Coaching Parents by Dr. Alan Goldberg (1994)      


Dr. Alan Goldberg is a Nationally known expert in the field of applied sports psychology. He is the director of Competitive Advantage, all Amherst, Massachusetts based consulting firm that works with coaches, athletes and teams at every performance  level.  Dr. Goldberg has worked extensively with swimmers of all ages and abilities, from age-groupers to world class. As a “head coach”, Alan specializes in teaching swimmers how to overcome blocks and get the most out of their physical potential both in training and competition. A former ASCA clinician, Dr. Goldberg is an entertaining and sought after speaker at clinics around the country because of his ability to take sport psychology concepts and present them in a practical and easy to understand manner.


Alan earned his doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Goldberg writes extensively on the psychology of peak performance for as number of national publications including American Swimming, On Deck, The Diver, Rip, Archer, etc. He is the author of “Smoke On The Water”, a mental toughness guide for swimmers and “Swimming Olli of Your Mind”, a 6-tape audio cassette mental training program. His latest book, “Slump Busting” will be published early next year.

particular meet and had beaten her daughter in every one of the first 6 races that they went head to head in. The mother was overheard loudly talking in the stands, “You know, for the $500.00 I’ve spent on this meet for the hotel, transportation, food and fees, you’d think Jane, (her daughter) would beat Sally (her opponent) in AT LEAST ONE event! Meanwhile her daughter hyperventilates after each race in anticipation of her mother’s regular fits after each loss.




Are parents REALLY crazed, egocentric maniacs and psychological misfits vicariously living out their own frustrated athletic careers through their kids? Why, yes of course I respond immediately in 1% of the cases out there. In 1% parents are crazy and have lost sight of the fact that their child’s swimming is NOT larger than life. In the other 99% of the time, parents are sane, but just do insane things. Now this begs a question, if they’re sane, why do they act and say crazy things?


Well before we get to that let me share with you an important secret. Every sane parent wants 2 things for their children and YOU are in a position to give them both.



At, States, just before a number of her daughter’s races, a mother came up to several of her 13 year old’s opponents and asked them if they wouldn’t mind letting her daughter win, since she had worked so hard and wanted the high point trophy. Appropriately each of those swimmer’s gave the mother what she REALLY needed. They smoked her daughter!


A USS sanctioned meet official and father of 12 year old identical twins secretly switched his daughter’s just before a race so that the faster one could swim using her sister’s name so as to increase their team’s chances of winning. Nothing wrong with this guy’s sense of values and what he wanted his children to learn from our sport.

And then there’s the mother who could not tolerate that her daughter’s arch rival over the years was hot at    this

  • – They want their children to be
  • They want their children to be successful.

Parents are willing to go to great lengths to satisfy both of these. They’re willing to sacrifice time, money, their energy etc. towards these ends. The question remains though. If parents indeed want these WHY oh WHY do they act so crazy.


Simple answer: 2 parts

  • – We live in a crazy society where winning is blown totally out of proportion and success and failure are defined ONLY in terms of coming in first. If you drop bundles of time and come in less than first you’re considered a loser in this model. This is the winning is not only everything, but the only thing mentality. Let’s face it, how many Olympic athletes who consistently finish out of the medals are household names? How many will you find on the cover of a Wheaties box? Yeah right! If you have some trouble with what I’m saying come back  a few years with me to the Olympics  and let’s listen in on those highly intelligent post-race interviews. We have Summer Sanders finishing second with a personal best time and Gold medal smile being asked to comment on how disappointed she must feel that she ONLY came in second. GIVE ME A BREAK! We have Jenny Thompson being asked to immediately comment on the suspected steroid use of the first place Chinese swimmer since Jenny only got a Silver medal.


This winning is everything mentality filters into our consciousness very early in life. We’re surrounded  by it. It’s the professional model. At a T-ball game a five year old “smacks” the ball and runs on  his stubby  little legs to first, turns the corner and goes for second, only to be tagged out by the equally tiny second baseman.  Instantly and without provocation the runner jumps on the hapless second baseman and begins to pummel him with tiny fists. After the grown-ups physically removed him and demanded an explanation, he quickly and seriously replied, “I thought that’s what I  was supposed to do,  That’s what they do on TV isn’t  it.”


  • – Most parents today did not have very good role models as to the appropriate way to act in relation to competitive sports. I can’t speak for yours, but I CAN for mine. I did not have good role models. My parents were a bit out to lunch in relation to my tennis. I did not  have pushy parents, I had parents who were out there…way out Tennis was only the most important thing in my life and they didn’t care. This can be just as bad as having pushy parents for some kids. Then there are the parents who get physically sick watching their children compete, and they can’t stick around.


Your job as a coach is to help parents learn to be better role models by training them. What  I’ve  just  said defines three things that you must teach parents in this training.


  • – HELP THEM REDEFINE WINNING  –  one  of the biggest causes of performance difficulties in and out of swimming is having an outcome focus. If a coach, parent or swimmer is too focused on winning or getting a certain time, you can  be sure  that  the  athlete  will  NOT be successful. In this sport you have the luxury of NOT having to beat someone else in order to define success or failure.   You can tell by YOUR own   time.


Parents need to be trained to rethink winning in terms of personal performance. Winning is about doing YOUR best.  “YOUR” is the key word  here.  Whether  you  have  a  100%   to  give  that  day  or  just  68%  because    you’ve been sick, you must define winning in terms of your own standard. A winner strives to do better than their best. Winning a meet with lousy times does NOT make you a winner.


  • – REDEFINE COMPETITION – In America we have a football mentality understanding of We talk of “killer instinct” and “destroying the competition”. We talk of our opponents as “them”, the “enemy” and make sure that as parents, we don’t talk to our son’s competitor or his parents. Look up compete in the dictionary and you’ll learn that the true meaning of competition is “to seek together”. Competition is  a  thing  where your opponent gets you to go faster. The better your opponent, the more opportunity you have to improve. Let’s face it. When you have a lousy  race, when you choke under big meet pressure and add several minutes to your best time, who did it to you? That’s right no one but YOU. You are your toughest competitor. Parents need to understand that peak performance is about competing against yourself. I can’t tell you how many blocked swimmers I’ve worked with over  the years whose main problem was a parent who wanted them to always beat certain swimmers in each race. Now that’s a good strategy to cause performance problems.



When I have a bad race or meet you can bet your life that the MAIN reason I did so was because I went and focused on the UC’s of the race. If I got psyched out, intimidated or just plain choked my little guts out, you can trace my problem back to the UC’s. The UC’s are  the UNCONTROLLABLES in the meet or race. When  a swimmer focuses on or tries to control the uncontrollables their anxiety level goes up and their confidence and performance will go down.


Because they do NOT know better, parents tend to focus their kids on the UC’s. “We’ve got to beat Sally today”. (Sally=UC) “If you win the high point trophy, we’ll all go to Disneyland” (highpoint trophy is a UC). “Today you have to qualify”, (quality=UC). When a parent or coach distracts a swimmer into an uncontrollable focus, they inadvertently get them into trouble. The swimmer needs to ONLY focus on those things that they CAN control.


Now, back  to  YOUR  role.  If  you  have any  investment in becoming successful as a coach you have to acknowledge that parents are NOT the bad guys. They are an important part of a winning  team.  You can’t be successful without them. So, let’s  look  at  the  two  main  ways that coaches  deal  with parents:



most of us. You only deal with parents when  you HAVE to. They are causing problems, they’re on the deck coaching, they’re undermining your program, THEN you deal with them. In this model you are a fire fighter, always rushing around putting out hot ones. Incidentally, this style of intervention with parents will lead to burn out, hair loss, and a terminal condition known as ETTO, (Excessive Talking To Oneself).


  1. THE PREVENTATIVE MODEL – You  see  parents as the good guys, as educable and you pro-actively take responsibility for training them. You meet with parents when they join the program, teach them about the sport, competition, your rules, life etc. It’s this model that you must adopt if you want to be successful and keep your sanity as well as your hair. Don Sonia once said that coaching is 90% training the parents and  10% coaching the swimmer, the hard part is working with the grown-ups.


So looking at my model of high performance, winning team we see that all members have important roles. I don’t have to spend time setting out your role on the team as the coach. You should have a fair  idea  of what’s necessary. We also know what  the swimmer’s job is on the team: commitment, sacrifice, positive attitude, listen, work hard, enthusiastic, etc.· Now we get to the parents. Most parents do not really know what they should be doing on the team. So through my years of research I’ve developed a very  complicated  answer. You tell them what to do! Spell out the parent’s role in writing. Have them come to a meeting to discuss it and let them know what happens when they don’t play their role the way they should.


