Coaching the Parents: Accepting the truth about a child's sports skill (or lack thereof) can be tough

Coaching the Parents: Accepting the truth about a child's sports skill (or lack thereof) can be tough

May 3rd, 2015 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Catherine Neely coached volleyball and basketball and helped out with tennis and track when needed in her 50 years at East Ridge High School.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Baseball coach George Oleksik remembers telling the parent of one of his players that he couldn't help the boy land a college scholarship.

The young man had been an all-star youth player, but he didn't do much during his high school career.

Dad didn't see the current player and fixated on the early glory days. Oleksik felt obligated to speak the truth.

"I told him his son was hitting a 'Bingo number,' " Oleksik says, "O-68."

Oleksik played pro baseball for the Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks, reaching the AAA level there as a pitcher before getting into coaching, first at Boyd Buchanan, then as a head coach at Notre Dame High School, where he is currently an assistant.

He's dealt with all kinds of parents, including the ones he calls "delusional." Whether the player is male or female, there always seems to be at least one parent who believes his or her child is going to be a star if only the coach would play him or her more and in the right position. Anyone who has coached has dealt with overbearing parents.

Like the local high school mom who believed the basketball coach would pull her daughter from a game if she scored too many points to keep her average from outpacing other players. Forget the logic. That's what she thought.

Or the daddy who called the high school coach to discuss his son's recent case of what are known as the yips, the sudden loss of motor skills without explanation; in this case, the boy couldn't make a throw to first, sailing the ball into the dugout, over the fence, anywhere but the first baseman's glove. Backed into a corner by the dad, the coach finally said, "The problem is you. You put too much pressure on him constantly talking about baseball." After a long pause, the dad said, "Well, how are we going to deal with this?"

Or the mother who tried to argue that the reason her son doesn't pay attention during practices is because he isn't starting and playing every inning of every game. Again, logic doesn't come into play here.

There are mothers who get in the coach's face and complain that he needs to practice the kids for at least three hours a night -- her 9-year-old son needs it to get a college scholarship -- even though the coach must go by the league's rules on how long a team can practice.

Catherine Neely saw it all during her 50-year hall of fame career at East Ridge High School. (She's actually in eight halls, including the National High School Hall of Fame.) She coached volleyball and basketball primarily, but helped out with tennis and track when needed.

Her teams won state titles and more than 2,000 games and matches, so she knows a thing or two about coaching. Yet she was challenged more than a few times by parents who didn't like her handling of their child. It happened more often after college scholarship opportunities increased for girls when Title IX introduced gender equity into the college landscape in 1972.

"You have to try to get the parents to trust you and sometimes you just can't do that. I did try," Neely says. "It's tough.

"I usually just try to sit down with them and help them see where their child is as far as skills go. I even used film and tried to open their eyes. It's tough because they only see their child through their own eyes, and they think they are playing for a college scholarship."

More than a few times she offered to stay after practice to work on a player's shortcomings and instruct them on how to fix it. Too often, though, a parent believes the problem is with the coach and not the lack of hard work, or even innate ability, on the child's part. Her advice is for the kid to "to get a ball and get in a gym on their own."

"What's the saying? 'You get better when nobody is watching.'"

Spending money

Oleksik and several others who've coached in the Chattanooga area say part of the problem is that many parents today pay for private lessons, hoping their child will be good enough to land a college scholarship and then ... dare they even think it? ... a pro career. Those kinds of expectations and that kind of money add a new dynamic to the equation.

"It is really bad," Oleksik said. "Every parent wants to give their kid every opportunity to be good, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are good. If you are paying someone to coach your kid, they are going to tell you he is good to keep you coming back. If you are paying for an opinion, it's going to be a good one."

McCallie baseball coach Greg Payne takes it a step further.

"What I think is the biggest problem is their [parents'] sample is too small. They think if they have the best player at their school then he is a D1 [the highest college division in the NCAA] or pro prospect."

He says some parents further delude themselves by placing their child on teams that only play in tournaments they feel the team can win. "Trophy tournaments" he calls them. To truly gauge your child's likelihood of playing at the next level, you have to go where the best competition is, Payne contends. Being the best player on a weak team or in a weak league does not a superstar make.

To be truly good in baseball, for instance, "you've got to go to East Cobb [near Atlanta]," he says. "All the best are there, either playing for them or against them. People around here don't play in those (tournaments), but they say, 'Well, he was an all-star in so-and-so league.' You're comparing apples to oranges."

Changing attitudes

Dealing with delusional and sometimes hysterical parents is an area that the local soccer community has dealt with fairly well in recent years, says Girls Preparatory School coach Patrick Winecoff. His team won the school's first-ever state soccer title last year, but he's coached several travel teams of various ages over the last several years as well.

