You’re always told as a child that plays sports, “The older you get, the more it becomes about winning and the less it becomes about everyone playing.” Everyone wants to win, that’s the ultimate goal in any team sports since the beginning of organized athletics.
I sincerely believed in that philosophy. It turned out however, I was gravely mistaken.
The further and further I went through high school, the more and more I would hear about parents clashing with coaches of varsity sports on one of two matters: Their kid was not getting the playing time they thought the deserved, or they thought the coach was being too harsh on the athletes.
None of these accusations were ever proven or forced anyone out of a job at Madrid High School in my four years. But in other school districts, other coaches did not have nearly the same experience. In fact, quite a few of them were left out on an island by their administration.
Two of the most recent examples of this in the state of Iowa happened at programs that were accustomed to having success. There’s the old cliché that, “Winning solves all problems,” however, these two cases have shown that even winning has not been able to spare them the grief of frustrated parents.
Attacking Intense and Aggressive Coaching
Joe McQuerry was the Des Moines Roosevelt Roughriders boy’s track coach from 1990 to 2019 and led the Roughriders to 16 conference titles and a tied for a state championship in 1999 with Iowa City High School. McQuerry was notified by Des Moines Public Schools that his contract would not be renewed for the 2020 track season.
McQuerry opened up about what he was told by the Roosevelt administration to WHO-TV in Des Moines.
“These words were said to me, I’m not paraphrasing here. When you tell me that today’s kids aren’t tough enough for my coaching, today’s kids need more slack and less or no consequences, that just blew me away,” McQuerry said to Channel 13.
I didn’t have to go far to find someone who had been scrutinized like McQuerry had been for his coaching style. Actually, all I had to do was look at my family tree and look up one spot to my own father.
My father was a high school football coach in the state of Iowa throughout the 90s. He had stops as an assistant at Madrid (which he is an alum)and North Polk. From there he was a head coach at Corwith-Wesely-Luverne for two seasons and head coach at Red Oak for two seasons before leaving the field altogether in 2001.
“I’ve dealt with the idea that ‘you can’t yell at my kid’ and it’s just a different aspect and a different world. A lot of people have seen the movie Junction Boys with Bear Bryant at Texas A&M and his ideas of withholding water from players and things of that nature has left a stigma on aggressive coaching,” My father said.
“I think there’s a misalignment there in thinking ‘well everything is bad and everything you’re doing to my child is bad’. We’ve gotten to the point in our society that we can’t give constructive criticism.”
My mind flashes back to coaches like Tom Izzo, who have received flak for simply holding his players accountable.
“The idea of coaches yelling at kids really comes from the passion and excitement we have, if I’m raising the level of my voice and I’m trying to get you to do something, it’s because I can believe you can achieve it. If I’m not doing that to you, that’s a bad sign because I don’t think you’re capable of doing the job,” My father said.
I’ve never batted an eye at coaches who are intense and aggressive in their style of coaching. I played for one of the most intense coaches you will find in the state of Iowa in Randy Hinkel, and I was a regular name that came out of his mouth when he was yelling.
It forced me to grow up quick and learn to do things right all the time.
Attacking Coaches Who Don’t Give Everyone Playing Time
Tori Braby has been the volleyball coach for the Mount Ayr Raiders, a small Class 1A high school in southern Iowa, for the past seven seasons. In her tenure, the Raiders had a win/loss record of 126-85 and won three conference championships. It was announced on December 10th that Braby would be resigning from her post.
The reason? Sports politics, and for those who may not be familiar with the term, it translates into parents are upset with the playing time their kid isn’t getting.
Braby spoke with KCCI-TV in Des Moines about what pushed her to decide it was time to leave the sidelines.
“I’ve had a parent send me about 22 emails in one day, upset that her daughter wasn’t playing,” Braby said. “Sports is not everything.”
According to KMA Radio, in her letter of resignation Braby cited that she felt “defeated and by parents and politics,” and the “negativity” she was dealing with affected her “personal mental health and the ability to raise (her) 3-year old daughter.”
More than anything, most parents will complain about the lack of playing time their son or daughter is getting, and according to AC/GC assistant football coach Kurt Matthewson, it stems from something bigger.
“What’s changed the most is how much more serious this focus is with players, parents and even coaches about playing at the next level and getting that scholarship,” Matthewson said. “More specifically, it went from three or four sport athletes were much more common and then it started to go into the cycle of ‘You have to focus on one sport, you have to work on that year-round’. The thinking was that you have to play that sport year-round to get noticed.”
