Closing the Communication Gap
|Written by Ms. Candace Barton and Professor Craig Stewart, MS, Montana State University, Dept. of Health and Human Development, Bozeman, Montana.|
Ask a group of coaches what the most challenging part of their job is, and they will probably state, “parents”. Many young coaches are shocked at how much time they spend dealing with parents. The relationships coaches have with the parents of their athletes can be either helpful and supportive, or stressful and frustrating. Hooper and Jefferies (1990) described a healthy parent/coach relationship in terms of an “athletic triangle” involving the coach, the athlete, and the parents. By appropriately including parents in the triangle, and thus involving them in the sports program in a positive manner, coaches can improve not only the relationship with parents, but also improve the experience of the athletes.
The purpose of this study was to determine parental preferences of coaches of their children, and additionally, have parents articulate how they measured those characteristics. The research was a continuation of Stewart’s (1994) survey of parents of high school athletes where he hypothesized that if coaches were better aware of the characteristics parents valued, then that understanding could foster a stronger parent/coach relationship. A second goal was an informal comparison of parent values from previous work. If indeed parents prioritized coaching characteristics differently than ten years ago, coaches could use this information to improve an ever-evolving parent/coach relationship. Finally, these results could aid coach educators in their efforts to prepare future coaches to better communicate and maintain healthy relationships with parents.
Review of Related Literature
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993) presented a strong conceptualization of the relationship between family and the development of talented children. In their work, they described the ‘complex’ family as one who provides an integrated environment, one that is stable and consistently supportive, combined with a differentiated surrounding, that is, one that encourages family members to develop their own individuality through attempting new challenges and opportunities. The authors further recognized that while there were other important factors that influenced talent development, a family setting that provided the child with enough security that he/she was both cheerful and energetic, but concurrently offered enough meaningful challenges to develop goal directed behaviors, increased the chances of refining talent.
Côté and Hay (2002) applied the work of Csikszentmihalyi, et al (1993) by observing that the complex family is the most effective family environment for young athletes. Furthermore, the complex family is compatible with the authoritative (not authoritarian) parenting style that establishes clear objectives for responsible behavior. An authoritative parent uses reason, power, and reinforcement to assist children in achieving objectives. In addition, Côté and Hay (2002) cited the work of Hellstedt (1987) who surmised that parental involvement in their child’s sport ranges from under-involved, to moderately (appropriately) involved, to over-involved. The level of parental involvement heavily influences the type of relationship that exist between coach, parent, and athlete. The under-involved parents isolate themselves away from the sport. In doing so, that behavior often increases the burden on the coach-athlete relationship. Players, who do not have parental support by even limited involvement, rarely are totally committed to a program. Conversely, the moderately, thus appropriately, involved parent constructs a positive triangular relationship with the coach and young athlete. On the other extreme, the over-involved parent creates a negative situation in one of two ways. They either isolate the coach from the triangle by placing too much pressure on the athlete, or they cause conflict with the coach by overstepping program boundaries. This in turn can cause either isolation or conflict between coach and player. This knowledge can assist coaches in understanding what type of relation they can expect to have with certain types of parents.
Unfortunately, few theoretical models exist in the area of parent/coach relationships. However, some researchers (Martin, Dale, & Jackson, 2001; Stewart, 1997; Stewart, 1994) have examined the coaching characteristics most preferred by parents and players. Understanding parental expectations is the first step to successful parent-coach communication. Stewart (1994) based his original work on the premise that coaches must first understand what parents expect in a coach. Once coaches know that, they can plan and prepare for a positive season. In that earlier work, Stewart (1994) surveyed the parents of high school athletes and found that they most desired coaches who were:
In fact, high school parents ranked these more traditional characteristics last:
Stewart (1997) later hypothesized that as athletes began playing at a higher level, their parents’ expectations would probably change. With that premise, parents of Olympic Development soccer players at both the State and Regional levels were given the same survey from the 1994 study. The three most important characteristics picked by parents of Olympic Development players varied only slightly from the parents of high school athletes. Olympic Development parents preferred coaches who:
They too, ranked commitment to winning low. Stewart (1997) also found a slight discrepancy between parents’ reported preferences and what coaches thought parents would prefer. Parents valued sportsmanship more and playing at a higher level less than coaches thought they would (Stewart, 1997). Similarly, Martin, Dale, and Jackson (2001) completed a study of parents of young players aged ten to eighteen years. In the study, they used a modified Participation Motivation Questionnaire to compare the preferences of parents to their young athletes’. Adolescent athletes preferred a coach who:
In comparing Stewart’s (1994 & 1997) and Martin’s (2001) studies, it appeared that parents’ preferences were changing. However, it is pertinent to consider not only the various levels of play of the athletes, but also the demographics of communities in which the studies were performed. Levels of play ranged from summer youth sports programs to Olympic Development teams, and Martin’s (2001) study was performed in a large urban area in Texas, while Stewart’s (1994) study was performed in a smaller rural community in Montana.
