By Doug Abrams
Last week’s column presented four important issues that youth league coaches or boards of directors should address with parents during the pre-season period – attendance, playing time, winning and losing, and injuries. This week’s column presents six more issues; next week’s column will discuss the team’s written disciplinary rules, which should be distributed as early as possible.
5) The coach’s relations with parents
Despite the best efforts of sports programs and individual coaches, parents may have disagreements with the coach during the season. Programs and coaches should establish reasonable protocols for parents who want to discuss disagreements with the coach. When a disagreement arises, it is too late to create a protocol for the first time.
Because coaches are ill-equipped emotionally to handle disagreements immediately after the pressure of a game, some programs institute a “24-hour rule” that permits no discussions with the coach until the next day, at least in the absence of an emergency. Other programs require parents to speak first to the team manager or other designated intermediary, who then approaches the coach and sets up a meeting. Still other programs permit direct discussions with the coach without written restriction.
6) The parents’ relations with one another
I have coached in youth hockey programs whose teams thrived with parents who respected and cooperated with one another, and who enjoyed socializing during practices and games. But I have also seen teams whose parents divide into cliques or factions, and soon begin arguing among themselves as they counted down the games, anxious for the season to end.
Whether parents remain united or hostile is their call, but I explain to parents that they shortchange themselves when they forego the very fun and fulfillment that they seek for their children. Youth sports should produce positive memories for the whole family, parents included.
Quarreling parents also hurt the players because hostility wins no games, and indeed can drag down the team. Teamwork wins games, and parents are part of the team. By guaranteeing equal playing time for players who attend practice regularly, I try to encourage harmony by removing most reason for quarrels.
7) The parents’ general behavior
The pre-season meeting is the time for a candid discussion about how parents and coaches should behave during practices and games. Competition produces stresses and strains from time to time, but the need for self-control is greatest when the stresses are the greatest.
I tell parents that when they attend practice sessions and games, they represent themselves, their children, their families and their communities. Parents and coaches do themselves and their children no favor when they sully the family name. The team plays just as well, and perhaps even better, when the adults show the dignity and decorum that they expect from their own children as they try to win.
At least on my teams each year, the parents would “get it” and cooperate with the coaching staff to create a positive team culture. Much of youth coaching resembles “follow the leader,” and players are not the only followers. I would like to believe that when coaches take the lead on citizenship, most parents fall into line. When a family strays, peer pressure from the others can help maintain the right tone.
I remind parents that children are influenced more by what adult role models do than by what they say. Parents watch their children, but the children also watch their parents.
8) The parents’ behavior toward referees and other officials
Referees and other officials typically are prime targets of parents’ verbal abuse. Officials inevitably make mistakes because they (like the parents, coaches and children) are not professionals in the sport. But for every mistake, officials also make dozens of correct calls that only appear wrong to parents and coaches who do not understand the rules or do not see the action as well as they think they do.
I would tell the parents that mistake or no, the team will be entitled to perfect referees when the players become perfect players, the coaches become perfect coaches, and the parents become perfect parents. Until that day of universal perfection dawns, fallible officials are part of youth sports.
I also remind parents that referees can hear profanity and other verbal abuse only when parents shout so loudly from the stands or sidelines that the players on the field can also hear it. Adults should not shout anything that they would be embarrassed to say in front of their youngsters in the backyard. The adults’ conduct should not sink below the level they would find acceptable from their own children.
9) Supervising the players
Adult supervision in and around the locker room is particularly important at the younger age levels. The coaches cannot be everywhere at once, so they need the parents’ help. If the coaches expect the parents’ help with supervision in practice sessions and games, they should ask for this help at the pre-season meeting.
Our 9-10-year-old squirt hockey players were good kids who got along with one another and did not look for trouble, but even good kids sometimes horse around. Unnecessary accidents can happen when supervision falters.
Until the last five minutes or so before pregame warmup, the squirt team’s parents would typically be in the locker room to help their players dress and lace up their skates. As the coaches tended to obligations elsewhere in the rink, the parents would help keep an eye on things. In the last few minutes before the team hit the ice, the parents would leave the locker room to the players and coaches.
Because parents tend not to come in the locker room at the older age levels, coaches must pay closer attention, and sometimes must rely on the team’s captains to keep a watchful eye.
10) Cell phones
Cell phones frequently come with cameras today. When the coaching staff believes that any possibility of abuse exists, the staff should ban use of these devices in locker rooms and on the field. The ban should extend to practice sessions and games alike. If players bring cell phones, the players can leave them with their street clothes. Otherwise the players can ask a parent, coach or team manager to hold these devices during practices or games and return them afterwards. One way or the other, players do not need their cell phones once they enter the locker room or go out onto the field.
Many public school districts ban student use of cell phones and camera phones during the school day because the potential for distraction or cyber harassment is so great. Similar potential can exist in youth sports.
A few years ago, one of my high school hockey players phoned his girlfriend between line shifts while he was on the bench and she was in the stands. (No kidding!) I told the player to hang up because the game required his full attention and their relationship would survive even if they waited an hour or so until after the game for their next conversation.
Even more dangerous these days, however, is the potential for online distribution of compromising photographs. The media has reported incidents of players surreptitiously photographing teammates fooling around or undressed in the locker room or showers, and then sending the photos electronically to others. The photographer might even be friendly with the subject and mean no harm, but many teens consider camera phones to be toys and do not appreciate that photos transmitted electronically create permanent records subject to uncontrollable distribution.
Many parents now warn their children to watch for teammates who brandish camera phones in the locker room, but the more proactive approach is for the coach to ban their use entirely. Parents should understand when the coach explains the reason for the ban and enlists their support and cooperation.
Next week: The team’s written disciplinary rules