Coaching Parents

by Ryan Krzykowski

A few weeks back a coach shared a link with me about South Carolina Men’s Basketball Coach Frank Martin.  Coach Martin had some strong words for parents of young athletes, as you can see by the tweet that came out back in February.

After reading this article on SB Nation, I had to admit that Coach Martin makes some outstanding points.  As a parent of young athletes, I am often disappointed and occasionally embarrassed by the behavior of parents/spectators as they watch their children play.  It’s clear that far too often adults take a ‘sports fan’ mentality into the arena — being emotionally invested in the outcome of a contest and feeling it appropriate to loudly verbalize disapproval with officials, coaches and even children.

I apparently have something in common with Frank Martin.  We both have sons in the 4th grade who we watch play basketball with their friends.  During this past season, one of my son’s teammates had a Dad who had a hard time handling the shaky officiating at one of the 4th grade games.  He was visibly upset and hollering out throughout the contest.  It wasn’t quite as bad as Coach Martin’s tweet, in that nobody ran out onto the floor, but still it was not great.  Then this guy actually approached me after the game and asked me how I manage to stay so calm while our kids are getting ripped off by the refs.  Perhaps it was a teachable moment, but I didn’t want to come off looking like a know-it-all jerk (I’ve done that too many times in my life already), so I just kind of said that it’s just a game and they’re young kids so it isn’t worth getting upset about calls.

I don’t know if I should have gone any further with it in that moment or not, but thinking on that question some more, the reason I stay calm as I watch my kids play fits with what Frank Martin has to say.  I am not their coach.  I don’t really care of they win or lose — at least not for my sake.  I am not emotionally invested in the outcome of that game.  What I am invested in is the healthy growth and development of my son and his friends, but that is not tied to whether or not they win a basketball game.  It’s nice for them if they win, so I pull for them for that reason, but that’s as far as it goes.

Thinking some more about all this, parent behavior at games and whatnot, it does come back around to Frank Martin, at least a little bit.  Maybe a lot, I don’t know.  Coach Martin is a very good basketball coach.  He comes across as a very intelligent man.  We got to see quite a bit of him when he coached at Kansas State for a number of years.  Coach Martin is also well known for emotional, animated, (some have called it abusive) behavior during practices and games.  In his comments to the media, Coach Martin makes a distinction between what is acceptable for a parent/spectator and what is acceptable for a coach.  On one hand, I think he makes a good point.  In general, spectators should keep their negative comments to themselves.  I’m with him there.  On the other hand, Frank seems to want to give coaches carte blanche to act in whatever way they see fit.  In the article linked above, we read this:

And that’s the part that’s frustrating to me, if someone wants to be so animated when there’s a basketball game going on, then go coach the team, go run practices, show up everyday at 6 o’clock at night and run an hour-and-a-half practice. And then you’ve got your team to coach, or be an assistant coach, sit on the bench, yell all you want.

I don’t know about that.  Do we really want coaches who put in all that time to feel free to “yell all they want”?  If I sat down and discussed this with Coach Martin, I’m guessing he would put some limits on that yelling, and could offer some context to further explain what he meant.  But there’s the problem.  It’s clear to me that there is a direct correlation between aggressive parent behavior at youth games and what these people have come to accept as “sports culture”.  And coaches on TV who berate officials, etc. have contributed to the development of that culture.

I have respect for Frank Martin.  Much of what I have heard him say over the years has convinced me that he is a man who cares deeply about the athletes he works with, and goes above and beyond to show them love.  And I think his message to parents is needed and ought to be taken to heart.  At the same time, I think he fails to recognize that the occasional lack of decorum exhibited by coaches and athletes at the highest levels of sports has contributed significantly to the issues that we all now find ourselves facing.  It’s not an either/or situation.  It’s really about everyone working together to do what is best for young people.