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The Sport Psychologist, 1987, 1, 151-160

The Coach I Parent I Athlete Relationship


Jon C. Hellstedt
University of Lowell
Coaches often have difficulty working with the parents of their athletes. Communication problems, conflict, and sometimespower struggles over who has
control over the child's training occasionally develop. Based on an integration of sport psychology and family systems theory, a model for understanding the coach / parent / athlete triangle is developed. Three types of parents
are described.. overinvolved, underinvolved, and moderately involved, as well
as goals and strategies for working with each type of parent.

Organized youth sport programs are fertile areas of research and intervention by community oriented sport psychologists. It is estimated (Smith & Smoll,
1978) that more than 20 million children in the United States are involved in youth
sport programs. The potential value or harm from these programs is a subject
of debate (Coakley, 1986; Martens, 1978) and seems to depend on two key variables: the quality of adult supervision and coaching, and the amount of parental
pressure placed on the young athlete to perform (McPherson, 1978).
A typical complaint of coaches is, "I love working with the kids, it's the
parents I can't stand," or, "That kid would be a great athlete if her parents would
get off her back." Most coaches do not feel equipped to work with parents and
therefore are reluctant to deal directly with them. They feel their main area of
responsibility is with the athlete. They often block out the parents, and if they
view them as problem parents they refuse to deal with them at all. This is unfortunate because coaches can be a very useful resource in improving the parent1
athlete relationship. This change may facilitate the athlete's performance and have
lasting effects on his or her development.

Development of the Model


The existing sport psychology literature (e.g., ~ o u l d1982)
,
stresses how important it is for the coach to educate parents and maintain open communication. An
excellent format for conducting a parent orientation program is presented by Martens, Christina, Harvey, and Sharkey (1981) in Coaching Young Athletes. Their
ideas and suggestions are helpful and essential for coaches to utilize in any athAbout the Author: Jon C . Hellstedt is with the Department of Psychology at the
University of Lowell, Lowell, MA 01854.

letic program. This article builds upon these suggestions by presenting a simple
model for understanding the interpersonal relations between coaches and different types of parents. It is an attempt to begin addressing what Barry McPherson
(1978) has referred to as "an urgent need for greater understanding of the interpersonal dynamics within the 'Little League Triangle'-namely the coach-parentchild triad" (p. 243).
The model was developed to assist coaches at Carrabassett Valley Academy,
a ski academy in Maine, to understand their role with athletes and their parents.
Skiing is a sport in which parental involvement is high because the parents themselves are often skiers and participate directly as organizers and officials at competitive events. The coaches at the Academy often became frustrated in their
interactions with parents and requested help in dealing with them. The model
was presented to them at a workshop and used subsequently in individual consultations. The coaches found it very useful, and it is presented here in hopes that
it will assist other sport psychologists and/or coaches in their work with young
athletes.
As author, I am both a sport psychologist and a family therapist. Therefore
the model is an integration of sport psychology and family systems theory. Two
theoretical concepts from family systems theory form the basis of the model. The
first is the concept of boundaries developed by Minuchin (1974). A boundary
is the area of emotional and behavioral individuation between family members,
and it falls on a continuum from enmeshment to disengagement. Enmeshment
occurs when two individuals.have little psychological separation between them
and tend to think, feel, and act as one person. Disengagement occurs when the
psychological separation between two people is pronounced and emotional connections are distant. Carter and McGoldrick (1980) explain this model and describe
how these boundaries affect parents and children in three major areas: financial,
functional, and emotional. The model described in this paper relabels Minuchin's
categories and adapts them to the sport environment. Based on the psychological
involvement of the parent in the child's athletic success, three descriptive categories
are used: overinvolved, moderately involved, and underinvolved. This typology
is used to help the coach understand that his or her interpersonal relations with
each of these parent types will vary considerably.
The second theoretical base for the model is the concept of triangulation
developed originally by Bowen (1978). Triangulation is based on the principle
that a two-person interpersonal system is unstable and that if there is either conflict or fusion between them, a third person will be brought in to stabilize the
system. A simple example would be if two friends are having a disagreement
with one another, they will often talk about the disagreement with a third person
rather than try to resolve it with each other. The third person will feel caught
in the middle. Similarly, if two people are overinvolved with one another, they
will disagree or have conflict with a third person. Having a mutual enemy keeps
their overinvolved relationship stable.
There is a twofold purpose for using this model with coaches. First, it
helps them understand different relationships that parents and athletes have, and
second, by understanding how triangles work the coaches can avoid certain pitfalls, mainly distancing or open conflict with parents. This model was developed
in a sport environment in which the parent / coach / athlete relationship is intense

