CoachingHigh School SportsProblems in Youth Sports

Yesterday was a tough day. It was a tough day because I had a conversation with another coaching friend who had lost his job. He was not fired for doing anything illegal. He was not fired for anything inappropriate. He was not fired for bullying or demeaning behavior. He was complimented for his integrity and respect with his athletes. In two decades of coaching he has been incredibly successful, winning multiple state titles and winning far more games than he lost, all the while developing quality athletes and even better people. He is a respected coach and coach educator. So why was he let go?

He was fired because some parents at his school did not like the amount of playing time that their kids got. 

He was fired because some players on the JV thought they should be on varsity. 

He was fired because some of his varsity players thought they should be starting. 

He was fired because his athletic director thought he had lost the locker room and it could not be salvaged, when all the while this AD was meeting with players and parents to talk about things like playing time. None of these players or parents had come to the coach directly.

In a nutshell, he was fired because we have completely lost the plot when it comes to youth and high school sports. We have stopped trying to develop people – which happens by overcoming adversity and being challenged in a caring and respectful environment –  and have concerned ourselves only with winning. We’ve stopped using sports as a vehicle to teach our kids to work hard and earn their minutes, and instead allowed it to reflect pop culture, where everyone says “look at me, look how good I am” where it’s always about me and my kid and never about the team.

As my friend explained to me the situation, I could not help but get angry because the world lost another fantastic coach. I was angry because I know that it was not the players that initially chipped away at the culture, but the incessant chirping of the parents. Kids usually suck it up when they don’t get what they want, that is until parents give them permission to start griping themselves. It was likely parents telling their kids how good they were, how bad the coaches were, how bad their teammates were, and how I’m going to do something about this, not by having you talk to the coach and coming up with an improvement plan, but by going straight to the athletic director or the principal.  

The athletic director, in turn, found it easier to ask my friend to resign than to stand up for a quality coach who loves the players and has had great success over two decades of coaching.

Today I read this article about 3 coaches in California receiving the same treatment. In a state where it is no longer easy for kids to transfer schools, instead they are actively trying to remove coaches. Across the country, fantastic, experienced coaches who challenge their athletes, create competitive environments, and demand more of kids than their parents demand of them are losing their jobs. Why? Because schools, principals, and athletic directors are afraid to stand up to whiny parents who are only in it for their own kids and have set themselves up as pseudo-experts who know who the best players are, who should be playing where, and what offense or defense the team should be running. I for one am sick of this. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have written here many times about the need to stop abusive coaching and bullying in sports (click HERE and HERE for two examples).  I have interviewed experts on the topic of toxic coaching. No one can accuse me of sticking up for all coaches at all costs; I call out those who do not treat the players correctly or respect the game. I am the biggest advocate for coaches being demanding, but not demeaning. My biggest worry is that we have come to a place where it is easier just to fire a good coach than it is to stand up to parents who only care about their own child, many of whom have little to no experience with the game besides watching their child.

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I have been in the coaching profession for nearly three decades and I have never, ever met a coach who does not play his or her best players without a good reason. Coaches want to win, and they do everything they can to get their best players on the court or on the field, especially at the high school and collegiate level. The only reason that I have seen coaches keep more talented players on the bench are the following:

  1. The player is selfish and will not buy into the team tactics, standards, or rules. Coaches will keep players on the bench who are all about what can I get from this instead of what can I give to my team.
  2. Players who consistently miss practices or do not uphold academic standards.
  3. Players whose parents are so disruptive in the stands and to the team culture that the coach is just tired of dealing with the parent so he or she sticks the player on the bench.

That is it. Coaches want to win and they want to play their best players. If an athlete is not getting playing time, especially on the high school varsity level, it is probably one of those three reasons above. Yes, I know that politics exists, and yes, I understand that there are rare cases where there is some perceived favoritism, but in the vast majority of cases the only reason people don’t play is for those reasons above. And unless a parent is attending practice every day and watching his or her son or daughter‘s behavior and performance, then that parent is not qualified to make that call. 

Yes, I know the private club coach or the personal trainer that many parents pay $100 an hour to train their child is telling them that their daughter is a future Division I player and her high school coach is an idiot, but I would challenge those parents to get a neutral opinion from someone who does not have a financial stake in their daughter’s continued participation to give an honest assessment of how good a kid is. The chances are very high that the “future Division I player” is not playing for the simple reason that the athlete is not a future Division I player. Or if she is, it is because she is stuck behind another future Division I player. 

Coaches are people like all of us. They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, teachers and upstanding members of their communities. They devote countless hours away from their families in order to coach our children. They do not have million dollar buyout packages, and in all likelihood their coaching stipend equates to far less than minimum wage for all the time that they spend coaching our kids. 

They should not have to read on social media how awful they are. 

Their spouses should not have to sit at the far end of the bleachers so they don’t have to hear parents openly bad mouthing their spouse and other players.

A coach’s child should not hear grown adults talking about their mom or dad that way. 

This is completely unacceptable.

We are losing great coaches. Great coaches who demand excellence from children are becoming an endangered species because too many schools care only about winning or parental opinions, and they do not care enough about extending their educational mission into their sports teams. They pay lip service to things like integrity, resilience, and respect when all they really want is more wins than losses. Or they tell the coach you have to win to keep your job, and then fire him anyway because he doesn’t give enough players playing time or doesn’t promote players from the JV to the varsity prompting parental complaints. This is ridiculous.

In the end, my friend resigned. He did not badmouth his school or his parents. He did not tell the media what happened. He just walked away and took the high ground. And while he is sad and frustrated, do you know who the real losers in this whole situation are?

It’s the kids. 

The ones who have lost the most in all of this are the players who have not learned to show up and work hard every day in order to earn time. It’s the players who have been shown that mom or dad will solve all their problems. It’s the players who will walk into their first job and get booted right out when they don’t do their job and will be laughed at when they try to complain because nobody cares. Do your job, work hard, get better, give to your team, and be ready when your chance comes. These are the lessons that sports can teach. This is what athletes learn when parents support the coach, encourage their young adults to go and advocate for themselves, and advise them to show up early, to stay late, to be a great teammate, and to embrace their role on the team. These are the lessons that every single one of these kids has missed out on. 

And that is what makes me saddest of all. Because I know my friend will land on his feet and another school will give a fantastic, successful coach another chance, and those children will benefit. But as for his last school? They have failed their coaches. They have failed their parents. And they have failed the children that they promised to educate, instruct, and prepare for the real world. This has to stop. 

So please, go out today and if you have a great coach, tell him or her thank you. If you have a child who is struggling for playing time, or to play his favored position, encourage them to go talk to their coach and get better. But please, stop creating an environment where far too many great coaches are just throwing up their hands and walking away from the sport they love, from a job they love, and from young athletes that they devote their lives to, because they are not allowed to do their job anymore.

If you have a story to share, please do so below, before another greta coach bites the dust.


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