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Apr 25, 2017 11:29 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

The Parent-Coach Conundrum In High School Sports Stresses All Sides, Educators Say

Hampton Bays coach Pete Meehan has survived a number of attacks from parents. CAILIN RILEY
Apr 25, 2017 2:40 PM

For the better part of the last decade, the Southampton softball team was mediocre at best—and, in many seasons, flat-out bad. During that time, the one thing the program did have was consistency in the dugout with head coach Virginia McGovern, a graduate of nearby softball powerhouse Hampton Bays. Ms. McGovern, who possesses an obvious passion for the sport, was, by all appearances, well-liked by the girls who played for her, many of whom were her students both in the classroom and on the diamond.

Two years ago, Ms. McGovern’s dedication to the program seemed to finally be paying off: The team became more competitive and started winning more games. In 2016, the Lady Mariners qualified for the postseason for the first time in a decade and were poised to repeat that success in 2017.

And then, halfway through the campaign, Ms. McGovern quit.

In a recent interview, the former coach described how her relationship with some of the parents of her players had deteriorated to the point where she no longer felt she could do the job. Ms. McGovern described the relationship as “toxic,” and agreed to swap positions with the middle school coach for the remainder of the spring.

Ms. McGovern is the latest in a long list of varsity coaches who’ve walked away from their posts citing—either publicly or off the record—poor treatment by parents as their main reason for doing so. And it’s not a phenomenon exclusive to the East End, or even to one region of the country.

There seems to be a consensus among athletic directors, coaches and even parents themselves that there’s been a breakdown in communication, and a clashing of heads, when it comes to expectations of what a healthy parent-coach relationship should look like. Administrators—most often athletic directors but very frequently school superintendents as well—are swept up in the conflict, and school boards, which, more often than not, have at least one student-athlete in the family, are also in the mix.

Have Talent, Will Travel

Coaches and athletic directors are eager to talk about the issue, although many of them are unwilling to speak on the record—a fact that is indicative of the scope of the problem. Several requested anonymity in order to speak candidly; they say they fear reprisals from parents, administrators, school board members, or all of the above.

One theory points to the proliferation of travel teams, clinics, and private, individualized coaching for high school athletes—which, for the most part, exist as for-profit enterprises. Some educators say they often have the unintended consequence of stripping high school varsity coaches of their credibility, and skewing parental expectations.

“Any parent who is going to place emphasis on athletics will put their kid into travel sports,” said one Long Island athletic director—with experience at both large and small schools—who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re going to pay that money, but it doesn’t mean that their kid will be better than a kid who didn’t do that but just happens to have talent. They think [the high school team] doesn’t have the same caliber of coaching they’re getting somewhere else.

“Somewhere along the line, the status of the professional coach in the school district has been lost,” the athletic director added. “I don’t really know when it became in vogue to question every move these coaches make.”

Many parents have become coaches themselves, particularly at the youth level. As youth sports have grown in popularity, so has the need for coaches, and parents tend to be the most natural fit to fill in those roles. Mothers who have coached a youth sport for several years, or fathers who spend weekends watching travel team games and practices, might believe they’ve acquired a degree of expertise that allows them to weigh in on decisions or moves the varsity coach makes.

“If you really think about it, a coach is a teacher,” the athletic director said. “You would never go into someone’s classroom and second-guess somebody who’s teaching your child calculus, unless you were a mathematician. But, now, all these parents feel like they’re experts on sports because they go to travel ball. But I say, wait until you have 20 teenagers standing in front of you and you try to figure it all out.”

Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said that travel team culture has its pros and cons. The more kids who play during the offseason and on travel teams, the better a program tends to be. But student-athletes whose parents spent a lot of money placing them onto travel teams often feel a lot of pressure to perform and grab elusive college scholarships, Mr. Phillips said, which can make emotions run high at times.

“Many parents buy into this false idea that there’s all this money and scholarships out there,” he said. “Kids should be playing because it’s fun.”

A Matter Of Time

The primary bone of contention when it comes to confrontations between coaches and parents typically centers around one key issue: playing time. One coach who requested anonymity—but has experience coaching high school sports dating back to the early 1990s—expressed frustration with, among other things, the obsession of parents when it comes to the number of minutes a child sees on the field or court.

