Tarik Bayrakli: Smart plays, Club Respect’s new podcast, is where we bring the biggest problems facing Australian sport out of the darkness and shine a light on the hot topics that nobody wants to talk about. We’re on a journey to bring sport into the modern world of respect and to rebuild the respect for each other that we need to have if sport is going to thrive.
I’m Tarik Bayrakli and on this episode, we’re chatting to Julia Walsh about the challenges for parents and coaches that often leads to sideline abuse and how clubs can invest in the coach and parent experience. Julia is an expert on the behavioural interaction of one of the most crucial elements of sport: the relationship between coaches and parents.
Parents and guardians play a crucial volunteer role in making sure grassroot sport takes place. Being the transporter, supporter, spectator, counselor, officiator and educator.
Coaches are the custodians of club values, influences on the cold face and the behavioral role models for players for better or worse.
Strong and clear communication between these critical players in the sport ecosystem is too valuable to ignore and with an increase in the entertainment options available to modern kids, participating in community sport cannot be taken for granted.
A leading academic in sports culture and high-performance environments, Julia is passionate about creating inclusive spaces for young people to thrive in sport. She’s a Senior Lecturer at Latrobe University and a Director of the 2021/22 Women’s National Basketball League champions the Melbourne Boomers.
Julia, welcome to Smart Plays.
Julia Walsh: Thanks Tarik I’m really excited to be able to talk on this topic today.
Tarik: You wrote an article for the Club Respect newsletter, titled: ‘Parents, can’t live with them, can’t live without them!’. That’s one of our most clicked articles ever. What is it about this topic that resonated with you?
Julia: Look for me, we don’t know enough about the why, why does this behavior take place and why do we see it in youth sport?
And I wanted to understand what it was like from the parents’ perspective, and then what are the triggers that actually influence their behaviors. Cause until we actually have a really deeper understanding of this process, the interventions that we put in place are a bit hit and miss. So hence delving into this area and trying to understand it a little bit better.
Tarik: So let’s start with the coaches. What is the greatest fear of any junior sports coach?
Julia: When we think about the greatest fear, we often talk about public speaking, being the main fear, but when it comes to junior coaches, believe me, it is working with parents and we don’t actually prepare them for that.
And if we think about that coach’s journey, Like from the very start as a coach, you are being observed. You’re being observed by the players. You’re being observed by the parents. You are learning along the way and the people that are watching they’ve got opinions as well. So we put coaches in this very sort of vulnerable space when they’re learners themselves.
I often look at this and think, imagine if we did this in education, imagine if we did this with teachers and students and filled the classroom up with parents in there, but we do that to coaches and how can we actually help our coaches to do a better job or to be able to survive better in this environment and create a healthy outcome for everybody.
Tarik: So it’s an issue that we’d like to have under control, but we don’t. So why is aggressive parental behavior on the rise?
Julia: Tarik. I am not sure if it’s actually on the rise for a start. We know with the type of media that’s available today, that we see more and we hear more and it comes at a greater speed.
And we know that with media too, they like to amplify sensational, bad behavior, more than good behavior. We also know that sport has actually moved beyond local sport where you could just drop your child off and pick them up after training. People and parents will travel now, they will travel long distances to get the outcome that they’re looking for.
So we’ve got more parents at games. We also know that there is a perception out there from parents, themselves, that if they don’t attend games, they’re a bad parent. So they’re worried about these perceptions at the same time. So I think it’s, we are much more aware of these behaviors now rather than an increase in numbers, I couldn’t give you the numbers, but I think we are much more aware of these behaviors and the type of things that they’re impacting such as officiating.
Tarik: Parents often get a bad rap, but they’re also the hidden force of grassroots sport. Why are they so important?
Julia: If we look at grassroots sport, sport would not be available if we didn’t have a volunteer workforce and that volunteer workforce in most cases is parents. They’re your coaches, they’re your officials. They’re your scorers. They’re your team managers. They’re your board members. So if we wanna make sure that sport is egalitarian and anyone can participate having that volunteer workforce is essential and we need to harness that energy. And the other thing is I think parents make the decisions as to whether or not their child stays. They are the broker on behalf of the child. They are making the decision on how that child will spend their free time. And in doing that, they’ll gather all of that information and they’ll also be making sacrifices themselves. So if numbers and having a sustainable club is important, you need to make sure you engage with your parents because they can leave as well.
Tarik: So you have parents with a certain set of values or ideas of what they want their kids to do in sport, but how is that different or how does that compare to what their kids actually want?
