Athletic department stakeholders are generally in support of creating policy to address parent involvement in intercollegiate athletics. Collectively, administrators and coaches describe a need to create evidence-based policy to help guide parents’ involvement behaviors. Specifically, they discuss wanting parents to become more aware of the potential negative impact of their involvement behaviors, and hope to expose them to positive strategies of involvement and the outcomes associated with those behaviors.
Six primary policy creation themes emerged from our research, each of which should be considered by university athletic departments as they consider the best way to enhance parent involvement in the lives of their student-athletes:
Key NCAA stakeholders felt the hallmark of any policy regarding parent involvement at the intercollegiate level should focus on empowering student-athletes. A common feeling among these individuals was that over-involved parents could inhibit the growth of student-athletes by creating a dependent relationship. A female head coach (woman’s softball) stated:
I think parents can truly empower their student-athlete and they can also handcuff them.
Indeed, stakeholders shared that when parents take a step back, let their children learn from their own mistakes, and let the student-athlete advocate for themselves, parents are not only empowering the student-athlete in the sport arena, but they are fostering skills that are important for life after sports as well.
Protect sport as the coach’s domain.
Parents who are over-involved have a tendency to overstep boundaries and may even begin to take on roles that should fall to the coach and her/his staff. Stakeholders readily discussed how these parents are often involved in the coaching and recruiting of their student-athlete, making it difficult to take a step back when the student-athlete transitions to college. A male head coach (men’s golf) shared an anecdote about what he said to a father who overstepped his boundaries:
Let (your child) enjoy the experience. Let them be coached by people who have experience and have knowledge … We aren’t going to do it the same way you did it in your own house for the last 18 years, but we are doing it the right way or we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in … So let us do our jobs and know that we’re not perfect and let your kids feel that it’s okay for your kids to not be perfect.
The majority of the coaches interviewed admitted that they empathize with parents and that they understand letting go of a child is a hard thing to do. However, each reiterated that they are the coach for a reason and that their ultimate goal is to create an environment where student-athletes can thrive. The common message from coaches and administrators was that parents at the intercollegiate level need to hand over the reins and not worry about the decisions being made behind the scenes. In sum, that role should be left to the coaches.
Communicate with parents.
Interestingly, key stakeholders disclosed the potential role of policy in guiding how coaches communicate with parents as well. Many coaches shared the common goal of creating an environment where student-athletes feel able to advocate for themselves, thereby creating a more amicable and less aggressive context of communication between parents and coaches. A male head coach (men’s golf) expressed this desire directly to parents, sharing:
I let (parents) know the role that I have, the role that the athlete is going to have, and the role the parents are going to have, and it’s worked pretty well.
A desire for honesty and consistency in coach-parent communications seemed to be a common theme, as most coaches felt that being transparent regarding the expectations they have of parents was the best strategy for avoiding problems altogether. A male head coach (women’s soccer) shared his strategy for laying out expectations related to parent/coach communication at the onset:
I’m more than happy to have conversations with (parents) if there’s a problem. (They can) feel free to reach out to me. However, I would expect I would have already spoken to their daughter about this problem prior to (the parent) reaching out to speak to me … And, if we are to go and delve into it further, I would like your daughter to be present when we have this discussion so we’re all on the same page.
Understand the college transition.
NCAA stakeholders described the context of intercollegiate athletics as completely different than high school sports. For the majority of incoming student-athletes, it involves a unique transition, and helping parents understand the transition may help them better support their student- athletes throughout their careers. Many stakeholders shared experiences regarding the difficulties student-athletes can have as they transition from being the star of their high school team to being a freshman on a team full of stars. Furthermore, they discussed the physical, cognitive, and emotional changes that accompany that experience. As a male head coach (men’s baseball) described:
Maybe their son isn’t playing as much; they probably haven’t had those situations in younger leagues, so they are experiencing it for the first time. Their son is going through (adversity) for the first time. I am not saying that (parents) always handle it right — we as coaches don’t always handle things right, but it’s a tough situation for the student-athlete and for a parent to be in because they have been the best and the star and all of a sudden it’s a bigger pond.
The transition to intercollegiate athletics also includes a shift from high school to university coursework, as well as a shift from dependence on parents to independence. Largely, key stakeholders felt that parents — especially those who are over-involved — become so focused on sport-related outcomes that they fail to recognize student-athletes’ efforts to acclimatize to the demands of university life, while also becoming familiar with a new team, coach, and athletic program. As the same head baseball coach shared:
I think (parents) have to realize that the whole college process is a growing up process for their son, that it’s going to include struggles. To me, it’s a good learning experience and growing up process to go through the struggles.
Facilitate parent-child communication.
The majority of stakeholders recognized the potential for parent involvement to positively impact student-athletes; however, one area coaches, administrators, and parents feel parents are lacking is in their communication skills. Specifically, participants felt that parent-child relationships would benefit from enhanced communication strategies. Indeed, a male head coach (women’s softball) communicated the need for parents to learn how to offer constructive and time-appropriate feedback rather than criticism.
Most parents don’t have the education, so when they are giving negative feedback it is at an inappropriate time. If we get our butts kicked, that is not a time to tear them down more; instead it is a time to build them up a little bit.
Importantly, stakeholders shared that student-athletes have a tendency to create a fictional picture when talking with their parents, in order to please them. One coach talked about an athlete not putting forth effort in practice — and therefore not playing as much in a game – all while telling her parents she was performing exceptionally in practice. The coach used this to exemplify a situation where a lack of honest parent-child communication leads to an unnecessary conflict between a parent and coach. Both coaches and administrators feel that by being taught more effective communication skills, parents could become more efficient providers of support because it would reduce the impact of miscommunication in the coach-athlete-parent triad.
NCAA Coaches and administrators expressed a certain level of empathy for parents of intercollegiate athletes because they know it is a brand new experience for parents in most cases. In light of this, these stakeholders discussed the need for parent education – implemented in a way that adequately prepares parents of incoming college athletes for the journey ahead. Most spoke of the need to educate parents about the recruiting process, NCAA rules, and the institutional expectations of student-athletes upon their arrival on campus. Specifically, coaches felt that helping the parents see what is going to be expected of the student-athlete before they are on campus may help prepare parents and better understand the roles they can fulfill to provide appropriate support for their children. As one male head coach (wrestling) stated: