by David Kiefer

Erik Lichter was first exposed to the Positive Coaching Alliance as a coach, long before he received training as a parent. 

He and all the coaches in their Maryland soccer league went through PCA certification before stepping onto the field with the kids. At the first practice, certification, rules, and any sense of order all went out the window. 

“Trying to coach a bunch of 5-year-olds shoving grass down each other’s shirts … We were all sitting on the bench wondering what we got ourselves into,” Lichter said.

Though the training at the time wasn’t specific to parents, Lichter took it as such and was able to apply the principles both on the field and at home. 

“I thought the coaching lessons were so applicable to being a parent,” he said. “I came out of it with such valuable insights into growth mindset and positive reinforcement.” 

When his children grew older, and the demands of sports in terms of time and money increased, Lichter
attended parent-specific training and found it to be a logical next step as he considered his family’s commitment.

He found the PCA’s 100-point parent exercise – a worksheet that allows parents to evaluate their primary goals for their child in sports – to be sobering.

“Short answer: Why are you having your kids play sports?” the parents were asked. 

As some responded with, “fun” or “friends,” Lichter found those answers to ring loudly in his head. It made him realize that his thoughts, on the sidelines at his kids’ games, ran closer to the lines of “compete hard,” and “win at all costs.”

Am I being a total jerk, he thought to himself. 

The exercise turned into an opportunity for self-evaluation. 

“That becomes an opportunity to pull yourself out of the craziness of our lives and say, ‘What are we doing this for?” Lichter said. “Am I having the right conversations with my kids? Is this league the right fit?”

The need for parent education is greater than ever, which is why the PCA’s objectives of the Second-Goal Parent, of using sports to teach life lessons, takes on even greater importance. 

When asked to evaluate the level of concern for parent behavior on a scale of 1 to 10, Ron Nocetti, the executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s governing body of high school sports, went straight to the extreme.

“It’s a 10,” he said. “It is one of the biggest issues that we have to get a handle on.” 

The consequences of poor behavior are felt largely in the shortage of officials, who cite abuse from parents as the No. 1 reason for quitting. This, in turn, has created something of a crisis, with diminishing officiating standards and games being canceled or postponed because of a lack of officials. 

“We all need to be a little more direct in what’s happening,” Nocetti said. “If you don’t start behaving at contests, your kids are not going to have a game to play anymore.”

Nocetti, a former PCA trainer, sees the value of parent-based education, even as the task at hand seems daunting.

“I think where PCA can have the biggest dent is at the youth levels,” he said. “Not that it’s not important at the high school level, but they have access at the youth level that we don’t have. And, unfortunately, by the time they get to us, the culture’s already been established.

“The more we can influence at the younger ages and establish the right culture, the better off we’re going to be when they get to the high school level.”

The PCA Parent Pledge ‘binds’ a parent to ‘Honor the Game,’ to respect the “rules, opponents, officials, teammates, and self.” That emphasis is more vital than ever, as are PCA’s efforts to lead in this area. 

“A lot of parents may not be aware of how their actions impact their children,” said Anne Lee, who has been involved in PCA training as a parent and a coach. “Ultimately, from a parent’s perspective, it comes from love – you’re trying to make the child better. But there are ways to do it where I think PCA can really help.”

Lee, a jumper on the Stanford University track and field team in the 1990s, has two children involved in sports in Boulder, Colorado, including daughter Kourtney Rathke, one of the top high school pole vaulters in the country. 

Lee’s challenge is checking herself when things don’t go right for her kids in competition. 

“For as much as I want to be ‘hands-off,’ I catch myself being in that zone — meddling too much into their performance — especially when the stakes are higher,” Lee said. “It’s hard. But this is where PCA training can really be of influence, of making parents aware how they impact their children psychologically. In order to really change, you have to be aware that there is a problem.”

Ripper Hatch, PCA’s Vice President for Partner Development, said, “Any organization we go to is going to say that they’re challenged by youth parents. Everybody knows they have a challenge with parents, but the disconnect comes in the struggle to tell the parents to do something about it, especially with the ‘pay to play’ aspect because parents are the revenue in most cases.”

Similar pressures take place in high school sports where a parent’s dissatisfaction with a coach, often over their child’s playing time, can lead to a series of events that gets the coach fired and creates a perception of hostility that causes a shortage of qualified coaches.

“We’re not a coach-training organization, we’re a culture organization,” Hatch said. “We talk to organizations about culture change. If you’re going to really change the culture of your organization, you need to get to get to the coaches, parents, and the leaders of the organization itself. The leaders have to buy in as much as the parents.”

The ‘culture’ that Hatch refers to is not just about behavior, it’s about the pay-for-play industry itself.

“When you get on the merry-go-round of youth sports, it’s hard to get off,” Hatch said. “It starts spinning pretty fast. The way we can start to change the culture is to get the parents to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. Until we do, the parents, even the ones who want to do things the right way, get caught in the cycle of, If I don’t provide this for my child I’m not a good parent.”

This goes back to the question: Why are we doing this? And how can PCA provide tools to help determine priorities and to best deal with the tests that come with each stage of development? 

Lichter recalled a message from a parent orientation led by his son’s PCA-certified hockey coach that left a lasting impact.

“Parent behavior relates to the coaching concept of integrity and respect for the game,” Lichter said. “Are you, as a parent, modeling respect for the game? For the officials? For their teammates? For their opponents? It makes a big difference.”

Lee said, “It’s easy to get caught up into the nuances of my kids’ performances. But, with help from PCA, we all know that the right thing to do is let the kids do what they’re doing by themselves and not try to be overly involved.

“The best thing I’ve told my children is, ‘I’ve had my glory in sports. I want you to have your own experiences without living vicariously through you. I’ve had my turn. Now, it’s yours.’”

Learn More About PCA’s Parent Programming