Why A Coach Is A CEO Who Should Treat Parents As Shareholders


I got an email from a club volleyball coach who in the course of conversation mentioned that his team, which costs about $2,000 per player (before travel expenses), had instituted a ban on parents watching practices, except for the first practice per month. Some parents, he noted, were “irrrrrraaaaaateeeee” about this policy, which I take to mean they are a bit miffed.

I started thinking about why these parents would be so upset. Perhaps some simply enjoyed watching their kids practice. Maybe a few worried about something untoward happening away from their watchful eyes. But maybe it’s because I had just finished watching the nutty sports parent documentary “Trophy Kids,” in which parents referred to their “investment” in their child and talked about getting a high school coach they didn’t like fired as “business,” and I realized why these parents were upset: because they were investors being denied a voice in their investment.

And then I started thinking, you don’t have to have spent $2,000 on a single season for a single team to think along these lines — I’ve seen that kind of investor thinking among parents in my days as a rec league-level coach in multiple sports. But it’s especially true if you have parents paying $2,000 a clip — or you’re a high school coach who has players on your team whose parents have done that, many, many times.

You can gripe about parents talking too much, you can demand that parents write the check and shut up, but if you’re a coach who thinks that you can discount that investor thinking, right or wrong as it may be, and survive and thrive, you’re taking a huge risk.

Look at Tom Maier, a high school basketball coach who appeared as parental roadkill in “Trophy Kids.” He had a long, successful career as a high school basketball coach. Then he ran into the buzzsaw of parents who had spent, as one said in the movie, “Two Lamborghinis” on their players’ development. If they didn’t like what he was doing, they didn’t have to lump it; they could, and did, consider transferring their players, er, sons to other schools. Or, they could go to the school administration and let them know what’s up. Maier, who said in the movie that he wasn’t old-school, he was “right school,” right-schooled his way out of job.

I won’t say that Maier would still have a job today if he followed what I’m about to lay out, but the chances are certainly better than huffing he was right, even if he probably was. So here is how a coach can operate as a CEO to make sure he or she can best negotiate his or her way through the youth-sports complex as it stands today:

  1. You are no longer a God-like figure accountable to no one, no matter if you’ve been that way in the past.
  2. The parents are your shareholders — they have fronted the money for the investment, and they expect the coach/CEO to protect and enhance that investment. Part of that process for a coach/CEO is to communicate clearly and regularly — the equivalent of quarterly reports or SEC filings — to let your parents/investors know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, your expectation of results, and they results that you are seeing. You’re not trying to make everyone happy; that’s impossible. But at least you’re keeping them informed, and by staying in contact you’re learning which parents/shareholders trust you — and which ones could become dissidents trying to rally other shareholders against you.
  3. As a coach/CEO, think of your school administration or club board as your board of directors. Even in rec league, you’ve got something like that. You also need to foment trust and show results to your board, which could then have your back if the shareholders get restless. The board is also going to give you direction. For example, if you’re a school coach, are you expected to attract transfers to your program? Are they OK with you just working with whomever shows up?
  4. What about the kids? I’d love to have an easy answer for that. In a way, they’re your employees, your talent, the ones executing your plan. But given they are relatives of your shareholders (and perhaps your board), the relationship gets a little more complicated.

This isn’t as easy to manage as locking the gym doors and coaching to your heart’s content. It’s not necessarily fair to a coach. But a coach at any youth level has to be aware of these relationships and manage them in order to minimize disruption from parents/shareholders and have a positive experience for all.

In the case of this emailer, he’s handling things pretty well. There is an actual parent board who approved the policy limiting parents in practice. It’s the parents who aren’t on the board who got upset, or those parents who like to coach from the stands. In that case, all you can do is manage your parents/shareholders, let them know what you’re trying to do, and hope they trust you. While you do have to manage your stakeholders as if you’re a CEO, a chief executive who doesn’t make the moves he or she thinks is best, and only makes moves in fear of what others think, is also a coach/CEO who won’t be around long.


Source: Bob Cook / Forbes

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