the player who is upset or is it the parent?
Step 2: Schedule a meeting with the head coach. Don’t wait for him or her after a practice or game; instead, send an email or call and request a meeting.
This gives several benefits. Sports are a high intensity deal. By scheduling a meeting for the next day or later that week, cooler heads can prevail and the meeting can move forward logically and not be colored by the emotion of the moment.
Many times, parents skip these first two steps and go directly to the District Athletic Director with an issue. This is inefficient. By skipping the people who are involved, the parents are making the issue harder to figure out. By following a flow of communication, miscommunications and issues can be remedied at the program level.
Step 3: I believe most issues can be solved in these first two steps. “Solved” may not result in more playing time, or changing from a spread offense to an I back offense, or the exact outcome a parent is wanting, but it will hopefully lead to understanding why the coach is doing what he or she is doing.
However, if there is still an issue, the next person to contact is the building Athletic Director. If the problem is too big or to grievous to be dealt with by the coach, and the next layer is needed, schedule a meeting with the building athletic director and/or principal.
A lot of the lenses that coaches, parents, and players deal with are miscommunications. By working through the coaches and then the building administration, perhaps we can solve more of our problems than letting them be pushed to people at the district office who really are not involved directly with the situation and have to play catch-up to learn about the issues.
Coach White’s series, at a glance:
- No one wants to be ‘that’ parent