Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon of “Helicopter Parents,” but until you volunteer to coach, it’s usually, and fortunately, just a behavior you observe. Being on the receiving end of a parent’s “over-engagement” is a whole different ball game, and may just be the most difficult aspect of coaching your child’s team. You can head off some of these conversations by setting clear expectations with your team’s parents at the beginning of the season. You should share, and then consistently apply, your philosophies on winning, playing time, and the values you’ll be trying to impart.
Equally important to share are the team rules and how the violation of those will impact a player’s participation. Yet, even if you are clear about these things early and often, you will inevitably experience an angry parent at some point in your coaching career.
Here are 9 strategies to help diffuse these situations:
1) Avoid Discussing the Issue at the Game
The very first rule is probably the hardest, but the best course of action is to refuse to have the conversation at the game. Let the parent know that you hear their concerns and that you are happy to schedule time to talk to them about their child, just not right now. It’s important that you stay calm and reasonable, which is often easier said than done, but you do not want to get drawn into an argument in front of other parents or children. A later meeting gives the parent a chance to cool off and calm down so that you can have a more productive conversation. It’s amazing what 24 hours can do to make an overzealous parent a bit more reasonable.
2) Separate From The Crowd
There will be times when you won’t be able to deflect the meeting until later, and the parent will insist on talking to you right now. If they do, take the conversation away from the other parents and the kids. A separate meeting will deprive them of their audience, and as they calm down, they will not feel like they have to continue to advance an unreasonable argument to save face.
3) Ensure That There’s At Least One Adult in the Conversation
You can only control how you communicate, and no matter how infuriating the parent’s behavior and accusations may be, you need to remain calm and remember you’re being seen as a role model by the kids. You should not get drawn into responding by arguing, yelling, using sarcasm or behaving unprofessionally. If you feel the parent has crossed the line in how they are communicating with you, simply say, “Please don’t talk to me that way. I won’t ever talk to you like that and I won’t ever talk to your child like that.” It’s important that this is a polite request, and not perceived as a threat or an order.
4) Listen with Empathy
When you do have the conversation, it’s important for the parent to feel like they are being heard, and to be frank, it’s important for you to listen. You can let the parent know that you are actively listening by maintaining eye contact, nodding to acknowledge the points they are making, and even by jotting down notes if need be. Better yet, show some empathy. Let the parent know that you’re sorry that they feel that way. You don’t have to apologize or admit to doing something wrong, you’re just sorry about the situation. You should be able to say this sincerely, since if the situation didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be having the conversation.
5) Bite Your Tongue
There will be times when you’ll have to bite your tongue to keep from responding in kind, but it is important that you avoid interrupting even if their complaint is a less than accurate portrayal of the situation. No one likes to be interrupted, particularly when they’re already a bit emotional, and you risk inflaming the situation and possibly provoking a bigger confrontation.
6) Don’t Get Defensive
Don’t feel like you have to defend or justify yourself in any way. This inevitably will make the situation worse. Sometimes just listening to the concern and telling the parent that you will think about the situation and get back to them is enough to diffuse the situation. Just by doing that you validate their concern and show openness to suggestions.
7) Clarify the Problem
Take time to really understand what’s driving the parent’s anger. Ask probing questions to get clarity about the real issue. Doing so will force you both to stick to the facts and focus on the problem, and not get caught up in discussing side issues (such as your respective personalities).
8) Shift the Conversation to Solutions
Once you have a handle on the parent’s complaint, you can explain your side of the story to the parent and offer a range of solutions on what you, and they can do to resolve the situation. This might include recommending some drills for the parent to do with their child. This will allow the parent to feel involved and for the child to develop the skills they need to play another position, or get more playing time, as these are the most common issues at the root of a parent’s anger.
9) Document the Situation
If you think you’re going to have an ongoing situation with a parent that persists week in and week out, you’ll want to document the conversations that you’re having. Get down on paper the dates and times of the conversations, and the nature of their complaints. Capture whether they were angry or insulting, and how you responded. If the parent subsequently goes to the league administrators (or if the situation forces you to), you have a record that describes exactly what has taken place. This will help the administrators objectively sort out the situation, versus having to sort out whose version of the story is accurate.
One final thought. If you sense that a parent has the personality that might lead to problems, get them involved with the team early in the season. If they attend practices, ask them to help with drills for some of the kids. If they only show up for games, ask them to help with an activity like keeping the scorebook. The more they feel like they are part of the team, the less likely they will be to complain or second-guess your coaching.