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A.D.’s Corner: July 3, 2009

How to Talk to a Coach

A parent tells me they are upset and angry. For the third game in a row, their son is on the sideline - benched in favor of another player. Another parent is confused when an unexpected bill for their son’s missing equipment arrives in the mail. Yet another parent is frightened about the change in their 14- year-old’s eating patterns when wrestling season starts. Each of these parents may be headed for a talk with the coach - and each runs the risk of making things worse instead of better.

Few of us have a clear idea of how to approach a tense situation in the coach-parent relationship to get the best results. Here are some techniques that will help get your message across and get the coach working with you to find a solution:

Create a positive environment.

Any time or place for a conversation is okay, so long as there’s no immediate crisis and there are no distractions. This means before, during and immediately after games are probably not the best times to speak with a coach. There is too much emotion involved. Don’t underestimate the power of a positive environment. A setting that’s hassle-free, calm, and quiet helps a listener be more receptive. Face-to-face conversation, with good eye contact and a respectful demeanor, is better than telephone or e-mail communication, which can be misinterpreted too easily. It is certainly acceptable to schedule an appointment with the coach at any time. It is their duty to meet with you and discuss any concerns.

Practice active listening.

Often, coaches are on the alert for a flood of complaints from a parent who comes to talk. Fight your impulse to unload! In a calm voice, introduce your concern briefly and, then, allow the coach to respond without rebutting or interrupting. Just listen and summarize out loud what you’ve heard. Watch how the intensity of the situation eases, as the coach feels respected, rather than attacked. Assume that he/she has something important to say, and that your first and foremost objective is to hear it. In the beginning, put much more effort into listening and understanding the coach’s perspective, than into persuading and explaining your own.

Make your point in an assertive, not an aggressive, manner.

You want the coach to hear you, believe you, and help resolve an important problem. Yet, common communication techniques almost guarantee the opposite result. Too often, we lead with personal attacks, exaggerations, and pre-judgments. Opening comments such as “You told my daughter that she would be the starting center,” or “my child should be playing instead of so and so” are guaranteed conversation-stoppers. They beg for debate and rebuttal, rather than inviting problem solving and empathy. Instead, send a powerful message that can get through the defensive walls because it focuses on the problem, not the person:

Describe the situation in objective terms;

Explain how it affects you and your child; and then

State a preference for how it should be resolved.

This technique describes the problem, but it doesn’t mix in judgments about the person. So a parent might say something like this: “Coach, this is my first year as the parent of a high school athlete. My daughter seems to be unhappy with her playing time since practice started two weeks ago. I’m concerned about her overall well-being. I’d like to know more about your philosophy and about the specific areas my daughter needs to work on to improve her chances of playing more.”

Be flexible.

Usually, we think we have the solution all figured out, before we know enough about the problem.

A parent often sees things from the perspective of their child, and rightfully so. However, the coach sees things from the team perspective.

Non-negotiable demand prevents discussion of other creative options and makes it harder to back down in favor of a better idea. A more constructive approach is to accept that there are many ways to solve a problem. Then, generate as many options as possible that combine the coach’s interests and your own.

It takes a lot of practice to change communication habits. But if you can make listening your first priority and stay focused on the problem, you can build stronger, more positive relationships with your child’s coach.

Dr. Silverman is the districtwide athletic coordinator for Glen Cove schools. He has a degree in sport and exercise psychology from Boston University. He has worked with high school to professional athletes on performance enhancement and has appeared on a number of sports programs discussing the topic of youth sports. He has a passion for making athletics the best possible experience it can be for all young athletes, as well as ensuring all youth have an opportunity to use sport as a learning tool about life and health. Dr. Silverman is a fitness buff who still is an avid ice hockey player.