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Athletic Directors Offer Suggestions for Handling Problematic Parents

By Dr. David Hoch, CMAA on March 14, 2017 hst Print

Kyle Franey (left) and Dallas Linter (right)

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Dallas Lintner, CMAA, athletic director/assistant principal of Owosso (Michigan) High School, and Kyle Franey, CAA, athletic director of Somerville (New Jersey) Public Schools, regarding suggestions on dealing with problematic parents in high school athletics.

Question: Many schools have a developed a chain of command for parents to follow in order to discuss a concern or problem. For example, a parent should first talk with the coach. What do you do if a parent bypasses this procedure and goes directly to an upperlevel administrator?

Lintner: In cases where a parent bypasses the typical chain of communication, it often causes some undue frustration and slows the process of conflict-resolution. Fortunately, our administrative team and board of education are very good about referring parents back to the appropriate level. When concerned parents come directly to me, I always listen to their concerns. However, I let them know that they first have to address the situation with the appropriate coach before I get involved. This empowers our coaches and helps to build a cooperative relationship with parents instead of an adversarial one.

Franey: The vast majority of time, our parents do follow a chain of command and contact the coach first with any questions or concerns. Also, we have many well-rounded and confident kids who have positive relationships with their coaches. If a player has an issue, they usually would feel comfortable enough to speak with their coaches, and if they were not, that they would come and speak with me. In the rare instance that a parent jumps a chain of command, it typically revolves around varsity status or playing time. Parent concerns typically don’t go above my level, since they know that I have a strong understanding of our programs and are comfortable coming to speak with me. I tend to have an open-door policy and do everything possible to cultivate great relationships with many of our parents.

Question: Do you find that with Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets that some parents are more “creative” while being disruptive within your program? What strategies do you have to deal with this dilemma?

Lintner: Social media has not only made it easier for school bullies to attack their classmates, it has also made it easier for adults to attack each other. I have seldom found instances where social media has done any good at all in resolving conflicts. When issues arise through social media, it often causes people to become defensive, combative and less helpful. Therefore, we do not engage in social media for any purpose that does not advance the mission of our school district or athletic program.

There are occasional times where we may respond to a social media posting inviting those with concerns to address them appropriately, but this is very rare. As public figures in our community, I really feel it is important to rise above the impulse to respond when we are on the defensive side of concerns even when we may be receiving criticism. Protecting our credibility is important, especially when we are faced with criticism and scrutiny.

Franey: I grew up in the area and have significant contact with many of our parents, and the vast majority of interactions have been positive. Our superintendent of schools is very active on social media and has shown the benefits of a strong social media presence on academic as well as athletic programs. As a result, I encourage our coaches to use social media as a means to highlight not only athletic achievements, but also academic and community service-related events that our student-athletes are engaged in. A strong and positive social media presence eliminates the possibility of negativity creeping into the picture.

When there is a rare negative post by community members or parents, I have personally addressed the situation. Often, these posts are done during an emotional time and I encourage the person to always take a cool-down period before posting something that could be perceived as negative and never anything that singles out a particular player.

Question: One of the plans for dealing with problematic parents is to be proactive. What exact steps or approaches do you take to accomplish this goal in your setting to try and reach parents in order to prevent potential problems?

Lintner: In terms of being proactive, I feel that we have done a much better job in recent years about communicating policy and expectations through not only face-to-face interactions, but also electronic formats. For example, I receive far fewer phone calls about driving directions to other schools, snow day policies, requirements to earn varsity letters, etc. However, we ask our coaches to have frequent personal interactions with the families of our athletes. Our most successful coaches have often developed strong relationships with not only the athletes but with their families as well. It is important that coaches employ strategies that develop relationships with problematic parents rather than create barriers by avoiding them.