Similarly, Rich (1998) provided suggestions for teachers in their interactions with parents:
By comparison, it has been established that coaches should:
This, too, emphasizes the importance of the teacher/coach and parent having the same understanding of goals and expectations. Likewise, Giannetti and Sagarese (1998) gave similar advice to middle school teachers dealing with critical parents. They stated that by conveying shared values with parents, a teacher would foster greater acceptance and communication. Reassuring parents that the adults in the athletic program value similar coaching characteristics can put them at ease and turn a potential challenger into a supportive ally.
There is no doubt that coaching is an inherently stressful job and much of the stress comes from parents. However, taking time to understand parental expectations of coaches and then working towards open communication can relieve much of that tension.
The participants in this study were parents of soccer and volleyball clubs in Montana. Young athletes ranged in ages from 12 to 18. Parents were sent (via email or postcard) a request to participate in an on-line survey regarding “good coaches”. The web address of the survey was included and both parents were encouraged to complete the survey. Of the 160 parents asked to complete the survey, 56 responded. The respondents were 33 mothers and 23 fathers.
Parents provided their age, if they had participated in sports in their youth, and if so their highest level (elementary, junior high, high school, college, professional) of participation (Table 1). The parents were asked to report the number of children in their family, child’s age and gender, and highest level of sports participation for each child.
Table 1 - Basic Demographics of Parent Respondents (n=56)
Respondents were asked to rank (from most important to least important) ten common coaching characteristics. The ten coaching characteristics were taken from Stewart’s (1994) study and are listed in the order of preference in Table 2. A final, open-ended question requested that parents select their top coaching characteristic and write one to three coaching behaviors that was indicative of that feature.
Table 2 - Parental Preferences in Coaching Characteristics (from Most Preferred to Least)
A brief explanation of the survey and its WEB address was sent to one hundred sixty (160) parents and fifty-six (56) completed it representing 135 children. Parents ranged from 36-62 years of age. Of those parents, twenty-three (23) were males and thirty-three (33) were females. A majority of parents reported participating in sport at a variety of competitive levels. In fact, all males reported having played organized sport, while 26 (78.8%) females participated in sport. The highest levels of play reached by parents are reported in Table 1.
Finally, parents were asked to describe behaviors that they felt were indicative of their highest priority of coaching characteristic. Transcribing, segmenting, coding, and sorting the qualitative data resulted in 177 separate behaviors that were coded into 15 categories as described by Neuman (1997) (Table 3).
Table 3 - Categories of Qualitative Data (n=177) Describing ‘Highest Priority’ Coaching Characteristic
The parents in this study wanted very similar things from coaches as the parents did in 1994. The three most important coaching characteristics ranked by parents in this study were:
The only difference from Stewart’s (1994) study was that ability to teach well was ranked in the middle group whereas having players enjoy the sport was one of the top three characteristics. Again as they did in 1994, parents continued to place the lowest priority on more traditional coaching characteristics:
In addition to re-examining Stewart’s (1994) results on preferred characteristics, parents were also asked to operationalize or describe HOW they measured their top coaching characteristic. This qualitative data was helpful in understanding how parents defined fair and honest as well as sportsmanship, and the ability to teach well. The majority of comments were in the categories of: communication skills, teaching skills, and fun.