So let’s speak English here. What is the parent’s role? Support, encouragement, love, understanding, pay the bills, drive to meets, volunteer to do things at meets, etc. Yes, and the emphasis for parents is that what their kids need is for them to be their BEST FAN. Some swim parents are “fair weather fans”. As long as Johnny is dropping time and Sara is kicking everybody’s  butt, their parents are behind them 100%. However, when little Johnny chokes his guts out at the big meet and Sara false starts and is DQ’d their parents are enraged and embarrassed. Those aren’t their kids. When parents tie up a kid’s self-worth and lovableness with their performance and times, they are asking for Trouble with a capitol T.


But Jet’s cut to the chase. What are you all waiting for me to say about the parents role is what they should NOT be doing on the team.  Their role is NOT to coach.

Now let me say this again in English so that you’ll remember to repeat it when you’re having this discussion with your parents. A parent’s role is NOT to coach. And then you must define exactly what coaching is. Pre-meet focusing, goal setting and motivation, pre-race psyching, directing, instructing, after race critiquing, evaluating and  judging.  REMIND  THE  PARENT THAT IF INDEED THEY TRULY WANT THEIR CHILD TO BE BOTH HAPPY AND PERFORM TO THEIR BEST, THEY  WILL  NOT COACH.


Keep in mind here something I said earlier. 99% of the parents out there are educable. They will  work  WITH you. They can be trained. 1% can  NOT.  There are a  small amount of parents who are  mentally  unbalanced and will NOT work with you and who have a mission in life to make you, your assistants and  their  own  kids  crazy as loons. With  these  kinds of  parents  you  must use “Get Out Therapy”. That is you  simply show  them the door.


So what prevents you right now from working effectively with parents? Simple! You and your reactions to the things that they say and do. Some parents  have a knack for pushing your buttons. For getting you to see red and respond  emotionally.  Keep in  mind, once you respond   to parents from an emotional rather than a rational place you lose both your professionalism and effectiveness. There are three common, knee-jerk reactions  that  happen when we are confronted by inappropriate parental behavior:


# I FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE · The parent is in your face and you get right back and give’em a taste of their own medicine. They’re angry with you and so you blast them. While getting angry is very appropriate at times, all too often discussions fueled by anger only create more difficulties in the long run. My favorite saying along these lines is: SPEAK WHEN YOU ARE ANGRY  AND  YOU’LL  GIVE  THE   VERY   BEST

SPEECH THAT YOU EVER REGRET. Fighting fire with fire gets everyone involved slightly charred. As Ghandi once said, “An eye for and eye and soon we will all go blind”.


#2 GIVE IN – Otherwise known as EATING YOUR FEELINGS. Yes sometimes it is important to give in. However, if you do too much of this you’ll be compromising both your personal and professional integrity. Especially if you are giving in “just this once” in hopes that the parent will miraculously start acting appropriate next time. This type of reaction is based on the time honored philosophy that if you feed steak to a tiger long enough,  eventually  it  will  become  a vegetarian.

Furthermore, if you continually sit on your feelings, you’ll end up either saying and doing inappropriate things or else getting yourself sick.


#3 BREAK OFF – You leave, sever relations, throw the parent out, etc. Again, sometimes it is important to divorce yourself or the parent from the club. But this isn’t a strategy you want to use every time you have a serious conflict.


Remember, you are a professional. You are the expert. Even if you’ve had one year  of  coaching  experience. Try to maintain your distance and objectivity.  If  you Jose your objectivity, you lose everything!


So let me provide you with a metaphor of what kind of stance you want to use whenever you are dealing  with any difficult situation that involves confrontation. It’s based on an old Aesop’s fable about  the sun  and  the great North Wind. One day the two were arguing about who was the most powerful and it was certainly quite clear to the North Wind that he was by far the stronger  of the two. To prove his point he said to the sun, “See  that hapless traveler over there? I bet that I can get his coat off faster than you can”. The sun, noting the long stranger walking along huddled in his overcoat readily agreed that this would be a fine test of who was the strongest. With that the sun hid behind a cloud and watched the North Wind go to work. The great wind began to blow cold and the poor stranger  had  all  he could do to hang onto his coat. However, the harder the North Wind blew, the more tenaciously  did  the  man hold onto his coat. Finally  the North Wind had to give  up because not even all his blowing could wrest the coat from the stranger’s grasp. Then the sun took over. He slowly moved out from behind the cloud and began warming the stranger. Soon the traveler began to sweat. Soon it became too warm for him to wear his overcoat which he quickly took off as he  continued  along  his way.

