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The good, the bad and the ugly- A review of the parents’ meeting at an England U18 rugby development camp October 2019.

The Good (part 1) 

Being the parent of a sporting child at any age has its challenges and opportunities.

This wonderful group of parents spent over an hour playing snakes and ladders together as we explored what the snakes and ladders were of their child’s rugby journey and the potential snakes and ladders in the coming years.  What was clear early on (and is often clear when I lead sessions like this) is that parents like to be heard and have valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities.

Parents were asked to focus on their own challenges and opportunities, but these are good parents, so their children’s ‘snakes and ladders’ came first. It required some persistence to get them to be honest about what it is like for them too.

The value of playing a game is everyone gets a go (we all know small groups can be dominated by a few), it breaks the ice without a cringe-inducing ice breaker and it’s fun!

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The old TV ad slogan “It is good to talk” is definitely true for sport parents, even sport parents who have been in the pathway for a number of years. The changing stages of a young person’s development mean that the snakes and ladders are different for parents at each stage of maturing.

The parents clearly felt a level of enjoyment and normality as they realised they are ‘normal’, their sport parents experience is not unique. In fact, the biggest number of comments on the evaluation form to the question ‘what was your biggest take-away?’ was by far linked to the sense that they are not on their own in what they are going through.

Comments such as:

‘Nice to hear other parents have the same issues as us’

‘Every parent is in the same boat’ 

‘Knowing I’m not alone on the journey’

‘Realising we all have the same problems’

It is the reason that Mumsnet and other such platforms have been massive in recent years. However, unlike those platforms, Keith Gee, the RFU education officer, and myself were able to offer some framework for these discussions and the occasional challenge, drawing on experience and research to help these epic parents stretch some of their thinking and action.

Most parents have the same snakes and ladders. Sports teams and pathways would do well to support the sharing of these and the shaping of parents’ responses to the challenges and opportunities.

The ugly

Every pathway set of parents I speak to say that juggling the sports diary is hard work. The diary strains with the almost impossible task of fitting in training, competition, family life and work (both kids school work and parents job) into the seven day week. Getting the balance of family life right is never easy especially when you know selection and competition can create highly emotionally charged experiences of all the family.

Which is why it is a sadness that the majority of parents reported the uglies of not enough time information.

As I listen to all those involved in pathways from many sports, it isn’t just parents who have a big juggle, coaches at every level have the same issue. Leaving parents unsure of what is happening next, meaning parents do not have enough time to make proper plans. This is of course not just a ‘pathway’ issue. It is an issue right across sport. Letting parents know last minute and expecting them to accommodate your needs is just a plain ugly way to treat them.

Sure, we all have those odd and rare moments when a last-minute event happens and plans have to change, but this not what we are talking about.

If you want parents to partner with you the least you can do is give them a chance to juggle the family needs by giving enough notice of times and dates (and I’ve not even mentioned the impact this has on siblings, but that’s a rant for another day!).

Effectively partnering with parents includes removing those issues which could cause unnecessary resentment. Poor planning creates tension in the home of your players. It means that this affects the mental state of your players and slowly builds small nagging resentments in the whole family.

The bad

It is that parents whose sons are heavily involved in rugby needed to come to an England U18 training camp to know they are in the ‘same boat’ as others.

Now I recognise that the reason why this happens will be complex and I also think the work done by the RFU to support academies in having effective parent engagement particularly through the work of Dr Camilla Knight has been excellent. That said, we need to be aware that in sports world parent engagement still has a long way to go. One-off parents’ meetings can only be a part of the process. I know that all coaches at every level of sport are very busy and stretched, but we are not giving our players the best development chances if we are not giving support to parents which is offering both the opportunity for them to talk and be shaped in their key role.

Good Part 2

Does it work? Parents are busy and bombarded by messages from many sources about the subjective task of raising humans. As a result, is it fair to question whether parent engagement can have an impact on behaviour?

Can parents’ meetings really bring about change and better outcomes for young people?

Nine of these parents have been to one of my sessions before. They were asked if it had impacted on their parenting and if so how. The deeply encouraging reflection was that for all nine it had, particularly around the conversations they have with their son before and after games.

This is not conclusive evidence as to the impact of parents meeting, more research into the area including asking the young people themselves as to whether they have seen an impact would add more light on the outcomes.

What this ‘crude’ post-session evaluation questionnaire shows is that from a parent’s perspective the RFU’s approach to using someone consistently over the programme is having an impact.

I hope that clubs and schools can continue to grow in their approach to providing healthy parent engagement, engagement which grows the parent role in seeing young people nurture their potential.

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