Six Things Youth Sports Organizers Can Do to Communicate More Effectively with Parents and Players
April 7, 2021
As a youth sports organizer or coach, you know how tricky managing relationships with parents and players can be. It’s such a talked-about issue, in fact, that it has a name: “the athletic triangle.”
But if navigating that triangle is one of the most challenging parts of your job, it’s also one of the most important, because solid relationships are the foundation of solid programs. The key to both is clear, consistent, and positive communication. Here are some tips to help you create an atmosphere that gives everyone the space to hear and be heard:
- Set 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. But here is also your chance to let everyone know just how much communication—and the way it is delivered and received—will matter.
As you discuss your program’s philosophy and your mission as coach or organizer, emphasize that you see both as being dependent on respectful relationships and open exchanges. It’s a time to tell everyone that your primary goal will be to teach skills and how to be a good teammate, and that their adult examples can help you realize that goal.
- Establish Communications Channels
At this initial meeting, you should solicit from parents (and players, if they’re old enough) their preferred modes of communication: Texting groups or social media? Email or WhatsApp? Of course, if you’re already using a team communications app you like, make sure that everybody knows how to use it, how often to check it, and, not least, what it is meant to be used for.
Whatever the platform, get in the habit of giving as much advance notice as possible for tweaks in routine and other situations that require families to rethink their own schedules. The respect you show them in these dealings is likely to boomerang back to you.
One of the most important building blocks of a successful culture of communication is a protocol for lodging complaints. Some things to consider: can players approach you directly or do you want parents to speak for them? How do you prefer to receive these reach outs? Do you even want to be on the other end of these contacts, or would you rather deputize this responsibility? Let it be known, though, that your part of the deal is that when an issue does arise, you will be in touch promptly, and frequently, until it is resolved.
- Give 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 relationships with 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.
Remember, it’s crucial to center feedback around actions and not make it personal. Keep your tone non-judgmental and even-keeled. Be concise and use clear language. And always invite questions when you are done. One note: Periodic one-on-one meetings with each player throughout the season can be natural, less-fraught forums for these conversations.
- Encourage Parental Involvement
Here’s a subtle way to improve the lines of communication: Figure out how to include parents in team or league activities. Sign them up as volunteer coaches, or to lead fundraising efforts or coordinate schedules. And think about soliciting their input about how to best motivate their own kids.
Selfishly, enlisting this kind of assistance helps you knock some items off of your never-empty to-do list. But it also makes parents feel more in the loop, which can make them more invested in the team’s success than their kid’s personal glory. If that happens, you’ve made problem-solvers out of potential rabble-rousers.
- Be Proactive—and a Good Listener
When conflict does arise, choose your response time wisely. Don’t want to wait too long; it isn’t likely to go away and will likely fester. On the other hand, you want to leave some space following an upsetting event to allow emotions to ease. There is an art to hitting this sweet spot, and feeling it may take some time.
More important than timing, though, is the response itself. Listen with an empathetic yet reasonable ear. Adopt receptive body language—eye contact, occasional nods, uncrossed limbs and acknowledge the feelings of others. Don’t rush to defend yourself. And try to remember that most players and parents really are interested in fixing trouble, not stoking it.
That said, should a parent lash out over a perceived unfairness, you need to know that you are justified in standing up for yourself and your decisions.
- Focus on Diffusing Tension
When it is your turn to respond, levelheadedness works best. It is likely that parents don’t know all the facts, so clue them in, then describe the steps you may have already begun to take to address the issue. Loop the player into the conversation too. Ask first for their opinion then buy-in on an action plan. Don’t be afraid to own up to past mistakes; it won’t hurt your credibility.
Whatever the issue, do your best to inject some positivity into the conversation: Start by complimenting the athlete’s skills, or a parent’s contributions. Aside from lowering the emotional temperature of the room, it will remind everyone that you are all united in wanting to create the best possible experience for all.
Want to learn more about how to communicate effectively? Check out this webinar we hosted with growth and sales expert Charlie Hauck: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h34gM-Km7nw