Can you give us a bit of background information on yourself?
Jan Alm, from Sweden. Head of player/trainer development at one of Sweden’s biggest youth clubs. UEFA “A” license holder.
Have trained Pro youth as well as more grassroots-orientated players (from players in today’s Swedish national team to players in the lowest divisions) for about 20 years. The only thing I know nowadays about the development of youth is that the more I know the less I take for granted.
How would you define a parent(s) role within the youth sports environment?
In Sweden, you have to as a trainer see the bigger picture when it comes to parents and their involvement. Without the support of parents, you as a trainer will have a hard time influencing the youth players. And they need their parents’ support to a large degree.
At the same time, you as a coach need to set the rules on where the influence has to stop. It’s not the parents that should set the tone for the team. You need to educate parents to some extent and make them see it the way you do. Football education for kids is a long journey towards a goal and you need to explain it time and time again.
The kids spend more time with the parents than you so if you can get the parents on board with promoting football out of the context of structured training you have gotten half-ways on the journey.
What are the benefits of embracing parental involvement within youth sports?
I have always thought that a high level of communication with parents makes your job as a coach much easier. It enhances the wellbeing of the kids if the parents enjoy what they are doing. It’s also beneficiary if you and the parents see things the same way. Take praise for example. A good effort is always worth praise and having fun and being a good and coachable teammate should always be a point that you as a coach and the parents should praise. That also takes away some of the stress of winning/losing in the younger years which I find important. It’s also a way of controlling the conduct of your team when you together with the parents have set up a good agenda on how you want the children to act and behaviour that is unacceptable.
How have you as a coach/club attempted to increase parental involvement?
The biggest one is probably our involvement in Sweden’s biggest anti-bullying program called “friends”. They send out forms that both the kids and parents can fill in through a centralised website. It has questions about everything from the group and how it works through the trainers and over to what you think about your parents. It’s easy to fill out and anonymous.
We also recommend all our age groups start a webpage through a team web system that we use to keep parents and players informed about what happens. 2-3 times a year we have meetings with all the parents which I as the club’s representative attend.
And last but not least my door is always open for the kids. I know everyone by name from the age of 8 and up and they know that if they have a problem with coaches or other players/parents they can come to me and from time to time players/parents do.
We have a small dossier of rules that every player and parent have to sign to join. Swedish clubs must stay within certain boundaries or the money that we get will be withheld from the state. (UN declaration of children’s rights).
What challenges have you faced by attempting to increase the level of parental involvement?
It can become a bit of a blurred line with parents thinking that they have the given right to pick teams, decide who plays when and where and so on. But basically, the pros are bigger then the cons. You have to accept that parents question your way of doing things, you’re basically telling the most precious thing they have to do as you say and parents to trust you!
Have you seen any difference in players when parental involvement is embraced not neglected and/or ignored?
I’ve worked on two very opposite sides of that coin. Nowadays I work in an environment where the majority of households are way above the average income in Sweden which means that parents whether you like it or not get involved. Getting to away games is not a problem, rather the opposite where we politely have had the debate that 15 players don’t necessarily have to mean 15 cars for example. But the demands on the children to perform are often driven by the parents more then the child. It can lead you into trouble because the simplest of mistakes can lead to a reaction from the parents on the sideline. This has meant that we at every given moment talk of the long journey in football education. And the importance of certain values but that winning or losing is not that important at a young age.
The other example is from a club in the city of Malmoe (Sweden’s 3rd largest) with a lot of immigrants and social should we call it unrest? Here the parents were hard to find and include. There was often a language barrier and an unwillingness to embrace the child’s footballing. At the same time, it’s one of the clubs with the largest talent pool around at the moment but the problem here was that parents saw the child’s football as a way out if the kid was any good. Sometimes it felt like total chaos with parents, agents and people from clubs around Europe running around the training ground trying to snatch kids up. (a good example is the 8-year-old that’s now playing for FC Barcelona’s youth team. He’s 11 now.
From the parent’s view I could understand it because their child could lift them and their family out of poverty by being good at kicking a ball but at the same time it put a lot of pressure on the kids at a young age. I’m afraid that we didn’t manage to get the structure in place that we needed because a lack of funding and a lack of help from the parents. They saw things their way and we saw it differently but we didn’t manage to bridge the gap. I think that environment is one of the most challenging and one of the most inspiring I’ve ever been in but in the end, my car couldn’t take it any more (every time I forbid a player from playing because of broken rules my car got hit bad at the parking lot.)
What advice would you give coaches that are unsure and/or afraid about increasing parental involvement within youth sports?
Don’t be! You can only be so much of an influence due to limited amount of time you spend with the kids. The parents might need some help in seeing things the way you do but the experience will get better for you, the parents, the kid and the club if you get the parents onboard so what is there to fear? I do think that some coaches are afraid. Maybe they are uncertain of themselves as coaches and don’t want ask any pesky questions but believe me most parents understand if you just stay honest and sometimes even admit to making mistakes (hell were all learning all the time aren’t we?)
For those parents unaware of their influential role within youth sports, what advice would you give them?
Your child needs your support and your love. Without it, nothing is fun for them. Help them, support them and grow with them. Youth sports can be fantastic. It can learn your child a great deal about life and how to function together with others but without your support the child will soon lose interest.
What is next for you as a coach/club/organisation?
Quitting it is. You should quit when you’re on top they say and after winning another national championship (Under 16 years’ group)I’m leaving. I’ve had a job offer as coach educator for the southern part of Sweden and I’m thinking about taking that up. Why shouldn’t I try to spread the few words of wisdom that I do have?
I would like to add that for me the best moment has not been training players that have reached high levels. The greatest enjoyment is in today’s internet world, for my birthdays I usually get mails from former players thanking me for maybe not always making them the best players but making the best possible person they could be and having fun at the same time even if I once in awhile gave them a telling off at halftime!
Jan, would highly recommend https://footblogball.wordpress.com/ as a source of great content for everyone involved in football.
Thank you to Jan Alm, for taking the time to complete the following interview questions.
The Sporting Influencer