Parents described communication skills of coaches as their ability to:
Parents described teaching skills of good teacher/coaches as the ability to:
One parent expressed that coaches should,“help players choose goals that are just beyond their reach and help them achieve them”. Some of those specific goals were:
Finally, the third largest category of parent comment was “fun” or the player’s enjoyment of the total sport experience. Parents found this category very easy to define. Of the twenty-two comments regarding athletes having “fun”, 14 of the comments echoed one theme,
“They [athletes] look forward to practice and play”.
The practical implications of this study are many. Coaches, directors of coaches, and athletic directors should know what coaching characteristics the parents of their players most value. When accomplished, this would build credibility and decrease misunderstandings with both athletes and parents. For instance, the majority of qualitative data from this study clarified parents’ desire for coaches to communicate openly with the athletes and parents regarding a variety of issues. Thus, successful coaches must learn how to communicate effectively with players regarding:
Coaches also need to recognize the possible disconnect between what they think parents want and what they actually desire in a sport program. For example, parents defined the concept of “fair and honest” in different ways. Coaches may find it beneficial to define or explain how (and if) they intend to treat players fairly. For example, in this study some parents thought fair meant “all players getting to play equally”, other parents thought fair was, “all players getting a chance to play”. Finally, a third described fair as “the coach explaining to the athlete why they weren’t getting playing time, and what skills need improvement”. These were three very different parental interpretations of fairness as it relates to playing time. Similarly, there can be an incongruity between what the coach describes as “fun” and what the athlete considers “fun” about the sport. However, there was consistent agreement in the parent responses regarding the FUN category. Most parents felt that their children were enjoying the sport if they were excited to attend practices and games.
There are additional implications of this study for sport administrators (directors of coaches and athletic directors). One of the many jobs of a sport administrator is to hire competent coaches. In an attempt to hire the most qualified candidate, the administrator may advertise for someone with “previous experience”. At the very least, this may mean that the coaching candidates have played the sport. However, this is a traditional coaching characteristic that parents ranked very low in priority. Having played the sport may increase the coach’s likelihood of having knowledge of the rules or knowledge of the skills, but these coaching characteristics were not ranked in the top preferences of parents. On the contrary, one of the parents’ highest priority characteristics, ability to teach well, is not always a skill found in people who have only played the sport. Sport administrators’ job is made progressively more difficult by fewer coaches having a teaching background. Unless non-teacher coaching candidates have completed a formal coaching education program, they may have little understanding of teaching methods. In this study, parents described the ability to teach well as more than knowing the techniques and tactics (X’s and O’s) of the game. Parents cited
as aspects of the coach’s ability to teach well. In an attempt to hire quality coaches, sport administrators should screen candidates for those who possess the coaching characteristics ranked the highest by parents;
Likewise, administrators can use these results to create more effective coaching education programs for their staff. As the preferences and desires of parents of athletes are determined and articulated, more should be done to improve communication and involve parents in the process of building better athletic programs. In seeing the parent as an ally, sport administrators can foster a relationship that will not only strengthen participation in the program, but also refine the mission of the program.
In summary, these findings paralleled Stewart’s (1994 &1997) and expanded those results with an examination of the qualitative responses of parents. Parents continue to prefer coaches who are: fair and honest, committed to sportsmanship, and able to teach well. The qualitative data regarding how parents operationalize the top characteristics provided greater insight into how parents determine “good” coaching. These parental responses confirmed the potential for an incongruity between parent and coaches’ expectations in regards to fair and honest behavior, commitment to having fun and the ability to teach well. This information can be used by a variety of professionals in the field of coaching to foster the parent-coach relationship, hire better coaches, and build more effective coach education programs.
Finally, the potential for future research in this area is limitless. As the body of knowledge surrounding the parent-coach relationship increases, so should its practical application in the field. The parent-coach relationship is an extremely important, yet inherently stressful, part of coaching. However, understanding parental expectations of coaches and working towards open communication with them can relieve much of that tension.
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|Written by Ms. Candace Barton* and Professor Craig Stewart, *MS, Montana State University, ^Dept. of Health and Human Development, Bozeman, Montana.|