While strength and conditioning coaches have most definitely come to the forefront in the world of athletics more than in the past, we are still oftentimes the coaches behind the scenes. Yes, we can point to examples of strength and conditioning professionals at all levels who are recognizable and out in front playing a more generally recognizable role. But I think we would agree that is not the norm in most situations.
If we are being honest, most die-hard fans of any team can almost certainly name and identify the head coach. Taking one level deeper, many times even the top assistants are well known to fans/parents and any others who closely follow any team at the high school level and up. The team or club’s strength and conditioning staff is oftentimes not so well known.
For many of us who work with individual or team sports, this has been a status that we embrace. There are often good reasons for it. Most mentions of a team’s strength and conditioning staff come in two forms: praise from the head coach after a win/winning season, or blame when a rash of injuries takes place. This relative anonymity is a fact that I myself have often thought to be one blessing of the job.
I remember well the years I spent coaching football, when parents/fans who were upset over one thing or another were simply bound to share their opinions on how we had not done our job as well as we could have. Not once since I stopped coaching a sport have I had a parent of an athlete storm my way in an angry stupor, upset because their child didn’t get to participate. Nor have I had to sit in a meeting with a parent and an administrator concerning an issue that has taken place.
Indeed, being Alfred the Butler to the sport coach’s Batman has some real benefits. Despite often having the most contact with athletes and very often carrying influence second only to the head coach, we spend most of our time in our figurative Bat Cave preparing the athletes for game night, much how Alfred prepares the Caped Crusader’s utensils for crime fighting: in the shadows.
My personal theory on why (particularly) parents of our student-athletes rarely have an issue with us is that we have no say in playing time, team roles, or strategy. Most of the issues that sport coaches have with parents stem from one of those three places. If we are noticed at all it is quite often in a positive light during the always hopeful off-season. We are the people helping their son or daughter prepare and, so long as the sport coaches don’t screw it up, they will win it all and grab that scholarship!If we are noticed at all it is quite often in a positive light during the always hopeful off-season, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
That leads to a mostly positive feeling towards us, whether we are known as “Coach so-and-so” or “The Weights Guy.” While the level of familiarity with what role we actually play may have some short-term advantages, is it really the optimal situation for our athletic development program?
At first glance, those facts may seem like a reason for a career path adjustment. My personal thought process on this subject has most definitely evolved over the years. Maybe there is value in our role being more generally understood. I’m certainly not suggesting we look to seek out notoriety or the “fame” that comes with being the head coach and the face of a sport program; however, there may be some reasons to venture out of the cave.
With the aforementioned anonymity also comes a lack of relationships—not with the players or coaches obviously, but with parents. This relationship gap can lead to a lack of understanding that can disrupt the lines of communication between our program and the student-athlete’s home. While I am not suggesting we as strength and conditioning coaches in any way do anything out of the ordinary to get ourselves noticed, I am suggesting that if we can somehow work with our sport coaches, athletic directors, and administrators to do a more thorough job of connecting with parents, we could make our effectiveness level increase.
If we can help parents truly understand who we are and what we do, it could give us a tremendous advantage in maximizing our ability to optimally prepare our student-athletes for the rigors of sport. At the high school level, strength and conditioning is often seen as coach-to-athlete and coach-to-coach dependent. Making the parent-to-strength coach connection may seem unimportant at times, and avoiding it may help us avoid some of the pitfalls previously mentioned, but its absence leaves out probably the most important aspect of long-term success: parental support for the physical and mental development of their student-athlete.
If parents don’t know us, respect us, or truly understand our role in the athletic development of their children and the team, then we are leaving a very valuable tool on the table.
Our Roles as Specialists
I would venture to say most parents of most athletes probably see us as a football coach regardless of our role. The weight rooms in many situations are driven from a football perspective. In fact, most high school weight rooms can trace their lineage back to being originally built for use by the football program. While this may be an advantage with our football parents, it will most certainly hurt us with parents whose children play other sports.
As strength and conditioning professionals we need to increase awareness of exactly what we do. If we can put ourselves in a situation where parents understand our role, that we are qualified professionals, and that our focus is on using our knowledge as specialists in our field to make their son or daughter the best athlete and person they can be, it will be a force-multiplier for all involved. Particularly in situations where our role has us with many or even all the student-athletes in all the sports played at the school.As strength and conditioning professionals we need to increase awareness of exactly what we do, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
How can we step out of the shadows and show that we are not just an assistant sport coach or the person who teaches weightlifting class? How can we build the type of coach-parent relationship that helps not only us be recognized as a professional but also fosters the development of our student-athletes (and, in turn, athletic programs) by creating open lines of communication and understanding with parents? While there are probably as many ideas on that as there are strength coaches, I’d like to share my thoughts and opinions on the topic.
Fostering Parental Relationships
I believe one major factor in fostering the initial relationship with parents from a strength and conditioning perspective is communication. Regardless of who you are in the field or what experiences/education you have, to them you are just the person trying to explain too many concepts and ideas they don’t fully understand or even believe. Think about some of the concepts and topics that (given our educational and practical experience) we know to be best practice; now think back to what you were sure was true before we made physical preparation for athletics our career.
Remembering that the use of professional terms or “jargon” that may be second nature for us, could make a less knowledgeable parent feel insecure. This will drive a wedge between parent and coach that will be tough to break through. I have oftentimes been guilty—not just with parents but also with other sport coaches—of providing a level of information that is deeper than needed to achieve the goal desired.
To help them understand and accept what we believe or know to be true, it’s important to eliminate any potential threat they may see in an interaction with us. Taking them down a terminology rabbit hole will not be an effective tactic. Keep it simple and in terms that are universal.
Then once you establish that initial contact, maybe they have a greater knowledge base and the conversation can go deeper. Better to start off assuming the base level is low and build from there. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Trying to show how smart we are can backfire and slow down the process of building a positive relationship.Trying to show how smart we are can backfire and slow down the process of building a positive relationship, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Working in any field leads to a perspective bias and S&C is no different. Looking through the lens of what we know and have learned is very natural. We have a great understanding of why we do what we do. Parents who don’t work within athletics (and even some that do) are influenced heavily by factors that don’t have many similarities to what we actually do.
Let’s face facts: there are still a good many people who would argue that strength training at an early age stunts growth. We can agree that when strength training with a qualified coach and using evidence-based techniques, training age level best practices are far from dangerous or unhealthy. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard is that sports coaches are more influenced by what they did in high school or what other coaches told them was right than by the actual evidence. That disconnect can be exponentially bigger with parents who may have no experience or who know what “the guy at the gym” told them would be best.
How do we narrow that knowledge gap that can often be much, much larger for us than a sport coach? By building trust from our very first encounter and by making parents feel comfortable and relaxed. You would be better off not talking to the parents than inadvertently belittling them. We must put ourselves in a parent’s shoes. They absolutely want what is best for their children. As the strength and conditioning professionals, we need to use this to our advantage and educate our parents. Recognize that we will have a wide range of knowledge and preconceptions to work with.Recognize that we will have a wide range of knowledge and preconceptions to work with, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Visibility and Understanding
Being visible and taking an active role in the athletic department’s parental contact/meeting process is crucial. Just as the athletic director, head sport coach, and the athletic training staff present themselves to the parents and explain their role, so must we. As the person/staff responsible for the athletic development of the athlete, we are simply not just another assistant. If we do not attend or do not explain our role, we will be seen in that light.
We need to take any opportunity we have to get in front of the parents as a group (or even individually) and explain why doing what we are asking will benefit their child. Working with our athletic departments to get time to speak to all parents on the most important topics is an important step; from there we can identify who our parents are and begin to expand our relationship individually.Working with our athletic departments to get time to speak to all parents on the most important topics is an important step, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
Using our positions in our schools to help make parents advocates for what we do is also an important piece. Many of us are also teachers and, in this case, we need to do what administrators have been telling classroom teachers to do for at least the 20+ years I’ve worked in schools: reach out and make positive parent contacts. If we call a parent when their student is about to get a report card to report a poor grade, their first question will likely be “Why didn’t you let me know sooner?” Maybe it would have made a difference, maybe not. It was still our obligation to let the parent know and work together to help the student.
Our role is the same. If we know a student-athlete is not sleeping or eating as they should be to perform, or if they are not giving effort, the two people who can probably modify behavior the most are the head sports coach and the parent. Reach out with a simple email or short conversation when their student has a good day so if any other type of conversation has to take place, the groundwork of mutual desire for well-being has been laid.
Starting every conversation (positive or negative) with a point that you know will be common ground (“I think we can both agree that Johnny is a great kid” for example) will set the parent at ease and lay the groundwork for whatever has to come next. With those more individual relationships will come trust; with trust will come confidence; with confidence will come support. Support from the parent will help you maximize training which in turn will help the team. Relationships with parents will be a force -multiplier.Support from the parent will help you maximize training which in turn will help the team, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
While this article has been a very general overview of how I believe we can form a better strength coach/parent relationship, it’s also just one aspect in a multiple step process that can lead to general improvement in the high school S&C space. Most of the complaints and/or roadblocks we discuss in that space stem back to one issue: our perceived value. How we are compensated, how we are treated, the level of respect afforded our positions, our relationship with sport coaches, our facilities (and the list goes on) are all a reflection of the value placed on us as professionals by the decision-makers and stakeholders that we share our space with.
How can we as coaches help others by creating value for the field? There are obviously many routes to that. I see the process of fostering positive parent relationships and helping to build a general understanding of what a large role we can play in the success of their student-athletes as a giant step toward increasing that perceived value.
If we look at the athletic training world, it shows us how much that value can increase in a short time: 20 to 25 years ago many sport coaches were taping ankles, diagnosing concussions, and designing return to play protocols (if there were any) despite having little or no formal medical training. There were a few schools then that were ahead of the curve and understood the importance of a medical professional on staff. They valued it enough to make it happen for the safety and well-being of the student-athletes.
That situation has done a complete flip in that time. There may be a few places where a certified athletic trainer is not on staff or made available, but not many. Parents understanding the value of having them on staff undoubtedly helped drive that reversal. Can you imagine the outrage if that service was made unavailable? It wouldn’t be a good one because the athlete’s safety is a valued priority and most understand what’s needed to hold that value.
Today there is an ever-growing number of qualified and dedicated strength and conditioning professionals at the high school level—I would venture to say close to the same percentage that had certified athletic trainers on staff 20+ years ago. In the other schools we have sport coaches whose primary expertise is sport coaching, not designing and implementing strength training, conditioning, speed work, etc. with little or no professional training in athletic development. I believe whole-heartedly that a coach whose primary role is sport can be an outstanding strength coach as well. I also believe that is a separate specialty that needs a level of qualification above and beyond being a good sport coach. We must all admit that in many situations that level is not met.Every situation takes a giant step forward when parents come to understand our value, says @YorkStrength17. Click To Tweet
I also believe that one major reason those situations still exist is that the parents of the student-athletes in those programs don’t understand our role in providing not only increased performance but safety and injury mitigation.
Every situation takes a giant step forward when parents come to understand our value. Parents drive local education decisions and changes. Not embracing and pursuing that fact is holding back our particular branch of the athletic development world.
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