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Developing a Policy for Parent Complaints

Regardless of the sport you coach, the size of your school, or where you are located, you will receive at least a few complaints from parents each season. Often, these intrusions from parents can be frustrating, as well as time consuming.

In response, some coaches have developed formal policies on how parents should voice their concerns. This can ease tensions between coaches and parents, and it can make a parent think twice before issuing a complaint.

One effective rule is to never talk to a parent about anything significant immediately following a contest. That strategy worked well for Jim Long, retired Head Baseball Coach at Brenham (Texas) High School who was inducted into the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last year. Whenever Long was confronted by a parent after a game, he’d reply that he’d be happy to speak with them and address the problem, but not right now.

“I’d ask them if we can set up a time the next day to discuss it,” he says. “It gave me and the parent a little time to relax and think about the situation. People usually make dumb decisions when they’re really upset.”

Karen Bunkenburg, Head Volleyball Coach at North Central College, uses a similar policy, but with an added twist. She insists the player herself be involved in the discussion.

For example, one year when her squad included 18 freshmen among nearly 30 players, playing time was understandably limited. One freshman’s parent e-mailed to voice her displeasure over her daughter’s playing time.

“In my reply, I said that I would be happy to discuss this matter—with the parent and the child present at the same time,” Bunkenburg says. “Nine times out of 10, the player doesn’t even know the parent sent the e-mail or called. I’m happy to talk with parents, but not without their child knowing about it.

“Usually, I don’t hear from those parents again,” she continues. “They want to express their complaint but they don’t want their child to know.”

The question of whether to discuss playing time at all with parents can be a tricky one. Long is one coach who did not. He explained to parents that playing time is based on what he feels is best for the team and that his decisions must be respected. “Parents will often criticize and say their child doesn’t have a fair chance, but they don’t see what happens in practice every day,” he says.

Ed Terwilliger, who served as Head Football Coach at Olentangy High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, for 24 years before retiring in 2015, didn’t shy away from discussing a player’s place within the team, but he always made sure the parent understood one very important ground rule. “I explained up front that my goal is to be as positive as I can be when talking about players in public,” he says. “But when we go into my office, you’re asking me to be brutally honest and I will be. If you’re going to challenge or question me, you better be ready for the real answer. Also, we’re only going to talk about your son and no one else.”

Beyond playing time, there are a host of other complaints parents may have brewing. Long tried to keep an ear open to them so they could be addressed quickly. If he believed a parent was having an adverse affect on the team, he would speak to the parent immediately.

“I’d bring the parent in and the first thing I’d do is let them air things out,” he says. “Then I’d try to explain exactly what’s going on and why we as coaches do what we do. Once the parent has a chance to speak in private and vent, they usually calm down and you don’t have any further problems.”

At Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, Ga., Head Girls’ Basketball Coach Kathy Richey-Walton has found it effective to have one parent serve as a liaison between her and the rest of the parent group. “This parent is very good at finding out what the problem is, then telling the parents he’ll talk to me and make sure I’m aware of their concerns,” she says. “From there, I’ll decide how the situation needs to be handled.”

Many coaches also have parent meetings at the start of the season to explain how decisions are made. “At our meetings, we talked a lot about playing time so people really understood what went into it,” says Long. “You’ll always have people who disagree with you, but a meeting like that can help stop many complaints.”

Terwilliger went a step further and hosted a weekly meeting with his players’ parents on Monday nights during the season. He put up game film from the previous weekend and discussed the upcoming opponent. “That was a very positive thing,” he says. “It allowed me to go through the game, narrate, and explain the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

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