Bulletproof System for “Dealing With” Difficult Parents

How many of you have those one or two parents in your program that seem to represent 95% of the parent contact you have?

​Sure, they think they’re being well-intentioned, but wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just do your job and the parents wouldn’t question your every decision?


You’re the professional, right? How frustrating is it to have a parent who may have never even played the sport questioning your decisions? Or worse yet, they did play a little bit and now presume their expert input is just what you need?

We’ve all been there…

When I first started coaching I had a few parents like that.

Every time they’d approach me, I’d keep thinking: “Ughhh, this guy again? What’s he going to tell me now? How much playing time his son should get? What position I should put him at? What our strategy should be against our next opponent?”

I’ve heard more than one coach tell me, “Coaching would be great if it weren’t for the parents!”

The reality in high school athletics are that parents are an important part of your program’s success. They don’t always have to agree with your decisions but making sure they know you have the best interests of the team at heart goes a long way toward creating productive and effective relationships that allows your student-athletes to thrive.

Today I’m gonna give you an easy strategy for dealing with difficult parents.

First things first: walk a mile in their shoes

Imagine you’re the parent of a student-athlete on your team and you have a concern you’d like to speak to the coach about. While you may not like or agree with the coach’s response, at minimum, I’m sure you’d like to feel that coach sincerely listened and acknowledged your concern.

In all your interactions with parents, realize that a little empathy can go a long way. We’ll talk more about that in a bit, but it’s important as a coach to go into these interactions with the realization that you’re all on the same team as far as trying to create a situation where student-athletes can develop skills and characteristics that will benefit them for years to come.

Sometimes a parent’s perception of what’s best for their son or daughter is not exactly in line with your beliefs about what’s best for your team. That’s ok! These interactions are your opportunity to explain your philosophy.

Take advantage of these opportunities to let your parents know what being a great sports parent is all about!

Laying the groundwork

Setting boundaries is important. Parents need to know when, where and how they should contact you as a coach. It’s your job to make that clear to them. It’s never too late to do this, but the earlier in the season you do it, the better.

So what’s the best strategy? The easiest time to take care of this is before your season even starts. By putting a section in your team handbook you’re getting this policy out to parents before the season even starts and before any issues come up!

What?! You don’t have a team handbook?! No worries! We cover that in-depth in our emails and blog.

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If your policy is not laid out in your team handbook, the next best option is the in-person delivery at a pre-season meeting for your parents and athletes. There are a lot of great reasons to have a meeting like this, but disseminating your parent-coach communication policy is one of the most important!

Ok, ok, so what if it’s too late for that too?

If your season’s already started and you calling a parent meeting isn’t feasible, your best solution is to send an email out to all your parents and student-athletes quickly explaining your policy. It’s usually helpful to copy your Athletic Director on the email so parents know he or she is in the loop – just talk to them first to make sure they’re on the same page as you with your policy!

If you don’t have email addresses for all your student-athletes and parents, collect them at practice. If a student-athlete doesn’t know his parents’ email address tell him to find out and let you know tomorrow.

Get the exact word-for-word policy that you can use for your handbook, your parents meeting or your email here.

Students first

So what should this “policy” talk about? First and foremost, everyone should agree that one of the major goals of high school athletics is to create strong leaders. That being said, if there is an issue of any kind, the first point of contact should be the student-athlete coming directly to the coach for a discussion. We can all agree that we want to encourage our student-athletes to speak up for themselves and develop more self-reliance in general.

If that discussion is unable to resolve the issue and a parent would like to further communicate with the coach they certainly should.

The right time and the wrong time

Next, you must establish parameters regarding where, when and how parents should get in touch. A great rule here is to never approach the coach for a conversation before, during or after any practices or competitions. Our focus in on the task-at-hand and our student-athletes at that time. Further, emotions can be high for all involved immediately after a competition and that might not lend itself to productive discussion.

Another good rule here is the “24-hour rule” – asking parents to wait to discuss a situation until 24 hours after a competition. Another suggestion is to ask parents to make their first point of contact via email. Let parents know their emails will be responded to within 24 hours. Here you have time to think about their question and formulate your response. For simple questions, this often saves time over a phone conversation or a face-to-face meeting and let’s you take care of it at a time that works for you.

Next steps

If a face-to-face meeting is warranted, you can also set this up by email. To minimize the back and forth it helps to propose two or three different time slots to potentially meet as well as being clear about the duration of a meeting. I like to let parents know I can meet with them for 30 minutes. By being clear about this upfront, everyone knows the timeframe and keeps the meeting from dragging on unproductively.

In most situations, it also helps to let parents know that these meetings should include the student-athlete as well. While you can certainly use your discretion for occasional exceptions, having the student-athlete be part of the meeting ensures they’re on the same page as their parents and let’s them know that their input is important.

In the meeting, never interrupt or interject. Always let the parent or student-athlete finish talking even if they have a lot to say. Have a notepad and pen handy to take notes if you need to remember certain points to which you’d like to respond.

It helps to begin your responses by acknowledging their feelings. Once again, a little empathy can go a long way: “Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I can totally understand why you’d feel that way…”

If the situation is still unresolved, another meeting can be planned to involve the AD, together with you, the parent and the student-athlete. If you’re not sure whether or not a parent will be escalating their concerns when the meeting is over, it’s always best to fill your AD in on the situation as soon as possible. They will appreciate not being blindsided and hearing your take on the situation first.

Setting some ground rules

The final important piece, is letting parents know what is “fair game” for discussion and what is not.

Generally, parents should know that it’s always acceptable for them to bring concerns about the treatment of their child by coaches or teammates, concerns about their child’s behavior or a discussion about how their child can improve or the coach’s philosophy.

Likewise, it helps to let parents know ahead of time that certain subjects will not be discussed, such as decisions about their child’s playing time or positions, team strategies or tactics, game plans or any discussion about other student athletes.

Putting it together

A cohesive policy on parent communication puts you in a great position to deal with difficult parents when they crop up. Establishing and articulating a policy as soon as possible not only helps you avoid many stressful, frustrating situations but also gives you the relaxed feeling of preparation – knowing you’re ready to deal with these situations whenever they emerge.

At the end of the day, remember, most parents simply want what they feel is best for their kids. Sometimes they’ll agree with your decisions and sometimes they won’t, but by establishing the rules of the game ahead of time, you put yourself in a position to address their concerns professionally and effectively.

For many of us coaching is a calling and passion, imagine how much better it could be if you’re biggest frustrations were no longer a part of it!

Make your life even easier!

Want to make this even easier? Get our word-for-word policy and cheat sheet for implementing your parent-coach communications system either in your handbook, your team meeting or by email!

Click here for our word-for-word “Parent-Coach” communication policy.​

About the Author

Pete Jacobson has been a varsity HS coach in New York for over 20 years. He works with coaches of all levels through WinSmarter to help them build Championship Cultures in all parts of their programs, have a greater positive impact and go home happy. Check out 10 Insanely Powerful Tactics for an Amazing Team Culture for some of the most unique, impactful tactics you can use to build a Championship Culture quickly.

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