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Danny Massaro on pushy parents and a blame culture that hurts our children

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Happy children loving life on a squash court!
Happy children loving life on a squash court!

Understand the difference between inspiration and motivation (and always defuse tension with a laugh)
By DANNY MASSARO – Squash Mad Coaching Columnist


Staring through the back-wall glass or from up on the balcony, the eagle eyes of the squash parent keenly observe the progress of their offspring. Emotional, practical and financial support for a child’s development is a big commitment, and parents rightly expect a return on that investment. Occasionally, that expectation exerts pressure on a young player, and sharp scrutiny on his or her coach. In his latest Squash Mad blog, Danny Massaro discusses how he engages with squash parents to achieve the best outcomes for everyone.

IT’S quite easy to become a good local player these days. If a kid gets a good little local win, they’re in the local paper, they become a bit of a family celebrity and it can put everyone in his circle on a little bit too much of a high.

When a kid is seeded No.1 at tournaments, their parents walk in with a little bit too much swagger about them. Suddenly they’re a big fish because they’re Little Johnny’s Dad. Then they hit national level, and quite quickly there’s too much to lose.

As they go up the rankings it becomes less important whether she’s enjoying it or not, as long as she keeps winning.

The focus becomes solely on results and not about enjoyment. As a coach you’ve got to really look out for that.

I have a Monday night session with juniors who play tournaments and I can tell how they’ve got on in their weekend tournaments just from the way they walk into the club. Sometimes I can even tell from the parents demeanour too! A good win , more swagger and eye contact! Some losses, less eye contact, a slower walk in!

Some parents start believing that they’re experts, dropping in the odd comment like they know what they’re on about. In some cases they do but often it’s just poor misinterpretations.

Some start to believe the hype and there’s a subtle shift in their attitude from this sport they take their kids to play for fun, to this thing they’ve got to master and achieve in.

dannycoachI find the best way to combat this is to take the p+++. I shout up to the balcony: “Come on then, Dad, show me the ideal backhand, Jonah!”

The other week one of the kids walked in wearing flip-flops. I absolutely roasted him in front of everybody. I said, “Look! He’s got flip-flops on! He thinks he’s made it!” His mum and dad were laughing. They understood what had happened. He said his feet were sore and that it was hard on the junior circuit.

I said, “Wooh! The junior circuit!” and everyone fell about laughing. We use that story a lot just to keep everybody’s perspective in check. It’s easy for kids to think they’ve made it with all the attention they get. (See my Help Illusion article).

The best way to create a positive relationship between parents, child and coach is through inclusivity and dialogue.

In a lot of situations, you get a blamer, a rescuer and a victim. I see that happening a lot in a parent-child-coach relationship.

For example, after a defeat, a parent might blame their kid for not training hard enough, so the kid (victim) sulks and the coach has to come in and rescue the kid’s mentality. That then puts a little wedge between the coach and the parent.

I think you always need to be on the same page and never get into the role of blaming of each other. The coach has to keep his counsel, stay self-aware and not join in with that dynamic of blame.

It’s then easier for him or her to calmly come to the parent or kid and say, ‘Listen, we are a team, we work together. We don’t blame or accuse.’

You’re trying to help parents be what the research calls ‘autonomy supportive’, leading the child towards self-determined motivation.

I think what everybody wants at a deeper level is recognition, not attention. It’s giving each other that recognition for each other’s hard work, rather than ‘attention by any means,’ which is the victim-blamer-rescuer dynamic. Recognise that you’re all trying hard, that you’re there for each other and tell each other ‘thank you.’

Some of my lads turn up for sessions and they’ve had a hard day at school. I’ll say to them, “It’s tough this squash lark, isn’t it?” Then I’ll say to the parents sometimes, “You’ve done well with this lad, he’s very bright, isn’t he? Did he get that from you?” I’ll make sure I say it in front of everybody. It’s just a small thing, but it make sure everybody feels appreciated and valued.

