Deran Coe and Darryl Nance both know playing time for high school athletes is a hot topic that coaches must try and navigate.
After meeting each other through the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA), they continue to collaborate despite being athletic directors in different, neighboring states. At the most recent National Athletic Directors Conference in December, Coe and Nance presented “So You Want to Discuss Playing Time?”
Often, policies that athletic directors convey to parents include: “We do not discuss positions or playing time,” “Student-athletes must meet with the coach first,” and/or “Student-athletes must be present when a coach and parent meet.”
Coe, director of athletics for the Wake County (North Carolina) Public School System and Nance, district-wide director of athletics for Greenville County (South Carolina) Schools and past president of the NIAAA (2010), said it might be time to revisit how playing time conversations are handled.
Nance, responsible for more than 11,000 athletes at the 44th largest school district in the nation, knows the difficulties that both coaches and athletic directors can face after a 27-year coaching career, which included 19 years as an athletic administrator.
As a varsity basketball coach, he leaned on questionnaires or surveys that his players filled out at the beginning of each season. Survey questions included asking players to rank themselves numerically on the team and listing strengths and weaknesses. Nance said the survey has proven critical in discussions with parents about their child.
“Why would I say to a parent that I’m not going to talk about things?” Nance said. “I want to know what the child’s hopes and dreams are. I want to help in their growth.”
Another common practice is the 24-hour rule. Coe, in his current position for seven years, said the rule can be critical in eventually having a positive conversation with a concerned parent.
“We don’t take on a confrontation that’s going to be contentious within 24 hours,” Coe said. “It’s better to distance the occurrence and have level heads. Emotions can be swept away from these situations. Cooler heads can prevail and conversation can happen that is not emotional. After all, it’s about their child.”
Coe said there can be exceptions to the 24-hour rule stating that injuries or some other type of emergency take precedence. When a meeting with a parent does happen, Coe offered crucial advice in handling the situation.
“Ultimately, if the parent comes at you with venom,” Coe said. “Don’t be defensive. Don’t be confrontational since cooler heads always prevail. It’s important to take notes and answer the concern, not the emotion.”
Admittedly, Coe said it’s impossible to please everyone, but he said it’s important to find some sort of common ground.
“It’s about basic customer service,” Coe said. “Reframe what they’re saying back to them and answer their question the best you can. Don’t take things personally. At the end of the day, disagreements about topics or problems will fade.
“Parents will remember if you handle the situation with integrity or respect. They’ll remember you treated them professionally and represented your school or district in a positive manner leaving them thinking ‘He or she handled it well.’”
Even in a championship basketball season, Nance had to deal with concerns of an upset parent. In a blowout, Nance had one of his weaker players in the game to get time on the court. After driving to the basket, the player got hurt.
Despite the 24-hour rule Nance had implemented, the parents wanted an immediate discussion about playing time and even the quality of playing time.
“We want to talk about it right now,” the parents insisted.
“That night, we were able to go to the survey results and talk about it,” Nance said.
He told the parents to look at what their son wrote. The player’s response indicated three-point shooting as a strength and the coaching staff agreed.
“He’s a shooter and continues to drive,” Nance told the parents. “He ranked himself a six and everyone else ranked him 11. His teammates have lost trust in him.”
The reaction? “Oh, we didn’t know.”
Part of the conversation can be geared toward coaches as well. The term “family” is often described when trying to build a positive team culture, but Coe and Nance suggest it is important to include parents in that family.
“We’re in a relationship business with our parents and student- athletes,” Coe said. “It’s important to include parents in team activities because together we are teaching kids how to handle issues through interscholastic athletics. We’re working to create better citizens by teaching our kids respect by working through difficult situations and how to respond to those situations.
“Then, when it comes time to resolve issues with parents, it’s much easier to have those conversations when a relationship is built. Trust goes both ways.”
“Why turn an advocate into an adversary?” Nance said. “An ally into a critic? That parent is giving me their greatest asset. It doesn’t matter how much money they have.”
In building those relationships, Nance had a unique solution. Every year, he would hold a “parent practice.” At that practice, he would have parents participate in practice alongside their kids. Nance would explain some of the plays the team had built in and describe the strategies and philosophies of each play. The goal of the practice was to explain the purpose of the thought-process behind his decision making.
Nance would also put parents in crucial mock game situations to let them feel the pressure their child feels. In a pivotal situation during practice, Nance would yell out “Johnny, you have blood on your jersey. Dad, we’re down a point with 12 seconds to go, you’re going to shoot the free throw instead” or “Mom, we’re up by two with six seconds left, we need you to inbound the ball.”
Sometimes, the parent would succeed; other times the parent would fail.
“How’d you like that?” Nance would ask the parent. “That was intense.”
He even invited parents to sit behind the bench and encouraged them to support their child. He wanted parents to hear what he was saying and was emphasizing the importance of players seeing their parents in attendance.
“If a player doesn’t get the ball inbounds or turns the ball over, I’ll handle that,” Nance said was his message. “I’m not going to use inappropriate language, but the volume of voice will be high. We’re trying to communicate coaching elements or adjustments very quickly.”
Since then, in his role as athletic director, he has encouraged other coaches in his district to have players fill out questionnaires, as well as hold a parent practice.
“A number of coaches have asked to see the survey,” Nance said. “One of my boys basketball assistants was having problems with parents as a head coach for a girls volleyball team. I asked him if he had his parent practice. He said ‘no.’”
Nance gave a few suggestions in how to run that parent practice, despite it being for a different sport.
“Have them serve the ball. Have them return the serve. Have them set a ball, or even referee,” Nance suggested to his assistant. “My assistant went from boys basketball to girls volleyball and was able to use some of the same things we used on the basketball side.”
“Parents are going to try to talk about playing time any way they can,” Coe said. “They just mask it into a different conversation but why should we not give them the answers? If they don’t know the ‘why’ behind it.”
Coe said he will meet with parents, but also include the student- athlete in most conversations.
“Sometimes, student-athletes know their playing time better than their parents in terms of the ‘why’ aspect,” Coe said. “We’re past the point of not talking about playing time. We need to talk about the ‘why.’ The difficult right is always better than the easy wrong.”
Luke Modrovsky was a 2019 summer intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department. He is a senior sports management and communication studies student at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.