The Power of “Thank You”
By Doug Abrams
When I was president of a youth hockey program a few years ago, a coach told me over the summer that he would not return for the upcoming season. “I had trouble with the parents last year,” he explained, “and I they didn’t appreciate what I tried to do. I don’t want to go through that again, and neither does my family.”
Parents frequently exasperate youth league and high school coaches these days, but this particular coach’s explanation surprised me because I knew that he was popular among nearly all of his team’s families. The parents told me so throughout the season. The problem was that most of the parents did not tell him. A simple handshake and thank-you during or after the season would have given credit where credit was due, but the supportive parents instead let themselves become a “silent majority.”
At the hockey program’s early-autumn registration shortly afterwards, I asked a few of the coach’s admirers why they had not thanked or complimented him face-to-face. Our program’s parents were good people, but some needed gentle reminders about how to express their gratitude to coaches, teachers and other adults who play a tangential, yet positive role in their children’s upbringing.
The four answers I received most often from this coach’s admirers demonstrate why grateful parents – the majority, for most thoughtful youth league and high school coaches – need to express their gratitude directly to the coach:
1) “I never thought about saying thank you” (or “I didn’t think it was important”). Parents lead busy lives and have many things on their minds, but no thoughtful parent would accept these answers from their own children when Uncle Joe or Aunt Susie sends them a birthday gift. Whether the coach receives a stipend or serves as a volunteer, taking kindness and generosity for granted sends the wrong message at any age. Shaking hands and saying thank you takes very little effort, but recognizes a job well done.
2) “I assumed that if I said nothing, the coach would sense my appreciation because I did not complain.” It seems a shame that some youth sports programs suffer from so much parental discontent these days that perfectly reasonable parents can sometimes mistake their silence for tacit approval. In youth leagues and high schools alike, coaches are not mind readers. A parent’s silence says nothing and can lead coaches to draw their own conclusions, however inaccurate the conclusions might be. Veteran coaches understand non-verbal communication, so they might be able to draw positive impressions from a parent’s occasional nod or smile. But coaching can also be a lonely enterprise because the coach must promote the welfare of all the players, while each parent rightfully pays special attention to his or her own child. There is no substitute for praise, particularly when the isolated detractors do not mince their words. If a parent means to thank the coach, the parent needs to thank the coach.
3) “I assumed that my son’s (or daughter’s) thank-you was enough, and I didn’t want to get involved.” Coaches are fond of saying that they coach the players and not the parents, but talented coaches also seek to please mothers and fathers. Thoughtful parents should know that, and most probably do. Even when players reach their teen years and can talk more directly with the coach, the player’s important expression of appreciation provides no substitute for the parents’ own expression because the coach serves both player and parent, sometimes in the same way and sometimes in different ways.
4) “I did not want to seem like a ‘brown noser’ who was seeking special treatment.” Parents sell the coach short when they confuse a simple handshake and thank-you with an effort to get on the coach’s good side. Handshakes and thank-you’s suggest nothing about special treatment, but much about common gratitude. Day in and day out, parents and children thank friends, acquaintances and even strangers for their courtesies. Youth sports does not suspend everyday rules of common courtesy.
After coaching youth hockey for more than 40 years, I have plenty of plaques and memory books from our teams. Each gift holds special meaning because each team was special, but no gift means more than a simple, sincere handshake or a thank- you. Intangible gifts mean as much as tangible ones.
As the youth hockey program’s president a few years ago, I always tried to relay to coaches the praise I received about them, and I always urged parents to deliver their praise directly to the coach. For the players’ sake, the program needed to do everything we could to retain good coaches. Adults with the time, talents and temperament to reach young athletes are hard to come by.
When a youth league or high school coach attracts little but articulated criticism and unarticulated praise, the criticism sounds even louder and the coach can easily get the wrong idea. By the end of preseason registration, the parents did belatedly thank the coach whose story began this column, and he returned for a few more years until he moved on to other things. A few dozen more players were the winners because they got the chance to play for him.