Julia: When we have a look at what parents are looking for and what children are looking for are two different products, and we need to be able to serve both. So parents are looking for socialization for their children. They’re looking at some healthy outcomes for their child. They’re also concerned about character building. So these are really important for parents when they’re selecting sports for the child, they want to build their confidence. They want to be with their friends. They want challenge and they want to have fun. And often the child is much more positive about the experience. So I think for a sports club, if you’re engaging parents, you need to think about how you engage that whole family because they’ll be different outcomes for them. And they’ll ask different questions of the club.
Tarik: What insights have you learned from the research on the parent experience in sport?
Julia: For a start, we need more research and we need more research, particularly from an Australian context, but 3 themes surface all the time. And these themes are when we talk to parents, one is ‘unjust uncaring and incompetent’.
When parents talk about unjust, they’re really talking about those behaviors of fairness, honesty, impartiality, and for them, the people that they would think impacts them the most are the coaches and the referees.
Uncaring was huge. And for them uncaring, they’re looking at the behaviors of the coaches. They’re also looking at the behaviors of the athletes and their biggest impact is actually the behaviors of other parents. Things such as unsportsmanlike behavior yelling at players, yelling at referees really demonstrate to parents that that’s an uncaring environment.
The other one is incompetence. And of course, they’ll always land incompetence at the referees and the coaches. So for parents, it’s not just one thing. There can be several things that impact their experience as coaches watching games.
Tarik: And that’s such an interesting point. I always feel as though there’s an element of perception in that the parent or supporter might feel or perceive a situation as being uncaring or unjust or incompetent, but it just actually may not be in reality.
Julia: And you’re right. However, in their reality perception is truth. But by understanding some of that, I think as well as researchers, as clubs, we can go back and think, where can we change something? So if they actually, for example, if they think the referee is incompetent, because they’re not calling fouls, do they know enough about their sport, for example, basketball, which is a contact sport, but it’s not a collision sport, so there will be some contact.
So where can we help them with changing some perceptions and understanding the game a little bit more? I think the interesting point for me here too, is the uncaring bit when it comes to other parents, because when other parents are uncaring, a parent screaming at their child on the court may not have an impact on their child, but it may have an impact on three or four other children because they’ll have an anxiety response to that.
So, How do we educate parents that, you know, you might think that’s okay for your child, but this is the impact it’s having on the rest of the team.
Tarik: And often it’s really just a minority spoiling it for the majority. What are some examples of how sports deal with this troublesome minority?
Julia: Typically sports will do either, they’ll put in restrictive practice. Now restriction might be, if we have a look at trainings, they might say, parents are not to attend training. So they restrict the parents’ attendance or they might do something like, people do novel things like silent Sunday. So anyone that comes to this game, no noise.
Or they’ll be punitive measures. Typically you fine or time you’re doing one of those or this contract where you’re actually expected and most clubs would do this, a code of conduct, you’ve got to read it and you’ve got to sign it, and you’ve gotta agree with that. And then there’s also education. So how do we make sure we’ve educated our parents before a season starts and some clubs would do a combination of those.
Tarik: Could you explain ‘fine and time’?
Julia: Right. So if we’re looking at punitive, we’re looking at punishment. So with a fine, or some clubs might fine parents for particular behaviors. Typically it would be more time. So if a complaint would go in, a person is behaving poorly they might be told that you can’t come back for another four weeks.
Tarik: That’s sending you a pretty clear message to clubs.
Tarik: A big cause of stress and tension for parents is around team selection, who will always be naturally biased towards their children. Have you seen examples where you’ve seen that this process can be more transparent and less stressful?
Julia: For a start, what I’m gonna say about tryouts is this might be the first visit someone has to a club and it is part of your reputational brand. You need to get it right. You need to invest in this process. With talent selection, I think there are a couple of things that we need to always be conscious of for a start talent identification, particularly at the club level is such an inexact science because really we often are selecting youth for that moment in time.
Rarely are we able to determine what their potential is further down the track. As a club, you also need to know who you are. Are you a club that invests in development and you can sell that, or are you a club that is probably better at recruiting talent? but know who you are and be able to explain who you are and how you function.
When it comes to actual team selection, this is a whole of club buy-in. If we go back to parents being concerned with impartiality, you hear the rumors all the time, such as teams already picked. As a club, you need to say tryouts: tryouts will occur on these dates. There will be no deals done before that. Whether it’s for our players or other players coming in tryouts are over this period of time. And you have to make sure your coaches aren’t doing any deals or anyone else in the club isn’t doing any deals. You have to get buy-in.
Communicate to the parents and to the players before tryouts, that this is what we are looking for. And make sure you build in some of that area of effort and being able to take feedback, not just a particular skill or a particular profile. Have some evidence or have some forms of what is it you’re looking for and be able to provide some evidence that you have looked at the players. For those players who make it all, particularly those who don’t make it, provide some feedback so that they’ve got somewhere to go on with their journey.
And here’s my learning sometimes with selection, the child is happy, but the parent is not. Often teams become cells in themselves and when you start shifting parents into a new cell, they can be very uncomfortable with that. So if it’s not making good, common sense, just have a look and see where the parents landed as well with their social groups.
Tarik: Is that specific to elite-level tryouts?
Tarik: So just any type of talent?
Julia: Yep. When you’re talking about team selection, invest in the process. Right. Invest in the process. So it’s transparent. It’s consistent. Everyone that walks in is very clear about what you are looking for, it is a project that you run every year and you just wanna get better at it. And you want people to believe what you’re saying. All right. There have been no deals done. There is no impartiality.
And here’s my other tip, if you’ve got a parent that is involved, make sure that when it comes to selection of their child, in that team or age group that they’re not part of that decision making and parent coaches will get used to that. So you’re out of that one, but we’ll make the decision.
Tarik: We’ve also seen parent frustration and the way it can boil over into anger, what are the triggers that lead to an angry response?
Julia: Well, for a start, I think when we start to talk about anger, we’re talking about a response where you probably don’t have words to explain. We’ve all seen angry people there’ll be a physiological response as well. We’ll be able to see changes in muscle tension and facial behavior as well. But I think it still comes down to the same type of things, something that they believe is unjust, uncaring or incompetent.
What we need to really concern ourselves with though is that anger is a type of emotion as and emotion is a hard wash-out off the brain. So if we’re starting to continually see people get angry and have an emotion attached to it, it can become habit-building. So how can we help people in the self-management of that behavior?
Tarik: Yeah. And how do you address that?
Julia: I think there are some open sessions you can organize. We do work with athletes all the time on mental performance and strategies, so that in the heat of the moment when things go wrong, how do they manage it? And educating them also on what’s happening in the brain, because what happens in the brain: We have three brains: Lizard, which is flight-or-fight, then we have the Limbrick system, which is emotion, and then we have the prefrontal, which is where good decisions are made. But it takes time to get to the prefrontal, so there are some strategies that we can use and teach people, like taking a breath, and counting to three so that the decision-making process has time to filter through those brains to make some better decisions.
I use a simple strategy with my players and I talk about the brain where they use the thumb as your flight and fight. Then you’ve got your emotional brain, then I get to my prefrontal. Even that amount of time would probably be enough time-wise to get a change in thinking. But there are also strategies of being able to park things and come back to them and visualization.
So I would suggest that we look at some sessions that are quite open if parents wanna join in that and learn some of those skills. That’d be fantastic too.
Tarik: Yeah. That’s great. Club leaders and coaches would always prefer to avoid confrontation and tension. How would you approach those types of conversations that happen in the heat of the moment?
Julia: I have yet to see a coaching certification that spends a block of time helping coaches have a difficult conversation. When we know that this is so important for coaches is to even why they stay in the sport. So teaching coaches about having that conversation, role-playing it, understanding what’s at stake for everyone that’s in that position is I think something we should be investing in.
The other thing is the timing of those conversations. Know when emotion is involved. So once again, as club-type policies, after an event, the coach and parent do not talk. If the parent wants an appointment with the coach, they do it through the team manager. They never meet within 24 hours because in that period of time, one, the parent may have spoken to the child and gotten a whole other picture of what was happening. Two, the emotion leaves the actual event. So people are able to think through it a little bit more and often it’s not even a discussion, so you’re not ignoring it. You’re just trying to take some of the heat out of it. And then sit down with that person to have that conversation. And at times I think you need to protect yourself as well.
And that might mean having another person there. Particularly, if you’re working with someone that is angry, just have another person there as an advocate and they can bring an advocate if they want to as well.
Tarik: Yeah. Great, great advice. I’ve converted your list to eight key tips to improve the parent and coach connection. I like you to give us a short summary on each tip.
Julia: Have pre-season meetings. At the club level, what are the expectations of the club? Also, have team meetings with the coach and the team manager at the team level. Now, if you’ve got a young coach too, I would suggest you make sure you have a really strong team manager that can manage that for them, always call them the border guard team manager to help with that conversation, go through the code of conduct as well, and make sure they read it.
Tarik: And beyond that, to make sure that the entire club knows about it and adopts it.
Julia: Mm-hmm correct.
Julia: Sport education. I think we need to help parents with pathways. Explaining pathways and also explaining things such as development rate and how long it takes to actually develop skills.
It’s actually a much slower process than you think, and the importance of fun within training sessions. As we discussed previously, some of the rules, contact versus collision. What are your roles as a parent? What’s my role as a coach? So just educating them on being a great parent in that role.
Julia: You need to think about what your communication lines are in the club for a start. So if you need to talk to the organizer, who’s the convener of the group. So we need to make sure that they understand this problem, they go to this person for this, they go to this. So make it very clear as to how the club works and how the club communicates.
And once again, when and where as we discussed. What’s the, how do we time it? How do we make sure that emotion’s taken out of it so that we can have a proper conversation?
Julia: Yes. Go big or go home on this. You need to have this so that anytime anyone walks into your club, they can see what the values are. We need to remind people that they’re visitors they’re whether they’re a parent, or anyone else, they’re actually a visitor on their child’s life. And we need to have good visitors or good guests coming into our club.
Tarik: Did you say on their kids’ life?
Tarik: Definitely wouldn’t feel like that for a parent like me with a three-year-old and a six monther I’m surely not a visitor.
Julia: Yeah. But once they’re, once they’re in under eight playing soccer and you’re on the sideline. You are a visitor, you’re a guest!
Julia: Every club, I would imagine with their constitution as well, will have a code of conduct. Now, my suggestion with your code of conduct is to make sure you create it in some way where they can’t go to the back page and sign, there’s enough technology out there now to make sure that they’ve gotta go through page one, page two, page three, and then sign off on it or else they’ll just go that to the quickest way to agree that they’re gonna do everything.
Tarik: Like the way, we might do it on our mobile phone app terms of agreements!
Julia: Oh, that’s right, terms and agreements. Exactly the same!
Tarik: I found an interesting bit of advice clubs have really taken on is to create a code of conduct consulting with, and actually developing it, with some of the younger players. So the players will use their phones and they’ll put on their social platforms. But the real trick is to get the kids, to interview each other, interview their parents, and just to get that conversation going amongst them. And the kicker is really how they can get the details of the code of conduct out and how that messaging might get to their parents as well.
Julia: And that’s actually something I’ve been thinking about experimenting with next season, is that getting them all quite anonymously to think about one thing that they would want their parent or maybe other parents to do and getting a whole list and then getting them to look through and say, okay, so gimme your top five, and we’re gonna present these to your parents. This is what we would like you to do when we are playing.
Julia: We need to spend time in developing this, that, that gets back to making sure that we inform parents of what’s happening. So being able to punctuate the season with times for communication. Also, I think things to think about, even with your game plan, depending on where you are on the talent pathway, you’re not gonna do that with under eights. But if you’re on a talent pathway, if you are putting a game plan up there, you might leave that game plan open so that the parents are reading it and seeing it and starting to use the same language that you are using as a coach. So there’s, there’s not a surprise there. They’re actually seeing what you are doing and trying to create along that journey with your players.
Julia: I think from the other side of it too, with coaches, we need to be prepared to get some feedback about players as well. Parents actually know their kids pretty well and sometimes you need to be listening rather than just hearing about what they’re saying about their child. It can inform you, but I think feedback from the other side too, is making sure that people understand what feedback is about and that feedback is part of a growth mindset. So when we’re actually giving feedback to athletes, athletes, and parents also need to understand that this is the intention of the feedback. So when we’re engaging in that type of feedback, it is with the intention that things improve from that process. We gotta think about how we structure it too because it has to be with that intent as well.
Julia: Look for opportunities to get out there as a group and celebrate success. Like if you’ve got a long road trip, maybe, you hire a bus to bring everyone together for that. So after a tournament, during a tournament, make sure you’re finding a couple of opportunities there to go out for a meal. If you do something really well, just start someone’s birthday, how can we celebrate that? And once again, how can we bring everybody into that mix for doing that? Because parents are there for an experience as well.
Tarik: Fantastic. Thanks for sharing those insights.
Tarik: What are the specific challenges for parents in high-performance and elite-level sport?
Julia: So when a parent comes into a high-performance pathway, Coaches and clubs need to help them understand what that pathway looks like. What is the commitment that is required in that pathway? and understand too, that there is a lot of sacrifice in that pathway. There’ll be a sacrifice for the athlete, but there’ll also be sacrifices for the parents that once you go into that pathway, it’s not cheap as well. And parents need some guidance because they’ll watch other people in the same pathway who are going and doing a running program or this, that, and the other. And they have, you know, fear of missing out. So how do we guide them so that their load for their child is appropriate and they don’t get to burnout and financial burnout. And within that process as well we need to help them understand what their role is, how we support a child in that pathway, and understand the other sacrifices often when you have a child in a high-performance pathway, it impedes family life, and it can be at the expense of other siblings as well.
So it’s the sacrifices in so many ways of going down this pathway without any guaranteed success. It’s the 1% of the 1% that end up at the very cutting edge of that talent pathway. But we want people to participate in sport at the level that they should be participating and we want them to be able to participate there for long periods of time. And we need to help parents understand how they can help and support in that pathway.
Tarik: All right. Last question, Julia, your at an association meeting and you’re addressing a group of club presidents about poor sideline behavior from parents. What messages would you give to them on the importance of investing in parent behavior?
Julia: Parents will make decisions whether their child invests and stays in the club. So when it comes to bad behavior, my first advice for the presidents would be to hold up the mirror, hold up the mirror to themselves and the club and think about what they’ve got in place. Have they got their processes and their policies in place and are they visible? What are the expectations and have they been communicated as the first step? And then I think depending on the club, depending on the resources, it’s what can they put in place? And what do they wanna put in place? Is it going to be something to prevent or is it going be something that’s more punitive in that if this behavior happens, this is what we’re gonna do with it, but it’s very clear, the policy’s there. It’s all connected to the code of conduct. So the communication is out there. But whatever it is that that does need to be a whole of club approach.
I would also say to the presidents, that it needs to be a portfolio on the board. Now that might be that somebody is in charge of culture and within culture comes behavior, but once it becomes a portfolio on the board, then that person who’s in charge of that can also watch the thermometer of the club, they’re watching the club and they can see when there might be times in a season where we see an increase in poor parental behavior. So whether that’s at selection time or it’s during finals or it’s, they’ve everyone’s come back from COVID and they’ve forgotten everything they’ve learned in the last two years. So, we have these types of behaviors. Give it the importance it deserves. If you really believe that that’s something that you have to work on in your club, then make it a portfolio.
Have someone within that too, that is responsible for grievances and complaints. So that when you’re dealing with bad behavior, you wanna be able to deal with it pretty quickly. So you wanna be able to, within a week have resolved it. You don’t want anything that takes six months in time. So think about what that would look like within your club and make sure there is consistency in response. So when you put one person in charge of that, you’re gonna get a consistency in the type of punitive outcomes that come with that as well.
And I think the other interesting area though is architecture. Think about your clubs, when I go into some of these new stadiums now they’ve got great areas for people to mull around in as families, as teams, as clubs, rather than going straight into and trying to squash up onto a court and already being primed with what’s happening in the previous game. So what is the social architecture?
I know of some clubs that have also put cameras around the place and that it’s reduced poor parental behavior. Because now it’s filmed. You can access the time and place and actually get a film. And remember once again that your coaches are at the coal face of all of this, actually they’re the product you sell is the quality of your coaching and help your coaches with diffusing situations and having difficult conversations.
Tarik: Really good tips, Julia, thank you for joining us on Smart Plays and for sharing valuable insights for clubs, coaches, and parents
Julia: Been a pleasure.
Tarik: You’ve been listening to Smart Plays, proudly brought to you by Club Respect, Victorian Women’s Trust and its harm prevention entity the Dugdale Trust for Women and Girls.
We would like to thank all of our supporters and donors with special thanks to the Wood Foundation and Spicers Australia. Executive Producer is Mary Crooks. Creative producer is Patrick Skene and thanks to the team at the Victorian Women’s Trust. Smart Plays was edited and mixed by Pariya Taherzadeh. I’m your Executive Producer, Host and Club Respect manager Tarik Bayrakli
This podcast was produced in Melbourne and we respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
For more information about this podcast, including show notes and resources, visit clubrespect.org.au and follow us on social media @ClubRespectTeam.You can also find out more about the Victorian Women’s Trust via their website vwt.org.au or follow them on social media: @VicWomensTrust.
Thank you for listening.