Separation for Success – Balancing Coaching, Club Leadership & Parenting

Ruth Nicholson, August, 2021

Consider how your organization addresses the key roles adults play in the experience of your athletes. It is common for adults to play multiple roles as coaches, board members, and parents of your athletes. When we mix roles or play out of position, we create conflict that can adversely affect our players.

Once upon a time……

A young player was on a team coached by the club’s Director of Coaching (DoC). She was the daughter of the club president, and he had dreams of her success. She had many interests and wasn’t sure that soccer was her favorite thing, but she knew playing soccer was important to her father. Her father liked being a leader in the club.

The DoC had worked hard to grow the club, recruit coaches, and build a quality program. He had a five-year strategic plan for growing and improving the club. The DoC had very little administrative help. His coaches just wanted to coach.

One day, the player had a really bad day at training. The bad day turned into a bad week. The girl was not playing well, she was acting up and disrupting practice, and the consequences included reduced playing time. The coach handled the situation the same way he handled it with any other member of the team, and the same way he, as the club DoC, counseled his coaches to handle it on their teams.

The situation escalated.

The father was furious at the treatment of his daughter. He told the coach how discipline should be handled on the team. When the coach held the line on being consistent with all the players on his team and in the club, the club president started asking others in the club for examples of the DoC’s poor performance. Drama, rumors, and speculation spread across the club. The board became divided with some supporting the president’s right to advocate for his daughter as a parent and others concerned that he was seeking preferential treatment because he was a board member. Coaching staff morale began to erode.  

The conflict exploded.

When the DoC remained consistent to the coaching philosophy and disciplinary approach he had built within his coaching staff, he was publicly fired at a board meeting. Within a few months, the president was driven off the board. Three quarters of the senior club staff were gone within a year.

Every year, variations of this story occur across the country. Organizational drama and off-field conflict are a major cause of coaching turnover in clubs. Coaching turnover influences player and administrative turnover which places incredible stress on clubs and their members.

What do these stories have in common?

  1. They rarely include someone talking to the player about the situation, and
  2. Adults too often play “out of position” with respect to their roles within a club.

Alice Aspen March, of The Attention Factor in New York City, believes that when children “act up” it is an indication that they are in pain or discomfort. Seth Taylor and Patrick Ianni, the creators of ON FRAME: Exploring the Depths of Parenting in the World of Youth Soccer, assert that what children need most from their parents and other adults is a sense of safety and value. Is it surprising that when our young athletes feel uncomfortable that they would “act up” to gain our attention?

When we as coaches and parents do not take the time to talk and listen to our players, we cannot see the underlying issues behind their behavior. The result is that our children become pawns in our assumptions about what they need and in our adult games around roles and power in our sports clubs.

We do NOT have to relive this story like a perpetual Groundhog Day movie!

What can be done? Try these things in your club –

  1. TALK TO THE ATHLETE. When someone has a concern with a player, talk to the player directly. Start by asking “How are you feeling?” Listen to their answer. We as adults can forget the significant issues in a young person’s life like a big school exam, a first date, or the desire to fit in. Sometimes the issue isn’t about sports at all. As the conversation progresses, ask other open-ended questions like “How are you feeling about the sport?” and “What do you wish would happen?” The more we listen, the more we will understand the situation and be able to help identify ways to support and help our athletes on and off the field.
  2. TRAIN YOUR BOARD OF DIRECTORS. One of the top five mistakes youth sports clubs make is not holding an annual orientation for their boards of directors. It is imperative that training for board members include clarification of board roles and how those differ from other roles in the club, including those of parent and coach.
  3. DEVELOP A HUMAN RESOURCES PROGRAM FOR YOUR COACHES. Clarify expectations through the development of written employment agreements and clear lines of supervision for coaches. The supervisor for a team coach should never be an individual board member whose child plays on that coach’s team.

CREATE A COMMUNICATION AND ISSUE RESOLUTION PROTOCOL FOR YOUR CLUB. One of the most valuable communication resources a club can develop is a clear process for how to address issues when they arise. It can be used in parent meetings, club handbooks, team formation meetings, board orientations, and coach and staff training. The purpose is to outline how to constructively raise an issue for resolution at the lowest level possible. Issues should only be brought to the board of directors after all other channels for resolution have been exhausted.


Ruth Nicholson is an internationally certified professional facilitator, mediator, and organizational alchemist helping sports organizations better support players and coaches. She is the founder of GO! offering proven governance, leadership, and administrative tools. 

In 2020, Ruth was inducted into the International Association of Facilitators Hall of Fame. She was a co-creator of the international 2019 Think Tank to Improve Youth Sports which engaged over 60 speakers from two dozen sports. In 2018, Ruth was a finalist for the Hudl Innovator of the Year award for youth soccer. Her work has engaged sports enthusiasts in North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America.