Parent-coaches relationships? Navigating the challenges to see better outcomes for all.
What is your current response to the child/athlete-parent-coach triangle? Has your experience of this triangle been, on the whole, good? Has it been soured by one or two really negative experiences? Have you heard lots of anecdotal stories about when this works well and when it can be a disaster?
[If you would like to watch Richard give this blog, you can find a planned by unscripted version here] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWSgHHwGtCQ
The following six questions will help you, as coaches, to enhance this triangle, which we know will bring deeper fulfilment and a greater release of potential for those we coach. Now let’s be honest, this triangle, (or athletic triangle to give it the technical name) can be a bit like the Bermuda Triangle. It can be a place of shipwrecked dreams and sunken relationships. We only have to look at the news to see the dangers of what happens for athletes and coaches when it goes wrong.
Recently we saw the incredible gymnastics performance by the UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, and her story is fascinating. If you look back into some of her backstory about how she was on the cusp of Olympic team success, then you’ll see that through all sorts of reasons she just fell out of love and fell out of fun with the sport. This makes me ask the question, what was going on in her athletic triangle, that somebody with so many injuries and clearly so committed could be so unhappy in their sport for so long? Was there something going on in this triangle of relationships which wasn’t enabling a young person to thrive or even take the brave decision to stop doing their sport or change direction? *1
Another recent sports headline was about a coach who has decided to quit because of the incredible pressure that parents have put him under. He didn’t want to live and work in that very political environment anymore.*2 It’s clear that this set of relationships can be a disaster. Read some of the famous sports people’s autobiographies or biographies, and you will hear where this has been brilliant and where this has been a disaster.
Consider someone like Andre Agassi for example, where the child-to-parent relationship has got very, very soured and has ruined part of that participation within a sport. *3 I referenced the Bermuda Triangle, an area of ocean with mythical power to sink boats etc., but did you know Bermuda is glorious, it is an incredibly beautiful island. This triangle of relationships doesn’t have to be a nightmare. It can be incredibly fruitful, productive and life-giving. When Missy Franklin made the brave decision to retire, she wrote powerfully about her parents’ support, support which made both participating in swimming and transitioning out of swimming easier. *3a So what can we do to enhance this triangle to help coaches and families avoid these sunken relationships and offer live-giving support to athletes?
ACTIVITY ONE Before I crack on with the six questions, can I invite you to pause for a minute and draw the athletic triangle of the athletes that you’ve enjoyed working with? As you draw their triangle, be encouraged about how you have influenced them, their parents and the wider circle. What reflections do you have about what makes this triangle work?
I have enjoyed the time I have spent in sporting pathway contexts supporting coaches and organisations in effectively engaging parents in ways which support positive parental behaviour to enable athletes to release their potential.
The athletic triangle is an academic and researched attempt to help coaches and institutions understand some of the dynamics which are in play in this relationship. *5
When put into a diagram, these three roles will be in different positions. Sometimes they have the child/athlete in the middle instead of having the child at a corner. (figure 1a). I don’t think it matters how you draw the athletic triangle – as we’re going to see in a moment, there’s no perfect way of drawing complex human relationships.
Whatever way you draw it, for me it’s important that we recognise this dynamic and the power that parents have in it. When travelling around sporting organisations, I tend to find that sporting organisations have the same opinion of parents that I had of my parents when I was 18. When I was 18, I viewed my parents firstly as cash cows, that they would pay for whatever I needed. Secondly, they were a great taxi service and thirdly, they didn’t know a tremendous amount about anything. I now have a far greater view of my parents!
Sadly when I go and work with sports organisations and teams, this is often the way sports organisations present themselves to parents and the way they view parents – cash cows and taxis whose knowledge is out of date and laughable. It is this approach to parents, which increases the chance of the authentic triangle becoming more like the Bermuda triangle. Talking to coaches and parents, I have found that most recognise the importance of this triangle but struggle to know how to enhance these relationships. These questions and activities are here to help you get under the surface of this triangle of relationships and enhance what you do.
These are the questions:
- How many sides does a triangle have?
- Whose language are you communicating in?
- Is it your triangle or theirs?
- Are you ready to rumble?
- Who has expectation management issues?
- Is it ‘do as I say’ or ‘do as I do’?
Question 1: How many sides does a triangle have?
