What are sports parenting sympathy groups, and why should you avoid them?

By Janis Meredith | Posted 6/4/2014

Sometimes, sports parenting takes an ugly turn when parents gather in sympathy groups.

I first heard the term “sympathy groups” when my husband coached with a man who coined the phrase: "No excuses, no messengers, no sympathy groups."

Sports parents tend to enter into sympathy groups, too. You've seen them: parents who huddle together before, after or during games to rehash, complain and just generally criticize coaches, players, refs and other parents.

Throughout 28 years of being a coach's wife and 21 of being a sports mom, I've seen a lot of those groups. As a coach's wife, I sat as far away from them as possible during a game. And as a sports parent, I've done my best to stay out of the fray.

If you are a sympathy group organizer, I ask you to please stop. There's better ways to handle sports conflicts.

  • Sympathy groups do not accomplish anything. They are a waste of time. Sympathy groups stir up discontent in other parents and in athletes. “Yeah, and you know what he said to my kid?” “Can you believe the way she coaches?”
  • If you have issues with a coach, then handle it with the coach, not with the other parents. Show your kids the right way to handle conflict.
  • You are distracting the coach and the team. You think the coach is not aware of the sympathy groups? You think the kids are not in tune with your discontent? Think again. Coaches choose to ignore it because they have a job to do, but they know what’s going on. Kids pick up on it, and it feeds their own frustration.

Years ago, when my husband was coaching, one parent started a petition to get him fired because he was unhappy with his son’s playing time. He got a few other sympathizers to sign but not enough to do any damage. It could have been a distraction, but my husband chose to ignore it because he was more concerned about coaching kids.

The next time you are tempted to saunter into a sympathy group, think of these healthier alternatives:

  • “Seek first to understand.” Steven Covey suggests this in his book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Try to understand the coach’s reasoning for doing something the way he or she does it. Don’t go into the confrontation ready to attack. Go seeking to understand. It’s OK to ask the coach what his plans are for your child. It’s also fair to ask him to evaluate your child’s progress.
  • Refuse to enter the sympathy conversations. This can be hard because many times the disgruntled parents are your friends, and you want to sit with them at games and talk with them after. If you hear the conversation taking a downhill turn, you can gently change the tone of the conversation by ignoring comments and moving on to another subject or suggest that maybe the coach has a reason. Once your friends realize you are not going to jump on board their sympathy train, they will probably not keep trying to bring you into their negative conversations.
  • If you have to vent, keep it between you and your spouse or one good friend. Don’t vent to your child. That will only muddy the competitive waters for him.

Jack Perconte, sports coaching expert and former major leaguer, says that, “It is also important that parents not mention their negative feelings about the coach in front of their kids, and especially with kids who do not seem affected by the coach’s decisions. Once a young player or their parent begins to show a negative attitude toward the coach, the coach will often take it out on the player with less playing time or ignoring the player altogether. This obviously makes a bad situation even worse so parents should not let on how unhappy they are with the coach to their kids.”

For your own parenting sanity, stay away from sympathy groups. Sure, they may make you feel better for a few minutes, but in the long run they will only feed your sports parenting frustrations.

Janis Meredith, sports mom and coach’s wife, writes a sports parenting blog called JBM Thinks. Check out her Sports Parenting Survival Guide Series with survival guides for football, softball, basketball and volleyball moms.