The Conundrum

This is dedicated to Gilligan, who I met at the bar in the Denver Airport this week:

I assume most of my sports parents don’t expect me to make their kids into pro athletes or college scholarship winners. The fact is, according to the NCAA, Boys soccer is the sport with the second lowest percentage of high school players receiving Division I scholarships offers in a given year. The number is less than half a percent of high school participants. The high sports, like football, the percentage is closer to 1.5%.

So why then?

Certainly it must be the “team sport experience”, creating an environment where the athletes learn what it takes to succeed in a group. Research has shown that a key predictor in workplace success is the ability to work in groups, more important than intelligence even. These lessons include:

  • attendance and punctuality
  • preparing for the task. Warming up
  • reliability
  • subjugating individual desire for the benefit of the team
  • finding and accepting a role, maybe not the one desired
  • taking one for the team: accepting a painful consequence, deserved or not, for the benefit of the whole

All in all, in pursuit of the pleasant  (good play, victory), we subject ourselves to a lot of the unpleasant (fitness, repetition, pain, fatigue, denial of individual goals).

Here’s the Conundrum: I think my sport parents want this for their sons so they can be “successful” in life. Meaning among other things, affluent. Like most of my parents are. The beauty of being affluent is that money can allow you to do what you want. You can take trips, own nicer things, and pay your way out of drudgery like housework.

This also can mean that they try to buy their way out of the unpleasantness associated with the practices and exercises I ask their sons to go through. For example, I ask all my players to get to the games one hour before kickoff. That’s a long time for a parent to sit around: an hour warmup, and a 70 minute game, plus half time and post-game, you’re looking at 2 ½ hours. When a player comes late, I wonder if there was a family emergency, or maybe mom just didn’t want to show up so far in advance.

Similarly it goes with practices; if we have Friday sessions before a three-day weekend, do I lose kids because the parents want to go to Tahoe? Isn’t it part of training for sport that you understand that you are going to miss some fun things because you are dedicated to making yourself better in this discipline? If I don’t start your son the next game, are you going to complain to me? Teams at the highest level of competition – travel teams – play the best eleven players all the time. If you want “P.T.” the answer is simple, just like the fabled answer to “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” – practice. If you want to start, be among the best eleven. Show up all the time and work your ass off. If you want to play center mid, easy – just be the best center mid on your team. But coaches constantly get notes and phone calls from “concerned” parents who “don’t want to push, we respect your authority, but Timmy is really unhappy about not playing more, and we just want to understand why he isn’t playing?”

Coaches, do you have other examples of puzzling behavior from your sport parents, things that seem to go against the messages we are trying to send to our players? If we are in part a teacher and facilitator of life lessons, what do we do with parental intervention that short-circuits the lesson?

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One Response to The Conundrum

  1. Alex says:


    Excellent commentary and I agree with 98% of what you’ve written.

    My comments: For a family with more than 1 child, sometimes schedules conflict. Perhaps 30 minutes prior to gametime (with punctuality strictly enforced) would be a reasonable compromise (?). At the start of every season, do you have a discussion with parents only–and address coaching concerns up front along with commitment level? I assume that this is club level (competitive), so perhaps refer parents to AYSO–whereby the goal is that “every child participates/plays”. CYSA has always been the more competitive level. Set expectations up front, before the season starts–I would hope that this would reduce the amount of “complaining” from sports parents. If they really want to help, they can offer to be Assistant Coaches, provided that they can provide the skills demonstrations at a level commensurate with the age group at which you coach. Continue your emphasis on great soccer fundamentals and team development, but remind parents that sports should enforce life lessons (such as those you’ve mentioned, above). Be great, Coach Jim! Cheers!

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