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Parents – friend or foe to coaches?

Sport participation should be enjoyable for all concerned. Sport leaders such as coaches, officials and managers should feel fulfilled and recognised for their contributions. Participants should enjoy ongoing challenge and fun with healthy interactions amongst peers and others in the sporting landscape. Parents / guardians should gain happiness and deep satisfaction as the major drivers and supporters of child and youth sport participation. However, the reality is not always this way.


For example, coaches regularly cite 'working with parents' as the most challenging aspect of their work. This is the case at all levels of sport (with the exception that player managers at the higher levels of professional sport)! Young people often mention parental behaviour as a major factor in their discontinuation in sport.


Of course, the exact nature of parental engagement varies widely amongst families and depending on the stage of youth participation. It is the middle years (13–18; Foundation and Talent aspects of the FTEM Framework) where conflict can commonly arise between the parents and coach as transitions between sporting goals are negotiated. Typically, this is the phase where the young person begins to specialise and become more committed to training and competition. It is also often a time where parental support moves from early instruction and hands-on involvement to being more about transport and time management (with the coach taking over many skill development aspects).


Understanding and valuing the role each person plays in the development of the young person is necessary for effective communication and hence the relationships between interested parties.


Research* suggests providing a rationale for coaching decisions makes them more meaningful for the listener (e.g. parent/athlete), subsequently increasing the likelihood that they will be taken on board. This approach can also help shift the focus to the goals of the activity rather than the outcomes (often a source of tension).


Possible actions:

  • Set expectations. There are many common sources of tension between parents and coaches such as ‘game time’ (i.e. the amount of time their child is part of the event compared with others on the team) and the allocation of roles / positions (e.g. striker in football, bowling and batting orders in cricket, center and midfield positions in netball and AFL). In most cases, tension can be minimised or removed by coaches being explicit about how training and competitions will be run. Could you include parents in team addresses at the beginning of your time together so that everyone knows what is expected? Some coaches even have this as a regular feature at the start of each training session and game. Parents are then clear about what is expected.
  • Make use of parental resources. Not all parents want to be involved (and of course this can be a source of frustration for coaches too). But for those who want to be involved, can you delegate meaningful tasks (not just trivial bits) to the parents of your players? Some coaches provide suitable parents with a framework or plan and let them run the warm-up. Parents might assist in managing equipment. Perhaps certain parents could take some statistics from the game that support your coaching approach (e.g. how many touches of the ball each player has, how long on the field a player is in a certain position, how many events each athlete competes in, how much of the session players are active vs listening vs waiting).
  • Inform yourself. Do you know the guidelines and policy documents from your sport about the conduct of junior training and competitions? Perhaps you can talk to other coaches and parents regarding how you are going and what approaches others use?


Final thought
What should be kept in mind, is that almost universally, no matter what the extent of poor behaviour, parents want the best for their children. Troublingly, at times some parents do not have the right skills to constructively deal with any feelings of confusion, anger or embarrassment they may be experiencing in relation to their child’s involvement in sport. This can lead to clashes and outbursts that impact greatly on coaches and most importantly, children. By being proactive and seeking positive engagements with parents there is a greater likelihood that everyone (coaches, parents, officials, and young people) will enjoy their time in sport.


* Mageau, G.A. and Vallerand, R.J., The Coach-Athlete Relationship: A Motivational Model, Journal of Sports Sciences, 2003, 21, 883-904


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11.6 million Australian adults participate in sport or physical activity three or more times per week.
3.2 million Australian children participate in organised sport or physical activity outside of school.
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