Coach 1Parent 1Athlete Relationship 153

and often problematic. It is my hope, however, that this model might be useful
to coaches in a variety of youth sport settings, and to sport psychologists who
counsel and consult with coaches and parents of young athletes.

The Parental Involvement Continuum


The amount of involvement that parents have in the athletic activities of their
children falls on a continuum from underinvolved,to moderate, to overinvolved.
Underinvolved refers to a relative lack of emotional, financial, or functional investment on the part of parents. Indications of underinvolvement in youth
sports would be lack of attendance at games or events, a minimal financial investment in equipment, few volunteer activities such as car pooling or other assistance with transportation, minimal interest in conferences with the coach in
regard to the quality of their son's or daughter's participation or skill development, and little or no assistance in helping the athlete set realistic outcome and
performance goals.
Moderate levels of involvement are characterizedby firm parental direction,
but with enough flexibility so that the young athlete is allowed significant involvement in decision-making. Parents are supportive, but ultimate decisions about
participation and levels of achievement are made by the athlete. Parents of this

Figure 1
Key people in a eoachlparentlathlete relationship. From Ieff: Clark Colon,
coach; Brett Hellstedt, athlete; Jon Hellstedt, parent.

154 Hellstedt

type are interested in feedback from the coach about their children's skill development, they have the ability to set realistic goals for their children, and they
support their children's participation financially without being excessive. The athlete is often asked to contribute a portion of the cost through work or other financial arrangements. Moderate parents often volunteer and participate in supporting
the organization that sponsors the athletic programs, but they are generally able
to leave the athlete's skill development to the coaching staff.
Overinvolved parents have an excessive amount of involvement in the
athletic success of their children. They have a need that is satisfied through their
children's participation, or they have a hidden agenda, hoping the children's success will provide later opportunities in education or career. They are not able
to separate their own wishes, fantasies, and needs from those of their children.
Overinvolved parents are characterized by excessive attendance at practice
sessions, standing next to the coach, yelling, frequent disagreements with game
or race officials, excessive financial support without requiring the athlete to share
in the cost, and frequent attempts to "coach" the child. An excessive amount
of their own self-esteem is tied up with their children's success on the field, so
they emphasize winning and are not willing to settle for improved performance.
They tend to set unrealistic goals for their children and communicate disapproval
to them if the goals are not met. They often become angry and disapproving if
their children do not perform well.

The Coach I Parent I Athlete Triangle


The interpersonal relations between coach, parent, and athlete will now be
described for each type of parent. The coach's relationship with the athlete and
the athlete's parents can be understood using the diagram and relationship symbols shown in Figure 2.
Coach, parent, athlete
relationship with moderately
involved parents:

Coachlathlete overinvolvement
with parental conflict:

Coachlathiete overinvolvement
with parental isolation:
COACH

PARENT

Figure 2 - Coach's relationship with athlete and parents. Note: Broken line = conflict; straight line = underinvolvement;double line = moderate involvement; triple
line = overinvolvement.

