Overzealous Parenting In Sports
You know you’ve been to a great conference when you can speak freely. An open airing of grievances—as George Costanza proposed in a memorable Seinfeld episode—can be cathartic. The Stride team recently attended the 52nd National Athletic Directors Conference and Exhibit Show, and we were fortunate to share stories with dozens of folks from across the country. One stress point that surfaced again and again: overzealous parenting.
“I’ve seen parents go after game officials.”
“I’ve seen parents go after coaches.”
“Dealing with overzealous parents makes my job miserable.”
To be fair, most high school parents are fantastic, people said: “You can always find a supportive parent behind an athlete who’s a good teammate.”
This majority, however, doesn’t often approach the AD or coach and say, “Great job!” They praise on occasion, when the opportunity comes up.
It’s the other type of parent who regularly fills voicemail and email inboxes.
The conference, which assembled more than a thousand athletic directors just before the holidays, unsealed pent-up sentiments like we’d stepped into a real-life Festivus celebration. In other words, folks vented.
“Talk to me, friend. I know exactly how you’re feeling. I live it at my school too.”
A Big Deal at Any School
Overzealous parenting can occur at any school. It’s just as unpleasant however it manifests.
A parent at a sports-focused school in a wealthy neighborhood, for example, might see a starting spot on the varsity team as an admission ticket to the Ivy League. If my child doesn’t start, she may not get in. If she doesn’t get in, how’s she supposed to get on in life?
At a different school, an athlete might show scholarship potential. Maybe the school regularly sends athletes to D1 colleges on full scholarship. But to win a scholarship, the athlete has to play. That darn coach better play my daughter!
Or possibly it’s a matter of local pride. Everyone knows who starts and who doesn’t. People talk about it at church socials or in friend groups on social media. How can my child be a leader if Coach doesn’t play him?
The Opposite of Overzealous Parenting
Detachment marks the opposite extreme. As much as a school would like to avoid messy confrontations, it still needs its parents to take an interest. And there’s a difference between parents who care and those who care too much.
If parents don’t engage, then chances are pretty good their kids won’t engage either.
A coach and athlete spend an extraordinary amount of time together compared to how much time the athlete spends in any one academic period. It would be a shame if apathy wasted any of these moments.
A coach also needs parents to help address logistics and, in some instances, basic funding. A coach, for example, might need a parent to organize team events and coordinate travel. Small participation fees, bake sales, etc. help to cover expenses.
Why Do Parental Imbalances Happen?
Any number of factors contribute to extreme reactions, from social pressures to unfiltered pride. Mostly, they boil down to expectations, trust and accountability (or “ETA”)—in that order.
At the start of a season, many coaches lay out a set of expectations in levels of play, effort, and participation. The coach might hand it out in hard copy and send an email. At the same time, teachers are also sharing their expectations for the classroom.
For athletes and parents, it’s one more piece of paper; another email; another set of expectations.
What if coaches, athletes and parents could revisit level of play, effort, and participation throughout the season? What if parents could see how these factors unfold daily or weekly?
It would be no different than how many parents already view classroom performance on learning management systems and student information systems such as Canvas and PowerSchool.
Suppose that the athlete, moreover, could share feedback directly with the coach along the way? Maybe there’s an interpersonal issue. Why not give athletes a chance to express themselves—if not directly, then in surveys or other ways?
Enter any kind of relationship without understanding what the other person expects from it, and you’re bound to run into trust issues. You risk breaking down the relationship.
A parent may not like how the expectations portion unfolds. Her child might skip practices, miss a training cutoff time, or not do the extra workout. But because she can now see the child’s performance written out, the AD and coach can respond to any complaint empirically.
You replace accusations with data. You build trust.
Once you align expectations and build trust, you establish a basis for accountability.
Like an insurance policy, documented evidence visible to everyone would cover a coach or organization. Many parents might think twice about teeing off or threatening legal action. The same evidence would also protect athletes from a negative coaching or team situation.
The AD would have an easier time adjudicating.
Most parents participate in athletics in a healthy way. To address everyone else, incorporate ETA going in your program. ETA blunts parental overreach. It also engages parents who don’t involve themselves enough.
We truly had an outstanding time at the conference. Hosted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA), the NADC brings together roughly 1500 attendees and exhibitors. We are incredibly thankful to have participated in a brilliantly run event.
We hope to have made a contribution to several big-topic conversations—overzealous parenting just one of many.
And, yes, we even caught folks performing feats of strength—all in good fun.
“I cannot and will not compromise the integrity of my decisions based on a parent’s political pressure or position. I believe strongly in the value of athletics, that being a part of a team is a privilege, and playing time is earned.”
“I had a parent jump the fence and go after my football coach in the middle of a game.”
“Experts say parents are increasingly looking for ways to involve themselves in the sports their kids are playing. This includes micromanaging coaches, acting out on the sidelines and applying pressure that leads to anxiety for the athletes themselves.”
“Some people have convinced themselves that getting a scholarship or getting into the right colleges at all is dependent on being on or being the star of a team.”
“Parental pressure on coaches has never been greater… Varsity coaches are asked to not only win games but try to keep everyone satisfied with playing time and their role on the team.”
“Sports are a metaphor for life: Sometimes things don’t go your way. Learning how to deal with disappointment, whether it’s a bad call or striking out when the bases are loaded, is a valuable lesson. But that message has been stifled by parents who want to protect their child from anything negative ever happening.”