'Helicopter parents' take learning experiences away from high school athletes

Every coach seems to have a war story. They will not always share them on the record, mind you, but they can offer ample evidence as to how much high school sports have changed.

How parents have changed, as much as anything.

Did you hear about the parents who lawyered up after their kids got kicked off the team for drinking? And how the school district caved and let the kids come back?

I had a parent who got in his kid's face at halftime of one of our playoff games. "Is this how you want to go out?" he screamed. Added a couple of choice words, too.

A parent of one of my players took it upon himself to send out film to all the big football powers. Then these guys called me, and I had to level with them: "Look, this kid's a decent high school player. But he can't play at your level."

The Pennsylvania coaches interviewed for this story spoke not in reaction to the case in Kentucky, in which a high school football coach was indicted on reckless-homicide charges in connection with the heat-related death of one of his players last August, a case that also saw the player's parents bring a civil suit. Questioned before that story made national headlines, they talked more generally, discussing how different coach-parent relations are from the way they used to be.

Parents, they say, were once more apt to stay in the background; less likely to question the coach, the program and the school. But that's no longer true. Parents are visible. They're vocal. They will challenge a coach about playing time, strategy and discipline … especially playing time. And it seems to be the same everywhere.

There's even a label for them -- "helicopter parents" -- because they're always hovering.

"They're so involved," said Mike Pettine, who oversaw Central Bucks West's football dynasty for 33 years, ending in 1999. "For two-thirds of my career, I didn't have this, or I had very little of it. I saw it going on strong in the '90s."

Parents' motivations are numerous. Some have an inflated opinion of their kids' ability.

"They get blinded by love," said John Zerfing, formerly the Central York boys' basketball coach.

Some parents also view a Division I scholarship as the Holy Grail, as something their kid can attain if only the coach sees things their way. And some parents are heavily involved at the varsity level out of habit; they've always been in the mix, from the moment their kid won his or her first ribbon at a midget-midget tournament.

"When we grew up, we went to the playground," said Ken "Snip" Esterly, who is in his 19th year as the Reading Central Catholic boys' basketball coach. "We never had any parents around. We had captains. You picked up sides. I don't think kids could do that [today], because they're so structured. These kids don't know how to do things on their own."

Esterly, whose son and daughter are athletes (albeit in another school district), finds it incredible that parents go so far as to show up at rec-league games.

"It's life or death," he said.

Zerfing understands; he coached his son Brad at one point during his four years as Central York's boss. The elder Zerfing admittedly rode his son hard, knowing that any hint of preferential treatment would be duly noted by others. And it helped that Brad was a top-notch player on some strong teams; he would go on to play for a Division III Final Four club at York College, where his dad now serves as an assistant coach.

"To be able to go through that experience is something I'll cherish forever," John Zerfing said. "But it's not easy."

It's that much more difficult for those sitting in the bleachers, watching their sons.

"If you think he's not getting a fair shake," Zerfing said, "it's tough to watch and not want to get involved."

So parents do. And the greatest concern is always about playing time: "absolutely, without a doubt, always and ever," said Bob Borden, who was the boys' basketball coach at Conestoga Valley -- near Lancaster -- for 25 years, ending in 2007.

"If I would get a phone call or an e-mail, it would start out with something else," Borden said, "but it was always playing time."

Borden's reaction?

"Basically, I don't care," he said. "I'm obviously not looking at [statistics]. I'm looking at practice, what goes on in the game with the other kids. There's a whole realm of experience. They're coming from a parent's perspective. I'm coming from another perspective."

"That's a situation that will never end up where you see eye to eye," Zerfing said. "They don't see the grand scheme of things. The coach is looking out for the team; the parents for one individual."

As Esterly said, "What coach wouldn't play a kid if he was good enough?"

There are parents who will nonetheless cling to their views, who believe that their kid is a Division I-caliber player, capable of earning a scholarship if he plays enough and compiles stats that are gaudy enough. But that's not how it works.

"It doesn't matter, all the statistics in the world," Pettine said. "[College recruiters] want to come in and look at the kid, the old eyeball test: height, weight, 40 speed, their film. If all that checks out, and if their transcripts qualify them, they don't have to know anything else about all those stats."

Doug Dahms, the football coach at Wilson-West Lawn, said he tries to keep the lines of communication open with parents. He meets with them as a group in February, May and August. He passes out his cell-phone number.

"I lay out to them exactly what their role is," he said. "There's a five-page handout that lays out how they can best support their child in the program."

As is customary at many schools, parents and players are required to sign a contract at Wilson, saying that the player will treat coaches, teammates and opponents with respect, show up at all practices and refrain from using drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

"They're held to a higher level of expectation than the student body," said Dahms, who spent 30 years as an assistant coach before reluctantly agreeing to become the head man three years ago, when his predecessor, Jim Cantafio, was fired in late spring.

If there are problems with those expectations -- or, again, playing time -- Dahms said he will tell parents the following: "The option is to take your son to private school." And he then offers to draw up the transfer papers.

But, he said, it rarely comes to that. Generally, things are nipped in the bud because his door is always open, his cell phone always on.

Borden, for his part, had a rule that a player had to first approach him about a problem before his parents ever became involved. Lance Wagner, the girls' basketball coach at Manheim Township (another district near Lancaster), instituted a similar rule last year, in no small part because of issues that cropped up in the 2006-07 season.

That year, he said, "If we were a boarding school, we would have won seven more games. [The players] would go home, and everything we did in practice would be canceled out."

Not anymore. Now he and a player will tackle issues one on one.

"There's not a third party involved," he said. "No one is going over my head."

After all, he said, "It's an educational thing. The worst thing you can do for kids is something they can do for themselves. Let the kids fight their own battles."

If only.

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.