Dealing with Problem Parents

The terms “cheer mom”, “cheer dad”, “dance mom”, and/or “dance dad” will literally cause some people, particularly coaches, to shudder from bad memories. There are televisions shows dedicated to following parents in these industries just to highlight some of their unusual and out of line behaviors. This is not to say that every cheer or dance parent is a problem. There are MANY parents that will never present even a single problem, but inevitably, at least once in every cheer coach’s career, she will have an encounter with a shudder-causing cheer parent. It’s simply par for the course. The ironic thing about this topic is that although cheer and dance parents seem to have gained quite a negative reputation, these issues are common in all sports. The bright side of this universal nature is that the solutions are just as common. This article will outline some of the typical issues associated with “problem parents”, and offer some tips on coexisting peacefully, with the minimum amount of stress possible. 

The most important thing to remember as a coach, or even as a parent, is that every parent’s goal is usually the same – she wants the best for her child. This is the root of many conflicts. It is helpful to try to view each situation as if the child in question is your own. What would you do? How would you react? This mindset will immediately win you many battles before they ever begin. 

1. Establish boundaries and rules for parent conduct before the season begins. It may seem silly, but parents need to know what is expected of them just as much as the athletes need to know. If you establish that you accept no nonsense from day one, parents will be far less likely to test you. Schedule a mandatory parent meeting to verbalize your expectations. Direct communication is always best. If you’ve had problems in the past, solidify your rules by creating a parent contract with rules by which everyone must abide or face consequences. 

2. Explain your coaching style and philosophy. The clearer everything is made for parents from day one, the fewer the problems that will arise. Be up front with parents about how you coach. If you are the type of coach that is stern and by the book, let them know. That tidbit of information will make a difference when the choice between going to practice or skipping to go to the waterpark comes up. If you are the type of coach who awards effort equally to skill, parents should know that as well. That way when children other than the star are front and center, there aren’t any questions as to why. 

3. Require cheerleaders to speak with you first. This suggestion may seem subtle, but it is HUGE. Many times, it is solely the parent with the issue and not the cheerleader, and at the end of the day you are there for the best interest of the cheerleader. By mandating that cheerleaders make the first contact with you about any issues that they have, you can truly gauge the motivations and emotional connection to the issue before dealing with the parent. Many times, issues can be handled directly between you and the athlete, and the parent can simply be filled in on what took place. Some parents may argue that their child is too intimidated or scared to speak with you directly, but make it clear that not only is this your standard, but it is also preparing them for the real world. Athletes need to be able to articulate themselves effectively to adults. Life lessons come in all shapes and sizes, and this is certainly means to teach a valuable lesson. 

4. Develop a relationship with your athletes. As a coach, you have to make a decision as to whether you will treat your athletes as faces just passing through to enhance their skills, or young people looking to be developed through skill enhancement, character development, and mentoring. That doesn’t mean you have to spend hours outside of practice with each individual athlete, but taking the time to invest in their lives will pay off big. Be a supporter of the child, not just the athlete. This may mean sending a two or three line good luck note home for an athlete with a huge recital coming up. It’s truly the small things that really make an impact. Be conscious that once you have set the standard for one athlete, it will be expected for all, so be wise in how you choose to go about investing in each child. At the end of the day, if your athletes buy into your system, your coaching, and you as a coach, they will be your greatest cheerleaders and greatest defenders. 

5. Don’t be afraid to draw a line in the sand. There has to be a point in which you are not afraid to say, “No more.” Situations like this are very difficult because you hate to lose a child over a parent, but the negativity of one parent can spread like a wildfire, or cause major rifts with other current and future parents. So stand strong and say, “If you don’t like what I’m doing here, you are welcome to take your athlete elsewhere.” Unfortunately, sometimes someone has to be an example for other parents to realize how serious you are about your rules. It is critical that you don’t waiver at any point leading up to this action, however; that will send seriously mixed signals. 

General Tips: 

- Deal with problem parents quickly. Issues should always be handled immediately. Allowing negative behavior to continue shows them and others that this is a behavior that will be tolerated, and is likely to incite other parents to do the same. 

- Be honest with parents. Don’t simply tell them what they want to hear, with no intentions on following through. For instance, telling a parent that her child will be a flyer at some point in the routine, with no possibility of her child flying, is setting the family up for disappointment and you up for a huge confrontation. Be honest. They may not like what you are saying, but at least they know what to expect. There are no surprises. Try to justify disappointments with a positive when possible. For instance, “Susie isn’t going to be flying this season, but she has become such an incredible backspot I just can’t afford to lose her in that position.” In this example, the truth is stated clearly, and the parent was also provided with some positive reinforcement. Many coaches resent having to provide positive reinforcement for parents, but at the end of the day, they are the ones making everything possible (paying bills, transporting, etc.), and a happy parent usually leads to a happy athlete. 

There is no such thing as a perfect team, but you can certainly work towards that goal. The above tips will help to ensure you the opportunity to do what you were hired to do: coach! Always remember that is why you are there, and the athletes should be your main focus. 

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