“Teams are the first step for kids to realize that there are roles in life,” the coach said. “At the varsity level, sometimes that role is starring, sometimes that role is supporting. Both are important—but parents don’t see that, so neither will the kid.”

The coach stepped down from a varsity position several years ago, citing the “constant bombardment of parents’ wants and needs” as the main reason behind the decision, while also expressing frustration with school administrators for not doing enough to diffuse the situation and for often caving to parental demands.

Most varsity coaches acknowledge and accept that walking the parental tightrope is simply part of the job description. They expect to have disagreements with parents from time to time, and know that some will be worse than others. Their ability to handle it and their threshold for that kind of tension depends largely on personality—the thick-skinned types fare better—and also on other factors, such as job stability.

The vast majority of coaches are teachers, and so maintaining a good rapport with parents is important for them outside of the world of athletics, particularly for the many young coaches who are not yet tenured.

Longtime Hampton Bays coach Pete Meehan has a lot to say on the issue. He has coached both varsity basketball and baseball for more than 30 years, mostly in Hampton Bays. He’s had winning seasons, and more than his fair share of losing ones as well. He’s had parents in his corner, and others who tried, unsuccessfully, to drive him out.

While he’s held on to his coaching positions, Mr. Meehan understands why many of his peers throw in the towel.

“I have as many parental detractors as anybody,” he said. “I’ve been doing it long enough that I’m immune to the whole thing. I’ve never viewed it as my job to make parents happy. If I wanted everyone to like me, I would’ve been the ice cream man.

“I know how I do things, and I do it with integrity,” he continued. “Coaching turnover these days is greater than it’s ever been. There’s not a lot of coaches that keep doing it and lose—and I’ve been losing a lot the last few years. But parents don’t care about winning and losing—they care about what’s best for their kid. They’d rather their kid be All-County than the kid’s team win a county championship. They’re not objective. They see the game through the eyes of their children.

“But I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve been the parent of a kid who’s spent a lot of time sitting on the bench, but because I’m a coach I’m able to handle it better.”

Mr. Meehan didn’t offer a theory as to why confrontations between parents and coaches seem to be on the rise, but said he doesn’t recall it being as much of an issue when he first started coaching. The key to survival, he said, is for all parties to make a greater effort to communicate with one another.

“I tell the truth, and that hurts sometimes,” Mr. Meehan said. “But I try never to begrudge parents for sticking up for their kids, and I try not to hold a kid’s parents against the kid. But the worst thing a parent can do is tell their kid how terrible they think their coach is. When you share that with your kid, then you’ve killed it.”

Things Have Changed

Former East Hampton varsity softball coach Lou Reale knows a lot about how relationships with parents can go south in a hurry.

Mr. Reale is now retired from both coaching and teaching and is living in Florida. He had a long and illustrious career at East Hampton, finishing as one of the winningest coaches in Long Island history and taking the Bonac softball team to states multiple times, winning several county and Long Island championships.

Mr. Reale resigned under pressure two years ago after a public battle with several parents who were unhappy with his coaching style. He was a classic old-school coach who wasn’t afraid to sternly reprimand his players, but he also possessed a wealth of knowledge about the sport and was fiercely dedicated to the girls on his team, maintaining ties with them long after graduation.

Mr. Reale said a lot changed from the beginning of his coaching career to the end of it, when it comes to the relationships he had with parents.

“I don’t think the kids have changed so much, but it seems like the parents sometimes change the kids,” he said.

Mr. Reale recalled the immense support he had from parents in the late 1990s, when several of them donated their time and resources to build the state-of-the-art softball field located behind the school. “Every parent I asked was able to contribute, and it didn’t matter if their kid was a starter or sat on the bench,” he said.

“That’s what made us so successful over the years,” he continued. “Even if a kid wasn’t a starter, they knew they were important and they had a job to do, whether it was sweeping the dugout, doing the scorebook or starting at first base. I think now parents don’t want their kids to be held responsible for that much. I think parents want to make everything easier for kids. They love their kids and think they’re doing the best for them, [but] I don’t think they’re really preparing them for life. It’s not like you walk into a job and right away you’re the number-one person in the company.”