Which naturally leads us to an effective stance for dealing with  conflict.  Please  watch.  (asks for  volunteer). (to volunteer) Please hold your hands out almost perpendicular to your body, shoulder high. Now I am going to approach you twice. When I get to you I am going to grab both your forearms and try to push your arms down to your side. In each case, no matter what, I want you to resist me. Ready? (approaches with teeth barred, angrily and quickly grabs volunteer’s arm and puts all his energy into trying to push the arms down. Volunteer offers tremendous resistance and Dr., G is unable to budge his arms). Now shake your arms out and Jet’s try that again.  Same thing.   (This time he approaches   volunteer very calmly with warm smile on his face, looking volunteer straight in the eyes as he calls his name in friendly greeting. Lightly puts hands on volunteer’s forearms and with almost no effort pulls  volunteer’s arms down to the side.

My point is simple. Did I get what I wanted? That’s right, I did and I was a whole lot more successful than when I went after it looking for a fight. This is a very important metaphor for you to keep in mind. Certainly some time you still need to approach the parent the way I did the first time. However, most of the time you  will get more of what you want if you approach them the second way.

 So we’ve discussed your reactions. Now Jet’s  briefly look at WHY problems develop between coaches and parents. One word. COMMUNICATION. Actually, a Jack thereof is more accurate. When things are left unsaid, assumed or imagined, problems always develop. Let’s take perspectives for example. Every good swim coach has a Jong term developmental perspective when they take a young swimmer on. They train with an eye on the Jong haul. They build slowly, thoughtfully and carefully. They worry about and avoid doing too much too soon. This stance however, is in direct conflict with most parents’ way of measuring whether Jane or Billy is getting better. How do they measure this? Well, is Jane dropping time and is Billy winning more races. There’s that short term, instant gratification, winning and results is the only thing mentality. When I came  into  your office about my little 7 year old Teddy and demand that he get to do two-a-days like the older kids, because my Teddy is special and someday he’s going to win US a gold medal, you need to be able to communicate quite clearly to me why I won’t get what I want with this short term perspective. I need to be educated about the training process so I don’t drive myself, my kid and you bonkers over the next few months and years.


So you have to teach your parents how to talk with you. This means however, that YOU have to be accessible to them. You have to listen to their concerns and complaints. I didn’t say you  have  to  agree  with  them  but you must listen to them and give them a feeling that you understand where they are coming from. If  they  feel you  understand  them,  they’ll  be on  your  team  for the duration.


You have to teach them NOT to go to your assistant, another parent or their child when they are upset. It’s you they want to talk with. So here are some guidelines for you to follow to build a winning team with your parents and to foster open communication:

#1 STATE CLEARLY (both verbally and in writing) YOUR  COACHING  PHILOSOPHY,   STYLE and

POLICIES – Spell out your view of competition and winning and how YOU measure success. Tell them exactly what your program is about.



Whether you have a Lot of experience or a little, you ARE the expert. You are the coach. Even if you are inexperienced, you have access to a wealth of written/audio/visual experience. Present this role in a friendly NON DEFENSIVE manner.


ON THE TEAM – Spell out what is expected of the swimmer. Time commitments, sacrifices, physical demands etc. Explain your role and what you will and won’t do. Spell out the do’s and don’ts of the parent’s role including in detail the issue of coaching. This should include, clearly stated what will happen if a parent persists in interfering in a coaching role, on deck, at meets etc. Spell out role and function of parent organization.


– Explain to parents WHY it is important that they follow these guidelines, i.e. That their child’s love of the sport, self-esteem and performance is at stake.


#5 EDUCATE THE PARENTS ON THE PRINCIPLES OF PEAK PERFORMANCE – Teach parents the following principles and their role in fostering a positive learning environment and consistency in winning performances and help parents understand the process and their role in facilitating it.


#6 DEFINE A COMMON MISSION • Highlight the parent’s important role in the team’s goals. Spell these out clearly. If you want to begin to develop nationally ranked swimmers, then you need to put this on the table



RIGHT AWAY – Do not wait for a “good time” to deal with conflicts. “Good times” just don’t ever come. Move towards the conflicts immediately and calmly. Don’t Jet the mole hill turn into a mountain.



AND PROFESSIONALISM – Share your strong emotions with a supportive other, NOT with the problem parents that stir those emotions within you. Carefully consider both your words and actions…and when your alone you can scream and yell a lot.


Keep in mind, to produce a winning effort and have the gratification you deserve from this sport and your job, enlist the parents to help you. DON’T EVER ASSUME THAT PARENTS SHOULD KNOW WHAT IS AND ISN’T APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR.   Use a preventative model and train them. You’ll live longer and be happier. Not to mention that you’ll also be a more successful coach.




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