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The Rift by Tony Earp

Great article by Tony Earp titled  "The Rift"

If you are around youth soccer long enough, you will certainly hear a coach complain about a parent or a parent complain about a coach. This is not news and everyone has accepted this is a part of youth soccer. It is unrealistic to believe a team can go through a season without a conflict or two between the coach and a parent. There will always be difference in opinions in regards to how coaches coach and how parents feel coaches should coach. There is not one right answer and you will get different opinions from different parents and different coaches about what is “right” and “wrong” when working with kids.

Every parent has different expectations for their kids and how they feel their kid should be coached. Some parents may want their kids to be pushed harder by a coach and expect the coach to be “tough” on their child when mistakes are made. Other parents want coaches to be heavy with the encouragement and never want to hear a negative statement made to their child. Some want a balance of both.

Parents’ opinions will differ on what the coach should be coaching and how the coach should do it. Some want more technical training while other parents want more tactical training. Some parents want their child to be taught how to play a specific position and others want their child to learn many positions. Parents may feel a coach does not do enough conditioning and other parents feel the same coach is doing too much conditioning.

Coaches are no different. Ask different coaches what they feel is important for players of different age groups and you will NOT get the same answer from all of them. All coaches coach a little different and feel some things are more important than others at different age groups. Although there are basic principles coaches tend to follow, you can put the top coaches in the world in the same room and have a very lengthy debate about “best practices” when training players and working with teams.

Between the differences in parent expectations and the vastly different types of coaches who work with youth players, a natural “rift” will form between coaches and parents. This rift can often lead to issues throughout the season, long and uncomfortable meetings, kids switching teams, coaches opting not to coach anymore, and a feeling of “us against them” for the coaches and parents.

As there will always be difference in opinions and issues that come up throughout a season between coaches and parents, I do not think the rift needs to be as big as it seems to be made each season. Coaches and parents need to work together, not against each other, to make each season a positive experience for youth players. Frankly, without a collaborative effort and understanding of one another, a season will quickly become a negative experience for the player, the parents, and the coach.

How do we bridge the rift between coaches and parents? Well, here are some areas where parents and coaches must gain a mutual understanding before the season even begins:

Player vs. The Team

Coaches have to walk a tricky line during a season when trying to do what is best for the entire team and each individual player. At times, it is impossible to do both. Coaches have to make tough decisions about playing time and where kids play on the field in an effort to give the team the best chance to be successful, or to provide each player with the best opportunity to get better. This can put an individual player in a situation that is not ideal for his/her development or not allow them to enjoy playing the game as much, or make it harder for the team to get a desired result. The coach still needs to make the best effort to ensure each individual player gets the same opportunities, but in team sports that is not always guaranteed. Sometimes, that is part of being on a team.

From the parents’ perspective, most want the team to do well and have success, but that is not as important as how their individual child is doing. It is not because they are paying for their child to be part of this team and with that comes certain expectations about playing time and opportunities (although it is part of it). It is simply because all parents want the best chance for their kid. When that chance is taken away by a coaching decision, it is irrationally blind for a coach to be apathetic to the parents’ feelings on the matter.

Coaches need to understand parents are going to care more about how their individual child is doing versus the team, but parents need to also understand the coaches have the responsibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire team and individual players at the same time. There will be times when a coach may have to decide between the two. This is not easy. Veteran coaches struggle with it, so a new coach will certainly run into issues and make mistakes.

When this occurs, coaches and parents need to discuss this openly. Both need to come with an open mind and willing to understand the other person’s point of view. Even better, this needs to be discussed before the season begins! How will decisions like this be made? What is the process? What is considered by the coach? Etc…

How a coach makes these decisions will differ in relation to the age of the kids, competition level of the team, the organization’s philosophy the coach has to follow, coach’s personal views, and other pertinent variables. If the parents and coach discuss how this Individual Player versus The Team question will be addressed before the season, it is less likely to be an issue throughout the season.

What is best for a Player

This is one of the easiest things for a coach and parent to work together on, but it is probably the most common thing a coach and parent dispute. The coach has a good perspective on what is best for a player in regards to their soccer development, and the parent has a good perspective on what is best for their child in regards to their total development.

I will tell parents that it is absurd for me to believe that I know their child better than they do after a couple practices or an entire season. Parents have great insight into their children that a coach can use to help decide what is best for a player on and off the soccer field.

This is an area where coaches MUST rely on information from parents to make informed decisions about how they will coach a child. There are too many things a coach will never know, unless they ask the parent, which can play a significant impact how a child learns and performs on the soccer field. Coaches will often make the costly mistake of making assumptions about a player and making decisions based on those assumptions. Before the season begins, coaches should learn about the kids by having meetings with the parents to learn more about each player. This will make the coach and the parents allies in deciding what is best for a child during the season. Coaches who refuse to engage parents in these types of discussions will miss out on a very important and valuable resource to doing their job better.

Communication

Often the difference in expectations between how often a coach communicates and what the coach communicates to the parents can cause conflict. Likewise, how often parents communicate and what the parents communicate to the coach can light a fire as well. Before the season begins, the coach and parents must decide on how, when, and what they will communicate between each other throughout the season.

