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Bonus Editorial
Problems with Parents?
Frank Smoll gives tips on how to handle those parents who cross the line

University of Washington Psychology Professor Frank L. Smoll is more than familiar with the dynamics of parent-coach relationships. As the co-author or editor of 13 books and manuals on athletics for youngsters, he has made a specialty out of helping parents and coaches to understand one another. Two of his most recent publications, Coaches Who Never Lose (1997: Warde Publishers), and Sports and Your Child: A 50-Minute Guide for Parents (1999: Warde Publishers), specifically detail the steps necessary to build positive partnerships between the coach and parent.

In addition to his books, he frequently conducts coaching workshops. He recently sat down with us to discuss how coaches can deal with the "problem parent."

Momentum Media: How does a coach establish his authority over the playing time issue?

Smoll: The number one source of conflict between coaches and parents are disagreements about the abilities of the athlete, which translates into playing time. So I think it's critical for the coach to get beyond a subjective evaluation to justify the playing time of the athlete. The way you do that is you institute a very basic, or if you prefer, a very elaborate, performance evaluation system.

Keeping stats, for example?
The process should go beyond stats. It's not really stats, it's an assessment of the athlete's abilities relative to the skills that are necessary to play the sport. For example, in baseball this would be an assessment of fielding, hitting, running, throwing, etc., and then specifics to playing the position. Other things like attitude, sportsmanship, and teamwork should also be included so that the coach basically develops a grading system.

An elaborate example of this is the system developed by Don James, the former Head Football Coach for the University of Washington Huskies. Naturally, the coaching staff would video the kids--not only at games, but at every practice--and they would grade them and then provide the feedback to the athlete before the next practice so there was never any doubt about where the athlete stood on the depth chart.

This is the same kind of thing that any coach can use, and it has a number of benefits. First of all, it's a tremendous motivation/goal-setting tool for athletes because it provides them with objective feedback on their abilities and strengths and weaknesses. A coach can say, "Here are the areas that you've got to work on. When you see your grades go up in this area, you're going to see more playing time."

There's the benefit for the coach with the athlete, but then the carry-over benefit with the parent is that it takes the coach out of the position of being an arbitrary designator of playing time. They can show, "Here's the basis of my assessment and here's where I'm coming from." In a very objective way the coach can point out the strengths and weaknesses of the child to the parent.

What about the situation where you have a student-athlete who's not going to get a lot of playing time but is a role player with a contribution to make. Do you know of strategies so that this person feels important?
The first thing is finding out what the young athlete wants out of the sport experience so that coaches and parents shouldn't be guilty of imposing their own ambitions on the athlete. For some athletes, they actually may prefer to play a less central role on the team. And it's finding out what they want to do and what they want to get out of the sport experience. And then of course, trying to accommodate those wishes and desires.

There is importance in the setting of "process" versus "product-oriented" goals. Process goals are performing the kinds of behaviors that are necessary for getting a long-term outcome as opposed to product-oriented or result goals that are like having a .350 batting average or winning the league championship, which are sometimes those that are beyond your control. I'm suggesting that goal setting should be done in the context of focusing on the behaviors that are necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

Many coaches today say that dealing with parents is getting harder. Would you agree?
We're hearing that in our area, in all different high school sports. The last five years there have been a lot of coaches who have quit--these were not coaches who quit because they had a poor record but because they had had enough of dealing with parents.

What do you think is going on with parents? Where is this coming from?
A large part of it has to do with the achievement orientation in our society. The good side of it is that coaches have got to realize that when they're dealing with a problem parent, give that parent some credit. At least the parent cares enough to be there--you can work with that individual. I think the number one problem parent is the one that you never see--the athlete looks up into the stands at practice or at a game and mom or dad are never there. That's a real problem parent. So I think coaches should recognize that you want to give the parents some credit for at least being concerned enough about their youngsters.

The problem arises when parents take on a sense of over-identification. My colleague, Ron Smith, and I have referred to this as reverse-dependency trap. Parents are going to identify with their children. It's part of the love bond that's been established. And yet for some parents, the identification becomes excessive. So it's not Johnny or Mary who's out there competing, but an extension of the parent's own ego. When that happens, the young athlete has to excel or the parent feels threatened. So we refer to this as reverse-dependency, because normally, youngsters are dependent upon parents for a certain amount of esteem and sense of worth that they're developing for themselves. The reverse part of dependency is when we have a situation where the parent becomes dependent on the youngster for feelings of self-worth.

So the key is if coaches can help parents recognize this problem and warn them about over-identifying with their children. The most common example of this over-identification that we've all seen is some father who is a so-called frustrated jock and is trying to achieve some athletic glory through his son or daughter--living through his children.

Both coaches and high school administrators report that a lot of parents are convinced that their son or daughter is a Division I scholarship athlete and it's the coach who's getting in the way of the student getting that scholarship.
What we're getting at here is an overriding problem of the parents' lack of understanding relative to the objectives and the values of youth sports. There's a misunderstanding about realistic goal setting--having high aspirations is great, but parents have to understand that there's a difference between dreams and goals.

In terms of the dreams of getting a college scholarship, it's often helpful to give parents some figures. For example, in Washington state in 1994 there were 9,776 senior boys who played high school sports. 117 of them got a college scholarship. That's only 1.2 percent. Now what about dreams of becoming a professional athlete? Figures from 1998 indicate that there are approximately 250,000 high school athletes playing varsity basketball. There are 4,700 NCAA Division I male basketball players, and yet each year there are only 60 new NBA players. So, if you project from the high school level to the NBA, .02 percent are going to become professional basketball players. What are the chances that a high school athlete is going to become a professional in any sport? Statistics indicate that the chances are one in 12,000. So that's the reality of the situation. A youngster has a better chance of becoming a millionaire than a professional athlete. So keeping dreams in perspective is important.

I give these statistics to parents I work with in workshops.

If you're looking to get financial benefit out of your child's sport, then you're going to see your child's athletic participation in a whole different light. It's a distorted perception. This may be part of the underlying basis of that distorted perception of ability.

So, overall, should coaches invite or decline input from the parent?
In any interaction, the coach is in charge. They have to present a picture of a capable leader. But they also need to convey the message that they are open to input. Because it is the parent's right and responsibility to oversee the welfare of their children, coaches have to understand and respect it. But, at the same time, the interaction between a coach and a parent has to be at an adult, mature level. The coach's invitation for consultation isn't an open invitation to take abuse, and parents should treat coaches with dignity and respect at all times. They should recognize that the bottom line for both the coach and the parent is the welfare of the young athlete.

What does the young coach need to do differently from a seasoned coach?
Well, for sure, he or she should never start out by apologizing for any perceived shortcomings that he or she may have. Young coaches need to present themselves as competent. And if they're not competent, then they shouldn't be out there. One of the best ways of blowing a meeting is by saying "Well I'm not very good at talking with adults." If you're not, then you shouldn't be there. If you start out by apologizing, you lose the credibility that you want to convey.

Professor Smoll welcomes questions about his program via telephone at (206) 543-4612.
Interview with Dr. Smoll conducted by Assistant Editor Lorraine Berry.

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