Yes, a triangle has three sides. The athletic triangle tends to visually simplify what is a very complex set of relationship dynamics. When we overly simplify things visually, we can come up with simple responses to the challenges that we face. I’m often disheartened by some of the ways that I see coaches talk about parents or the way that there are lists of ‘good sports parents do this’, and ‘bad sports parents do that’ on social media. Rarely do these fit into the reality of a sports parent in the context of trying to support an athlete.
So, how many sides does this athletic triangle have? Three? Let’s start with the parent. In the diagram the parent is singular. (Figure 1) Some people are from single-parent families, and others have mum and dad living in the same home. For some, their parents have got remarried or they have blended or complex families. So we might have step-parents, then add siblings, so maybe step-siblings too. So far we have just thought about the parent(s), and already this triangle no longer has three sides to it, and that’s not including grandparents, aunts and uncles, significant close family friends who have journeyed with them in their sport and often have a significant, impactful voice. Grandparents are also often sidelined in this process.
Then we come to the child. They are likely to have other coaches. Your institution is unlikely to be the only place they’re playing sports for. They might have a coach at their school and a coach at club level, and this child will also have significant teachers. Don’t underestimate the incredible power that teachers, particularly a form tutor or head of year, or a housemaster or housemistress has on somebody as they carry on with their sports journey.
Then this child also has some friends. So already this has become very complex. We could also add into the image an S&C coach, sports psychologist, or a nutritionist. You might have other coaches from other sports they do. If they play rugby at academy level, they might have their academy coach, their school coach, their club coach and then they might also be excelling at tennis meaning this triangle would then be replicated in similar ways again for that sport. (see figure 2)
So, how many sides does a triangle have? Well, each athlete will have its own number, but it will be more than three. We need to start to understand just how noisy this is for everybody. For parents, this complexity can be loud and very draining.
If we can start to get a bit of compassion and understanding about the place people are coming from, it helps us to engage them better by understanding what’s going on for them and their children.
If parents have two or three children who are excelling at sport, that’s an incredible, noisy juggle to manage. A child in a pathway will mean a parent will have to make significant sacrifices, sacrifices which affect them, their children and their triangles. This does not excuse poor parenting behaviour, but it does help give a great understanding by which enhance these relationships. It helps to see that we’re not the only voice that people are hearing. We might get frustrated that parents behave in a certain way in our environment, but other coaches in the triangle might be prompting a different environment and culture. Which is why we have to be very clear about what we’re communicating and how we communicate it. The literature you’ll read about the athletic triangle highlights the critical need for communication. *5 This is a noisy space, if you are not communicating effectively and giving people quality communication, then you are not helping this relationship to develop and succeed.
When you gather information about athletes, you need to be incredibly sure that you are gathering as much as you can because often one parent will be your contact point, but there will be other people, stakeholders, to communicate with. Trying to find out step-parents, separate parents and extended family information is not always appropriate, but bear in mind that if a child is in a blended family, they might see mum for one part of the week, then they might see dad for another part of the week, you need to be able to give both sets of parents the information.
Question 1 Activities:
- Ask your athletes to draw out their athletic triangle and ask them questions to understand it more.
- Ask the athletes’ parents about their athletic triangle, such as ‘who was your best coach?’ or ‘What did your parents do that you appreciated when you played sport as a child?’
Most athletic triangles are noisy and complex. How many sides does a triangle have? A lot more than three, and our engagement with parents needs to acknowledge the complex nature of these relationships. This understanding supports our athletes to grow in the midst of such complexity.
Question 2: Whose language are you communicating in?
Have a look at this picture, (Figure 3) What do you see? Most people say ‘it’s a deer crossing a road’. That’s what I said the first time I saw this. Is it not a road crossing a wood? Understandably we tend to interpret from our narrative and bias. Our narrative is, as humans, that it’s a deer crossing the road rather than us seeing the picture from the view of the deer or the wood. That’s completely normal and natural, but this is what happens when we communicate to parents from sporting organisations, we tend to communicate from our point of view. We communicate from our narrative.
Recently I was asked by a Premiership Rugby Academy to look at their parent pack. Most of the content in their parent pack I agreed with, except the way that they’d written it and the language in which they’d written it. They made it hard for parents to engage in or get excited about implementing because it was written only from their narrative. We can all appreciate that people come at things with different lenses and different perspectives. The parents’ perspective tends to be around, ‘is my child going to be safe’, ‘are they going to be having fun’, ‘is this going to help them be successful?’
