Parent Engagement in Youth Sports

Youth Sport is bigger than any player. We do our best to let them go and let them play when they're on the field. That's a good thing. But coaches only get kids for at maximum, 2 or 3 hours at a time. Parent drive them around, pay for their access, eat and play with them at home, share their perspectives and experiences every day.

Parents also make up the bulk of the volunteers for any club. Parent engagement is a key component of every program. If parents are not connected with what's going on. If they are not on board with the development program, then that development program is already in trouble. What is the problem with parent engagement and what can we do to make the youth sports experience better for everyone through effective parent engagement

What's the Problem With Parent Engagement?

There are two main problems with parent engagement in youth sports:

  1. it's really hard
  2. it's really important

Remember back to when kids played bumble bee ball? 3, 4, 5, and even 6-year-olds all chasing the ball around like a swarm of bees. The kids had no idea of the rules. Everyone just wanted to kick the ball. In the younger ages, they were not even aware that they had teammates. They played next to one another in parallel play as opposed to with one another as a team. It was great fun!

Parents stood around the field - usually all the way around the field if they could. Cameras were out. Smiles were on every parent's face. Parents were engaged and they were having fun! 

Fast forward 5 or 10 years and we see a very different picture on the sidelines of some soccer fields. Parents red in the face, yelling cheeseburger comments at the top of their lungs. Yelling at the referees. Kids shrinking with embarrassment. No, this doesn't happen at every soccer field. I hardly ever see it on my Club fields, but when I travel just a few miles, I can find it in abundance. 

What happened? At some point, kids seem to have advanced in their knowledge of the game and in their connection to the stuff that matters in youth sports. Progress over perfection, I always tell my players. But parents were left out. They have no developmental goals to anchor their passion for their kids. They don't celebrate the passback or the sportsmanship or the respect they gave to other players on the field. They celebrate or fail to celebrate one thing: the scoreboard. 

The scoreboard is the one thing that everyone can see. "What's the score?" parents ask as they wander down on the field and set up their chairs. "How's our team doing?" they ask. They mean this question in terms of what the scoreboard says. The typical response is "We're up by one," "They're killing us," or "We're doing great... it's 3:1." 

Would it be odd if parents came down and said "How's Chris doing with her game today? She's looking good. Is she enjoying the fitness?" Or "Hey! I saw Jason pick that kid up when I came down. He's really getting this sportsmanship concept out here!" or "Ama just never gives up out there! It's great to see her spirit really bloom out there on the field!"

Of course, there are more practical reasons to have a good parent engagement program. 1. without it, we risk treating parents like taxi drivers and wallets instead of the development partners they are. 2. They have questions that need answering and it's best for everyone if they enjoy the experience as much as possible. Without our parents, folks... youth sport goes away.

What are the Causes of the Parent Engagement Problem?

I believe we're missing out on some of these really great conversations because we've failed to bring parents along when it comes to the real reasons for youth sports. All parents want their kids to succeed, and in the absence of any relevant markers for success, they use the scoreboard as the proxy. A win means their kid is a winner. A loss means their kid can do better next time. We miss the point!

Parent engagement is an added layer of overhead to many organizations. It's pretty obvious that we need to reserve fields, contract referees, purchase and maintain equipment, hire and train coaches, etc. But parent communication is something many organizations think of when we need money or somebody's kid doesn't have a ride. Adding or building a deliberate workstream that raises parent consciousness about the game (so they can stop yelling at referees over offside calls), about our developmental goals: perseverance, integrity, sportsmanship, empathy, teamwork, etc, or about their role in the development process is hard work!

Information overload is already taxing parent's attention. Sending a flurry of email is not effective when it lands in an inbox full of adds for every store they've visited in the last three years + a few thousand SPAM messages. Meeting parents in different venues, using multi-media - like this show, for example - or on-demand videos, or well designed web-based resources that are mobile friendly help. 

