Q. I am a parent on a small kids swim team. We have a coach who doesn’t communicate well with some parents. Unhappy parents have created a rift of criticism through gossip and a shared group mentality that the coach is not addressing every parents’ own kid’s needs evenly or fairly. The children of the critical parents suffer as the constant carping creates an unhealthy dynamic in the pool. The coach ignores the criticism and has built a wall around himself to insulate him from the criticism but ultimately faces the same conflicts over and over. He is a good swim coach, in my opinion. Is there a format / process that the coach can follow to relieve some of that pressure from parents who have concerns with his coaching style?
~ Don from Los Angeles, CA
A. Don, thank you for the ASK SCI question. The coach’s instinct to “create a wall” is an understandable reaction but probably does little to resolve the problem. This struggle for coaches to find that balance between tending to the needs and concerns of parents about their specific child and tending to their primary responsibilities in coaching their chosen sport is a common battle we see. The one thing that is clear is this won’t likely go away without some form of addressing the problem.
At SCI, we work with coaches, athletes, and parents to recognize conflict resolution skills as fundamental to athletics. Essentially, to be a great coach, athlete, or supportive parent, we need to teach and practice conflict skills in the same way we teach the core skills of that sport. It is a skill and it must be practiced. We are working on a number of pilots to work with coaches on adding this skill set to their coaching toolbox.
Long story short…avoiding the issue will not work. In this particular situation, I’m curious as to what other attempts the coach has made to effectively understand and engage the parents about their concerns. I suspect that if you were to ask those parents they would feel as though the coach does not have a clue about what their concerns actually are. They have likely shifted to a mode where they are going about it in one of the least productive ways – through gossip and other indirect methods.
In a perfect world, the coach and the parents have sufficient conflict resolution skills to engage each other in productive dialog that allows for understanding and resolution on areas of concern and that the children do not become effected by this.
At SCI, we often coach coaches on how to handle situations such as these. We also work with organizations to put systems in place to allow for properly addressing concerns in a productive manner. Both approaches might be appropriate here as I suspect this is not a one coach / one season problem.
I’d also recommend looking toward some of the course offerings through the Positive Coaching Alliance that address both coaches and parents.
I think there is a teachable opportunity here for the coach, the parents, and the athletes. Instead of looking at it as peripheral to swimming, I’d recommend embracing it as one of the challenges involved in sports and working with the coach to turn this negative into a chance to address the concerns and model good conflict resolution for the parents. We are happy to help with conflict coaching if outside help is helpful.
Joshua Gordon, Founder of Sports Conflict Institute (SCI)