We are just getting into the middle of basketball, hockey, and wrestling season in America. Over the last few weeks, nearly every high school and college coach in my mentorship program has faced texts or emails from parents, complaining about their child’s playing time.

Every coach has gotten one of these messages. Sometimes, they are vicious personal attacks. Other times, they start as passive aggressive comments, like:

  • “I am never the type of parent to complain…”
  • “I really appreciate all you do for the boys, but…”
  • “I know I shouldn’t be worried about playing time, but I’m really worried about my daughter…”

In the last year, I’ve worked personally with dozens of coaches and athletic directors, and I’ve realized two things:

  1. It does not matter how much you win, how long you’ve been coaching, or the level you are coaching in; parents will always complain about playing time.
  2. Often, there is a serious disconnect between the player and the parent; they do not share the same perspective or feelings on the matter. It usually takes parents longer than the player to accept their role.

Regardless of the context, in my conversations with these coaches, we keep coming back to our mission and purpose as transformational coaches: We are here for these kids!

If we want to maximize our influence, we have to bite the bullet and find ways to work with parents. While the steps below should be applied loosely, they have been fairly helpful for many coaches this season.

3 Steps to Work with Parents on Playing Time

1. Ask and Listen

Ask the parent, “What am I missing? I get that you don’t agree with my decisions about playing time, and that’s okay!, But what don’t you understand?” Hopefully, you already communicated how you determine playing time at the start of the season and have included a few reminders in your communications with parents throughout the season. (I highly suggest a weekly email—even at the collegiate level!)

Now, when you ask this question, you will often just need listen to them argue why their child should be playing more. I encourage all coaches to thank parents for being willing to share their perspective.

2. Share Your Perspective

You would think winning over 20 Division 1 National Championships would shield you from parent criticism, but not in the case of North Carolina Soccer Coach Anson Dorrance! As early as 2005, he realized the importance of sharing more information with parents, including stats and fitness information from his competitive cauldron (more on that here).

Sharing with parents provides you with the opportunity to:

  • Reinforce how you determine playing time. You should be able to communicate with staff, players, and parents what factors into your playing time decision (e.g., Competitive Cauldron, Commitment, Stats, etc.).

  • Share the truth about their child. Give them the cold, hard facts on where their child falls in these areas.

  • Take steps to move forward. Let them know you have communicated all this to their child (because you have, right?). For example, you can say, “I reminded your son we determine playing time in these categories, and this is where they are right now. Moving forward, three things they could do to increase their chances of more playing time would be: Staying after practice and working for a certain amount of time on a certain skill, getting eight hours of sleep every night to help their energy level during practice, and showing up 15 minutes early to do an additional warm-up and five-minute mental routine.

It’s important to give specifics in all areas—especially the “steps forward”. Often, we suggest athletes should improve their “shooting” or work on their “defense”, but you can up the level of your support by helping them define specific, measurable commitments they can take to improve their play.

3. Ask, “How Can We Support Your Child Together?”

In Episode 65 of the “Coaching Culture Podcast”, conflict management expert Nadia Kyba discusses the importance of moving towards action to resolve conflict. There are five ways people handle conflict:

  1. Avoid
  2. Give In
  3. Stand Your Ground
  4. Compromise
  5. Collaborate

In the case of playing time, Options 1-3 are not healthy. We don’t need to compromise our values just because parents complain!

These three steps aim to shift the focus away from the disagreement and start to collaborate. So, the final piece is to ask, “How can we [both parent and coach] support your son or daughter through this challenge moving forward?”

When we do this, we are taking an athlete-centered approach. Maybe, as a coach, we need to be more transparent, have more one-on-one conversations, change the way we are giving players feedback—or even start giving feedback!

Additionally, an athlete-centered approach encourages and calls parents up, so they can support their child as they accept their role and keep fighting (more on that here).

Related Articles

Also, if you are looking for more strategies like these, my book, Calling Up: Discovering Your Journey to Transformational Leadership, is packed full of strategies, with clear examples of what they look like in action!

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