Franey: At Somerville High School, we have many opportunities/programs for parents to learn about our programs and expectations. These efforts include eighth-grade orientations, preseason meetings and additional events that allow for communication from coaches and administrators. Another means of being proactive to avoid any potential problems is being visible at as many games and practices as possible. Being present allows me to observe coaches and athletes during practices and games and to be aware of potential problems before they become major concerns. Many of our student-athletes spend their study hall period in the athletic office working with us on various initiatives. This helps to keep an open line of communication and I rely on them to be the pulse of our programs.

Question: What guidance do you give your coaches for dealing with misguided, disruptive parents?

Lintner: Wise coaches will take the time to listen. Many times, disruptive parents want to vent their frustrations or influence decision-making. I also encourage coaches to reassure disruptive parents that their emotions are normal when they advocate for their child. Empathy always helps and the message that we are always on the same side has to be delivered. Sometimes we can disagree on individual points of view, and that is OK.

When interactions become non-productive with misguided parents, or they become vulgar or personal, our coaches understand that they are encouraged to politely suspend any confrontation and refer the matter to me. There have been times where I have mediated conflicts with parents and coaches. When those discussions come to an impasse, I have had to end those sessions. It is rare that this occurs, but it has been necessary.

Franey: Most negative parent responses usually revolve around playing time. By providing philosophies on playing time and other potential issues during preseason parent meetings, coaches can open lines of communication. This tends to lessen the likelihood of having a parent react negatively to a situation that might arise during the season.

My role is to support our coaches and reaffirm that playing time is a coach’s decision. It is important to ensure that our parents know that any decisions made will be made with the best intentions of the team while keeping in mind the social and emotional impact on the individual. A parent doesn’t need to agree with a decision, but we need to make them feel as though we have a genuine concern for each member of our programs.

Question: Good effective communication is an important aspect for dealing with all parents within your program. What are some of the most successful avenues and methods that you have used to get your message across?

Lintner: Even though I am not a fan of social media, I do realize that it is an essential communication tool. Every day, I make attempts to reach our constituents through social media with positive messages. If you want to reach kids, use Twitter/Instagram/Shapchat, and if you want to reach the parents and greater community use Facebook.

There are software packages that allow us to post the same message on multiple formats. I also employ a text-messaging service that many of our coaches and teachers use to communicate with families. It is a one-way-only platform, meaning that text messages don’t bounce back and forth, and this is a simple way to push immediate communication out to the parents. For example, if we have a transportation issue that delays the arrival time of one of our buses back to the school after a game, I can effectively and immediately reach out to the parents to provide that information.

Franey: Social media in the form of Twitter and our athletic website www.thevilleathletics.com are the two major vehicles that we use to share information with our parents. All of our parents and coaches are encouraged to follow us so that they can be kept up to date with schedule changes and other updates for our programs. Our social media page has upwards of 300,000 impressions per month and our athletic webpage that hosts our registration pages and other important information sees 3,000 hard hits per month on average.

At our board of education meetings, we also provide updates through our athletics committee so that we can share the accomplishments of our student-athletes with the community. The meetings are broadcast on our local television channel. Also, our Somerville High School Athletic Hall of Fame, not only provides financial support for our programs and facilities, but also shares our accolades with their members.

Question: What creative and unique initiatives have you used to improve working relationships with the parents of your athletes?

Lintner: Our swim and dive, volleyball, tennis, and soccer teams have all held events with players against parents. For example, the softball team set up a wiffleball game in our gym and played against their parents. Afterwards, they had food, music and a great time. We schedule parents to work concession stands throughout the season with parents of freshmen basketball players, for example, working during a JV game. By pairing up families that may not necessarily know each other very well, they often forge friendships simply through selling popcorn and bottled water for a couple of hours.

Franey: Our principal promotes a collaborative and open relationship by hosting “Coffee with the Principal” each month. Athletics tends to be a frequent topic of conversation. These meetings tend to elicit positive information and is a great forum to ensure that our parents’ voices are heard. We do a typical open house-type program that is very well attended and an eighth-grade mixer that brings both of our middle schools together. In addition, several sports do their own sport-specific orientations especially for incoming freshmen and their parents.