When I was a young coach straight out of college, I made a critical first mistake: I underestimated the importance of my soccer parents. Now, I was lucky. The highly competitive team I inherited, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, already had a strong soccer culture and everyone knew their roles. But, if I hadn’t walked into this stellar situation, I could have struggled mightily. Without a specific strategy to include your parents, rest assured, your parents can turn into soccer devils and make your season miserable.
Here are the tips I learned (and have refined) from my first soccer parents that were “Gifts from God”:
Supporting without Coaching
This is the most important aspect you can request from your soccer parents. They’re well-intended, they want to help and they want the best for their player. But, they’re not at practice, don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish individually and as a team and therefore will only serve to confuse players by coaching from the sidelines.
Consider this: A parent’s voice holds a special meaning to a player. They voice approval like “great job on your report card.” And, the same voice with tone changed can be antagonistic disapproval, “Would you please clean your room?” No matter the relationship we cultivate with our players, our voice will never hold the same meaning as the parent’s voice. If a parent really wants to see his or her player succeed, supporting without coaching is a non-negotiable.
Sports can be a great growing experience for an entire family. The separation and autonomy that can be achieved – if the parent will allow it – can do wonders for self-esteem and independence. It is one area where parents don’t have to be “in control” of their child and can simply celebrate the joys of the game and participation.
I really like involving parents and since many do not fully understand the game of soccer I provide them with a handout. Here is a cheat sheet of “smart sounding soccer sayings” they can use at any time from the sidelines. Not only does it acclimate them to the game, but it also provides them with fun things to say from the sidelines without the dreaded, “Kick it!” and “Run!” I die laughing when I hear the first parent break out, “Bravo, that was a perfectly weighted pass!”
Importance of a Team Meeting
A successful team meeting sets the table for a successful season. It establishes expectations from you the coach, the family and the player. Without this meeting to explain your coaching philosophy, you are setting yourself up to fail. Here are some important aspects for your team meeting:
- Explain the importance of: Players play, Coaches Coach, Referees Ref and Parents Cheer
- Address cohesive support for the team; the player is part of the team
- Playing time, positions, attendance, attitude, philosophy on winning
- Any comment from the sidelines or the dinner table will undermine the strength of the team. As a note, give more credit to kids than you believe. They are also listening and it will affect their attitude if parents don’t believe in the coach.
- If they think they can do better, you are welcome to coach NEXT season. Until then, support the team
Establish a Coaching Philosophy
I love the saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” I think this is an appropriate saying when it comes to coaching. Establishing a coaching philosophy is paramount to setting expectations and avoiding conflict with parents and players alike. Know, establish and maintain your boundaries that are consistent with your philosophy for the team. A well-developing coaching philosophy will help make difficult decisions easier.
If you haven’t done so, take the time to establish your coaching philosophy. Here are some questions to get you started thinking in the right direction:
- What are your personal goals in coaching?
- What is success for your team at this age and this level of competition?
- What life lessons do you want to teach?
- What will your players gain from their soccer experience?
- What skills must you develop to ensure your team is “successful?”
- What are the expectations and consequences from players and families in order to meet the goals of the team (behavior, lateness, etc.)?
Organize Social Events
It is the extra-curricular activities – after all, soccer is a social event – that makes soccer even more enjoyable for everyone. This includes parents, players and coaches and families. Doing “things” as a team is of paramount importance is building bonds of understanding and support. When are social events possible:
- Pre-Season meeting might best be enjoyed as a backyard BBQ or pool party
- Eating together at tournaments establishes a comraderie that translates onto the field
- Mid-Season after game party keeps the energy high when it can certainly lull
- End of Season Gathering allows the team to celebrate its accomplishments
Welcome an “Open Door” Policy
If we remember that parents always have the best interest of their player in mind, we have to be open and available to speak with parents. Rest assured, if you don’t welcome these interactions this venom will spill onto the sidelines (if it hasn’t already) and poison the good spirit of the team. Obviously, you should welcome their input at an appropriate time and share when those times are, so you don’t run yourself into trouble.
When are good times to approach a coach?
- After a practice session when you won’t be interrupting the preparation for a session
- Anytime on the phone
Awful times to be approached:
- Before practice or a game is an awful time because it will interfere with the readiness of the team. The parent is essentially saying that their individual needs trump the needs of the team. Unless it is a medical condition, this can never happen.
- Immediately after a game is also not an appropriate time. The interactions that occur directly after a game are almost never positive. Everyone will still be “in the moment of the game” and lack the perspective that a day or two will provide. I guarantee you that 99.99% of the time this interaction has to do with playing time or positions.
As a note, when players reach the age of U12, you should insist that the player own the interaction with you. The player is cognitively able to understand your coaching information and parents should want the player to be autonomous enough to handle their own business. Almost always, these interactions come down to a discussion over positions and playing time. Be prepared to give clear, direct feedback of what a player will need to improve upon to achieve his or her desires.
Soliciting the help of team volunteers makes parents a part of the process and gives them a role with the team. It also takes a lot of pressure off you as the coach. During your Pre-Season meeting, you should recruit:
- Assistant Coaches
- Team Manager / Coordinator
These individuals will be invaluable resources to you and will ensure that the team runs smoothly – especially in times when you can’t be there or need to get something done for the team and work or family life precludes you from doing it.
After many years of coaching, parents are your ultimate secret weapon. If you communicate with them, include them and let them be heard, they will walk to the end of the earth for you – because they only want the best for their son or daughter. Whenever a situation goes sideways with parents, repeat that line: they only want the best for their son or daughter. Figure out what it is that they’re really saying when they’re talking by keeping that phrase in mind. Working to make them a part of the team will ensure you have “Gifts from God” as parents.