Specialization had become much more common throughout my youth and into my high school years, but studies and reports have shown, including this one from USA Today, that many elite athletes played multiple sports in high school.
Matthewson, who has spent much of his adult life as an assistant football coach at Madrid High School and more recently at an AC/GC program under the direction of his son Cody, says that the parent pressure isn’t anything new, but it has become much more noticeable than it once was.
“They’ve always been a part of the equation, but it’s become so prevalent that it’s come to the point where coaches are resigning and they just can’t hack it anymore,” Matthewson said. “The common thread there is that ‘if my kid can’t get the position he or she wants or the time he or she wants, they can’t get that scholarship he or she deserves’. It’s not a formula for success.
Parents complaining about playing time is something I noticed even back when I was in little league. I had other kids tell me the only reason I was playing in baseball was because my dad was the coach (I had the 2nd best batting average on the team, but who’s keeping track?) and other parents would come to my dad’s door at 10 p.m., at night wondering why their kid wasn’t playing more.
As my father put it, parents of today are going further than ever to assure their kid gets what they, as parents, think they deserve.
“The ‘helicopter parent’ was becoming vogue during my coaching tenure and now it’s advanced so much they’ve been referred to as ‘lawnmower parent’,” My father said. “It’s not enough that the parents are hovering over the child, it’s now to the point where the parent is out in front of the child and mowing down all obstacles.”
Justin Johnson is in his 2nd year as activities director at Madrid High School, which oversees athletics and other extracurriculars such as choir and band. While he says he has not experienced these parent-coach issues, it still raises some concern from him.
“You would hope and wish that the parents would support the coaches and you do everything you can as an activities director to support coaches and help build those relationships with those parents,” Johnson said. “That way it’s not going to be something that will revolt against them, and the best way to make sure that doesn’t happen is by communicating and having a respectful relationship.”
From a coaching aspect, Kurt Matthewson’s concerns don’t lie as much as what happens in the field of play, but more so of what the kids take away from the game.
“I honestly believe that the biggest risk factor and what I am most concerned about is that these parents don’t have their eye on the ball,” Matthewson said. “They’re not providing the life lessons that their children should be learning in that, if you’re not getting the time or you’re not playing as much as you want to play or not playing the position you want to play, what are you doing to earn that?”
Matthewson’s point echoes one that had been preached to me throughout most of my high school years by my old head coach.
“Instead of asking ‘are you working in the offseason’ or ‘how hard are you working’, parents are attacking the coaches and using that as the avenue to get someone onto the field, or the court, or the diamond,” Matthewson said. “I think it’s a terrible lesson to teach children. Your job as a parent is to turn them into a respectful, responsible citizens.”
Is there a fix?
Coaches, administrators and school districts as a whole, have continuously searched to find a solution to the unsettling trend of parent pressure pushing coaches out of jobs. Madrid AD Justin Johnson says the solution can begin to be fixed with simple boundaries.
“You need coaches to established expectations. Expectations such as ‘we’re not going to talk about playing time and if we are, we need to have a respectful conversation’, something of that nature,” Johnson said. “We, as administrators and coaches, need to do our best and hopefully learn from it and grow from it.”
While that suggestion is a great start, Matthewson believes that the solution will not come quickly.
“It didn’t get to this point overnight and it’s not going to be resolved overnight. It’s going to be small layers and small chips away at this stone that got us here,” Matthewson said. “It’s going to be small building blocks that will get this situation back where it needs to be. But the issue really starts with the parents, and that’s a tough issue to resolve.”
Matthewson cited how the associations and unions like the Iowa High School Athletics Association and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union have sent our memorandums about how parents should treat coaches and officials. He also noted how athletic directors need to step up and hold parents accountable and send messages along the lines of “abuse and harassment of my coaches will not be tolerated”.
Clashing of parents and coaches is nothing new in American society. It’s been happening well before my generation came to be, and unfortunately it will be a part of generations well after we are gone. However, the fervor at which these clashes are happening is higher than it has ever been before and it is cause for alarming concern.
The main focus of high school coaches is not even to put out a winning product year in and year out, it’s to teach boys and girls life lessons such as accountability and responsibility. After four years of being taught those life lessons, coaches hope that the boys and girls can apply said lessons and transform into joyful young men and women.
The late Ed Thomas, former high school football coach at Aplington-Parkersburg High School always told his players, “If all I ever did for you is teach you the X’s and O’s of football, I have failed you as a coach.”
If all these parents ever care about is X’s and O’s, they will destroy the most sacred of events teenagers enjoy, and they will have no one to blame but themselves.