As for tackling that damaging ‘win at all costs’ mentality among parents, it’s a tough one. You talk to a lot of parents about a good philosophy and behaviours and they agree, but when it comes down to match day they just can’t do it. Coaches can’t either. Ultimately they just want to win.

I see a lot of parents and coaches trying to motivate kids rather than inspire them. So I outline to them the difference between motivation and inspiration.

When you inspire somebody it’s very gentle. Inspiration means someone goes away from you with uplifted energy and desire. Motivation is more aggressive, it’s results-driven, more of a means to an end.

Being inspiring as a coach comes down to the way you are yourself. It’s in your energy, the story that you tell. The kids want to be like you and are a little bit in awe of you. When you give them praise, they go away thinking, “That guy really believes in me!”

Motivation is more, “If you want to win, you’re going to have to do this and this, otherwise this will happen.” It’s too much carrot and stick.

I really do think that, like a grandparent figure or a famous sportsperson, coaches should try to be that inspiring person.

Just because a kid is good at squash, it mustn’t become a means to an end.

You’re really trying to encourage the kids to love the sport as if it’s the first time they’ve ever stepped on court. It’s as simple as that.


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  1. great insight, Danny, the notion of a coach having to manage the parents as well as the youngsters; I guess that as long as there’s lots of fun and enthusiasm in the mix a coach will be able to uncover – not extract – one hundred percent of what each young player wants to give; with your approach the parents will be supporting along the way, not pushing

  2. How would this theory fit in with the behaviour of many of the Egyptian parents who we see year on year at the British Junior Open? They produce many successful juniors who go on to be successful seniors, but certainly do not fit the model outlined here.

  3. Chris makes an interesting point. I think it demonstrates that there’s more than one way to do things but I’m not convinced that the inappropriate input, illegal coaching and intimidation of markers you see at some tournaments is going to produce the players we’ll be talking about in the future. The Egyptian domination of junior squash is an overwhelming phenomenon at present but I think there are better ways to produce players with a good degree of longevity in the game. I hope…

  4. Hi Chris, you make an important point and one that has irritated me for some time. I hear lots of inappropriate generalisations regarding “Egyptians” and their methods. I think there are vast generalisations going on, more so as time goes on. I see all types of sports parenting in all sports regardless of cultural strerotype, country of origin or level of success. I’ve seen vastly different interpretations of the same behaviour too. I can’t join in on the “Egyptians” generalisation.

    As i’ve travelled the world following squash, meeting professional players, junior players, coaches and parents you often find that behind the generalisation of a person/family is a person who sometimes gets things right and sometimes wrong. There seems no pattern on where that player came from in terms of country or culture. The only correlation I do observe is that the majority of the mature and in many ways successful players on PSA/WSA are well rounded individuals who have great relationships with their parents and coaches alike.
    I have recently interviewed many parents of players for a forthcoming book on the topic and I can tell you that accompanying a fierce desire to win and preparation to become a champion, the parents have been supportive, loving, strict, yet far from controlling. Also, they give SPACE to their children, work well with coaches and remain passionate supporters. Above all they are hugely inspirational. Mrs Bassam Shorbagy being an obvious mother who springs to mind and Malcolm Willstrop being a father who does.
    I personally believe all you can do is follow your own path and consider your own personal relationships. I don’t believe there is a ‘right way’ or ‘best way’ just the “appropriate” way for particular situations. That is what is so difficult about leadership of any form, being appropriate as life constantly unfolds in your face, one challenge after another. Sitting watching a loved one play sport is seriously challenging especially when winning matters. All you can do is your best at the time and then reflect on oneself because normally as you get your own house in order, you see the good going on in others, as well as the bad.

    • There are a lot of parents out there who should be MADE to read Danny’s words. Many, many kids in many sports would benefit! I made the effects of pushy parenting central to my novel “Sex and Drugs and Squash’n’Roll”, having seen, in squash and the sports that my children played, horrible examples of adults living out their ambitions through their kids. In the story, two of the central characters are domineering, pushy parents. In different ways they both ultimately achieve the opposite of what they are hoping for (and since it is a fantasy, they suffer for it!).

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