You’ve Got Mail!
If you’ve coached for any length of time, you likely have received an email from a displeased youth sports parent. The one I received while coaching a flag football team for 5 and 6 year olds was particularly memorable as it got right to the point. The opening sentence read:
“Watching the way you set lineups, decide which kids play, where they play and when is a complete embarrassment.”
As background, this was my first attempt at coaching youth sports. I played high school football and was an Army officer who has served in combat, but I quickly discovered that training and experience doesn’t exactly translate when asked to coach youngsters who have never played the game before.
Nevertheless, I tried to set up good practice plans, identify where each player can contribute and installed some simple plays to get us started. I even instituted a most valuable player reward system for after every practice and game so that every player got a pin. My goal was certainly not to win every game, but keep us competitive.
And on that particular Sunday – the third game of the season – we eked out our first win. The game came down to the final play, with one of our players making a touchdown saving pull to stop a 2-point conversion.
The team was happy for the win. I was happy for the way they played.
This parent was not.
In his impassioned, dense, manifesto-like email delivered 30 minutes after the game, he criticized how I apportioned carries of the football and quarterback snaps, stating:
“There are a number of kids who haven’t carried the ball all season. There is no excuse for that. There are a number of kids who have never played QB. There is no excuse for that.”
Admittedly, it was both crushing and infuriating at the same time. But rather than fire off a dismissive or heated response, I chose to take a two-pronged approach:
1. Use it as a Coaching Opportunity
After reading the email carefully a couple times, my sense was that this season was this parent’s first exposure to football. The use of the word “lineup” suggested he had a baseball background and I would later find out he played at a “high level.”
So, my response began by clarifying my football coaching philosophy and views regarding the game and how it might be different from t-ball or baseball. I explained that in my view, football isn’t about who gets how many touches of the ball. It’s a game that requires everyone doing their particular job on every play for the team to be successful – not just waiting for their turn at bat.
Whether it’s a tackle, an interception or a fake, every player on the field makes a contribution and to prize one or two positions over all others would teach the exact wrong lesson I wanted them to learn.
2. Offer Opportunity for Engagement
As a volunteer parent-coach, having other parents snipe from the sidelines can be a little maddening.
But rather than respond with resentment, I offered an opportunity to work with this parent to provide tips on the areas he and his son can work on to improve and better prepare for games.
And because this parent was obviously passionate about the issues he raised, I encouraged him to volunteer to coach the following season so he could correct the mistakes he’s seeing me make.
Unfortunately, this parent did neither. And in fact, I didn’t see him on the sidelines for the remainder of the season. I think this was a missed opportunity for him and his son.
What Did I Learn?
Although brief, this little episode dramatically impacted how I approach parents before every season. Either before or after the first practice, I hold a parents meeting where I outline very clearly:
- My coaching philosophy and approach to the game.
- Encourage direct dialogue (not emails) with me if they have suggestions or critiques.
- Ask them to participate as assistant coaches or help reinforce lessons between practices and games that we’re working on.
From this solid baseline, I hope to avoid misunderstandings that sour what could be very fun Sundays for kids and coaches alike.
And let me open my inbox without bracing.