Submitted by: Shelley L. Holden, Ed.D1*, Brooke E. Forester, Ph.D2*, Christopher M. Keshock, Ph.D3*, Steven F. Pugh, Ph.D.

1* Associate Professor of Health, University of South Alabama, Mobile, Ala.

2* Assistant Professor of Health, University of South Alabama, Mobile, Ala.

3* Associate Professor of Health, University of South Alabama, Mobile, Ala.

4* Professor of Health, University of South Alabama, Mobile, Ala.

Shelley Holden  is an associate professor in the Health, Physical Education, and Leisure Studies Department at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Ala.


Youth sports are an integral part of the culture in the United States and directly impact the lives of many children and adolescents. Parents play a major role in a child’s athletic development and are members of the athletic triangle.  The athletic triangle consists of the coach, athlete, and parent and the relationships within this triad can have significant impact on the psychological development of the child (6, 23. 27). The following article aims to provide a general overview of the athletic triangle in the context of youth and high school sports with a focus on the role of effective communication for optimal athletic success.

Keywords: coaching, athletic triangle


Youth sports are an integral part of the culture in the United States and directly impact the lives of many children and adolescents. The National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS) reported approximately 44,031,080 boys and girls participated in youth sports in 2008 in comparison to the estimated 38,259,845 who participated in 2000 (15). More recently, the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) reported 7,795,658 athletic participants in 2013-2014 as compared to 6,705,223 in 2000 (16).  The increase in sport participation reported by organizations is pleasing considering the well documented health benefits and life lessons potentially learned through sport participation.

The mission statement of the NFHS states it will, “promote participation and sportsmanship to develop good citizens through interscholastic activities which provide equitable opportunities, positive recognition, and learning experiences to students while maximizing the achievement of educational goals (NFHS Mission Statement, n.d.). Other documented life lessons potentially learned through the athletic experience include integrity, teachable spirit, academic responsibility, confidence, accountability (work habits), discipline, mental toughness (competitive), pride and humility, leadership, service, and selflessness (2). Athletic participation is also important to social development. Athletes can make new friends, acquaintances, and can become part of a social network (23), which is major sport participation motive cited by Pugh, Wolff, DeFrancesco, Gilley, and Heitman (2000).

Another potential benefit of sport participation is it can, “bring families closer together and strengthen family unity” (Smoll et al., 2011, p. 15). More importantly, without financial and emotional support as well as a substantial time commitment, most athletes would not be involved in organized sports in the first place.  It is at this intersection where the value of parental involvement is paramount. Now more than ever, parents are actively involved their children’s lives through athletic endeavors. However, it has been theorized that over-involved parents can create high levels of pressure, but parents who are moderately involved tend to provide the right balance to facilitate enjoyment of the sport while also challenging the athlete to grow and develop his/her skills (11). Prior research has also noted parents can enjoy their child’s participation in athletics more if they have a basic understanding and appreciation of the sport in which their child chooses to participate (23). Knowledge of basic strategies, skills, and rules can increase parent knowledge and sport enjoyment. This knowledge may be gained through many resources such as books, videos, DVDs, Internet, or attending a coaching seminar conducted by a local sport group or coach.  Many parents may not seek this information on their own so coaches can also support the notion of sport education by encouraging novice parents to become more educated and direct them to the resources previously listed. The ultimate goal is to improve parents sport intelligence quotient (IQ) which includes a basic understanding of the sport. In contrast, parents must also realize sport participation is not for everyone.  If their child does not want to play then parents should respect his/her decision because pushing a child to compete in athletics typically yields negative results.

Research shows athletes who participate for reasons other than their own motivations, which includes sport attraction, are labeled as, “entrapped” by their sport and are less likely to enjoy the sport experience (1, 3, 13, 18, 19). Ultimately, through their participation in sports these athletes are more likely to experience negatives effects of stress. Lazarus (1990) and Smith (1986) define stress as a mismatch between the perceived demands of a situation and one’s perceived capabilities and resources for meeting those demands. The result of chronic stress is called “burnout” and it negatively impact athletes’ well-being both physically and mentally (4, 20, 21, 22) and most often leads to discontinuation of sport participation and a negative athletic experience. It may be difficult for parents to come to the realization their child just does not want to participate despite the many benefits of sport participation.

