Where Parents Should Coach

I have read a great deal about "parents these days", written by youth sports coaches. There are refrains that often come through that ring false to me. They ring false not because I have not had my fair share of bad interactions with "parents" (I have), but because I now see them in a new light.

This excellent piece from a week ago delved into a serious flaw in the "Safe Sport" materials that USA Swimming puts coaches, staff and volunteers through. I realized that in many parts of my coaching career, I internalized a culture that demanded that I be allowed to coach "my way" without being questioned by the parents of children I coached. I was wrong.

So in contrast to some of what I read out there about what parents shouldn't do, here are a few things that I think parents should absolutely do and question within their own swimming environments. 

Emotional Coaching

Before we get to the coaches, lets talk about something that I think is crucial for parents to do long before their kid gets in organized sports. Parents are in essence, the first coaches for their kids. They do not need to be experts in swinging a bat or proper freestyle form.

The most important form of coaching they can help their kid with is in the realm of emotions. The basics:

1. How to describe your emotional state. Just like you teach your kid what a "dog" is, they need a vocabulary to describe angry/sad/happy/content and everything in between. 

2. How to separate how you are feeling (emotion, above) from the thoughts that follow from an emotion. I.E what kinds of things do you say to yourself when you feel a certain way, what is your explanation to yourself about how you feel.

3. Basic emotional regulation- kids need to have a safe space to express their emotion, talk through the thoughts that follow that, and get some relief. In simpler terms, kids should feel that they can express how they are feeling to you, and expect that when they are feeling great you will share in that. When they are struggling, they should feel that sharing their emotions with you will help them.

Coaches can help with this, but ultimately this is the most important coaching a parent can give their kid in the home before they ever set foot on a sports team. A relationship with your kid like this is also a strong inoculation against potentially abusive coaching situations, as your kid will be more likely to express to you clearly what is going on in that situation.

Common Sense Tests

Swimming is not complex. Some people have created a lot of complexity around swimming, but these are merely constructs. We are moving our body through the water, and we are trying to figure out ways to do it better.

Parents should absolutely feel free to intervene and disagree on anything they observe in a swimming context that doesn't fit in the context of common sense outside of swimming or sport.

If a coach is yelling at your kid, ask yourself: would you accept this behavior from your child's schoolteacher? I would hope not. There is nothing magical about "sports" that makes common sense not apply. 

Open and transparent

Likewise, I think parents should be wary of anything in the course of coaching that gets hidden from them. They absolutely have the right to insist on being able to observe practices and/or any interaction a coach has with their kid. 

A coach should be able to explain what they are doing with the swimmers they are coaching in a concise and easy to understand way. It is not good enough for coaches to pretend that there is some secret, special swimming knowledge that average parents are hopeless to understand.

Personal Space

This may seem obvious to some, but here is an incomplete list of things a coach definitely does not NEED to do in order to do the best possible job coaching your kid:

  • Touch them, ever
  • Talk to them about their personal life, or school *
  • Friend or follow them on social media
  • be the only person who gives them swimming information, i.e. they can definitely have multiple coaches and differing advice. A good coach can set the tone and avoid the pitfalls of "confusion" in this regard and make it a positive for them to get feedback from multiple sources
  • monitor their weight or body composition

*I know that many coaches will read this one and feel defensive. I have at various points in my time as a coach also been proud to have interest in my swimmers lives outside of swimming. The issue here is more one of boundaries, and great care needs to be taken that athletes feel like they are setting the boundaries of what is discussed outside of swimming, versus the coach.

Think of this one like the nuanced handshake conversation that Ariana Kukors Smith has been having. Swimmers should not feel in any way that they should share personal details or non-swimming details of their lives with a coach- a coach doesn't need this information to do their job well the same way they do not need to shake hands. 

There are a lot more I'm sure I haven't listed and that commenters will add. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of small things that parents should feel empowered that they can demand and question in any situation.

Parents can make swimming community better by rejecting a culture that often tells them that the "coach knows best" and applying their common sense and basic boundary awareness to their own team environment.