A Solution for “The Parent Problem”


As I’ve traveled around talking to teachers and coaches, there’s one refrain I hear over and over: The kids are great. The problem is the parents.

I think this is deeply true, most prominently in youth sports, but also in other areas, like music and the classroom. It’s not because parents are dumb or ill-intentioned — though, okay, some are — it’s rather because a lot of parents genuinely want to help, and don’t know how best to do it, so they helicopter around and that makes things messy (I’ve been there, done that).

With that in mind, check out this letter written a few years back by a new Little League baseball coach to his team’s parents before the season began. And what makes it slightly more meaningful is that the Little League baseball coach happens to be Mike Matheny, who’s gone on to be the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals (he coached Little League just after he retired from pro ball).

If you’re curious, I would recommend clicking this link to read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts:

I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans, and now here we are. The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat. I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans. My main goals are as follows:

(1) to teach these young men how to play the game of baseball the right way,

(2) to be a positive impact on them as young men, and

(3) do all of this with class.

We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires no matter what.

Once again, this is ALL about the boys. I believe that a little league parent feels that they must participate with loud cheering and “Come on, let’s go, you can do it”, which just adds more pressure to the kids. I will be putting plenty of pressure on these boys to play the game the right way with class, and respect, and they will put too much pressure on themselves and each other already. You as parents need to be the silent, constant, source of support.

I am a firm believer that this game is more mental than physical, and the mental may be more difficult, but can be taught and can be learned by a 10 and 11 year old. If it sounds like I am going to be demanding of these boys, you are exactly right. I am definitely demanding their attention, and the other thing that I am going to require is effort. Their attitude, their concentration, and their effort are the things that they can control. If they give me these things every time they show up, they will have a great experience.

I need all of you to know that we are most likely going to lose many games this year. The main reason is that we need to find out how we measure up with the local talent pool. The only way to do this is to play against some of the best teams. I am convinced that if the boys put their work in at home, and give me their best effort, that we will be able to play with just about any team.

The thing I like most about this letter is how it so clearly establishes the relationship, and does so in a big-picture, friendly, personal way. As a parent, I wish I would have gotten more letters like this. As a former Little League coach, I’m wondering, why the heck didn’t I send one?

Why don’t more teachers and coaches use this technique? Could it be possible to use letters like this as a tool to change the dynamic, so that parents might stop being a problem and start being more of an asset?

(Big thanks to John Kessel and Jennifer Armson-Dyer for the heads up.)

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9 Responses to “A Solution for “The Parent Problem””

  1. Doc says:

    Always enjoy your posts but it seems the last couple of weeks, you and Vern Gambetta in his posts have really been hitting the nail on the head. Your present one is one of my big bugaboos. While there are many reasons for poor parental support the one that drives me crazy is that a parent reads an article somewhere and all of a sudden they are an expert. Many parent coaches take the time to learn the mechanics of the game but never understand the coaching aspect or the progressions needed to achieve success at a particular skill. I see coaches and parents all the time trying to correct something by talking and talking and talking blah blah blah. I’m no genius but I got tired of watching one trying to get a pitcher to quit throwing across their body. Since I knew both of them I felt comfortable sticking my nose in and stretched his adductor out and problem solved. I also know that might not work with the next pitcher having that problem. The body just wouldnt let him do what he wanted to. This is the type thing coaches need to know enough of to at least try. If talking doesn’t work, try something else. I believe Gambetta when he says we need some coaching schools like Great Britain for their youth coaches. And please don’t misinterpret this as being anti parent involvement. The vast majority of them are giving up their time and money to do good things for the kids. Its just that I want to get across that reading an article or two doesn’t make you an expert. Okay, get out your keyboards and blast me on this one.

  2. Ricky says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head once again Daniel.

    However, what’s missing out of this situation is the paid youth coach! Comments such as “I pay for you to coach my child” and “I deserve to have some input” are common quotes.

    How would you handle this process?

  3. djcoyle says:

    Great question. I think the answer can be boiled down to one word: respect. Respect — from parent to coach/teacher — needs to be in place regardless of payment. The coach needs to be the source of authority, on the same kind of plane that we put other (paid) people — like a professor or a consultant.

    So the question becomes, how does a coach (who’s marketing themselves and thus all about making parents happy) earn the right level of respect so that parents won’t interfere? A letter like Matheny’s helps, but it isn’t the whole answer, by a long shot. Do you know coaches who are effective at this? What signals do they send?

  4. Doc says:

    I would like to respond to Ricky and then I’ll shut up. Contrary to how my response sounded, I do believe it important to listen to both parents and players to work to their best interest. Gambetta says it well when he says it isn’t about us, it is about the athlete whether we are being paid or not. As a coach I certainly don’t have all the answers and often I come up with a solution by listening (especially to the athlete). We have to set egos aside sometimes and figure out what is best for the athlete regardless of whether it comes from me, the athlete, the parent or even some onlooker. A good coach can winnow out the babble and come up with a solution.

  5. Shannon Garber says:

    Love this!! Thank you!!!!!!!!!

  6. Candice says:

    Just like you always say watching, stealing with the eyes is so important. I think the letter is a wonderful example to show coaches, teachers who don’t know how to speak to parents how they can speak to parents with respect. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Lisa S says:

    Bravo to Mike Matheny for taking the time to educate the parents of his players about his (Matheny’s) expectations at the beginning of the process. I have been asking tennis coaches to do the same thing rather than just continue to complain about pushy parents. We parents are oftentimes pushy because we don’t get the proper guidance from our child’s coach or we don’t get enough effective communication from the coach. In most youth sports, it takes a triangle approach to be effective – parent, player, coach. All parties need to be informed as to expectations and accountability. The player needs to know what his parents and his coach expect of him and which will hold him accountable for failing to achieve those expectations. The parent needs to know what the coach expects from him/her and what the player wants and/or needs from him/her and what the consequences will be for failure to perform. The coach needs to know from the player what his/her goals are and what the player is willing to do to achieve those goals. The coach also needs to know from the parents what their expectations are – if the coach doesn’t feel he/she can live up to those expectations, then maybe it’s best to put an end to the coaching relationship and move on. If the coach just assumes that the parent knows what to do and how to behave, he/she is setting up a bad situation waiting to happen. Most of us parents really do have the best interests of our children at the forefront – we simply need our child’s coach to help us channel our good intentions in a positive way.

  8. Barry buss says:

    Doing the donts… I read your piece and it made me want to share a piece I wrote about tennis parenting trouble shooting.. For again, the little league coach, well intentioned I’m sure, is speaking at the parents and not to them.. Parents have every right to be involved with their child’s development whatever the endeavor may be.. Telling/asking parents how they should comport themselves during a competition is painful for me to read.. What if they don’t? What if they are loud and overbearing .. This is not an if, it’s a when.. That is where the expertise is lacking in the coach/player/parent dynamic… What do you do if they are doing the don’ts and lack the parenting skills to follow the list of do’s?

    Doing the Don’ts 

    The USTA has commissioned numerous studies on the proper role of tennis parenting in recent years. They have spared little expense in such matters, utilizing esteemed academic institutions such as Columbia University and a very comprehensive survey conducted by Michigan State University. The analysis has included surveys of junior players, hundreds of coaches and even greater number of parents. Other surveys have asked Americans elite players over the past decade to share their respective experiences.

    The goals on the surface seem well intentioned though some of the data and conclusions revealed appear to have ulterior motives. Our immediate goals are not to call to task the powers that be that somehow seem resistant or incapable of affecting serious quantifiable change and improvement of this delicate landscape

    Every study we have read and analyzed ends up with a laundry list of dos and donts; the lists are very comprehensive and very useful to parents and coaches new to tennis culture, where all parties have a clean chalkboard to begin their development process

    The paradox in all this is that parents being asked to participate in said surveys are already well In to the devolopmental process and undoubtedly have gone through more than a couple erasers on their chalkboards.. For what parent would know the complexity of the emotional landscape of comp jr tennis? None.. How could they? Even having played the sport at high levels of excellence does not qualify one to be an expert care giver and guide through the developmental process .. Quite the contrary likely.. All indications are that our generation of peers who are not raising there kids in the tennis environment of their upbringing are not doing so because of the lingering trauma of said upbringing

    The parents of this generation of players who are knee deep in the development process are the ones having such troubles that every couple years the usta is commissioning studies to analyze all the dysfunctional dynamics already in play

    Simple conclusive feel good studies full of basic parenting dos and donts , though informative and helpful we’re sure on some base level, have no useful effect if you’re already doing the donts and have minimal parenting skills to implement the dos into your family life.

    Pick your cliche… The toothpaste is out of the tube, the horses are out of the barn…

    If it were as simple as stopping the dont’s and doing the dos there wouldn’t be a  problem and we wouldn’t need to commission studies every couple years to examine how unhealthy the situation is…

    The elephant in the living room is how do we fix what is already malfunctioning???

    Where is the literature and studies  on that?

    That is what people are complaining about.. You’re asking people to change their behavior in a very volatile emotionally challenging complex arena .. It just ain’t as simple as a big  list of dos and donts

    By the time you realize there’s a problem , without help, it’s often  too late for simple dos and donts

    It’s  extremely complicated to change parental behavior midstream in a sport that you have to be all in 365 days a year from such a young age…This is all such tricky stuff…my only conclusion from all this is if you want to rear a child to play competitive tennis, you better really have your act together… And those parents who really have their acts together, would never put their child through such a complex emotional terrain as junior tennis has proven to be..

  9. Rick says:

    Great post. I am fascinated with an idea that these issues can be addressed in so many different topics. Love the work you have done with your books and the thought’s you share. Take care.

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