However, for the many children who do choose to participate in athletics their parents must be educated on their roles in their child’s athletic development. This includes the parent’s role in the youth sport triangle (coach, parent, and athlete). This educational process should specify the behavior expected of the parents of a young athlete. The underlying goal is for parents and coaches to have positive relationships with one another. However, this is not always the case. Gould, Chung, Smith, and White’s (2006) study cited problems with parents as one of the most frequent issues high school coaches had to contend with. Also, prior research indicated difficult parents as a reason coaches would discontinue coaching (10). Thus, a possible road block to the success of a young athlete is the relationship between the parent and coach (23). Therefore, in order for an athlete to be successful and continue sports participation it is important that the parent-coach relationship is positive.  In order to develop this positive relationship between the parent and coach, coaches must determine and convey their expectations to the parents.  In turn, coaches must understand and consider parents’ expectations of the ideal coach. Knowing and understanding each other’s expectations will help develop a foundation of positive interaction of the members within the athletic triangle which is imperative in order to improve the quality of the sport experience for the coach, athlete, and parent.

Athletic Triangle

The youth sport triangle or triad is a conceptualization of the total youth sport experience.  The triad is made up of the coach, the parent(s) or guardian(s), and the athlete.  Each section of this triad includes the roles, responsibilities, and behaviors required for the sport experience to be a success.  For instance, coaches are expected to provide a physically and emotionally safe environment for the athletes, provide developmentally appropriate sport experiences, and behave in accordance with the coaches’ code of ethics.  Players are expected to follow the coach’s directions, exhibit good sportsmanship, attend all practices and games and give their best effort in both practice and games.  Parents should abide by the parents’ code of behavior (e.g. not shouting or criticizing athletes, coaches, or officials), attend as many of the athlete’s games as possible, and ensure the athlete has timely transportation to and from practices and games (when required).  Parents should provide required uniform and safety equipment (as required) but refrain from emphasizing winning over the process of skill and athlete development. Further, parents should encourage sport enjoyment.

The relationships within this triad can have significant impact on the psychological development of the child (6, 23, 27) and the effects of the athletic tringle on the athlete can be positive or negative.  Typically, parents and coaches have the athlete’s best interest in mind, but if the coach-parent dyad contains conflict or animosity, this can negatively affect the athlete.  That is, the athlete could discontinue sport participation due to negative coach-parent interaction. In order to avoid this situation, coaches and parents must have a better understanding of each other’s expectations and ultimately the coach is responsible for communication with athlete’s parents effectively and be proactive in establishing positive relations with their players’ parents.

Coaches’ Expectations of Parents

There has been much literature written on coaches’ expectations of parents and according to Erickson (2004), a coach has the following general expectations of  his/her players’ parents: a) transportation to a from games or matches; b) help to learn the basic fundamental mechanics and reinforce at home; c) have their child practice various repetitive drills at home; d) arrive on time to practices and games; d) exhibit positive behaviors at games; and e) notify the coach of any medical or health problems (p. 158). However, there are also expectations for acceptable parent behavior during competition. These include: a) Do remain in the spectator area during the sporting event/competition; b) Do not interfere with the coach and wait at least 24 hours or until the next day after competition before contacting the coach; c) Do express interest, encouragement to athletes; d) Do lend a hand when a coach or official asks for help; and e) Do not make abusive comments to athletes, parents, officials, or coaches of either team (24). The most successful coaches are clear and consistent when communicating and enforcing their rules of parent behavior and often times coaches have parents sign a contract stating they understand and will follow the rules of behavior. Clear communication of coaches’ expectations of parents is only one component of a successful or healthy athletic triad.  Coaches must also be cognizant of parent expectations regarding a “model coach.”

