Industry Insights

3 Secrets to Dealing with Difficult Parents in Youth Sports

By Melissa Wickes
October 4, 2023
5 min

No matter what your youth sports program is like—old or new, big or small, competitive or recreational, etc.—there’s one challenge all organizations deal with and that’s difficult parents.  That’s just the nature of youth sports and the emotions that come with being a parent.

There’s no quick fix to this recurring problem, but there are ways you as a youth sports organizer can work toward building a better environment between parent, coach, and player.

In our expert opinion, it comes down to three important things—communication, psychology, and partnership.

1. Communication

You may have heard the term “the athletic triangle” used before to describe the relationship between parents, coaches, and players. Navigating this triangle may be one of the most difficult parts of your job, but it’s also one of the most important because solid relationships are the foundation of solid youth sports programs. The key is consistent, positive communication which you can achieve by:

Setting Expectations Early

A mandatory meeting at the start of the season is the best opportunity to take control, laying out the roles and responsibilities you expect from the athletes and their parents. You’ll focus, of course, on the subjects pertaining to on-field success and smooth processes: scheduling details, rules and regulations, transportation policies, nutrition suggestions. This is also your chance to let everyone know just how much communication—and the way it is delivered and received—will matter.

Establishing Communication Channels

At this meeting, solicit parents’ (and players’, if they’re old enough) preferred mode of communication—texting groups or social media? Email or WhatsApp? To make things easier, you can rely on a team communications app that everyone has access to.

Giving Feedback the Right Way

You will inevitably have to provide players with constructive critiques that are no fun to hear. All you can do is take steps to minimize the sting. That begins with the early efforts you’ve made to build positive relationshipswith members of your team and their families; they’ll be more receptive to what you have to say when it comes from someone they’ve grown to trust.

For more tips on clear, proactive communication within the Athletic Triangle, read this blog post.

2. Psychology

A youth program in the San Francisco Bay area found a cost-free way to address the psychology of dealing with difficult parents. The answer: Reach out to a local college or university with a sport psychology department.

Diana Evans Harris serves as the operations and team coordinator for the East Bay Soldiers, a 501(c)(3) program. All coaches of the East Bay Soldiers are volunteers and USA Basketball licensed, but none of them have training in sport psychology.

“Every now and then I saw issues, situations in which a kid was frustrated. They’d be upset with anything—missing shots, playing time, the other team, referees –you name it. Then parents get frustrated,” Diana said. “It wasn’t fair to coaches or staff to answer questions on why a child was upset.”

It dawned on her to get some tips and support from sport psychologists. As a registered nurse, her first inclination was to look to health care. She found a sport psychology department at nearby JFK University and was soon referred to the Life Enhancement through Athletic Participation (LEAP) Program. Shortly after, Master’s level student-interns of Sport Psychology from LEAP held bi-monthly workshops with the players, coaches, and families.

Why This Works

Using sport as a catalyst, LEAP assists kids succeed in life, school, and social settings. The program’s student-interns share coping mechanisms, relaxation tips, and breathing techniques, improving mental awareness and confidence in the kids.

“Without a doubt this initiative has been most successful for our kids with their confidence levels,” Harris said. “These little things work during the game. More importantly, they translate off the court.”

“When a 13-year-old kid can use different breathing techniques — that’s a powerful tool for the mind,” said Dan Ourian, coordinator of the LEAP Program. “It’s applicable on the free throw line, during a timeout, or when a teacher raises their voice in the classroom.”

Coaches and parents also attend the workshops. Coaches focus on coaching and parents are relieved and excited to be a part of the experience. The program’s workshops are so successful that interns now serve regularly as a part of East Bay Soldiers for three to four months at a time.

How to Get Started

Diana and Dan hope the great results from this experience will inspire other programs to seek similar solutions. Diana says start with a Google search of local universities with a sports psychology department and a phone call.

“It’s our hope that one day every program will have a mental skills training component,” Dan said. “Sport psychology is a growing field. Reach out to local universities and explain the issues you’re having. There may be a department looking to help their students gain some real world experience.”

Encouraged by the massive success with LEAP, Diana is excited to work out new partnerships with other college departments, including nutrition and social work.

“The word ‘program’ to me is big. If we’re going to use that word I look at the kids’ needs everywhere,” she added, “especially in a community where resources aren’t as readily available.”

3. Partnership

Lastly, as David Robinson—NBA legend and LeagueApps investor suggests— you want to turn your parents into allies for your program’s coaches (and yourself!). Ultimately, we all want the same thing and that is for the players to succeed. Here’s how he suggests doing so:

Establish Your Culture

It takes people who are focused on a vision, a mission, and I think you’ve got to understand who you are and what you bring to the table. There’s people all around your kids every single day who are phenomenal models, whether it’s your friend’s dad, the teacher; your friend’s dad, the lawyer, or the people at the church. I mean there’s some phenomenal people around you. And so to build a culture you just have to have committed people that are there for those boys and who are willing to give up their time and their energy to mentor those boys and teach them. So if you want to build a great culture, build a culture where the fathers bring their talents to the table.”

Define the Parents’ Role

“The parents want to be involve,  but if you don’t let them be involved they’re going to be involved in the way they think they can best help you. They’re going to try to be a coach or they’re going to try to tell you how to run the team or something. You don’t need that. We got the coaching stuff taken care of here. We don’t need coaching. But they do need you. I know you need the relationship with the kids. So I’m going to create a place for that because I think that’s valuable. I think your kid is going to be so much stronger, so much more confident because dad is there and dad is involved and that’s fantastic. But you’ve got to give them an avenue to really vent that passion and it’s not in coaching. We didn’t have any of our parents telling our coaches how to coach. None of that stuff. That’s foolishness. Right? Like we’ve got a plan because winning and losing that’s always there. We’re not concerned about whether we’re going to win this league. We want the good experience.”

Harness That Energy

“Your parents are a tremendous asset. They’re not just going to drive you crazy. You should use them in a positive way to help other kids grow and build your organization and it’s got to be a place where they all want to be. That’s what I learned from the Spurs.” Listen to David’s full conversation about the topic here.

Harnessing that “fire” requires expertise, savvy, and most importantly technology. Clear lines of communication between organizers and parents set the stage for success. And once those logistical hurdles are out of the way, fruitful relationships come into focus.

At the end of the day, parents are your customers and even when the going gets tough, the customer is always right. At this year’s NextUp conference, one of our sessions explores the conundrum of having parents as customers—click here to learn more about the conference.