It’s Not About the Shark
In 1974, the young film director, Steven Spielberg, faced a costly, growing problem. He was trying to make a movie about a shark, but he didn’t have a working shark. The mechanical sharks they had built for the movie Jaws wouldn’t stop malfunctioning, and it led to serious delays, causing the film to go seriously over-schedule and overbudget.
When reflecting on his situation, Spielberg, who was an unproven director at the time, said, “I thought my career as a filmmaker was over.”
So, out of necessity, he improvised and ended up filming the movie with very limited scenes in which viewers saw the shark. While many people might have initially seen this as a problem, it ended up being the very reason Jaws would become the most successful film of all time. Not seeing the actual shark until it surfaces late in the film creates a great deal more suspense for the viewer.
As David Niven discusses in his book, It’s Not About the Shark, Spielberg’s problem wasn’t a failing mechanical shark. It was the way he was looking at his problems. And this is so often the case in life. What we see as problems are actually the solutions to our real problems.
When it comes to building a great team culture, the #1 problem cited by coaches is parents. We see parents as our biggest obstacle to getting players to buy into our values of selflessness and personal sacrifice. Now, what if I told you parents weren’t your biggest obstacle, but your greatest asset?
A New Approach: Working with Parents
Coaches can absolutely have a great impact on the lives of the people they coach. But when people are asked who the biggest influence on their life was, the overwhelming majority point to their parents, not a teacher or coach.
This is important for us to remember because we often forget that we are just an extension of the character development that goes on at home. While many coaches have success stories of how we have helped a kid out of a really bad home situation, this is the minority (not the majority!) of kids we will work with.
So, if we are only an extension of the formation going on in the home, then we have a responsibility to work with the parents. In the majority of cases, our message will fall short if it is not being reinforced at home. So, we need parents (not just players!) who are bought into the program’s values.
Another reason I advocate a work-with-parents approach is that poor communication is at the root of many problems within a team. Parents often get a very unfiltered view of their child’s emotions, feelings, and struggles. Building a bridge (not a wall!) between parents and coaches is essential to serve the athletes’ needs, development, and experience.
The New List
My past approach (like that of many other coaches) was to share with my players a list of things I won’t talk with their parents about:
- I won’t talk about strategy.
- I won’t talk about playing time.
- I won’t talk about another person’s child.
What if, instead of giving parents a list of things to NEVER contact you about, you gave them a list of things you WANT them to contact you about? Many of the programs I work with on the college-and-high-school levels have taken this approach with great results.
Is it easy? No. Does it lead to hard conversations? Yes. But most of those conversations meet problems head-on before they snowball, and they help parents and coaches focus on how to best serve the needs of the athlete.
The Conversations I Want to Have
I’ve gone weeks, months, and even entire seasons without realizing a player’s parents were getting divorced, one parent lost their job, their father was in jail, or a close family member was diagnosed with a terminal illness. To prevent us from being the “last one to know” about an athlete’s struggles, opening the lines of communication with parents is important in the following situations:
- When something is “up” with your child.You have an unfiltered view of the emotional and mental challenges your child is facing that nobody on the team can see. An email, text, or quick phone call just to inform the coach when you observe something negative (or positive!) can only be helpful.
- When something is “up” at home.Home life is challenging. In the past, my players have experienced it all: divorce; the incarceration of a family member; the terminal illness of a family member; even financial struggles. While the coach doesn’t need every detail, we do appreciate being aware of our athletes’ personal challenges, so we can show our support and care.
- When you have a serious issue with the coach’s attitude, language, or behaviors.We all screw up! Coaches don’t need to be called out on every mistake, but if it is consistent enough that your opinion of us as a person has changed, then we want to know about it! We want our values to be very clear; not just in what we say at the start of the season, but in everything we do throughout the season.
- When something is bothering you for an extended period.We all have things that bother us, and sometimes, we just need some time and space to regain perspective. But if something has been bothering you for an extended period, and the coach may be able to help you gain some clarity and relieve that frustration, then we can make time for you.
- You don’t understand why your child is not playing. Most coaches think it’s okay if you don’t agree with their decisions on playing time, but we still want how we determine playing time to be clear to everyone in the program.
Encouraging These Parent Conversations
I encourage coaches on every team we work with to share something similar with their parents. It could be an email, a PowerPoint slide, or just a conversation in pre-season meetings.
It’s helpful to communicate exactly how and when parents should reach out to you. In most situations, it’s important to clarify the medium with which you want them to communicate (phone call, text, or email).
Once parents start reaching out to you and communicating with you, you will have to equip yourself with some strategies to have beneficial conversations. Here are some other articles that could be helpful:
- How to Work with Parents Complaining About Playing Time
- 3 Reasons Coaches Should Listen to Parent Concerns
- 5 Commitments Coaches Can Make to Work with Parents
Here’s a fact I know is true for all teams, from youth to professional: Parents and family are a part of our culture—whether we want them to be or not! So, everyone is better served by working together.