UTURNS: The Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of being a parent coach.

By Randy Uens, June 8th 2022

I can’t think of any topic in elite minor sports that is more divisive  than the debate over parent coaches. Whenever there is adversity within a team coached by a parent, this theme will be raised. Often the visceral response to the team’s issues (no matter how complex) from some parents is that the coach’s judgement is compromised because of his/her own bias towards their own child. 

This thought process is a slippery slope. I have seen bad parent coaches. I have seen excellent parent coaches. I have been one of those coaches.The reality is that minor sports would not exist if it wasn’t for parent coaches. Parent coaches and the volunteer coaches that provide guidance and encouragement to our youth are the lifeblood of sports. 

I think most people in sports agree that we need parent coaches. The question comes when the stakes get higher. Players reach a point  where they have aspirations of moving on to higher levels of competition. Parents will either fear the potential for bias by a coach or use the parent coach as a tool to point to failures by the coach to improve the abilities of their child. 

My experience has been that in most cases, the parent coach is harder on their own child than they are on others. Often this child is not given opportunities that they may deserve because the coach and their staff are concerned about the optics if this player is made a captain or receives more playing time than other players of similar skill sets. 

When the coach’s child is clearly one of the best players it sometimes is less of an issue, but even then the coach must be careful to balance development for all the players, especially their own. The greatest challenge for a parent coach is to balance being a coach and being a parent. You cannot coach and be worried about criticism. Your job is to develop athletes, all athletes, including your child. 

The second part of this discussion relates to the relationship between the coach and their child. The car ride home is a critical and fragile time period for young athletes. It is in this moment the coach needs to become the parent and stop coaching. Ask your child if they want to talk about the game. If they do, be supportive and not critical. The coach can be critical, you as a parent cannot.

The car ride is the time to embrace the moment and enjoy the time together. Ask questions as opposed to offering advice. “How did you feel the game went?” “What would you want to do differently?“ “Did you try your hardest?” These are questions that allow your child to be introspective and thoughtful. It also allows you as the parent to be supportive and encouraging by letting them know it’s never as bad as they may view it. The sun will rise tomorrow … no matter how bad the game went.

I cherish the times I had in the car with my kids coming home from games. Did I slip up … absolutely, but over time I got better. More encouraging and more positive no matter the outcome of the game. In the end, that is what was important. 

The reality is that as a parent coach you will have bias for your own child. There will be times where you evaluate them higher than maybe they should be. It is natural and normal. It’s how you manage your bias that is important. 

Like everything in life, it’s important to surround yourself with good people. People that you can trust, but also people that will tell you the truth to your face. Tell you when you are making a mistake because they have the team’s best interest at heart. 

I was fortunate to have this with almost all of the teams I coached. Non parent assistant coaches like Jordie Freeland and Alex Lavalee were never shy to tell me what they thought. I valued their opinion and appreciated the candour. A parent coach needs this feedback, but more importantly needs to heed the advice. 

The one perfect scenario that I had as a coach was working with Steve Bancroft. Steve is a former longtime professional player. Although I was the coach, I considered him as my co-coach. We worked as a team and I always felt that we were point blank honest with each other. 

Hockey was easier than some other sports in that Steve’s son Dalton was a forward and my son Zach was a defenceman. I controlled Dalton’s ice time and Steve controlled Zach’s. There were definitely instances where maybe we questioned each other’s use of our child in certain situations, but at no point did we interfere with each other’s decisions. It was a system that worked for us.

Each parent coach needs to find a way to park any potential bias and do what’s best for the team as a whole. If you can do this, it will make your life easier. We also had a routine after every game where we rated the players performance. The two of us and the assistant, would rank the players and their effort that game. This allowed for us to constantly be evaluating and to gauge improvement of the players but also to ensure we were on the same page with where players fit in. 

The assistant coach was the control mechanism in this exercise. I highly recommend this approach for any coach, not just parent coaches. It helps identify trends in player development but also prevents coaches from falling into the trap of pigeon holing players. Other coaches may see positives that you somehow don’t see which creates healthy debates. 

Now if the organization had said that they insisted on non parent coaches only, I humbly think that our team may not have developed as well as they did. Losing out on all of the experience that Steve Bancroft brought to the table would have limited the success that a number of players from that team have enjoyed. 

Organizations need to evaluate the time to make a change from a parent coach to a non parent coach. If there is a non parent coach that is better and more experienced than the parent coach, it is an easy decision.However, making a coaching change for the sake of making a coaching change often fails. It has to be the right fit. 

Being a parent should not be a negative point when making coaching decisions. If the parent coach is the best candidate, they should be the one selected.  Every coach has a shelf life. I knew when it was time for me to move away from Zach’s team. It was the best decision for the team, for Zach and especially for me. Coaches need to be honest with themselves. 

The second part is to work with the association to develop a transition or secession plan for the future. Start recruiting a replacement coach, bring them on to the bench or at least start grooming your successor. It benefits the team and the association if you can do this transition with the least amount of drama and change. Change is often needed to provide a new perspective but it needs to be done in the right way to ensure a seamless transition.

Finally, as a parent with a child on a team coached by a parent coach, it is your responsibility to support and appreciate these coaches. Do not assume the worst every time. If the coach is qualified and is experienced the team should be appreciative of having this individual as a coach. 

One or two off decisions should not be met with vitriol and angst. Look for patterns over a period of time to fully understand if there actually is a systemic issue regarding your child. 

If the issue persists over four or five games, by all means ask for a meeting with the coach and discuss if your child is younger than 13. Any player above 13, should have these discussions directly with the coach. 

Parent coaches are needed. Volunteers are the foundation of youth sports. Without them there would be no youth sports. And if these parent volunteers are especially experienced, they should be encouraged to help and not be scared off by parental influences. Saying all of that, the parent coach must be cognizant of their own bias and natural instincts and allow for a strong voice to be there to assist them. It helps the team and insulates you from making emotional decisions. Team First is always the right answer! 

These are my own views and do not reflect the views of Total Sports Magazine, Dukes Sports & Entertainment or the Wellington Dukes Hockey club.