Cultural influence plays a role. If the culture a parent is exposed to is not calibrated, if structures and plans to manage the culture are not in place, then there is a likelihood that new parents are going to pick up and perpetuate habits from the established parents. Breaking that cycle can be extremely challenging as some of my local colleagues tell me all the time. 

Parent engagement is not free. How often do you think a line item in the budget says "parent engagement?" Not often - which means it come out of fees collected in other areas - many of them have hard-coded budget line items line coach's salaries, training, equipment, fields, and referees. 

There are few programs specifically designed for parent engagement on the market and creating a new one can be a drain on resources. There is little precedent for us to draw from. Soccer Parenting, a program founded by Skye Eddie Bruce, is one example of a program used by many clubs as a supplement to their regular program, but this, of course, cost money. I recommend you take a look at her program for inspiration around parent engagement if you're interested in the subject. She's joined forces with many good people and together, they've done a lot of really excellent work. 

What are some Potential Solutions to the Parent Engagement Problem? 

Parent engagement is something I've obviously done a lot of thinking about. This main demographic of listeners to my show are soccer parents and coaches. My tag line is about bringing parents, players, and coaches together around the stuff that matters. What you may not know as a listener is all the other stuff I have going on behind the scenes in an attempt to address this problem. 

For years now, I have been doing what I refer to as "culture walks." This is literally me walking the sidelines of my fields every weekend in as many games as I can get to - talking with parents and coaches (when they're not coaching). I've had some great conversations - many of which have become episodes by themselves on this show. I've shared this concept with other clubs in the region, who have in-turn shared it with organizations like Soccer Parenting. I think we're all in agreement that face-to-face engagement is the most powerful way to engage, but it's also inefficient and very resource intensive. It takes hours from my day and I can only get to a small number of parents. 

Bring on the Mission Statement!

My clubs branding was one of the first things I established when I was elected President. Our message had to be simple, clear, to the point, and something that captures the essence of who we are. Our new mission statement: Character, Development, and Fun Through Youth Sports went up on everything, from signs, to our Website, to our social media banners. When a parent lands on one of your sites or sees a shared social media post, they should know in second what your organization is about and what you focus on. Notice, our statement 

Bring on Social Media!

For all its flaws, and there are many, social media still remains a useful way to communicate. A media-rich environment with built-in interactivity, a smallish investment up front can yield excellent returns in terms of reaching people with your message. It just needs some TLC and someone at the keyboard who understands the core message and enjoys the interactivity. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all good examples of free social media that can be set up in half a day. 

Bring on the Microphone!

Podcasts like this one are great force multipliers. I get to talk with you and thousands of others every week. It's one-way communication through. It works best when listeners like you have a way to connect and be more interactive. 

Bring on the Video!

In addition to this show, I've crafted dozens of videos that I post to social media and to our Website. Here's the key: they're not random. They all work together to "onboard" a new soccer parent (or coach). They all speak to our culture - reinforcing our mission statement, and each one is designed to move viewers one step closer to being an engaged parent. 

Bring on the Take Homes!

Some people are not tech savvy and prefer paper they can hold. Parent meetings at a local cafe might be a good time to hand out a coaching philosophy, a Club philosophy, safety and logistics information. Take home documents don't need to be fancy. Maybe they include a phone number or preferred email. All they really need to do is provide the essentials and open the door for more conversation down the road. Saying hello is a great first step in any relationship. 

Bring on the Food!

You heard me right. Parent engagement through food is a real thing. Pizza parties are everywhere, and they work, but in a moment I'm going to share how I took this engagement idea over the top. Hint: it has to do with an executive chef!

What's MY Recommended Solution? 

I'm an all-of-the-above kind of guy. In my Club, I maintain multiple social media channels, email newsletters, text messaging groups, and print 12,000+ fliers every year. I didn't stop there though. In today's world of information overload, this stuff needs to be organized. 

I use a platform called Kajabi. I provide an affiliate link to this product on my Website and if you click on it, you won't pay any more, but they will pay me a small referral fee for sending you.