So when we write information for parents, we need to be writing it in a way that gets them excited about what we’re communicating and doesn’t put them off or build communication boundaries. I often get concerned about some of the parent packs that I see. Firstly, they’re always far too long, and secondly, they are written from the point of view of the institution, absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the story isn’t contextualised for parents. The story isn’t given to parents in a way that helps parents get on board, because it’s communicated in coach language from a coaching point of view.
Question 2 Activities:
- Simply ask parents if they understand your context. Your priorities and coaches methods. [You might want to do that anonymously.]
- Produce a glossary of terms.
- Ask someone external to review your material/program from a parent’s perspective.
One of the reasons why I wrote my book, ‘Conversations for the Journey’, is because I wanted to write a resource that wasn’t just ‘don’t do this and do this’ from a coaches perspective. I wanted to write something that drew parents into the conversation from their perspective. *6 So I wrote something that was not aggressively instructing them on their parenting but instead inviting parents into a conversation that would help them and their child(ren) be better at constructive dialogue in the sports context.
Whose language are you communicating in? Are you communicating in a way that enables parents to access what it is you’re passionate about as an organisation and your culture? By translating your communication for parents, you will enhance the triangle.
Question 3: Is it your triangle or theirs?
One of the things I learned quickly about working with families is that I have a bunch of powerful preconceived ideas and understanding about family life. Those preconceived ideas and bias about family systems and how families work were tainting my work with young people and parents, it was reducing the effectiveness of my work with them.
Here is one example of how this happened to me. I had two incredible grandmothers, both of them lived to their mid-90’s. My maternal grandmother was someone to whom I was particularly close. She was a marvellous woman. She swam in the sea between May and September almost every year of her life. Incredibly she kept swimming right up until her early 90’s until her health deteriorated, but she still swam within a year of her death at 94 years old. She was wise, blunt and honest, but loving and compassionate, a wonderful high matriarch of the family.
So my perception of ‘grandmother’ is hugely positive. I started working with a family in my early days of family work, and they started talking about ‘grandmother’ as a miserable, negative influence. In my work with families, I always try and find out about other family members, and significant others to try and draw them into the conversation to support parents. As the family that I was working with talked about the grandmother in this negative way, I didn’t listen. I dismissed that negativity and kept pushing to get grandma to help because in my head, ‘grandmother’ equalled ‘good’.
It wasn’t their triangle that I was trying to support, I was importing my triangle and expectations of family onto that family. In the end, I met grandma, and I understood firsthand some of their concerns around having her being involved in the family. It was a real eye-opener to me about my own bias, my perceptions and how I imported my triangle into that context in a way that was detrimental for the family that I was working with. We all have a triangle and a story. This story has informed many of the good things about us, some of the challenging parts of our story have given us resilience and helped us move forward as well. Some elements of our triangle may still be giving us issues which we’re wrestling with today. I know that all three of those would be true of myself.
When we work with families, it’s vital we work from their triangles’ point of view and not ours. This question boils down to self-awareness, are you self-aware about how your experiences, which we shouldn’t forget, or minimise because they’re powerful and important, influence how you interpret your athlete’s athletic triangle. For example, you may come from a family where there was divorce, maybe that was an incredibly painful and horrible experience for you, and you’re working with an athlete whose parents are divorced, and you’re assuming that’s a horrible, painful experience for them.
Could you see how that could start to create damage and cause underlying tensions between yourself and the parents because you are projecting your triangle onto their triangle?
Question 3 Activities:
- Draw out your athletic triangle from when you were the age of your athletes.
- What assumptions about parent/coach/athlete relations do you make?
This self-awareness takes training, reflection and I would suggest good mentoring from other coaches to learn about how we project our triangle onto theirs. I’ve spent 20 years working with families, and I still catch myself imposing my triangle on others. Can I ask you, whose triangle is it that you’re working with? While dealing with athletes, coaches and parents, are you working with their dynamic relationships rather than importing your own bias and assumptions onto that?
Question 4: Are you ready to rumble?
By that I mean are you willing to accept that this level of complexity will equal a level of conflict? There is no way that you can interact with a triangle which has this many sides without there being some level of conflict. The child-parent relationship will often have a measure of conflict in it, particularly in the teenage years because of the natural development that teenagers are going through.
A child may fall out with their coach at times for any number of reasons. This triangle has the potential for conflict, and the parent-coach relationship is perhaps the one with the most potential for conflict. As a coach and institution you need to be aware of your response to conflict and ask yourself, have I proactively prepared myself and my organisation for conflict in a way which will continue to enhance this relationship?