Coach 1Parent l Athlete Relationship 155

Coaching the Moderately Involved Family


This type of family is characterized by an open communication system. Because
the members of this family are dealt with as separate individuals, there is little
defensiveness when new information is presented. Parents have realistic expectations of their children's abilities. This is particularly helpful when the coach,
parent, and athlete discuss the athlete's goals. Children in these families are allowed to make their own decisions regarding athletics. They are not meeting the
parents' unfulfilled wishes, dreams, or expectations.
Such parents are firmly directive, however. If a child decides to participate
in a sport, these parents will usually expect the athlete to perform to his or her
highest level of personal potential. If they are pushy parents, it is to educate the
child as to what is required for competence at the sport. The coaching triangle
with this type of family is shown in Figure 2. The two lines between all three
members of the triangle indicate that under normal conditions communication
will remain open and productive, especially if the coach provides information
and education about the parents' proper role with their child. The foilowing coaching strategies are helpful:
1. Make clear expectations regarding the child's attendance at practices
and having the proper equipment.
2. Communicate the values of the program and the coaching philosophy.
This will involve information about values regarding skill development versus
an emphasis on winning, playing time for team members, and parental behavior
at events and games.
3. Give feedback regarding ability, skill development, and training needs
of their child. These parents will respect examples of feedback such as, "Your
daughter has great natural ability. She needs to work more on her mental attitude
toward the game, however. " Or, "Your son needs to improve his leg strength.
I would suggest he go on a weight program over the summer."
4. Be honest with them. Do not tell them their child has the potential to
be a great athlete when the child doesn't. Help them steer the child in a direction
that is in his or her (not the program's) best interest.
5. Meet with the parents two or three times a season to review their child's
strengths and weaknesses. Suggest ways in which their child can improve weaknesses and how they as parents can help in that process.

Coaching the Underinvolved Family


The main characteristic of this type of family organization is that it has a large
psychological space between members. They tend to be rather separate individuals. Where a ski academy is concerned, these parents will send their child to the
school and make little effort to be involved in his or her sport activity. The parents do not come to help with races; in some cases they never even come to see
their child compete. In a local youth program the child will often rely on coaches
and peers for equipment needs, transportation, and emotional support. The children seem to have little supervision at home. As young athletes they have to do
their own thing.
Two variations of the coaching triangle are likely to occur, namely the
conflict triangle or the isolated parent. Both are diagrammed in Figure 2. Note

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Hellstedt

that in both cases the coach has a tendency to become overinvolved with the athlete, and the parents are isolated either by emotional distancing or by conflict.
The coach may feel and express anger at the parent for lack of support of the
program, andlor the child and the parent may in turn become angry with the coach.
This happens when the parent believes the coach is taking over his or her parenting role or when the coach is seen as representing a value and interest system
that the parent believes is hostile or contradictory to the child's interests.
The athlete may look to the coach as a substitute parent (one who fills
the nurturing and support his or her own parents fail to meet), which leads to
overinvolvement and the fantasy that the coach is his or her substitute mother
or father. We notice in our program at the ski academy that these young athletes
latch on to coaches. They often look to the coach to make decisions for them
or get their race entry forms submitted on time.
In some cases the conflict toward authority that the athlete has toward
parents will be transferred to the coach, and conflict will occur in the coachlathlete
relationship. Coaches must be sensitive to this transference and not see it as a
personal issue but rather as a way in which the athlete is working out her or his
own relationship with parents.
In working with these families, two major goals are necessary. They are,
first, increasing the parent involvement on either the financial, functional, or emotional level, and second, setting limits on the relationship with the athlete to avoid
becoming a substitute parent-while at the same time providing the athlete with
some needed emotional and functional support. Some practical strategies to bring
about these goals are the following:
1. Make clear your expectations of parents. Meet with parents as a group
and stress the importance to the child of parental attendance at games, and the
need for transportation, food, and beverage assistance.
2. Engage these parents in a meeting to go over the goals of their child's
skill development, need for certain nutritional programs, training schedules, and
sleep requirements.
3. Invite them to attend games and events and assign them tasks such as
scoring, timekeeping, or helping with equipment.
4. Get them involved in some team functions such as hosting a team party,
keeping score, setting up the field, or serving on a telephone tree.
5. Refer the athlete to parents when he or she asks you for assistance or
support. For example, "Did you ask your mother for a ride to the game tomorrow?" "What did your father say about how you played last Saturday?" "Have
you told your parents you are angry (or disappointed) that they have never come
to watch you race?"