I love this solution as it allows me to post videos, text, and audio bundled together as "products" or "courses." My parents subscribe to them (or when I get really sophisticated, I'll use Zapier to grab their registration information to register them for me), then they get to scroll through the modules that most interest them. They usually ignore the rest. 

Specifically, what I've done is create a short 5-minute parent orientation video. I called a "virtual" parent meeting on a certain date. Parents signed up for it as if they would for a Webinar. When the time came, the video went live and parents clicked to get it started. It ran every 15 minutes for like 24 hours. When the short intro video finished, it redirected parents into our Member portal - also hosted on Kajabi. There they found information about our mission and vision, our philosophy, our weather policy, uniform ordering... in short - about everything that filled my inbox each season. 

My inbox shrunk immediately and I regained dozens of hours that season, and every season since. 

Parents rarely showed up for actual parent meetings. When they did, they remembered about half of what i said. When they shared the half they remembered with their spouse who didn't come, about 25% of what I wanted to say made it into our member's homes. 

Today, if a family can't make it, they catch the video some other time. If a spouse can't remember, they can plug their spouse into the portal and they can watch it for themselves. The portal is live for six months after each new registration, then it goes dark. If I have an annual member instead of a seasonal one, I can leave it on for longer, but the bottom line it - parent engagement happens while I'm working on something else now. Hundreds of families are getting the word - many of them while I literally sleep.

The best part is: I get tracking and progress reports automatically on every member who watches my videos (or doesn't). I can tell in about 90 seconds whether someone watched the content I've served up to them. I get overall statistics about what is being watched, for how long, and what people did after they watched my video. 

Of course, this show is also a great asset. I send episodes to people all the time. Want to buy cleats? See episode #38. Got a kid going off to college? See the interview I did with Dr. Michael Brown on paying for college without student debt. It's huge... and it enables me to reach listeners like you while I'm doing something else - like maybe recording a new episode...

My latest parent engagement tool came from a discussion with a mom I was trying to get more involved with the club. She has her hands full with two kids, a husband and a job. She said in jest... I would if I only had an executive chef. She laughed. I did not laugh. 

I thought - of course! If my member parents are struggling to find time to do things with their kids or with my club, then we should fix that for them. Maybe we could find an executive chef or a caterer, or something! Heck... I have a ready-made market with my membership list. Someone has to be willing to cook for us for a negotiated fee. 

My search ended with an Executive Chef who used to cook for big names like the Cheesecake Factory. Now he runs a local high school cooking program and teaches kids interested in the culinary arts. I found another soccer parent on the sidelines of my futsal program this winter who works at the High School. She said Brian's kids make good food and often too much. The staff end up taking some home - often paying a small fee for the food and feeding their family. Maybe, she said, he would be willing to cook for our not-for-profit. 

He is willing. In no time, we had a small, affordable menu put together. We had an agreed to price that wasn't going to break the bank of my membership. And we just need a few volunteers who would be willing to pick up the food and deliver it in coolers to soccer families who ordered. 

The key to making this or another other deal work is an alignment of interest. I have no doubt that your local community has lots of untapped resources. If you can craft a deal where they benefit and you benefit, it might work. Everybody needs to feel good about what they're doing. If you can find that sweet spot, your parent engagement program might just reach new heights!

If you have ideas that might help engage with parents, I'd love to hear them. Connect with me on Facebook, on Twitter, or through my Website. You can even use the microphone on your smart phone and leave me a message with a single click or reach me directly by email.

Resources

  • “Soccer Parenting Association - Inspiring Players by Empowering Parents.” Soccer Parenting Association - Inspiring Players by Empowering Parents, www.soccerparenting.com/.
  • Buy Kajabi for Yourself (my Affiliate Link) : https://thesoccersidelines.com/Kajabi (I will get a small affiliate commission from Kajabi if you decide to buy this platform using my link, but this is not the reason I put this out here. I've been using this product myself for several years on several projects and endorse their product and their company 100%)
  • Working with Parents in Sport, www.parentsinsport.co.uk/.
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The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.

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