ESPN has a radio show dedicated to youth sports called ‘Hey Coach Tony‘, and all the shows are up on YouTube – which is very cool. Word is the show will soon be simulcast on many cable systems. Podcasts would also be a great thing to have for those with iPods. It’s an entertaining show that tends to focus on the extremes and controversial situations, but overall Tony covers a number of hot button issues that are worthwhile to debate. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to some of the shows, you should. I usually listen to them in the background while I’m working.

Anyway – one of his shows earlier this year dealt with anonymous parent feedback and how it was apparently used to justify the firing of some long time high school coaches. Have a listen…

Is anonymous feedback in youth sports the evil it’s made out to be?

Regarding the specific situation – the school said the terminations were due, ‘in part’, to the surveys. Only the school administrators know how big of a role they played, and one would hope it wasn’t a big one. Tony and his callers rightly note that the survey was flawed in that anyone could fill out the online survey, not just current players and/or parents. That makes it way too easy for someone cut or with an ax to grind to submit feedback without basis to do so. But this is a common mistake, which I’ll explain in a bit.

I’m not really going to comment on the specific case because I’m not familiar with it beyond saying that while longevity and success on the field are important, that does not make a coach immune from feedback or review by their superiors. You work for the school and the AD and if they feel it’s time for a change – that’s life. Success on the court/field below the collegiate level is not always a good indicator of the coaching as it is also heavily dependent on who is in any given HS class (vs who you recruit). Just because a coach is winning should not give them carte blanche.

So back to the anonymous feedback… In my years as a coach and league administrator, I’ve found that anonymous feedback is an essential tool, if used properly. The one angle that was never mentioned during the show was that parents are petrified to submit attributable feedback about a coach. Why? Because they are 110% convinced it’ll impact their child’s playing time – and in some cases they are right. If your child’s coach is doing things that concern you as a parent, than there is a good chance this is the type of coach who would penalize your child if they found out you ‘snitched’. Not all coaches are saints – for all the great coaches out there who do what they do for the love of the kids and the game, there are others who have no business on a sideline, which is unfortunate.

I have always marveled at how HARD it is to get parents to say anything about their kid’s coach. They are so afraid that the coach will find out, they suffer in silence or as a group on the sideline. On the rare occasion a parent DOES say anything, it’s often after the player has left the team. Even then most parents will just not bother since it’s not their problem anymore. By the time you hear about a coach, things have usually gotten so bad that the team will often implode because the parents waited so long before saying anything. This is one of the biggest challenges as a youth sports administrator – figuring out how to solicit feedback so you find out about problems before things are so far gone they can’t be fixed.

Which brings up the next major point made on the show: that ADs/Administrators should be going to the fields to monitor things. While this is true to a point, it’s also unrealistic. Even a HS Athletic Director will have a handful of sports going on at any given time and they’re usually teaching too. Besides, you can be sure that if the AD is standing up on the hill, a coach will be on their best behavior. It’s human nature. In a youth sports league like soccer, you’ll have dozens to hundreds of coaches and assistants. Our small city league has almost 300 coaches, assistants, and team managers every season – you cannot possibly ensure that every coach gets monitored/reviewed in person. So if you can’t actively monitor all your coaches, how do you know when something is amiss? Parent feedback.

Parent feedback IS important, because they are often there at team activities and their kids will often confide in them. Sure, Tony’s point that the majority of parent complaints relate to playing time is true, but that’s feedback you can usually ignore outside of Recreational level sports. But it’s the feedback about a coach’s behavior that is key.

The trick is ensuring you use anonymous feedback properly. It absolutely should NOT be the only thing relied upon. If the HS discussed on Tony’s show took action largely due to the feedback received without additional followup? That’s borderline criminal. We have a saying in our league – always take parent feedback with a HUGE grain of salt. Anonymous parent feedback should be the canary in the coal mine – an early warning to possible problems. If you get feedback that raises any type of flag, then you follow up. You contact all of the parents directly, explain that what they tell you will be held in confidence, and solicit additional feedback. Now, supporters of the coach will absolutely tell him or her that ‘the league’ or ‘the AD’ is checking up on them – but that’s OK. They work for you. But you will quickly find out if the anonymous feedback was sour grapes or the tip of the iceberg.

Anonymous feedback should not be vilified as a bunch of whiny parents hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. It’s a vital tool in managing any sports program. But how you use it will determine if it’s useful or unfair, so here are some suggestions at soliciting and handling parent feedback:

  1. Limit who can submit it to active or past members of a team. The easiest way to do this is to hand them out on paper to the members of a team. But that can get expensive and someone has to enter all the results. Online surveys are EASY to administer, but you need to somehow limit who can submit one without scaring away submissions because they think they can be tracked. In the end you have to balance ease of access with concern over retribution. If you hand out a custom password to each player, they’ll think it can be used to track submissions. If you have a generic password, they can give it to anyone if they want. There is no perfect answer here. We usually use an unpublished link and send that to the team parents. Sure they can share it (just like they can copy a paper survey), but that’s OK if you use the feedback as a starting point – you’ll weed out the bogus submissions later.
  2. Try to solicit feedback for ALL your coaches, not just the ones you believe are having trouble. If you wait until you’ve heard about issues before you solicit feedback, it’s often too late.
  3. Don’t, don’t, DON’T, rely solely on feedback to judge the performance of a coach. It should be a starting point or small part of the overall review.
  4. Added: People who are upset are much more likely to speak out than those that are happy. 3 negative submissions on a team of 15 kids could mean 12 others are quite happy. Which is why…
  5. Always, always, ALWAYS followup with ALL the team parents when feedback raises a red flag to try and get the real story. Be sure to explain that anything said will be kept in strict confidence. Also be VERY careful about what you say as it is very easy to split team parents and make problems even worse. Parents talk – a LOT.
  6. Unless a coach has done something that forces your hand to take action, always give them a chance to improve. Yes, this is the awkward step that many don’t want to take. But, you’re an Athletic Director or Director of Coaching for a reason. Get their side of the story, explain that there is some feedback that is concerning, and you want to help them improve. If they don’t – move on. If they do – all the better for the kids
  7. Once a coach knows they are being watched, you HAVE to try and monitor things closer than you normally would. You or a surrogate should try to attend a few events if you can and be on the lookout for additional feedback that might indicate things have gotten worse, or better.

In the end, we do what we do for the kids. There are good coaches and bad coaches and many in between. Parents are in the best position to see first hand when there are problems, but they’re also almost always biased towards their child, so their feedback can’t be taken at face value. But it absolutely should be solicited and then used to inquire further if necessary.

How does your school or league try to handle coaching feedback?

Update: Coach Tony did a small followup on this article after his show covering the now infamous basketball flagrant foul video. It’s around 40 minutes 25 seconds in to the show. If you’ve got the time, listen to the whole show for some great debate about Connell HS Basketball and how they handled this video going viral and what the officials should have done.