He says the shift with the soccer parents has occurred, in part, because of the formation of the Chattanooga Football Club, which essentially brought most of the local players under one umbrella. Having a larger player pool weakens the power of a demanding parent, he says.

"The leverage for parents has always been, 'Well, we just won't play or we'll go somewhere else.' Back in the day, we'd have enough players for one team of 16 players, so you had to keep everybody happy.

"Now, there is more or less one club and an A and a B [team] in every age. If parents aren't happy, we still try to help them and keep them happy, but if it gets to Defcon 5, it's not the end of the world."

Winecoff says the Chattanooga Football Club also tries to educate parents about proper contact with the coach through the package that parents get upon signing up their child. In that package is an explanation on what sorts of topics -- like playing time -- are taboo for parents to bring up to the coach.

"They understand they are not to come across the field after a match to talk to the coach. Wait a day. Plus, parents in general do understand the game a little better the last 15 years. It's not just 'Run, run, kick it.'"

Winecoff says he's also had the pleasure of dealing with "a lot of great parents who just want to support the team. They just hope their son or daughter improves in a game they love to play.

"It's awesome when you see a parent who is on the side of the team, win or lose. Those are the rule more than the exception."

Family affair

Payne coached at Gordon Lee High School in North Georgia before coming to McCallie, where his team, led in part by son Tyler "TP" Payne, won a state title in 2014.

TP is a senior this year and has signed to play collegiate ball at Lee University, which next year is transitioning up to the D2 level in NCAA athletics, rising from the lower level NAIA. When it appeared that TP might have the talent to play big-time baseball, his father took him to East Cobb as the boy headed into his 13-year-old season to try out for its top team, the Astros. TP made the team and later the 14-year-old team, starting 103 of 104 games before being cut.

Payne says TP graded out at nine out of a possible 10 on the East Cobb rating system, "but [at 155 pounds] he's not very big. He would be a low D1 prospect."

Payne adds that, when TP chose Lee, it hurt his ego to realize his son would not play at the D1 level, but the decision was TP's. He says he worked hard to separate Dad from Coach over the years and that, from the beginning, working on baseball had to be TP's idea. TP confirms that and says his father handled things right.

"I felt like he pushed me to be my best," the younger Payne says. "It always had to be my idea to hit baseballs. I had to ask him."

Once there, Coach Payne took over, however.

"If he was messing up or goofing off, we left," Payne says.

"Yep, that's true," TP concurs.

Life lessons

Another trend in youth sports is specialization, with kids choosing -- sometimes at the strong suggestion of their coach or parents -- to drop all other sports and focus on one year round.

But TP also was a wide receiver on McCallie's football team and says the game, and head coach Ralph Potter, gave him a different perspective on sports.

"It taught me about life and how to be tough mentally and physically," he says. "Baseball can't teach both. (Football) helped me a lot more than I thought. Ralph is not a fun coach. He's old school and he pushes you to get the best out of you he can."

It's fair to say Greg Dennis, baseball coach at Chattanooga State Community College, is also old-school. His sharp tongue and quick wit have humbled scores of players who needed a dose of reality over the years. He's also dealt with his share of delusional parents.

"Oh, you get the whole gamut," he says. "Parents living through their kids. Parents who are more passionate about it than the kid is. I had one in today for a visit. The dad did 75 percent of the talking. Talking for the kid, answering my questions for him. I'm sitting there thinking 'I'm supposed to be excited about this prospect?'"

Dennis has a simple method for dealing long-term with such helicopter parents.

"I avoid them at all costs."

By not signing players with the pushy parents, he eliminates multiple problems, he says, and not just on the playing field.

"Delusional parents are setting the child up for failure, and absolutely in the classroom and elsewhere. I don't think you turn that on and off. I don't think a parent can be delusional about them on the field and realistic about them in the classroom.

"And it's not going to be Mommy or Daddy out there when it's hot and we're running or when it's freezing in December."

Dennis, the father of three, says he understands how some parents feel so strongly about their child, but that doesn't make bad behavior right.

"It's tough. You're a father, too, and it's their child. It would be presumptuous of me to say something," he says. "They [the players] need to learn how to handle their own business and be involved in what they are truly passionate about. It is tough because it is personal stuff."

The car ride home

Payne likes to remind himself of a survey of college athletes done a few years ago in which they were asked what their favorite thing they'd ever been told by their parents was.

"The No. 1 answer was, 'I love to see you play.'" Their least favorite memory was "the car ride home." That's often where Mommy or Daddy fill the child with how good he is, how bad the coach is or how the child is not being treated fairly.

After decades in baseball, Oleksik has no problem remembering his favorite summer with the game.

"I was 10 and it was the first year of player pitching. The coach put numbers in a hat [1 through 9] and we all drew. Whatever number you picked was your position and where you hit in the batting order. It helped us learn all aspects of the game. That was my funnest summer in baseball."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.


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