The problem with conflict is that people see all conflict as negative. Conflict isn’t all negative, how we respond to conflict can be positive or negative. Conflict can be life-giving, or it can be life-draining, tiring and very consuming. My challenge to you is as an institution or as coaches, how do you respond to conflict? What is your response? Are you a ‘head in the sand’ type person? Do you run into it, do you run away from it? Do you try and appease everybody or are you an aggressor? There are many good training resources out there about conflict. Proper conflict training will include building self-awareness around how you handle and deal with conflict. Are you ready to rumble? Do you as an organisation prepare one another for conflict? Not just with parents, but conflict with one another. What are your principles about the way you treat people that enable you to handle conflict well?
We all know the ‘wait 24 or 48 hours before you respond to the email’, everybody knows that. Hardly anyone does it. Why not? Often because they haven’t thought about the other stages of conflict before and after that.
Question 4 Activities:
- Can you write a 6-point conflict policy?
- Roleplay the ‘common’ conflicts you have with parents to learn how you handle conflict. (Make it fun if you can!)
- Does your organisation have CPD on handling conflict?
I hope your organisation has CPD on handling conflict.Part of the work that I do when I go into institutions and talk with coaches about the parent-coach relationship is that we look at how to handle conflict in a more profound way other than just waiting for 24/48 hours.
The women’s Hockey 2016 gold medal-winning team is an excellent example of well-handled conflict. Listening to some of the team and coaches speak, it is clear that this was not a team without conflict. It was a group of players and coaches who had come up with a powerful, predetermined way of negotiating their culture with one another, when it was good and when it was challenging. It wasn’t that everybody parked their egos, desires, dreams and individuality, leading to some utopia. They dared to write about their culture and part of that was being very proactive about conflict. This is when conflict becomes life-giving rather than draining because friction helps us be better as a team and personally. Being ready for conflict isn’t looking for a “fight” in every encounter, it is being equipped to handle the tensions together. This way we can support the child/athlete and those in their triangle to thrive when tensions arise.
Question 5: Who has expectation management issues?
There is a common belief among coaches that parents have issues managing their expectations. Now, this may or may not be true, but coaches also have an expectation management challenge.
In the documentary “No hunger in paradise” *7 a premiership football academy manager blamed parents for not having realistic expectations. He said that at the start of each season he would tell parents to be realistic, then for the rest of the season he treated their children like demigods. Not exactly realistic to think that the parents would change their behaviours and attitudes based on one parents’ meeting. Coaches in many sports will tell me they have had a parents’ meeting on a subject such as nutrition, or they’ve got someone like me in to come and do a parent session on nurturing an athlete’s mindset, only to be disappointed that it did not have much impact. As much as I think my parent sessions are pretty good, a one-off parent session is not going to effect massive behavioural change within the parents. When some of the best behavioural change scientists in this country, such as Professor Jeff French *8 talk about successful behaviour change campaigns, they talk about maybe 20% or 30% behavioural change, they don’t talk about 100%. When I listen to sports coaches, they have the unrealistic expectation that because they’ve told parents, ‘please don’t shout from the sideline’ or ‘please let your children self-organise’, a very high percentage of those parents are going to take that up and apply it as instructed. They are not. I wish they did, their children’s sports experience could be incredible. (Notwithstanding that many parents are already epic at supporting their children.) I wish that we could say something once and everyone would take it on board and embody it!
Think about your athletes, think about the ways you’ve tried to nudge them into a behavioural change in your environment. Think how many coaching sessions it’s taken to support them to be better decision-makers or to make them more self-reliant or to make them better at speaking out in front of a crowd etc. Think about how much effort you’ve had to put in and mentoring and coaching to see that behavioural change happen. Therefore, with the limited time you have with parents who are part of a noisy triangle, what is a realistic expectation for behavioural change?
The situation is far from hopeless and you can see a significant impact on parent behaviour and engagement to see, in turn, your athletes release even more of their potential, but it has to be done with realistic expectations. You do need those parents’ meetings, but you also need a week-by-week parent engagement strategy to support that behavioural change. We are going to look more closely at this in question 6, but for now, try these activities.
Question 5 Activities:
- What three parent behaviours would make the biggest positive impact on your athletes’ experience?
- What would be a realistic percentage of parents to make these behaviour changes?
Do get in touch with me if you would like to spend a lot more time thinking about how you might influence that behaviour change. *9
Having realistic exactions about parent behaviour change isn’t about permitting lousy behaviour, it is about focusing our communication and effort on what we can do in order to have the most significant impact on our athletes.