Parents’ Expectations of Coaches

Erickson (2004) listed the following general expectations parents have for the coach(es) coaching athletes at the youth and high school levels:  a) practices will be exciting and focus on the basics (mechanical and mental skills); b) players will be treated fairly and consistently; c) coaches will not use profanity or abuse alcohol; d) criticism will be focused on correction of a skill and not the child; e) coaches will communicate regularly with parents about schedules, home practice tips, helpful suggestions, equipment, etc.; f) coaches will help players grow and mature in individual achievement, self-esteem, teamwork, and group support; and g) coaches will focus on doing one’s best, not just winning. Also, parents want their children to have an enjoyable athletic experience. In order for youth athletes to truly enjoy their experience however, parents and coaches alike must remain very aware of the main motivations young athletes have for sport participation.

It has been well documented in the extant literature that most youth athletes participate in sports for one reason – to have fun (23).  So while it is perfectly acceptable and commonplace for parents to have their own expectations of a coach, these expectations should be based upon the idea that youth sports should be fun for the most important stakeholders – the athletes.  Parents who care about their child’s well-being and development, and coaches who feel the same, are an excellent foundation towards a youth athletes ‘success.  Legendary University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian said, “I want my players to understand that I’ll do everything I can for them with their problems away from the basketball court. But they also have to understand that I need their help solving my problems on the basketball court” (Warren, 1997, p. 40). Therefore, a positive athletic experience also hinges on the coach player relationship and an understanding of each other’s expectations and motivation for coaching and sport.

Coaches’ and Players’ Expectations of Each Other

Within the athletic triangle, coaches must also identify and communicate expectations to players and parents.  Practice and competition expectations for players include: a) good sportsmanship; b) do not disrespect anyone (teammates, coaches, or officials); c) win and lose like a winner; d) bring a willingness to learn, work hard, and have fun; e) call or notify the coach immediately if a game or practice is going to be missed because unexcused absences are not fair to teammates and may result in bench time; and f) learn at practices and practice on your own while at home (7). Coaches’ expectations of the parents and players should be founded upon the “true” motivations of why athletes participate in sports.

Many coaches believe athletes’ enjoyment of sport is based solely upon wins and losses.  Although there are participants who feel this way, research suggests enjoyment of the sport experience is more closely related to the motivational climate created by the coach rather than the team won-loss record (5).  Another study conducted in Michigan revealed young athletes motivation for participating in youth sports were to have fun, to improve skills  and learn new skills, for thrills and excitement, to be with friends or make new friends and to succeed or win (25). Moreover, a qualitative study of 11 year old International all-star male baseball players conducted by Pugh et al. (2000) determined subjects’ top motives for sport participation were fun, socializing, and challenging their abilities. They also cited the players’ main sources of stress were being yelled at by coaches, parents, teammates, and fans. Finally, in their final interview with the athletes several weeks after the final competition, researchers reported the overwhelming majority of the players could not remember the win-loss record from the season.  This speaks volumes to the values the players place on the overall athletic experience, not just the team’s win-loss record. With this in mind coacheshould critically examine their philosophies and compare those with other successful coaches to determine if they are creating an environment where players are enjoying the sport experience and successes (hard work, wins, life lesson learned, etc.). Coaches considered “successful” tend to have similar approaches/goals for their program, and characteristics of players on their team.

Warren (1997) stated his goal as a coach is to, “ensure that team membership is one of the most positive, rewarding experiences of their lives” (p. 31).  Warren (1997) also believes what really matters is building teams of individuals who are so committed to one another they have “one heartbeat” as described and quoted by Bear Bryant. Arguably, when “one heartbeat” happens, winning will take care of itself. For a team to be successful and labeled as “special” by their coach, it will be because of what a coach has inspired them to give of themselves to the team rather than what they expected to receive (Warren, 1997). Joe Namath is quoted as saying, “nobody wants to follow somebody (a coach) who doesn’t know where they are going” (Warren, 1997, p. 15). That is, a coach must believe in him/herself, his/her coaching philosophy and be able to instill this to the players and assistant coaches who will be part of the program.

When selecting or coaching players, Don Shula, the legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins believes, “character is as important as ability” and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs also supported this notion by stating, “Look for players with character and ability. But remember character comes first” (Warren, 1997, p. 27). However, it is believed character traits such as sacrifice, perseverance, dedication, and commitment to excellence are what contribute to a players’ ability. Good things typically happen to players who work hard and who exhibit the character traits listed. In contrast, Jerry Tarkanian believed the only bad kid is the one who will not be loyal to his teammates and coaches (26).

