Prep Sports

Controlling mirrored responses important for parents, coaches

Kennedy head coach Tony Vis talks with his team during timeout during the Cougar’s Class 5A regional playoff game against CR Washington on Saturday evening, February 17, 2018 at Cedar Rapids Washington high school. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
Kennedy head coach Tony Vis talks with his team during timeout during the Cougar’s Class 5A regional playoff game against CR Washington on Saturday evening, February 17, 2018 at Cedar Rapids Washington high school. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)

Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications.

According to a recent article posted in “TrueSport,” athletes aren’t the main culprit when battling sportsmanship issues.

“New data suggests the kids might understand sportsmanship better than the adults,” the report noted. “According to a 2017 survey of more than 17,000 referees, parents and coaches cause the majority of problems with sportsmanship ... only about 10 percent of respondents cited players, but nearly 40 percent cited parents and nearly 30 percent cited coaches.”

Coaches resigning from their positions because of conflict with parents is nothing new. I became aware of two more just within the last month — Tony Vis, girls’ basketball coach at Cedar Rapids Kennedy and Scott Stanfield, boys’ basketball coach at Brainerd, Minn., High School.

It does not just happen in the sport of basketball.

Vis told The Gazette the last straw came when “one of the parents got nose-to-nose with me” following a loss. “... it’s not something I’m going to deal with.”

He resigned after a six-year stint with an 82-57 record, and a 341-170 career mark.

Stanfield made his resignation public following increasing hostilities from parents. In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Brainerd activities director Charlie Campbell said he hopes to revisit how to help coaches stay in a profession, which is ripe with parental expectations that can become confrontational.

The article noted parents who confronted Stanfield were “volatile and threatening in their demeanor, posture and tone. Stanfield’s staff said he was cursed and threatened and received anonymous letters.”

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Stanfield built a 99-66 career record in his first six seasons. He’s a retired police officer and said he considers these parents “good people who lost the meaning of what the high school experience should be.” He thinks parents should be required to take a course in behavior and expectations before they’re able to register their kids for high school athletics.

Believe it or not, there is a real science behind “crazy parents” and over-the-top coaches. It’s called mirror processing. According to an article posted in “Changing The Game,” Italian researchers became aware of a class of neurons in the brain that “fire not only when an individual performs an action, but when that individual witnesses another perform an action. This is why we yawn when we see others yawn ... These reactions are governed by your mirror neurons, which allow you to not only simulate the actions of others, but the emotions behind those actions.”

When you are coaching a game, or watching your child play, you are using a different area of your brain to judge an interference call, for example, than you would in a neutral situation. The neutral decision-making areas of your brain actually disengage and you use your inferior parietal lobe. The article explains the result is your brain reacts as if you were the one performing the action. And this is why we lose control often at our kids’ games. We react as if we were the person fouled.

This also is why teams feed off each other’s energy, peaking together or giving up at the same time.

“By the same token, positive vibes from parents and coaches, and relaxed attitudes toward bad calls or intense situations, will also be mirrored by our athletes,” the article notes. “If you want your team to relax, then you must relax.”

Nate Sanderson, girls’ basketball coach at Linn-Mar and a speaker with Breakthrough Basketball, said he began each season by conducting a player parent meeting. He had one goal in mind — to “insulate myself from parent complaints.” He utilizes a 33-page player manual, the purpose of which is to “communicate as much information up front as possible so that we will not have to deal with the parents once the season begins.”

This is how the dynamic always is described. It’s assumed “if you want to get into coaching, you’re going to have to deal with the parents, plain and simple.”

“Dealing” with a subject always is pursued as something negative.

Pondering this relationship, Sanderson began to “wonder how much this approach to the parent-coach dynamic prevented me from forming positive, constructive relationships with the people who influence our players as much as anyone ... we strive to appreciate, love and encourage our players every day. What if we approached the parents the same way?”

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As a result, Sanderson and his staff invited players’ parents to participate in the team’s culture, which is built on three basic principles — play hard, love each other and do what we do. They decided to do the same with the parents by giving them specific things they can do to participate in the culture, such as providing a team meal, being patient, positively promoting the program, supporting their child in her effort and commitment, being kind to the media, finding ways to serve by helping when needed (scorebook, laundry, snacks), and by recognizing “your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are.”

Many more activities are included in Sanderson’s attempt to “deal” with players’ parents. He said the entire process, including asking the parents what they think, heaven forbid, provides a “road map for building trust. All relationships are built on trust.

“Does this mean we will never encounter another difficult parent? Probably not, but when that day comes, our hope is that trusting relationships will be in place that can weather disagreements,” he said. “Regardless, we will choose to coach the parent with love, understanding, appreciation and encouragement just as we would one of our players because our days of dealing with parents are over.”

Let us know what you think. Send comments to njustis@cfu.net

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