BREWER, Maine — As a crowd gathered for a recent “meet the coaches” assembly at Brewer High School, the buzz of a new sports year was in the air.
Teammates rekindled relationships, but time also was dedicated to sportsmanship expectations, not only for students but also for parents — including relationships with their kids’ coaches and topics that are off-limits for discussion.
“I honestly think they have the parental right to know anything regarding their kids,” said Dave Utterback, Brewer’s fourth-year athletic administrator, “but I don’t think a coach’s strategy or decision making within an activity or a game is in play. I don’t think a coach has to defend that.”
Parent-coach relationships long have spanned the gamut of emotions, from the shared joy of a championship celebration to consternation when things aren’t going well.
That dynamic has intensified during the last generation, particularly since the proliferation of offseason travel teams and other non-school programs in which parents assume significant influence through investments of their money and time — often becoming coaches themselves.
In some ways that approach has challenged the interscholastic sports experience.
“When you’re outside of educational athletics, it’s pretty much just the parents and the organizer or coach of the activity and there’s no layer of accountability there other than the coach to the parent and the parent to the coach,” said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association.
“Within the school system there are more layers, more expectations and a process there in most cases of supervision and evaluation and accountability.”
Relinquishing that influence during the academic year to coaches who are hired by local school systems and overseen by school officials isn’t always easy for parents.
“I think today, versus like when we played as kids, parents are more involved on a regular basis at a younger age than they are at a high-school age or even a middle-school age because of all the travel sports and youth programs,” said Tyler Smith, the father of two Brewer High School student-athletes.
“They’re the volunteer coaches, and the good news is that there are a lot more positive parents involved as coaches than not.”
It’s about playing time
The primary area of consternation between parents and coaches involves playing time, which at times may be traced back to the student’s participation in non-school activities, where financial wherewithal can translate into guaranteed opportunity.
“Sometimes in the non-educational athletic environment, because there is a financial commitment parents can tend to believe that because they’re spending the money they and their son or daughter are entitled to certain things,” said Durost. “I think there’s a real frustration across the country about achieving the balance between wanting parental involvement and trying to balance that off the belief some parents have around entitlement.
“Very often it’s the minority of the parents who have an exceeded sense of entitlement that ends up building the frustration, and all those parents who do it the right way probably tend to get painted with a brush they don’t deserve to.”
While strategies to discuss playing-time concerns vary, most coaches and athletic administrators are reluctant to share the intricacies of those decisions.
“If the parent wants to talk about playing time I can tell them specifically about their player, what they’re doing well, things they need to work on, and my outlook for the season where I can see how we’re going to fit in with our league,” said Brewer High School field hockey coach Sarah Estes. “Those are factors that change with a child’s skill level, and not only how they’ve improved but how our competition has improved or changed.
“I obviously don’t want to talk about other players,” she added.
Many coaches and administrators instead encourage the student-athletes to speak directly with the coach about playing time.
“Sometimes that can be a difficult conversation for the student to have, but it’s also a teaching and learning part of what athletics are supposed to be about,” said Durost. “Athletics are supposed to help prepare you for the adult world and those are the type of conversations that take place in a job environment, and when you go out and get your first job whether you’re 18 or 22, your parents probably aren’t going to be there for that conversation with the employer.
“Everybody wants parental involvement and good relationships, but the schools would prefer that it’s not the parent who is having the conversation that the student should be having.”
The MPA offers best-practices advice in a coaches’ handbook available on the organization’s website but otherwise leaves issues surrounding the parent-coach dynamic to local control.
“I think there’s a pretty consistent philosophy from state to state that there are certain things like this that are of local control because the coaches are employees who answer to the local taxpayers and parents and community members,” Durost said.
Social media’s impact
Whether the volatility between parents and coaches is on the rise is hard to quantify.
“The parents are good people who love their kids and I try to be fair with them,” said Bangor High School athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine. “I try to stay level, I don’t get upset and I try not to let them get upset. I find that if I give them a chance to be heard they don’t feel like they’ve been shut out of the process.”
The emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook have given a raised voice to complaints once kept largely private.
“I don’t think it’s any more prolific today,” said Tony Hamlin, who won 400 games as a high school basketball coach and serves as athletic administrator at Penquis Valley High School in Milo. “But there are subtler ways it’s done whether it’s Facebook or other social media, or in small towns like this it can be just people saying something in a public setting.”
That all serves to put more pressure on coaches and the decisions they make.
“I think coaches’ jobs are tougher now because they have to keep kids from getting too much involved in social media and they also have no way to police the parents,” said Kevin Hews, the father of student-athletes at Brewer High School. “Fortunately, I haven’t seen a whole lot of that here in Brewer.”
Many coaches and administrators now use social media as an information source for parents in an effort to head off complaints.
“I’ve tried to preach to our coaches that the more information they get out that way tends to work,” said Utterback, who has one coach writing a weekly team newsletter for parents. “I coached at Old Town for eight years and I can count on one hand the number of confrontations I had with parents.
“I thought being proactive and reaching out to them prevented a lot of those kinds of issues.”
Some parent-coach disagreements invariably climb the administrative ladder.
“What you have is a generation of parents who participated in competitive athletics when they were growing up so they’re competitive by nature,” Utterback said. “They want to see what they think is best for their child.
“It goes with the territory. I listen to what the complaint or the issue might be and try to do my best to delineate what actually happened with what needs to happen and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
As much as they can, administrators steer those conversations back toward their origins, in part because that may provide a chance to resolve any confusion between the student-athlete and parent.
“I said at my parent meeting that your job as a parent is to have that safe room for your kid at home to let them air it out, but know the difference between venting and being truly upset,” said Estes. “It’s the parents’ job to help their kid come up with strategies on how to change the situation, or maybe just to sit and listen.
“A lot of times parents want to come in and fix things for their kid, but when we talk to their kid about it they say they were just telling their parents how they felt.”