Being a ski coach is a tough job. There is everything you need to know about conditioning, technique, tactics, equipment, and, of course, the mind. There are the logistics of organizing training, travel, and races for a group of athletes and adapting to the ever-changing conditions inherent in ski racing. There are also the not-very-fun administrative duties including time-consuming budgeting and expense reporting. The physical demands are significant with carrying bundles of gates, drills, radios, and your own equipment. Plus the long hours, the travel, and the lack of sleep. Yet, when I ask coaches what their biggest challenge and source of stress is, the overwhelming response is: parents.
At first blush, this seems difficult to believe because you would think that coaches and parents have a common goal, namely, maximizing the ski racing experiences of their children or charges, respectively. Yet, as we’ve all seen (or, admittedly, been guilty of), even the best intentioned parents aren’t always aligned with coaches on what’s best for their children. Moreover, as both a parent and sport psychologist, I have seen parents actually work at cross-purposes with their kids’ coaches resulting in making coaches’ jobs harder and, in fact, ending up hurting rather than helping their children. As a coach, it can be tempting to simply ignore such behavior in the hopes that the problem will just go away, but it rarely does because, of course, parents don’t go away. There might also be a tendency to be reactive and wait till a problem arises before taking action. But, as we all know, dealing with a problem in the middle of the season when there is so much going on is probably not the best solution. Instead, you can take steps proactively to build strong and collaborative relationships with parents and actually prevent conflicts before they arise. Here are five solutions for getting parents to work together with you.
Though there are some well-documented examples to the contrary outside of our sport, the vast majority of ski racing parents are well-meaning people who have great relationships with the coaches of their children and who support those coaches’ efforts and who want the best for their children as ski racers and young people. Unfortunately, despite those good intentions, parents are also human beings who may be driven by motivations that are neither rational, beneficial, nor conscious. Additionally, unless the parents were elite athletes themselves, they probably don’t fully understand what is best for their children as ski racers. It’s your job to help guide parents’ motivations and to educate them about what lies ahead for their children.
See it From Their Point of View
If a parent comes to you with a complaint, first, see it as a concern they have rather than any sort of criticism of you. Second, try to look at the situation through their lens, so you can understand the real issue. Empathy for what they are saying and feeling is a valuable tool in dealing with parents. importantly, keep calm (even when they might not be) and listen; parents need to feel heard more than anything. You’ll be amazed at how many conflicts can be resolved simply by understanding where the parent is coming from. Then, seek out common ground to show them that you are on their side and you want to help. Finally, look for win-win-win, where parents feel that their concerns have been addressed, you no longer feel that they are a burden on you, and most importantly, nothing their parents nor you are doing is holding their kids back.
Help Parents Set Realistic Goals
We live in a sport culture where, amazingly enough, according to a recent survey, 26% of parents believe that their children will become professional or Olympic athletes. The real odds are far less than one-tenth of one percent. But parents can be seduced by those messages and may, as a result, set goals for their children that are entirely unrealistic.
As a coach, it’s important to establish realistic goals for your racers that their parents can embrace and support. These goals should be no loftier than having ski racing be a source of immense fun and satisfaction for young racers and to facilitate their personal and social development, build self-esteem, learn transferable life skills, and gain a lifetime love of our sport. If young racers achieve these goals, they are going to be happy and productive people. Any other goals, such as a college skiing scholarship, a U.S. Ski Team jacket, or an Olympic medal, are only icing the cake.
Whether in one-on-one conversations or a team meeting at the beginning of the season, you can educate parents about both the joys and challenges of ski racing, the realistic chances of their children achieving greatness, and then guide parents in setting goals for their children that propel them forward rather than weigh them down.
Show Them How to be Great Ski Racing Parents
There are no manuals about how to be a ski racing parent, so you can’t really blame parents for not only not knowing what to do, but also doing things that are clearly (at least to you), counterproductive to their children’s health and goals. You have a great opportunity to educate parents on what they should and shouldn’t do that helps and hurts their children.
You can foster this understanding by being specific in your expectations of your racers’ parents. Provide parents with particular examples of the range of helpful and harmful behavior. For example, hugging and encouraging children regardless of their results is good parenting. In contrast, watching Live Timing at the finish, talking about results, and being critical of other parents are not.
Also, identify specifically how parents’ behavior can aid or undermine your coaching. For instance, making sure racers are properly equipped and on time for training makes your job a lot easier. Questioning coaches during training is definitely not.
Get Parents Involved
Getting parents involved in the team is a great way to get them on your side. Enlist parents within your program for advice and guidance about issues that arise. Ask parents to help out with tasks that prevent you from focusing on the kids, for example, organizing lodging and cooking meals at races. If you feel that you work well together, you could even ask a parent or two to be team “managers.”
If parents are actively involved in their children’s ski racing, they are going to feel more invested (in a healthy way) and have a greater sense of ownership (in a good way). And, very importantly, they’re going to see firsthand how difficult a job you have and will be more willing to support your efforts.
Your racers’ parents know their children better than anyone. You can be a better coach by tapping into their pool of knowledge to more fully understand your racers’ needs, strengths, and challenges. You, in turn, get to know your racers in ways that their parents may never know and see them in settings that are far outside the normal family environment. Additionally, children may demonstrate competencies and reactions that don’t show up in other aspects of their lives. For example, a child who is fearful and cautious socially and in school may find themselves skiing difficult terrain and snow conditions with confidence and courage. And their parents may not even be aware of that side of them.
Creating opportunities for parents to provide input about their children’s progress can often resolve conflicts before they even begin. For example, you can establish “office hours” when parents can stop by or call to talk about their young racer (much better than getting a call late at night from an upset parent). These conversations are also great opportunities for you to learn about the parents and for them to learn more about you. The net result is a closer relationship, more trust, and even better communication and cooperation.
Parents often feel that they must be squeaky wheels to be heard by coaches. You can prevent this by proactively giving them feedback about their children. For example, you can provide monthly written progress reports detailing how their young racer is developing physically, competitively, and psychologically. Sure, the reports will take some time to prepare, but I can assure you that this time investment will pay off in the time and energy you save in not having to provide those reports verbally at inopportune times in response to a slew of anxious questions.
Remember, parents have a right to be informed and to have input, as they write the checks and, as a result, make your job possible. So, they deserve your attention and respect. And if you show respect to your racers’ parents, they are much more likely to respond in kind. The more parents feel that you trust them to do their job, the more they will be willing to trust you to do yours.
If you want to have a successful season, meaning your racers achieve some of their goals, have fun, and want to continue in our sport, getting parents on your side is key. It isn’t easy, but putting in the work before the season starts and then keeping the wheels of the coach-parent relationship well-oiled during the season will mean that the real winners will be the young racers, which is the entire point of their ski racing in the first place.
Want to learn more about being the best coaches or sport parent you can be? Check out my online courses for coaches and parents.