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Stop Dealing, Start Collaborating

Like many high school coaches, Nate Sanderson, Head Varsity Girls’ Basketball Coach at Linn-Mar High School in Iowa and Director of Product Development at Breakthrough Basketball, was at his wit’s end.

After countless difficult encounters with the parents of his student-athletes, he needed to find a way to better work with parents—instead of just dealing with them. In an article for Breakthrough Basketball titled “How I Stopped ‘Dealing’ With Parents,” Sanderson provides several tips on communicating and collaborating with parents.

He starts by encouraging fellow coaches to truly consider what it means to “deal with the parents.” “Interestingly, this is how the parent-coach dynamic is always described,” says Sanderson. “Generally speaking, we never have to ‘deal with’ things we like. In fact, the very notion of dealing with something invokes feelings of negativity, suspicion, and even dread. In thinking about this, I began to wonder how much this approach to the parent-coach dynamic prevented me from forming positive, constructive relationships with the people who influence our players more than anyone.

“I would never walk into a practice thinking, ‘Today I have to deal with these players again,’” Sanderson continues. “Rather, we strive to appreciate, love, and encourage our players every day. That’s our focus going into every practice. What if we approached the parents the same way?”

That’s when Sanderson decided to “stop dealing with parents” and “coach them instead.” His theory seemed to prove successful after hosting a very unconventional parents-coaches meeting to start off basketball season. “We still took a few minutes to address important issues such as ‘Who Starts and Who Plays,’ but we spent the vast majority of our time doing something far more important,” Sanderson explains in the article.

To set the tone, Sanderson sent an open invitation for all parents to participate in the team’s culture. “Our basketball program culture is built on three basic principles: Play Hard - Love Each Other - Do What We Do,” says Sanderson. “This phrase defines everything we want to be as a team. Over the years, we have become increasingly deliberate in teaching our players specific behaviors that demonstrate these values. This year, we decided to do the same for our parents by giving them specific things they can do to participate in our culture.”

To “Play Hard,” Sanderson suggested that parents participate in organizing team meals, utilize social media to positively promote the team, and most importantly, display patience and understanding. “You are the most influential voice representing our program to the public,” Sanderson told the parents during that meeting. “Please be good representatives of your daughters’ efforts and respectful of their commitment to the TEAM.”

To help parents and coaches “Love Each Other,” Sanderson made the expectations of his student-athletes’ parents clear. “Studies show that what players want most from their parents is to hear these words: ‘I am so proud of you. I love to watch you play.’ Studies also show that a player’s most dreaded time with their sports parent is the car ride home and the coaching that comes with it,” Sanderson told parents in the meeting. “Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are. But having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient, and tries their best IS a direct reflection of your parenting.”

Loving each other doesn’t stop there, as Sanderson provided further suggestions in the meeting:

  • “Support your daughter’s effort, commitment, and sacrifice. Support her investment in the process and the experience she’s helping create for her teammates more than her basketball accomplishments.

  • Be kind to the media and thank them for their coverage.

  • Celebrate the effort and contributions of every player, at both levels.

  • Find ways to serve by helping when needed (scorebook, laundry, snacks, breakfast, etc.”

Lastly, Sanderson asked parents to “Do What We Do.” “Be a crowd-builder. Bring a friend. Give a ride,” Sanderson told parents in the meeting. “Applaud for all players when they come out of the game. Greet the team after post-season games. We want to create an experience that brings joy to others. We know we have added value to others when we have become theirs, and they have become ours.”

By the end of the meeting, Sanderson already noticed a change in the attitude of the parents. “The best part of this entire process is it provides us a road map for building trust. All relationships are built on trust,” Sanderson concludes. “Does this mean we will never encounter another difficult parent? Probably not, but when that day comes, our hope is that trusting relationships will be in place that can weather disagreements. Regardless, we will choose to coach the parent with love, understanding, appreciation, and encouragement just as we would one of our players because our days of dealing with parents are over.”

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