A Stressful Situation
If the world were a perfect place, talking to a youth sports coach would be as natural and stress free as talking to your child's teacher. Mothers should feel free to let the coach know anything we feel will affect our child's participation, such as stress in his home life or school, the fact that he has chronic asthma, that he is grieving over the death of a family pet or has to miss a game to attend a family wedding. We also should be able to expect that the coach will share any concerns with us about our child at any time.
Unfortunately, as I know all too well from my conversations with mothers and coaches over the years, there is nothing that worries and confuses mothers more. It is simply astounding how many otherwise confident and competent mothers - successful trial lawyers, emergency room physicians, business executives, and stay-at-home moms - end up lying awake in the wee hours of the morning worrying about this issue. The reason is that, unlike your child's teacher, her coach, in all probability, is not a professional educator trained to put the child's interest first at all times.
Since it simply isn't possible to shield our children completely from bad coaches, when we feel that we have something to say, no matter how unpopular, we should speak up. If your intuition is to speak, speak. There is no dishonor in voicing an opinion; there is no dishonor in trying to protect your child.
Before you talk
First, regardless of the issue you may have with your child's coach, talk to your child to find out what he is feeling and thinking before you talk to the coach. His feelings may be very different than yours and they deserve your respect.
Second, encourage your child to talk to the coach himself. If you jump in every time your child has a problem, your child will soon get the message that she isn't capable of taking care of herself and will look to you to solve other problems she may be having in her life. For instance, if he is not getting as much playing time as he thinks he deserves, he should ask, "Coach, what do I need to work on so that I can earn more playing time?"
Third, don't speak up until you see a pattern and after you have gathered all the facts with an open mind. Check with the assistant coaches and other parents. Be patient. Give the coach the chance to get to know your child before you begin complaining.Fourth, even if your child's feelings mirror your own don't conclude that you have to talk to the coach. Consider the effect your talking to the coach may have on your child's relationships with his teammates and the coach. Sometimes, it may be better to keep quiet until you have given the matter more thought and, perhaps, talked to other parents to see if they have concerns similar to yours. If so, you may be better off going to the coach as a group.
Talking to the coach: the when, where and what
- Choose the right time and place. If you have criticisms, or want to voice a negative comment to your son or daughter's coach, the best time to talk to the coach is after the game and alone, not in front of the players and other parents. Right before, during, or immediately after games or practices are absolutely the worst time to have a heart-to-heart with the coach. Contact the coach later that day, when you have calmed down and have had a chance to develop some perspective, after you have had a chance to collect your thoughts, or, better yet, put them down on paper. If a face-to-face meeting is warranted, set a time and place which is free of distractions where you can talk and maintain good eye contact. Someplace where you can talk over a cup of coffee or grab a donut works well. If you are better at communicating in writing, you could send an e-mail, but remember that they can be easily misinterpreted and come off as confrontational and be read and forwarded by anyone.
- Don't apologize. While there is no best way to give criticism, don't apologize or make excuses. Women tend to say "I'm sorry" more than men. The problem is that men tend to view such ritual apologies as a sign of weakness, that the speaker lacks confidence.
- Keep the message simple but direct. Girls grow up learning conversational styles that focus on the relationship aspect while boys learn conversational styles that focus on the status dimension. Men try to avoid being put in the "one-down" position. Women tend to avoid putting anyone in that position. A woman's tendency to use indirect speech, to temper criticism with praise, and exchange compliments works fine when talking with other women, but less well when talking with a male coach who tends to speak directly and take words literally. State one or two concerns, at most, simply, briefly, honestly and directly. Be respectful. Don't exaggerate. Describe the situation in non-judgmental terms. Explain how it affects you and your child; and then state a preference for how you believe it can best be resolved.
- Watch your tone of voice. Women have a different speaking style than men, one that often makes us seem less competent and self assured then we actually are. I found that I was able to advocate more effectively for my child when talking to a coach if I lowered my voice so I didn't whine, and didn't get emotional or angry (Unfortunately, women who are angry and tense sound whiny).
- Check your body language: Are your arms tightly folded across your chest or are your hands loose and comfortable? Are you making direct eye contact and are your eyes open without the "evil eye" appearance that you may really want to be expressing?
- Talk slowly. Deep breathing helps to regulate and slow down your speaking.
- Avoid words that block open communication. What you say can make a big difference in how you are perceived. Avoid words like "but", "try," "should," "have to ...," "always," "never," and "obviously."
- Be assertive, not aggressive. Be firm but polite. You want the coach to hear you, believe you, and help resolve an important problem, not feel like he is being attacked. Yet, common communication techniques almost guarantee the opposite result. Too often, we lead with personal attacks, exaggerations, and pre-judgments. Opening salvos such as "You told Allison that she would be the starting midfielder," or "Josh never would have played on this team if you'd told us how expensive it was going to be" beg for debate and rebuttal, rather than inviting problem solving and empathy. Instead, send a powerful message that can get through the coach's defenses because it focuses on the problem, not the person.
- Practice active listening. After the coach has stated his thoughts you should paraphrase what he has just said, such as by saying, "What I hear you saying is that ....." Saying to a coach, "What I understand you to be saying is that some of the girls will play the entire game while most will only play half the game or less," may make him see how unfair he is being. Try to see things from the coach's point of view; it is likely to vastly improve the quality of the discussion.
- Look for common ground. Usually, we think we have the solution all figured out, before we know enough about the problem. Making a single, non-negotiable demand prevents discussion of other creative options and makes it harder to back down in favor of a better idea (especially if the coach is a man, given the natural resistance of men to being told what to do, which they view as an assault on their competence). A more constructive approach is to accept that there are many ways to solve a problem. Then, generate as many options as possible that combine the coach's interests and your own. Remember, men are especially likely to be indirect when it comes to admitting fault or weakness, so pushing for an admission of fault, which forces a man into the uncomfortable "one down" position may not be the best approach.
Brooke de Lench is Founder and Publisher of MomsTeam.com and the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), which is now available for the Kindle on Amazon.
Updated December 3, 2011