SAFESPORT PARENTING: Building a successful partnership with a junior coach


This is the third of four articles in USA Cycling's series on SafeSport Parenting. This series is written by Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, a USA Cycling level 1 coach and member of the USA Cycling Coaching Education Advisory Committee.

By Kristen Dieffenbach

Being a successful parent means wearing many hats in the effort to provide your children with the best opportunities for both short- and long-term growth and well-being. Chauffeur, personal shopper, nutritionist, maid, confidant, financier, and disciplinarian are all part of the job description. When striving to add ‘successful junior sport parent’ to your list, it is important to be clear on your role in your athlete’s sport experience. Note the emphasis on ‘athlete’s sport experience’. Even if you are also an enthusiastic cyclist, this is your child’s journey, your child's experience, your child's developmental path.

The natural process of teenage development requires opportunities to develop self-reliance, autonomy, a sense of identity, and mature relationships skills apart from parents. The first and second articles of this series discussed how the right cycling role models and junior coach can be a valuable part of a junior’s athletic developmental pathway and how you as a parent could help construct the peloton surrounding and supporting your athlete. This article will provide tips to help parents make the most of their supporting role in the parent-athlete-coach relationship.

Somewhere between overly involved ‘helicopter’ parent and disengaged ‘drop off’ parent lies an optimal window for parental participation. Unfortunately, where one falls on the continuum is rarely self-evident, and to complicate matters the optimal level of involvement varies based on your child’s needs, age and maturity level. Though simple on paper, striking a balance can prove to be quite challenging for many parents. Intellectually understanding that your junior athlete is growing up and being able to step back into a supporting role requires self-awareness and restraint. Before you invite a coach to be a part of your parenting team, consider and clarify your views on your child’s sport experience. What is the purpose of their involvement? What do you want them to gain? Understanding your own philosophies and motivations will help you work more effectively with your athlete’s coach and will help you accept the new role of being an athletic support staff member.

As you embrace your ‘supportive sport parent’ role in the athlete-coach-parent relationship consider the following:

  • You are the parent. Keep this in mind when there are challenges in the athlete-parent relationship. No matter how many inches taller they are or how many more watts they can produce than you, they are still growing. They may not have mastered great communication, optimal motivation, or other important skills. This means it is your responsibility to both be patient and facilitate development.
  • While you are the parent, the parent-athlete-coach relationship functions best as a three-way partnership where all parties are invested and involved. Decide what key communication points are non-negotiable and then be sure the communication guidelines and role expectations are clear and acceptable to everyone.
  • Create opportunities for open and honest communication. Avoid conversations that put your junior athlete on the spot. Seek to have the engaged discussions that start by asking for their opinions and ideas. Ideal times for such talks are during a shared ‘side-by-side’ activity such as going for a ride or tackling a chore together.  
  • Have a conversation with your athlete about your role as a sport parent. While you have ideas about how you want to support them, be sure to ask what feels most supportive to them. What do they need from you? Clarify expectations from both perspectives. 
  • Once a coach has been hired, be sure to discuss parental support expectations. Share the agreement you and your athlete have and clarify the coach’s expectations as well. 
  • Make sure your athlete feels they can tell you things like, “Mom, I can get ready for the race myself” or “Dad, stop bugging me about doing my ride.” The gap between what is intended and what is perceived creates opportunities for misunderstandings and problems. These are rarely solved by trying to change someone’s perception. Instead, avoid getting defensive and seek to better understand the athlete’s point of view and how he or she prefers to be supported.
  • Strive to be what the Positive Coaching Alliance calls a second goal parent. It is the coach’s job to focus on the training and emphasize athletic development. As a parent, it is your job to provide unconditional love and support. Be sure your athlete clearly understands that who they are and their efforts are what make you proud, not what they accomplish.
  • Don’t mistake outcome for development. Winning races, particularly in the earlier junior levels, does not necessarily mean the athlete is developing necessary skills, physically, mentally or emotionally. Focus on rewarding effort both on and off the bike.
  • Embrace your role as support staff to both the coach and athlete. While you may be paying for the coaching fees, allow the coach and athlete to build and develop a trusting relationship without having to navigate around you.
  • Let the athlete and coach clarify the communication guidelines, role expectations and boundaries for their relationship. Also be sure that everyone has a shared understanding of what your role is in the process.
  • Clarify training progress expectation with the coach. While periodic updates might be reasonable, avoid micromanaging or over involvement. 
  • Avoid, whenever possible, communications with the coach that are behind the athlete’s back. All parties should have a clear understanding, at the start of the relationship, that except when there is a serious health or well-being concern, no communications will take place without the athlete’s knowledge. 
  • Avoid making the athlete the go-between (‘Tell coach that’ or ‘Ask coach that’), even for routine communications.
  • Criticizing or critiquing a coach’s choices or ideas puts the athlete in a difficult and unfair position. Discuss coaching-related concerns directly with your athlete’s coach in a private, professional manner to help reduce unnecessary stress for the athlete.

Next month, in the fourth and final article in this series, we will discuss problems that can occur in junior coach-athlete relationships, red-flags, and what parents should do when they have concerns.

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This Article Updated March 24, 2017 @ 07:15 PM For more information contact: