Web Exclusive: The Parent Trap
You’re a passionate coach and cheer business owner. You work hard to train your athletes and place each one on the best team for his or her ability and the team’s needs. It’s natural to assume everyone will recognize your expertise and respect your decisions.
Unfortunately, there’s always someone who doesn’t see it that way. That someone is usually a parent—a stage mom or stage dad—who seems to want more spotlight shining on their little Ashley. Or perhaps they just don’t understand how progression through the skill levels works. Either way, a parent is second-guessing your decisions. Their tactics can range from gentle suggestions to accusations of favoritism or racism. If you don’t do what they want, some may threaten to quit—and take as many others with them as they can.
Scott Foster, owner of Rockstar Cheer Gym in Greenville, South Carolina, is all too familiar with this conflict. “I have the same things over and over, every year,” he says. “Usually parents want [their children] to move to a different level than the team they’re on. They have a hard time accepting that even if an athlete has Level 4 tumbling skills, they shouldn’t necessarily be on a Level 4 team. There’s more to cheer than tumbling.”
As an example, Foster cites one particular athlete who came into the program with no tumbling experience and progressed to Level 4 tumbling within a year. “The athlete was still too small to be used in Level 4 stunts,” shares Foster. “When it came to flying, the athlete wasn’t experienced enough; since she couldn’t outfly the other athletes, she had to stay in Level 3.”
At Naugatuck, CT-based USA Wildcats, it’s the gym layout that sometimes leads to misunderstandings with parents. The waiting room is blocked off—leaving coach Amanda Daniels and her colleagues open to potentially unfounded criticism. “If something goes wrong on the floor, parents will ask why we were mean to their child or why we picked out their child on this [skill],” says Daniels. “A lot of it is overexaggerated because they’re not on the floor and don’t necessarily know what happened.”
Coaches aren’t the only ones who have to deal with parental drama. Other cheer parents are often acutely aware of conflict and other parents trying to influence gym decisions. “I think there is a disconnect sometimes,” says Nikki Delude, who runs the Cheer Parents Central website. As a parent and parent advocate, Delude sees it from both sides. “You need to understand that if a parent is being demanding, [it’s because] we are trusting you with our children,” she says. “Does that give every parent the right to scream and yell? No.”
As with most relationships, the primary key to managing parental expectations is communication. Lisa Kretschman, owner and coach of Whippany, NJ-based Cheer Pride All-Stars uses several avenues of communication from flyers to motivational texts to regular emails. “I send a major email every two weeks about fundraisers, how the kids are doing, and so on,” says Kretschman. “They know the lines of communication are open.”
To that end, Kretschman says it’s important that gym owners be willing to hold up their end of the bargain; communication must be ongoing and responsive: “If I get an email at 7 in the morning, I’m going to reply immediately. I make sure they know that if they have a problem I will respond. It is a business. You want to make sure that everyone is happy with the services we are providing.”
A big part of successful parent relations is making your program’s expectations crystal clear so that there is no room for interpretation. “We communicate very clearly what we expect from the parents and the kids,” says Kretschman. “We lay out what they can expect from us and make it clear that we’re not going to put athletes out on the floor before they’re ready—and that everyone will be treated fairly.”
Though emails and texts make it easy to keep contact flowing consistently, face-to-face communication is beneficial—especially in the face of conflict or misunderstandings. When problems arise at USA Wildcats, Daniels has a one-on-one conversation with the parent to squash the issue at the outset. “We do our best to make sure that the parent is aware of exactly what happened from step one to step 10,” says Daniels. “There has never been a point where a parent left our gym really upset and less understanding of what really went on. 100 percent of the time, the parent feels better after having a conversation with the coach.”
Group sessions are also effective, especially when it comes to relaying policies and procedures. Foster prefers to discuss levels and progression with large groups of parents. “If you have a parent that is a little more demanding, what better audience than to answer in front of everybody?” he says. “That way, you don’t have to answer it 200 times.”
Holding regular meetings and social gatherings can also play a role in keeping parental competitiveness—the root of many issues—at bay. By fostering a sense of community, gym owners can ensure that everyone feels valued and connected. “I try to really discourage people from comparing their kids to other kids. We try to make everyone feel important, whether they are at Level 1 or Level 4. That’s all part of making sure we don’t have any issues,” says Kretschman.
Over the course of a season, most parents and athletes will learn to trust you and your decisions. To get there, Delude feels there needs to be give and take between parents and coaches. When a coach has to justify her decisions to each of 25 parents, that takes a significant amount of time, and Delude encourages parents to be cognizant of that. “As parents, we need to give a little bit also,” she says. “You have to develop trust over time.”
If a parent is still not happy with your program or with all-star cheerleading in general, sometimes they may need to look elsewhere. It’s better to let one parent and child go than to make everyone unhappy; both sides should be open and honest about whether this is really a good fit.
The need to communicate and deal with parents is an important part of the cheer business that’s never going to go away. Most parents understand and are willing to let you do your job, but a few parents are more demanding. “Just embrace it,” says Foster. “You have to allocate time to educate them and make them understand. I just refuse to let it bring me down—you have to take the good with the bad.”