Another important area a coach should examine is the team culture he/she creates. Vince Lombardi believed in hard work and relentless effort and these attributes in his players lead to National Football League (NFL) championships and the respect from his players. John Wooden (former UCLA basketball coach) whose approach to coaching style differed from Lombardi’s also believed in hard work and discipline within his program. He believed coaches should make rules clear and penalties severe because it would make young athletes mentally tough and willing to work hard in not only sports, but also, all aspects of their lives (Warren, 1997). In his eyes accountability helps to create a culture of hard work and commitment.

Other ways to create player commitment within a team is for the coach to be consistent, fair and an exceptional communicator (rules, roles, expectations, etc.) and create a family-like atmosphere because this can fill voids which may exist in players’ lives (26).  Coaches should be loyal to their players and in turn thank them for their loyalty and effort. Players want to be appreciated and they do not want their efforts to go unnoticed by their coach. Most successful coaches know this and reinforce appreciative behavior. Interestingly, teams typically take on the personality of the coach and over time the players with similar values and philosophies as the coach will be attracted to a coach’s team. When this occurs, it certainly helps relationship within the athletic triangle and less issues and conflicts occur. However, conflicts and issues with relationships within the athletic triangle will inevitably occur, but there are effective ways to resolve problems and grievances when they occur.

Tips on Resolving Problems and Grievances

Once the coach understands the expectations of the parents and players, he/she is better equipped to deal with problems and grievances as they appear from season to season.  One of the most common methods in team/program management which helps tremendously with conflict prevention is a beginning of the year parents’ meeting.  This meeting should take place within the first week of selecting the team.  Detailed content and suggested order of events for the meet are presented in Table 1.  Some of the miscellaneous events outlined in Table 1 are often overlooked during the initial meeting. Transportation policies, nutrition information and suggestions, fundraiser information and details, and equipment requirements must be covered in depth to avoid future misunderstandings and issues. A coach may certainly add any other items he/she deems important to the meeting agenda or even bring in guest speakers to speak on nutrition and safety considerations.  However, the coach must adhere to the time allotment for the meeting.

The meeting should be mandatory and required for team participation. Coaches tend to have differing views on whether or not the players should be present at the beginning of the year meeting.  Regardless of the decision made in regard to player attendance, one or both parents should be present at the meeting. The meeting details (date, time, etc.) must be communicated via email, phone message, written invitation or through all three methods.  Parent and players’ contracts should also be sent prior to this meeting so they can be reviewed before attending the meeting.

In the meeting the head coach should introduce all of his/her assistant coaches, outline their coaching philosophy, team goals, rules, and policies in detail. Also, coaches must review player and parent expectations for competition/contests/practices again and collect the signed players’ and parent behavioral contracts before dismissing parents from the meeting.  The head coach should present practice and game schedules, as well as any other additional information regarding parent/fan/athlete behavior.  A very important component to the success of this beginning of the year parent meeting is the organizational level of the coaches.  Ideally, coaches should have a detailed agenda for the meeting to serve as both a guide for the meeting and serve as a resource for the attendees. Parents should receive a hard copy of the agenda and any other supplemental information before the meeting via email or at the beginning of the meeting. Coaches should have parents introduce themselves to the other parents, and conduct the meeting in an orderly and timely manner.  If possible, the meeting should be approximately one hour to one hour and fifteen minutes in length (7).  Meetings longer than this tend to drag on and lack productivity.

Parents should be encouraged to save questions until the coach is finished presenting to avoid extending the length of the meeting. Individual parent questions should be addressed when the meeting is adjourned. Ultimately, the purpose of a beginning of the year meeting is to create an environment where communication is developed and encouraged. More specifically, the meeting serves to improve parents’ understanding of the program (coaching philosophy, goals, rules, etc.) and for the coach to gain parent sport and cooperation.

