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UK Coaching Team
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Rapport Building and Communicating

Building Positive Relationships with Parents

Available free until 23 February and then exclusive to UK Coaching Subscribers. Gordon MacLelland offers some advice for coaches on how to build a harmonious relationship with parents and avoid unnecessary conflict in this two-part guide compiled by Blake Richardson

Poor parents. Not only must they bat away daily complaints from their children – “why do you never listen to my point of view?”; “why are you always telling me to be quiet?” – at weekends they can find themselves back in the firing line from coaches. Only this time it is the parents who are being told to button their lips, are criticised for having an opinion and are left feeling chastised and hard done by.

They must be fed up of fielding flak from two different directions.

Remember the grass-roots campaign Give Us Back Our Game, aimed at reclaiming children’s football from the oppressive behaviour of pushy parents? Enough articles have been written painting ‘suffocating parents’ as the bad guys that every side-line spectator must think even the most amiable of coaches is in the habit of whinging about them behind their back. 

The truth is, branding parents as controlling and overbearing is not helping anyone, not least the children, whose development can suffer as a consequence of coaches missing an obvious solution to the problem: using parents to their advantage.

A little empathy and understanding can go a long way, as Gordon MacLelland, founder of Working With Parents in Sport, was at pains to point out in his presentation at the 2019 UK Coaching Conference.

Parents are not our nemesis, they can actually be our biggest allies, but we have to find a way of channelling their passion, enthusing them and trying to get them on the same hymn sheet as us.

They are well intentioned a lot of the time, it’s just sometimes slightly misguided.”

Coaches shoulder a huge responsibility in endeavouring to help children develop both as proficient athletes and well-rounded individuals.

And recognising that working in partnership with parents, not against them, will help coaches at every level deliver the holistic and athletic outcomes every party wants, is a fundamental first step towards creating an optimal learning environment and helping children maintain a lifelong love of sport and physical activity.

Here are a few of the most important considerations coaches should strive to remember when engaging with parents to make them feel more included, involved and invested in their child’s sporting experience. 

 

Coaches must recognise from the outset, before a ball is kicked, hit, caught or thrown, that parents are the biggest influence on their children

“Remember that parents do a huge amount for their kids. Without their commitment, there wouldn’t be much sport to play,” says Gordon. 

You can potentially unravel all the good work that you do by failing to recognise this. Alternatively, you can get parents to buy into what you are trying to achieve and then they will reinforce those consistent messages when they go home.”

Compliments create positive energy. Saying something as simple as, “Thank you for bringing them today” is a sure-fire way of building rapport with a parent and showing that you appreciate the commitment they are making for their child.

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget that everything a parent does for their children is out of love. If coaches can show they ‘get that’ by noticing the praiseworthy effort parents are putting in for their children, they will have taken that all-important first step towards building a collaborative relationship.

 

Okay, so you appreciate that every decision a parent makes is out of love for their child, and that when their exuberance comes to the fore it is just a symptom of parents living every moment of their child’s sporting journey. 

But what if that passion spills over? 

While coaches should not discourage parents from being passionate about their child’s involvement in sport and physical activity, parents should be encouraged to keep things in perspective. 

The solution to achieving the holy grail of perspective is to widen your avenues of communication and to bring parents into the sporting experience

Don’t begrudge them insight into their child’s learning and the methods and models being employed,” is Gordon’s advice.

Do you have regular face to face conversations with your parents with a view to educating them on the impact that raucous behaviour can have on their children? 

Have you explained that shouting negative instructions can stifle children’s autonomous learning and put undue pressure on them, which could ultimately cause them to lose interest – and when the fun stops, children will want to stop?

Gordon advocates parents’ meetings to discuss important issues like these.

“I have discussed growth spurts and puberty with my parents, and how children develop at different rates; the types of question parents should be asking their child; the importance of praise and feedback. 

We need to inform them and let them know what the sporting journey looks like. We have to assume that, while they may have some knowledge, they won’t have the depth of knowledge about sport development that we do. Paint a picture to the parents, and the children. We have to be proactive as coaches in getting the right kind of information across.

“That doesn’t mean that parents want to be preached at. The goal should be to creatively bring them more into the process, so they have a voice.”

Two ideas Gordon has used himself to enhance the parent meeting experience are Bingo sheets and hand-held number clickers.

Print off a sheet with nine actions on that parents ring off when they see their child accomplish it during a game. It could be team tasks or individual tasks, but something that has value, so the parent is not solely focused on the result.

“With the clicker, ask the parents to press the button every time they say something positive about their child. For every negative they have to reset it to zero, and the person with the biggest number of clicks wins.”

Such innovative approaches will help parents understand that, while their enthusiasm cannot be faulted, they will be helping their child if they can find ways of channelling it in a more positive way.

And the activities will also serve to reinforce the face to face conversations you have with parents around the importance of developing the person as well as the player, and the message that children should not be defined purely on their sporting prowess.

No coach enjoys having their policies and messaging questioned or challenged. 

Remember, says Gordon, that you are merely the gatekeeper of what should be the club philosophy

With this layer of protection from seniority, it should give coaches the confidence to deal more calmly with confrontations around potential flashpoints like equal playing time or team development goals – bolstered in the knowledge they have the support of the club to back them up on policy enforcement.

Gordon’s biggest tip to avoiding confrontation is to be as consistent as possible when delivering messages and philosophy and to make sure you demonstrate to children and parents those same behavioural and emotional responses you advocate in your philosophy.

As Gordon states: “Inconsistencies cause a huge amount of stress for parents.”

For example, if a coach says that the club’s policy is equal playing time, and then all the discussion at training, on match days and on social media is about winning, leading goal-scorers and league position, it is hardly surprising if the mixed messages leads to confusion and a posse of aggrieved parents.

Positively Engaging Parents

In part two, Gordon MacLelland reveals his five-step guide to keeping parents happy

Learn More

Related Resources

  • We Are Family

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  • Support and Advice for Parents in Sport

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  • Talking Talent: How to Work Effectively with Parents

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UK Coaching Team