Question 6: Is it ‘do as I say’, or ‘do as I do’?
In the papers on the athletic triangle, you will find the suggestion of having a very clear parents’ meeting to explain expectations of behaviour and the context in your environment.*5 As I’ve already said, I don’t think telling people once has a massive impact on behaviour. I am sceptical that a lecture type meeting, which might give them knowledge, wouldn’t necessarily give them help to apply it.
One of the reasons I play ‘games’ with parents when I do parenting presentations is because it helps them have an emotional connection with the behaviours we are addressing. I had the privilege of going to Newcastle Falcons to speak to their academy parents. I took with me five games to play with parents to help them think about their child’s journey in this triangle. The great thing about the Falcons is they have regular parental engagement which doesn’t just say to them, ‘this is our coaching method’, it gets them to participate in activities which helps them understand what it is like to be coached by the Falcons staff.
One of their sessions was an activity where the parents had to design a shelter to protect the egg. As the parents built their shelters, the coaches went around and coached the parents in ways which mirrored their environment. This helped the parents experience what their children were going through so that parents could better support their child and better understand how to support the coach. One of the Falcons’ key cultural narratives is ‘beat the game’.
When I started my games with these parents, they were trying to ‘beat the game’ with every game we played, and when I asked why they were finding ways around my games and challenges they were saying ‘beat the game’. These parents mirrored back to me the environment in which their children were being developed as young athletes. Imagine the impact that has on these children as they try to learn to ‘beat the game’.
You know the adage adults used to say to children, ‘do what I say, not what I do’. Most people now understand the nonsense of that, and yet when I look at the way institutions engage with parents, that is often what I see. Another excellent example of best practice comes from Gary Street at Harlequins Rugby Club. He recently got their parents down not just to participate in a classroom session but invited the parents to come and join in with training, obviously non-contact, but they gave their parents an opportunity to experience what happens to their children.
I think if we’re going to see effective parent behavioural change we need to move away from this narrative that if we have a one-off parent meeting at which parents are spoken ‘at’. We need to be engaging parents throughout our environment, as often as we can, in ways which support and enhance the parent behaviours that we want to see.
Question 6 Activity:
- Using the three behaviours from the activity from question 5, how can you design an environment which encourages those behaviours without using words?
Obviously, I think you should use words when you support parents, but let us take speech out of your ability to influence parents for these activities and see what creativity it sparks. I’d love to hear what you come up with.
If our environment incorporated our parents it would help our parents integrate our values into their behaviours. The athletic triangle is noisy for all. Making our environment shout loudly (using words if necessary) about what is important to us will enhance the parents’ ability to support your message at home and on the side of the sports arena.
The athletic triangle can either be like the Bermuda Triangle and cause all sorts of problems. Or it can be like the island of Bermuda, a life-giving joyous place, not perfect, because no set of relationships are perfect, but it can certainly be a set of connections which enable our athletes to have the best chance to pursue their development fully.
I know you consider it an incredible privilege to be part of many athletes’ athletic triangle. I consider it an incredible privilege to be part of that as well, but it is parents who have the biggest influence in the triangle. Nobody does parent engagement perfectly, it is too complicated to do perfectly. If we can move forward in the way we support parents in the triangle, we will be moving away from those horror stories of shipwrecks and sunken dreams and moving towards greater ways support all in the athletic triangle. This will enable young people to greater fulfil their full potential on and off the sports field.
Richard Shorter works with parents of national youth teams such as England Rugby, England Cricket, England Hockey and half the Premiership rugby teams and county cricket teams in supporting parents to nurture success in their children. Drawing on research and 20 years experience he supports long term behaviour support and change in these environments.
For more about him and his work, please visit www.non-perfectdad.co.uk
*5 For examples see: http://thesportjournal.org/article/how-to-effectively-manage-coach-parent-and-player-relationships/ Enhancing Coach-Parent Relationships in Youth Sports: Increasing Harmony and Minimizing Hassle Frank L. Smoll1, Sean P. Cumming2, and Ronald E. Smith1; The Athlete Triangle: Coach, Athlete And Parents As An Educational system Aušra Lisinskienė, Saulius Šukys;
Figure 1 Athletic Triangle
Figure 1a Athletic Triangle in different formats
Figure 2 Athletic Triangle with all it’s noise
Figure 3 ‘Deer on a road’