Coaching the Overinvolved Family


This is the family system that most often is a problem for coaches. These parents
are often seen as meddling, overprotective, and getting in the way of the coach's
relationship with the athlete. These families tend to be child-centered. A systematic study of elite swimmers and tennis players (Bloom, 1985) indicated that success in these sports was often correlated with a high degree of parental involvement
in the athletic activities of the children. The children's activities are the focus

Coach 1Parent 1Athlete Relationship 157

of the family's activities and interests. If one or more of the children is involved
in sport, the family wiU spend large amounts of time, money, and emotional energy
to see that the child becomes competent in that sport.
For overinvolved parents it is very important that the child wins. Improved
performance is not the valued end; it is not enough. Winning and being the best
are of utmost importance. Whatever resources the family has are directed toward
that end. Whereas underinvolved families have too much separation between parents and children, overinvolved families have a lack of separation. In some cases
there is a fusion. This can be seen when a father or mother is so tied up with
the child's success in athletics that the parent's sense of self-worth depends on
the child's athletic accomplishments.
Behavioral characteristics of these parents are marked by frequent attendance
at practice sessions, unsolicited "coaching" from the sidelines (usually directed
at their own child but sometimes also at others on the team), frequent directives
to their child to try harder, conflict with the coach over whether their child plays
enough or is properly understood, and an overinvolvement in their child being
on the winning team. They often have unrealistic expectations of their child's
ability. They may even see their child as a future Olympian and seem to exclude
evidence to the contrary.
Wealthy overinvolved parents will spend large amounts of money on summer camps, extra coaching, attendance at special schools, and the finest equipment-all in the belief that this extra effort will result in the child's great potential being actualized. If this overinvolvement is not remitted, the child will suffer
from athletic burnout, give up the sport early, or develop a personality trait of
high anxiety.
Two patterns often develop in the coaching triangle: the underinvolved
coach and conflict with the coach. As Figure 3 indicates, the underinvolved coach
withdraws from any significant involvement with either the athlete or the parent.
This pattern develops because the coach senses the sticky relationship between
the parent and the athlete and decides to avoid trouble with the parents by not
getting involved with the athlete.
Conflict between the coach and the parent frequently develops when the
coach gives the parent advice, direction, and positive but critical feedback. The
parent responds by challenging the coach's authority ("he doesn't know how to
coach," or "she doesn't understand my child. "). The coach takes up the challenge
and distances himself/herself from the parent either by direct attack ("you are
The underinvolved coach:

Figure 3

Parenuathlete overinvolvement
with coach conflict:

- The underinvolved coach. (See Note, Figure 2.)

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Hellstedt

smothering your child") or indirectly by avoidance or indirect communication.


Both variations are unfortunate because they take away from any attention to the
athlete and can result in conflict that sometimes affects the entire team or athletic
program. To avoid these outcomes, three goals are necessary:

1. Maintain a working alliance with the parent. View the parent as someone
to work with, not against.
2. Work toward a separation between the athlete and the parents. The goal
is to get the athlete to think and feel for himself or herself.
3. Avoid open conflict with either the parents or the athlete. The coach will
rarely win in a struggle for power with overinvolved parents. Instead the
coach should build an alliance with them by showing interest in them and
their child. Overinvolved parents often believe they are experts or authorities on sport. Rather than challenging this belief, listen to their opinion.
Some strategies that will help bring about these goals are the following:
1. Maintain open and direct communication with all parents of athletes
on the team. A meeting at the beginning of the year is an excellent idea. For
most team sports and recreational programs this is adequate. Individual sports
that require intense training call for more frequent meetings. It is a good idea
to meet with overinvolved parents individually. In some meetings, have the athlete present; this will provide a perspective on how the parents and their child
interact. Also, meeting together avoids conflict that could result from the coach
being perceived as colluding with either the parents or athlete.
2. Assist parents and athlete in setting realistic goals. If it is a team sport,
emphasize performance goals for the athlete. What specific skills (shooting, passing, dribbling, running, etc.) would help the child become a better member of
the team? If it is an individual sport, discuss outcome goals first ("what is a realistic
level of accomplishment for you this season?"). Come to a three-way agreement
as to what is realistic and attainable for the athlete.
3. Then discuss performance goals. What specific skills does the athlete
need to improve? These may be technical motor performance skills or mental
attitude.
4. Have the athlete formulate his or her own training goals on a weekly
basis. These should include setting goals in technical, mental, and behavioral areas
(Hellstedt, 1987). This gives the athlete practice in thinking for himself or herself.
5. Give frequent feedback to both the athlete and parents. An excellent
device for doing this is a coach's report, which can be done monthly during the
season. Be sure to comment on goals enumerated in earlier conferences.
6. Talk with parents at games and events. Overinvolved parents have a
very high need for information. If they don't get it, they will be angry. When
giving feedback, be positive but also be objectively critical when necessary. Do
not avoid addressing problems.
7. Make it clear to all parents what their role is in the program. This is
best done at the early season meeting. Cover things such as (a) attendance at practices and games or events (Where should they stand or sit at games? What is appropriate behavior if there are disagreements with the referee or official?) and

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159

(b) what are the expectations of parents in helping with the organizational aspects
of the sport? Enumerate the types of functional assistance needed (transportation, food, and social support). Set up lists, schedules, and assignments so there
is no confusion as to who does what.
8. Establish a process for dealing with individual problems. For instance,
"In any organization, there are always problems that develop. If you have any
problems you would like to discuss with me, please call me at
and
we will set up a meeting time to go over the problem." Then add, "I will do
the same if I have a problem I want to talk over with you."
9. Make it clear to the parents what your philosophy of coaching is. Clarify
your values in regard to winning versus improved performance, substitutions and
playing times, and the proper role of positive and negative reinforcement.
10. Educate parents as to the role of athletics in their child's development.
This is a good opportunity to discuss different developmental stages of childhood
and the proper role of athletics at that stage.
11. Be prepared to utilize specific strategies for problem parents. Make
some specific change oriented suggestions such as, "Your son wants very much
to please you and your wife, so much so that it seems to make him excessively
nervous during a race. Let's talk about where you might stand on the race course,
what you might say to him before and after the race, and any other suggestions
you might have to solve this problem." Work toward mutual agreements.

Conclusion
Coaches do not just coach an individual athlete. They actually are involved in
a whole family process. Ignoring this is to the detriment of the athlete and to
the success of the entire program. In the developmental years (ages 8-16), good
relationships with parents will enhance the success of a program; poor relationships can destroy it.
This article has indicated different types of parents and some strategies
for dealing with them for optimal results. Teaching these concepts and strategies
to coaches will enhance the impact of the youth sport experience. Moreover, the
sport psychologist can play a major role in helping coaches understand this process.

References
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Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson.
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Coakley, J. (1986). Sport and society (3rd edition). St. Louis: Mosby.
Gould, D. (1982). Fostering psychological development in young athletes. In T. Orlick,
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Hellstedt, J. (1987). Sport psychology at a ski academy: Teaching mental skills to developing athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 1, 56-68.
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Martens, R., Christina, R., Harvey, J., & Sharkey, B. (1981). Coaching young athletes.
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Smith, R., & Smoll, F. (1978). Sport and the child. In R. Smith & F. Smoll (Eds.),
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Manuscript submitted: November 21, 1986


Revision received: March 26, 1987