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Should Parents Intervene When the Coach is Being Unfair?

My daughter's soccer coach told her he is concerned about putting her on the varsity team, a team with minimal talent at best, because of her size. She has a runners build and is an elite level athlete, medalist at state XC last fall as a sophomore and she has played club soccer at Elite level for the past 5 years. She also holds multiple school records for distance running. What do I do about this? She will not want me to get involved, but this is outrageous! Is it even legal? She is such a good person and 4.0 student— she definitely doesn't deserve this.

Response by PCA Lead Trainer Joe Terrasi

Thank you for the challenging and thoughtful question. It highlights a particularly challenging aspect of youth sports that Positive Coaching Alliance covers. 

A little background to explain my perspective on the answer: I was an official and a varsity head coach before I was a sports parent. Getting to that point, I’d worked with a significant number of parents and athletes, and I was comfortable that I had a pretty good handle on understanding their concerns, needs, and points-of-view. My child’s entry into youth sports quickly shattered that illusion. 

Being an effective sports parent is the most important and difficult job in youth sports. Sports parents have to support their children’s development and success in an endeavor that started as pure carefree fun but quickly acquires other layers. Not only do our kids work hard to improve their skills, they get some of their first experiences actively confronting issues that can be challenging at any age. Identity, social integration, character, body image and a host of other issues become evident to them all under the immediately evaluative framework of winning and losing. I love sports parents for taking on such a challenge and fitting it all into the values and context of their own family. Sports parents’ choices can certainly have far-reaching influence on their children’s lives, but none has more force than the message you send by investing all that time and love. Your concerned involvement is a gift that they can cherish forever regardless of whether your individual decisions were “right” or “wrong.” 

You asked: “What do I do about this?”

In most cases, I can’t evaluate for a parent what decision or solution might be right or wrong - especially in complex situations. What I can do (and make every effort to do) when I work with parents is to help them develop a framework for making decisions. This framework will help  them both make choices and evaluate whether they were effective. 

As we do in every sports parenting workshop, I first work with parents to identify and prioritize their goals. What are some ideal outcomes you’d like as a result of your daughter’s soccer experience? In most cases, the goals parents identify as having the highest priorities have little to do with the sport. They want their children to have fun, learn to make friends (even with people who are very different than they are), develop resilience and related tools, and many other worthwhile outcomes. Many also want their children to learn to play the sport at an elite level. There is nothing wrong with that – after all, these are your goals and nobody else’s. 

Your goals are an essential tool as you try to decide what you will do and how you will act when you make decisions regarding your child’s sports experience. In my personal experience as a sports parent, I found I could be quick to lose sight of my most important goals when I watched a game. A strategic choice, an official’s call, a substitution… any of these or a number of similar events could easily and quickly consume my focus and lead me away from my goals. In most cases, I wasn’t yet practiced enough to identify that my attention had been so thoroughly driven away from my intention.

That’s the next step in the framework: The successful sports parent, having thoughtfully clarified their goals (when it wasn’t raining, nobody was yelling, and nobody was making calls that were clearly incorrect), must honestly assess what might divert them. We’re supposed to go to the games, get excited, cheer for our teams. But most of us didn’t go to our first sporting events as parents of one of the players. Attending Red Wings games as a child at either Olympia Stadium or Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, I learned how great it was to attend a game and enjoy cheering for your team. I didn’t identify that a professional sports entertainment product has almost no relationship to the intended “development zone” of youth sports. In my defense, it’s easy to miss. The games had very similar formats, rules, equipment…. 

Other things these seemingly similar games had in common were intensely heightened emotions and winners and losers. Those elements can make it very difficult to maintain focus on goals we’ve thought through, work hard to achieve, and in which we have a personal stake.