Even if a beginning of the year meeting is conducted, this does not ensure problems will not arise during the season. When problems do occur with parents it is important the coach: a) discuss issues as an adult; b) conduct open two-way communications with parents; c) be open-minded to other’s views; d) consider the possibility they might be wrong; e) remember why parents and coaches are there (for the athlete); and f) be fair and honest with the parents (7). Therefore, when problems and grievances are encountered it is important for the coach to explain to parents that this conflict needs to be handled in a timely manner to avoid his/her child being negatively affected. Also, parents should know if they place excessive pressure on their child it can potentially reduce sport enjoyment and decrease personal growth (23).

The following is an example of how a coach should handle a parent who violates a coach’s expectation for parent conduct during competition. Hypothetically, assume the parent stops the coach immediately following competition to ask the coach about their child’s playing time. In order to solve this problem, first the coach should calmly remind the parent of their rules of conduct they signed and agreed to follow. Next, the coach should instruct the parent to contact them in the morning (or after 24 hours) concerning the situation (via email or phone) to set up an appointment. This is an important procedure to follow because sometimes parents will sleep on the issue at hand and realize a meeting is not necessary.  If the parent still believes a meeting is required, a meeting time should be set up in a timely manner and be scheduled at a time which is convenient for both parties. The coach should also ask the parent to be specific about his/her concerns to be addressed in the meeting.

In preparing for the parent coach meeting, the coach should write down constructive points he/she wants to convey to the parent. The coach should also consider the parent’s point of view and may want to consult the assistant coach(es) or athletic director/league commissioner prior to the scheduled meeting to get his/her thoughts on the situation. On the day of the meeting, the coach must arrive early, and be prepared with notes in hand. The coach should also consider having his/her assistant coach or athletic director/league commissioner present in the meeting for support and for clarification of the events of the meeting. Before the meeting begins, the coach must emphasize what the focus of the meeting will be.  In doing so, the coach will be better able to manage his/her time, leading to a more productive meeting.  The coach must allow the parent to speak while they listen attentively and take notes. After the parent has finished voicing his/her concerns the coach should address the issues presented in an honest, up-front manner being sure to remain professional at all times.  If the coach and the parent cannot come to an understanding then the coach may want to suggest the parent have an individual meeting with the athletic director or league commissioner. However, most often the coach parent meeting will conclude with some sort of resolution and whatever the resolution, the coach and parent need to stick to the course of action decided. Regardless of the outcome (negative or positive) of the parent coach meeting the coach should thank the parent for their time and willingness to speak openly on this topic.

Similarly, if a player coach or conversely a coach player issue or grievance occurs a parallel protocol should be followed. In terms of a player coach issue, the player should first approach the coach and voice his/her concerns in an environment other than the competition setting.  Making an appointment with the coach is suggested. Typically, if player coach issues are not handled early, the end result is rarely positive. Coaches who encourage an environment of respect and loyalty often handle these conflicts better because their coaching philosophy supports the idea of open communication. The coach’s approach to player grievances should be similar to issues with parents. For example, the coach should be early for the meeting, listen attentively, and keep the meeting focused on the problem/concern at hand.  An assistant coach or athletic director/ league commissioner should be present in this meeting to avoid misinterpretations of the content and tone. The initial meeting should not involve the parents unless the athlete, athletic director/league commissioner or coach deems it necessary due to the subject matter or severity of the issue. Typically, this type of meeting, which involves open and honest communication, will remedy the situation, but if it does not then a separate meeting with the parent and potentially the athletic director/ league commissioner is needed. The ultimate goal is to resolve the problem in a manner in which both parties agree on a solution before parents and administrators get involved.

This approach should also be followed when a coach has issue with one of the players.  In this situation, coaches should remember to allow time to reflect, cool off, and prepare before the meeting.  The key to the success of this meeting is the coach presenting solutions/options for the player while at the same time allowing the player to explain his/her concerns.  Players should be given options and if they choose not to follow or agree to the terms/guidelines set forth by the coach. Options such as reduced playing time, an altered role on the team, or ultimately discontinuing sport participation should be given.  The hope is the player and coach will reach a common resolution.  If this does not occur, a coach parent meeting which includes the athletic director/ league commissioner should be conducted before any decision on sport discontinuation is decided.

These examples are just several of the many issues that can arise during the season.  If a coach follows the steps outlined above, those listed by Erickson (2004), and remain calm and professional they will have greater success resolving parent and player problems, issues, and grievances. Moreover, conducting a beginning of the year parent meeting will limit the number of issues and grievances that occur during the season.


The content presented in this article aims to strengthen the relationships within the athletic triangle.  Every situation, athlete, coach, and parent is different, but the importance of the cohesiveness within the athletic triangle and its effect on athletic success is universal. Final suggestions for coaches are to keep accurate records and detailed documentation of all events that happen during the season.  This includes, but is not limited to, practice plans and player attendance, meeting dates and detailed agendas (including minutes or content of parent and player meetings), and phone, email and text message interactions (with players and parents). Further, coaches must be patient, understanding it takes time to develop relationships and trust among coaches, players, and parents. John Wooden noted success comes slowly but a coach must expect to have success for it to happen.  Wooden said, “Whatever you are doing, you must have patience” and “there is no progress without change, so you must have patience” (14).

Successful coaches must keep in mind the importance of the beginning of the season meeting.  This is the point where players and parents learn their expected roles, responsibilities, and expectations.  These factors typically change with the age of the athlete and the level of athletics, but it is critical this information is communicated and understood. Therefore, it is recommended parents and players are required to sign player and parent contracts to convey understanding and acceptance of the information presented at the beginning of the season meeting.  Signing of the behavior contracts by may serve as a reminder later in the season should problems or grievances surface.

Each participant in the athletic triangle plays a role in the success of the athlete, but ultimately it is the coaches’ professional duty to “educate parents on their responsibilities and expectations” (8).  Much like corporate leaders are responsible for the ultimate success of their companies, coaches are responsible for the overall success of their teams.  At any level of sport, coaches should never take for granted the great impact they may have on the lives of their athletes.    A coach who has athletes’ best interest at heart will always have a successful program regardless of what the scoreboard shows.



Table 1 Content of Beginning of the Year Parents Meeting

Content Considerations/Examples
  1. Detailed Agenda
The agenda should be organized and detailed and meeting should not last longer than 60-75 minutes.
  1. Introductions
The head coach should introduce the assistant coach(s) and the parents should introduce themselves and identify which team their child is on (middle, 9th, junior varsity, varsity, etc.).
  1. Coaching Philosophy
The head coach should review his/her coaching philosophy and be precise. This should include, but is not limited to: a) playing time, b) competition scheduling, and c) practice philosophy, etc.
  1. Team Goals, Rules, and Policies
The coach must outline if the team goal is to improve on last year’s season, win district, state, etc. A detailed list of team rules and consequences should be reviewed and a hard copy given to parents. Also, the varsity letterman policy (if appropriate) should be reviewed and given to parents.
  1. Player and Parent Expectations
Player and parent expectation forms should be distributed. Coaches should consider having players and parents sign and return these forms thus signifying a type of contract between the parties.
  1. Practice Schedule
Notify the parents of the team’s practice schedule. If the schedule is not consistent then inform the parents that at the beginning of each week players will be given a practice schedule to take home. It is suggested that the coach (or an assigned parent) develop a team web-page where practice and competition schedules are posted and frequently updated.
  1. Competition Schedule
Hand out a hard copy to each parent and direct them to the team web-page to get the most up to date information on a weekly basis.
  1. Miscellaneous Items
Some other topics may need to be discussed during the parents meeting are:

  1. Transportation policies – who is responsible (buses or parents) for getting the athlete to and from competition and/or practices.
  2. Nutrition- a coach should express to the parents his/her views on nutrition for sport competition and who will be providing meals, snacks, and fluids for the athletes (coaches and/or parents).
  3. Fundraisers- if possible, give the parents a detailed list of the upcoming fundraisers for the season and what the funds will be used for. A specific goal of how much the coach wishes to raise during the season should be set.
  4. Equipment requirements – parents should be informed if they have to purchase things like mouth guards, shoes, spikes, knee pads, shorts, etc. and where to purchase them as well as what color or style the coach requires.



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