Athlete, Parent

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.

Regardless of the goals we choose, they likely come down to the same general categories. We work hard to ensure our children’s happiness and well-being. For many of us, there is nothing in life about which we are more passionate, and nothing ultimately has a higher priority. When we work to address a difficult problem in a youth sports situation, a successful resolution as it aligns with our goals must become our only endeavor.

As I drill down into the specifics of your question, I’ll offer some thoughts that may differ from your point-of-view. I do so not to question you, but to provide a perspective that may help you find a solution that is aligned to your success in the achievement of the goals you have for your daughter. 

Based on your question, I’m making a guess that your daughter is a high school athlete who may still be eligible to compete on a lower-level team. I was pleased to hear your explanation that the coach says he is “concerned” about putting her on the varsity team. This indicates that he is not locked into a decision and that he possesses a “growth mindset.” We’re fortunate to work closely with Dr. Carol Dweck whose research shows clearly that helping our athletes adopt and maintain a growth mindset has a powerful influence on their athletic and personal development. The coach’s model of his own growth mindset is one very effective tool to teach that. 

Saying he is “concerned” about (but not necessarily prohibiting) her varsity spot may also be a coaching message to your daughter: “Convince me.”  Effective coaching can involve a great deal of positive player-coach conflict when the coach is helping to inspire and convince a player that she can be even better than she yet believes. This can be challenging for players as it means they may have to leave the comfort zone of “what am I good at now” and put in a lot of hard work. 

Her coach may also reasonably believe that the lower-level playing experience could be more effective for her long-term development for any number of reasons. You made a related comment that concerned me slightly: “a team with minimal talent at best.” If your words, tone, or bearing may have ever led to your daughter thinking the varsity squad (or any team she may be on) is sub-par, she might be well-served to become a leader on a team where she challenges her initial predisposition about her teammates’ relative capabilities and learns the joy of being surprised by how great players can be in ways she didn’t imagine. Leading, supporting, and fighting for a team of less experienced players can be a useful experience for a top player to find new tools to elevate her own game as she works to elevate theirs.

You asked, “What do I do about this?” I politely submit that the better question to find a solution that aligns with your goals might be: “What should my daughter do now, and how can I best support her?” Unless there was evidence of coaching abuse or mistreatment, this is the type of situation that a high school athlete can handle and learn from without direct parent intervention. You indicate, “she will not want me to get involved.” One approach is to honor her expressed wish. There is a time for direct parent involvement. If we determine that our child is “in over their head” because of the complexity of the situation or the child’s current capabilities, we are sometimes duty-bound to intervene. Your description doesn’t sound like such a situation. In fact, perhaps the most insightful advice has already been offered to you by your daughter. She wants you to know she can handle this. She’ll certainly need your love, support, and counsel in that effort, but she’s asking you to believe in her while she tries. And you’re right: That sounds like one very good person and very talented athlete.

Thank you for your commitment to youth sports.

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