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Youth Sports: Keeping Perspective When It Comes to Rec Teams


As North Jersey towns begin their spring recreational programs, it seemed like a good time to check in on the coach/parent relationship and get some advice for all those involved. While most of the tips would work in any team situation, this is specifically about rec teams, not town travel or club teams, and keeping parents focused on the fundamental purpose of those programs.

"It's a recreational program designed to help kids have fun and develop lifelong skills," said Gregg Heinzmann, director of Rutgers' Youth Sports Research Council. "What we're hearing from the kids is that they actually enjoy that because it's no longer compete for a spot or for an eventual college scholarship, it's about being with friends and having fun."

The league administrators, coaches and parents are supposed to all be focused on the same goal: supporting the young athletes and helping them all get the most out of the experience. But that is not always the case, and well-intended coaches can find themselves in unmanageable situations. Volunteers often stay on the sidelines the next season to avoid dealing with parents' criticism, complaints and unrealistic expectations.

"All the time," said Steven Savage, who runs the Hackensack recreation basketball program and has coached football, baseball and basketball over the last 40 years. "Some coaches have been totally harassed out of it. This is why they don't want to volunteer anymore."

After facing issues as a coach himself years ago, Dennis Burns - now president of the Township of Mahwah Youth Sports Boosters, which runs its recreational sports -- created a Parent's Pledge that must be signed before each season.

The document's bulleted points include: "I will not abuse, harass or berate referees or coaches during or after the match; and I will not use offensive, insulting, foul and/or abusive language or gestures, either on the field of play or in field's general area, towards any person, for any reason." And "I will not boo, taunt or use any other verbal attack at games or practices."

"I just wanted parents to understand what their role is," Burns said. "They're really there to be supportive and to cheer on their kids."

Playing time is a big issue with parents and kids and one of the trickiest for coaches to manage. Mahwah and Hackensack, and many other North Jersey towns, have playing time minimums so everyone gets a chance to be involved.

"Even doing that, you're still going to have conflicts with parents because some parents have unreasonable expectations," Burns said. "You have to manage that."

Burns, Savage and Heinzmann all agree that unrealistic assessment of their child's athletic abilities often fuels a parent's issues with a coach. Even on rec teams, parents are hyper-competitive, believing not only that these teams are a stepping stone toward the unlikely college scholarship but also that their child is the best and should get more playing time no matter the rules or purpose (fun and development of skills versus winning) of the league.

There are steps towns and coaches can take to help prevent some of these issues as much as possible.

Many North Jersey towns, including Hackensack, mandate that their volunteer coaches take the Rutgers S.A.F.E.T.Y. (Sports Awareness for Educating Today's Youth) Clinic run by Heinzmann's Youth Sports Research Council. The course helps prepare coaches for conflict with parents and also tries to help remind them of the parental point of view.

"In the context of sportsmanship, we ask the coaches to reflect upon why well-meaning people behave badly," Heinzmann said.

The class tells volunteer coaches that one of the reasons parents behave badly is "ignorance of the rules."

"So often parents think that the professional or college or high school rules apply to their kid's recreational basketball league, and very often they don't," Heinzmann said. "To the extent that the coach explains that up front, it helps people understand, No. 1, their kid is not being cheated or treated unfairly and, No. 2, it reminds them of the larger issue, which is that this is not a miniaturized version of what you watch on television."

Coaches can try to head off issues with a preseason meeting to discuss league rules, expectations of parents and players, the purpose of the team and goal of the season, the acknowledgement that at some point a coach may have to raise her voice at your child for safety purposes or simply to be heard over others. It is also important to explain the process for addressing an issue should something arise.

In Mahwah, part of the pledge includes a required 24-hour cooling-off period before talking to a coach or administrator about a problem. There is also a specific multi-step chain of command for addressing any issues. 
When a league doesn't mandate a cooling-off period before discussing problems, some coaches might want to tackle the issue immediately after a practice or game so nothing festers and there is no miscommunication, according to Heinzmann. Whatever the coach's preference, it should be addressed at the preseason meeting.

For the many out there who are coaching their own child, it can be even trickier. Everyone is watching to make sure that kid isn't getting preferential treatment.

"One of the major mistakes they make is to try to avoid the perception of favoring their own kid by treating their kid unfairly and more harshly," said Heinzmann, who admits he had many assistant coaches over the years to help him "keep that in check" as he coached his own kids. "I've always questioned the logic of that. 'Just because I have the same last name as you, why are you holding me to a higher standard? Because you're worried about this?' That's not fair either."

Some parents, of course, may have legitimate concerns, and those need to be heard. Good programs have oversight and review and hopefully enough volunteers to weed out any coaching problems, because much like parents, there are coaches today who may behave inappropriately, or take the competition too far.

"In other towns, I have seen the level of competitiveness among coaches reach an all-time fever-pitch level," Savage said.