Mr. Reale said that while his career didn’t end exactly as he planned, he has no regrets, and that he’ll remember the impact he had on his players far longer than any negative interactions he may have had with parents.

He recently spoke with former player Kathryn Hess, who recently graduated from the University of Dayton, where she played four years of Division I softball. Ms. Hess, who now lives in Florida as well, has an opportunity to play for a pro softball team in Australia, and she called her former coach to ask for his help.

“The relationships with the kids are the things I remember,” Mr. Reale said. “I’m still friends with so many of them. What happened at the end, it bothered me—but in a way it didn’t, because I got to say everything I wanted to say, and when I saw the support I did have, that was all that really mattered to me.”

A Supporting Role

While over-aggressive behavior from parents is on the rise, the majority of sports parents seem to understand their role within the system.

Matt Mobius is the father of three boys who play multiple sports at Southampton High School and are involved with several travel teams as well. He’s also a board member at SYS and helped organize the upcoming Coach Appreciation Night in Southampton, which will bring together parents and coaches from Southampton youth leagues, middle school, JV and varsity teams for a night out at Union Cantina in Southampton on Friday.

Mr. Mobius views his role as a parent as being supportive, but acknowledges that it isn’t always easy.

“Of course, there are occasions where you might disagree with a coach in terms of substitutions or strategy. But, in my opinion, these things are the coach’s prerogative,” he said. “I don’t really think those issues are up for much discussion. If a coach is treating kids disrespectfully or in an abusive way, then there certainly needs to be an intervention. But that should be done through the AD and not as a direct on-field confrontation.”

Hampton Bays Athletic Director Drew Walker said he doesn’t necessarily think the problem has gotten better or worse during his 19-year tenure at the school, but acknowledged the “inherent struggle” that exists in the parent-coach relationship. One trend he has noticed, he said, is the tendency of parents to openly discuss with their children how they feel about the authority figures in the child’s life.

“The parent’s approach to the situation, whether positive or not, is very informative to how their child approaches the situation,” he said. “The child then reflects or behaves in the same manner the parent role models, which doesn’t usually help the child develop conflict-management skills.”

Managing the conflict between parents and coaches—and returning it to some degree of normalcy—is a priority for all athletic directors right now, and the great wish of almost every varsity coach, although they know it’s a complex issue without a simple solution. Most coaches and athletic directors accept that the problem will never go away entirely—they know that sports and emotions go hand in hand, whether it’s the proverbial thrill of victory and agony of defeat, disagreements with a referee, or conflict between coach and parent.

The key, they say, is keeping it all in perspective.

“There are a lot of layers to the whole thing,” Mr. Phillips said. “At one point, I was that parent, screaming at the refs and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m becoming that parent.’ That’s when I had to do some self-reflection. It’s only a game.”