A coach needs to set up a communication plan with the parents before the season begins. This should include email updates, team meetings, phone calls, and other ways to get information to the parents about team /individual performances and information about team events. The parents should know when the communication will happen and what type of information they will receive. On the other side, the parents need to know the best way to communicate with the coach. When is the best time to reach the coach? Should they call, e-mail, or text the coach?

The parents need to understand the boundaries of communication. What will the coach discuss? When will the coach discuss it? For example, a coach may set the expectation that he or she will never discuss another player with a parent or that a player must communicate an issue with the coach first before the parent addresses it with the coach. Some coaches ask parents to wait 24 hours before talking to them about a game.

The communication plan with the parents needs to keep them informed about what is going on with the team and make it easy to reach the coach when necessary. A communication plan that shuts parents out and limits communication is a recipe for disaster. As long as the expectations are set and clearly understood by everyone, it will keep an open line of communication between the coach and parents throughout the season. Personally, as a coach, I would rather be accused of over communicating versus under communicating during a season.

Measuring Success

The success of a team or a player is normally measured by wins and losses. This is a very misleading way to measure whether a coach is doing a good job, a team is having success, or if the players are learning and improving their level of play. For example, a team can be having a very good season, but the individual players have not improved much from the beginning of the year. Another team could be struggling to win games, but the players individually have made tremendous strides in their individual skills and ability with the ball.

The success of a team or a player is determined by a lot of different things that need to be outlined by the coach to the parents before the season begins. These areas of measurement should be different for teams and players of various ages and competitive levels. In short, measuring success for a U8 team is very different than a U16 team. Unfortunately, it is common for adults to use the same barometer (wins/losses) for both age groups.

The areas of measuring success for a team and the players need to be addressed by the coach with the parents before the season. The coach must explain what parents should be looking for throughout the season, and the parents ought to have the opportunity to ask questions and be part of the discussion for determining how success will be measured. This will help set the expectations for the team and players for the entire year. This will also affect how a coach approaches training and games in regards to focus of the training sessions, playing time, moving positions, and other coaching decisions. If the coach’s actions correlate positively with how the coach and parents are measuring success of the team and players for the season, there should fewer issues.

Mistakes

Mistakes will be made by coaches and parents over the course of the year. Every coach has games, practices, and conversations with parents or players they wish they could do over again. Parents make decisions for their kids or comments they probably wish they could take back. In the end, no one is perfect, so to go into a season thinking no one will ever make a bad decision is unrealistic. With that in mind, it is important for coaches and parents to recognize when mistakes are made and acknowledge them. Then, an effort needs to be made to correct the mistake.

For example, I was coaching a U12 girl’s game and I completely mismanaged the playing time for a couple of players on the team. I knew it right away and it was made more evident by the body language and expressions on the girls’ faces. I immediately pulled the girls aside and apologized to them. I let them know that I made a mistake today and I will make sure it does not happen again. An e-mail went out to all parents as soon as I got home acknowledging the error. A coach can cause unnecessary issues by not recognizing when a mistake is made and addressing it immediately.

Similarly, parents need to do the same thing. During another game I was coaching, a parent got into a verbal disagreement with the referee. Before the season started, I made it clear that my expectation was the referee would only be addressed by me. When I saw this happening, I knew I was going to have to address it with the parents. As soon as the game ended, the parent immediately found me and apologized for the behavior. Then, the parent went up to the other parents and apologized to them as well.

These are two examples of a situation which could have turned into an issue between the coach and parents, but instead became moments of growth in the relationship. As kids are taught to take accountability for their actions, adults need to practice what they preach and adhere to the same expectation.

To bridge the rift between coaches and parents, clear expectations set before the season and consistent communication throughout the season are required. Coaches need to view parents as allies, not adversaries, in helping the players and the team have a successful season and make them part of the process. Parents need to allow the coach to do their job and understand there are other kids and parents on the team who may not share their views on what is right or wrong.

Whether you are a coach or a parent, your goal should always be to make things better, not to just point out mistakes and criticize others. A difference of opinions is a good thing. It breeds debate and discussion which creates new ideas and better ways of doing things. If you do not like how something is done, do not be an agent of blame; be an agent of change. This will ensure coaches and parents are working together (closing the rift) throughout the season to provide an exceptional soccer environment for each child.

Tony Earp
Tony Earp

Director Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University, is a State Certified teacher, and is a USSF C License coach. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. Tony's achievements included 2nd Team All Big Ten in 2001 and 2002, serving as Captain in 2002. Tony was named Most Inspirational Player in 2001 and 2002, as well as achieving Scholar Athlete status in those same years. Tony was a member of the 2002 MLS Draft Pool. After playing, Tony was a history teacher at Licking Valley High School in 2005 and at Dublin Scioto High School in 2006. In 2007, Tony Earp accepted a position at SuperKick as the Director of Soccer Training where he continues to serve as the Senior Director of Training managing programs, establishing training curriculums, and coaching athletes. Tony was the Head Coach for Hilliard Bradley High School boys soccer program in 2009 and 2010. In addition, Tony is a Director for Classics Eagles FC and is the Director of the SuperKick Classics Juniors Academy. With 10 years of coaching experience, Tony has developed a reputation of being a coach who motivates players to expect more from themselves and creates a training environment conducive to developing high level players.

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