I was exercising this morning listening to the Let’s Talk Cheer Podcast. If you haven’t heard that one, you have to hop on. (I also listened to “Houston We Have a Problem” on the Cheer Biz Podcast and will share that with my coaches and parents today!) On LTC, Jason took a question of the week from a parent who asked why her daughter may be regularly nugetting in the back during a routine.

That wasn’t the part that really struck me, though. The part that stood out to me the most was when the parent said the coaches don’t address her concerns, and the owner gets defensive when she asks questions about it.

I can empathize with both owners and coaches here, but as a parent, I absolutely can empathize with the mom as well. 

Do you find yourself getting defensive with parents or staff? I definitely do at times, and if you’re being honest with yourself, I’m sure you do too. Even the most humble coaches and owners stand up for their beliefs and get frustrated when others don’t quite understand their views. Let’s break down what you might feel in those situations and how you can redirect your frustrations for a positive and educational conversation. 

Coaches: Maybe you’ve been instructed by the owner not to address the concerns of the parents. There have been a few coaches over the years that I was mentoring who I knew just weren’t ready for confrontational conversations with parents. They were instructed to direct parents to the All Star Director or me. These were often young coaches who didn’t have the confidence to have those tough conversations. They still saw themselves as children and athletes in many ways and were making that transition into confident adulting. However, we typically educated the parents on the team that their coach was amazing with children and skills but was still fresh. She’d have heavy oversight throughout the season, and we’d always be there when she needed help. As a result, she may not always be able to answer your questions, so please check in with me and I’m happy to help. Not every parent remembered that halfway through a season, so we also worked with the coach as we increased her confidence on what sort of conversations she should send our way. 

Olivia is an excellent example of this. She grew up in our program and is now a 21-year-old nursing student with us. Three years ago, as a college freshman, she was still learning how to process a mama bear’s emotions. 

We began mentoring Olivia on how to politely hear the parents out and help them set up a meeting with me so I could address their concerns. Often, Olivia was there for our conversations. It was important she could observe these situations to learn how to handle them on her own. Owners can’t protect the coaches from those hard conversations forever, which is what I have tried to do for many years, so it’s crucial that we teach them how to have confrontational conversations productively. 

In our gym, it has always been important to me that the parent didn’t feel dismissed but always felt heard and important. Truthfully, the parent often had valuable insight and reasonable concerns. In the chaos of trying to run a gym, coach teams, hire and train staff, market the program, and deal with the finances, there were things I had overlooked, and without those parents addressing their concerns, I never would have been able to improve.

If you’re a coach who works directly with parents in the gym, and you find yourself handling their questions and concerns, keep reading!

Owners: I’ve absolutely had moments where I felt like a parent was questioning me, and it hurt my pride. I felt they didn’t believe in my ability to run a great program or coach a team through the needed skills. Do you know what I learned over time, though? That wasn’t the parents’ problem. That was my problem. Deep down, I was insecure about my ability to run a business and coach the team. (No, I wouldn’t have admitted that back then, so you might be denying it too!) When in defense of my decisions, I found myself quick to react. Later, I’d sit back and reflect on the situation. If I had slowed down and listened more, I know I would have reacted differently. There is so much value in teaching yourself to slow down during those conversations. Not only will it help you really listen to the other person, but it will also help you choose your words, tone of voice, and body language more carefully. Parents who regularly encounter a defensive gym owner eventually get frustrated and stop approaching you with questions and concerns. That’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to gym culture.

So, as a gym owner or coach who has been there and done that (and still finds myself reacting defensively today), here are a few tips:

  1. Take the personal feelings out of it and look at the facts. Justin and I always joke that when someone criticizes the gym, I almost feel like they call my baby ugly. I immediately want to come to the defense of my staff and our procedures. At the same time, the last 12 years have given me a bit of wisdom. I now realize it’s those tough conversations with parents and really listening to them that have made me change things in our gym for a healthier overall culture. Our gym is better because of parents’ questions and concerns over the years. 
  2. Teach yourself to take a pause. If you’re like me, and your brain is moving a mile a minute when someone starts talking to you about stuff like this, try to really listen without thinking about what you’ll say next. (This one is hard for me, and I must be very intentional about it.) I’ve gone so far as to take notes while someone is talking so I remember what points I want to address when it’s my turn. It makes me a better listener and allows me to slow the conversation down instead of acting reactively. 
  3. Train your staff on their roles and how to ensure parents feel heard even if they’re not quite ready to have difficult conversations. Allow them to observe you during these conversations to see your verbiage, body language, and tone of voice in action. After the conversation, don’t sit and gossip with the coach about the conversation, but point out the things you did to keep the conversation calm and productive. Ask if they have questions and if there is anything they would have said or done differently. (Sometimes, you’ll find that a coach may do or say something differently, and it conveys the same message. This will help build your trust in their ability to handle these difficult situations.)
  4. Remind yourself and your staff regularly that someone asking questions is not questioning you. Those are two different things with two very different intentions. Someone who is asking questions has the intention of getting answers, learning, and finding solutions. Someone questioning you is looking to get you to admit wrongdoing. That said, you might be thinking you have parents regularly questioning you. Is that your own insecurity making you feel that way? Is that the culture you’ve created in your gym through your own defenses? I try to assume the best, but there is only one way to find out. Educate the parents on why things are set up the way they are. Demonstrate your credibility through experience. When something goes wrong, admit it and tell them your plan to fix that for the future. If they are understanding and supportive, they are simply asking questions and not questioning you. 

So many cultural issues can be solved in our gyms if we, as owners and coaches, can lower our defenses, check our egos, and humble ourselves. I’m not saying there aren’t a fair amount of parents who need to do the same, but you’re the gym owners and coaches leading the way. You’re the ones driving the car, so set the tone. If you realize you’ve set it wrong in the past, you can absolutely change. It will be challenging, and it will take time. Don’t expect people to suddenly change their tone just because you have. We’re creatures of habit, and it’s hard for us to accept that others can change. But as someone who once had a bad reputation for snapping back and acting defensively, I’ve changed my own habits and reputation over the years. Parents have adapted and become far more supportive in the process. Doing these things will create less drama and more overall support from parents and staff in your program.