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There is to much emphasis on winning instead of participating in sports which
can be instrumental in learning how to exist and experience what life will bring.
I had the opportunity to coach little league baseball for nearly a decade. One of
my teams won a Long Island championship. The following year, having the
majority of the team back, I decided to divide the into another team giving all
the young players the opportunity to play. Of course, many parents objected.
They ...more
By Jimion (129), Hampton Bays on Apr 25, 17 5:51 PM
1 member liked this comment
Kids need to participate at the Little League level but as they get older they need to compete to learn that life is not the same for everyone. It's much better to learn to be disappointed at a young age than to believe everyone reaps the same rewards in everything they do.
By VOS (1241), WHB on Apr 26, 17 3:38 AM
i can tell you most times it's not the kids who are disappointed. They would be happy to play with no parents in attendence. The parents are the ones who abuse the coaches and officials.
By tenn tom (259), remsenburg on Apr 26, 17 7:50 AM
Having seen it from all sides, I can tell you a lot has to do with poor communication from the schools and the coaches. You can blame the parents all you want, but the bottom line, is it is Public money paying for it all. I have seen coaches go out of their way to make kids leave the team and promote other kids. They don't get paid enough to make it all about winning. Parents need to let their kids mature at a normal rate (seen 8th graders riding the bus with Seniors, not good) and coaches need ...more
By The Real World (368), southampton on Apr 26, 17 1:48 PM
Tried to be a Little League Umpire years ago, couldn't deal with grandparents and parents. Gave up...
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Apr 26, 17 2:59 PM
Uneducated parents who view their kids lives through their own ego are the problem. You throw in a coach who means well but is, well, a coach and what does anyone expect. Conflict is everywhere. Deal with it better. Let kids be kids. Don't go after the ref because you're mad you missed out on a "winning" Facebook post that was intended to portray life as better than it is.
By even flow (1023), East Hampton on Apr 27, 17 5:25 AM
This time it was not the parents, I was the coach... She set a really poor example for the kids... Don't like how something is going and she quits.. And just for the record .... No kids ever in the Southampton district. But follow the coach and players. Bottom line the coach was using the same play over and over and it never worked. She got called out on it and quit like a baby!!
By J. Totta (106), Sag Harbor on Apr 27, 17 7:49 AM
Coaches aren't normally the most advanced of the species.
By even flow (1023), East Hampton on Apr 27, 17 8:04 AM
1 member liked this comment
I don't understand what you are trying to say. Yon were the coach? I thought she was the coach? No kids ever in the Southampton district - what does that mean? But following the coach and players - I don't understand what ou are tryi g to say! The onlyithing that makes sense wad she was using the same play over and over and it didn't work.
By disappointed (96), wainscott on Apr 27, 17 1:23 PM
1. I have followed the team...meaning I followed how these girls play, so I wanted you to know I am not being biased. 2. Very simple my children went to a different district.
3. The coach only ever used 1 play and It never worked and they always got out. So therefore the parents suggested they try something else and that's when the baby of a coach did not like what she heard and than quit. In my opinion she is a pathetic example for the kids. The coach got called out and quit.
Sorry ...more
By J. Totta (106), Sag Harbor on May 1, 17 9:00 AM
Face it parents: If your kids were going pro, they wouldn't be in this school district. Ease up and let fun, camaraderie, team building and discipline be taught by those who know how.
By Mouthampton (439), Southampton on Apr 27, 17 9:07 AM
2 members liked this comment
Sad to see all this muddle. I went to SHS and played under our master, Marge Auster. She was tough on the field and rightly so. I was never aware of any parent trying to second guess the coach. Don't think Marge would have stood for interference with her job. Of course she had winning teams for years. Time were different then.
By summertimegal (97), southampton on Apr 27, 17 11:11 AM
1 member liked this comment
You wouldn't believe how much the invention of electricity has changed the school.
By SlimeAlive (1181), Southampton on Apr 27, 17 11:26 AM
What do you mean? Sarcasm will get you no where. Maybe you're just jealous that you or your family weren't in Southampton during the many years of building the lovely village by the sea.
Sorry, but I am only saying there were many years when the parents let the teachers teach and the coaches coached.
By summertimegal (97), southampton on Apr 27, 17 12:00 PM
1 member liked this comment
Well written article that gets the points across . As a player , parent and coach this problem has been growing for a couple of decades. It started in the major sports like football , basketball, baseball ...and has spread to almost every endeavor students participate in. Parents are out of control with their expectations from their kids and schools and teachers....too little exposure to the adversity and difficulty real life requires when these kids grow up.
By eddgann (2), Westhampton on Apr 27, 17 11:49 AM
1 member liked this comment
I think there is a difference between little league, school sports and travel sports. Little league requires volunteers to act as coaches. Travel sports are often very expensive, however, children and parents have a rightful expectation that they will learn and improve in that sport. School sports are a bit trickier. These are PAID coaches, usually a teacher or employee of the district who may or may not be proficient in the particular sport, but are willing to coach or have seniority so get the ...more
By seriously concerned (6), Southampton on Apr 28, 17 1:53 PM
Parents are the bullies and we wonder where these kids are getting it from. Listen parents if your kid isn't playing on the varsity team or the JV team there probably is a reason. Due to behavior or skill. Let the coaches coach. Coach Meehan is one of the best out there and it will be a shame if the HB school district losses him. Parents now a days make me want to vomit. Grow up you cowards.
By turkeyloser (22), east quogue on May 2, 17 6:41 AM