I am one of those people who believes that the coach is the coach, and what he or she says, goes.
There is no role for parents to intervene. No parent should be complaining about the amount of time their child is or isn’t playing, or what position they play on the team, what place they have in the lineup order, or if they were selected for the All-Star team or not. The vast majority of coaches are volunteers who are sacrificing sometimes enormous amounts of time to provide an enjoyable and rewarding athletic experience for your son or daughter. No parent should be second-guessing the coach.
I say this as the parent of two sons, each of whom played a variety of competitive sports up through high school, and I say this as someone who himself has, at times, been a coach or assistant coach.
There are exceptions, however. Primarily, when a parent believes a coach is doing something legally or morally wrong. That’s when you step in.
Here is an example:
My older son is 30 now, but when he was in grade school he started playing soccer in a town league. I knew nothing about soccer. I didn’t even know how many players are supposed to be on the field.
One year, when he was probably only age nine or ten, he had a coach who seemed to know a lot about the game and was clearly very much into it. I’d bring my son to practice and then sit in the stands reading the paper, until one day this man yelled over to me, “Can you give us a hand?” I nodded yes, put down the paper and walked onto the field. He handed me a team hat. I realized I had just inadvertently become an assistant coach.
The rest of that season I roamed the sidelines with this man and a few other assistants, pretending that I actually knew something. The games went fine, but there were definitely moments when I thought this man was taking things too seriously. I never said anything, but things boiled over in the second-to-last game of the season when we had a teenage referee officiating our game.
Our coach berated him from the sidelines throughout the game, and near the end actually ran out onto the field to scream at him for what he thought was a missed call. I may not have known much about soccer, but I knew this was way out of bounds. I believed that this man was clearly taking advantage of the referee’s youth and inexperience to try and intimidate him. He was, in short, being a bully.
The game ended, we lost, and at first I wasn’t sure what to do. I decided to go up to him, away from our players, and said in a quiet voice, “If you behave that way again, I am pulling my son from this team.”
He grumbled some kind of dismissive response, we both walked away, and that was that. Or so I thought. A few minutes later he approached me in the parking lot and, with my son and other boys present, started “chest bumping” me, challenging me. I just put my hands in the air and walked away.
I saw him the following week for our last game, and we avoided each other. A year later I found out he was permanently banned from the league for some other egregious act, which offered me some sense of satisfaction and validation.
I had broken my cardinal rule of letting a coach coach and not second-guessing him or her, but given similar circumstances, I’d do it again, and I encourage other parents to do the same. Coaches can sometimes take things too far, and if they drift into belittling or bullying players, opponents, referees, whomever, then I do believe a parent has not only the right but the obligation to step in and say something. It may mean directly confronting the person, as I did. It may mean contacting the league commissioner, if there is one, alerting this person that a coach’s behavior is out of control. It may mean both.
Taking action like this will help to maintain the integrity of the game. If coaches are allowed to get away with such behavior, it usually continues on an increasingly negative trajectory, with the risk that it will spread to others as the norm. Just as important, intervening maintains your integrity, particularly in the eyes of your child. 20 years has passed since that incident, and I know my, now-adult, son remembers it.
He saw me stand up for what was right. There were many other parents there that day. None of them intervened. I believe I modeled for him something important that day – bullies are to be confronted.
Even when the bully is a coach.