Parents, and the relentless pursuit of athletic scholarships, can cause a difficult environment for high-school coaches to survive in. And many have decided it’s not worth the effort.

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Kyle Gray knows basketball.

But in a crowded conference room on a sweltering July afternoon in Yakima, no one attending a clinic seemed to care about that. They wanted to know only one thing from the Edmonds Community College men’s basketball coach: How do you deal with parents?

The troubling stories seem endless. Some recent examples:

• In August, the parents of Los Altos (Calif.) High senior Robbie Lopez filed suit against his baseball coach for being repeatedly benched during games.

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• In April, Kristen McDonnell, a high-school girls basketball coach in Braintree, Mass., resigned after eight years “with a very heavy heart” after citing troubles with parents despite a recent 63-game win streak (she returned in July).

• And last year, parents from five Cascade Conference schools influenced their football coaches to forfeit games against Archbishop Murphy due to safety concerns, putting the Everett private school in the national spotlight.

“It can be a mine field for coaches,” said Gray, who has 14 years of experience coaching girls and boys sports on all levels.

The July gathering in Yakima was Gray’s first clinic on helping peers manage the parent-coach relationship as part of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s Coaches School.

More than player talent and facilities, parents and their behavior toward coaches might be the biggest factor in the success of a high-school sports programs, according to those interviewed for this story. And what’s driving this divide between parents and coaches? Many say it’s the push to land athletic scholarships.

“I know so many coaches who have just stopped coaching because of the parents,” Gray said. “And parents who get upset with coaches, pull their kid and go somewhere else.

“It kills me because I know some of these coaches are really quality people and good coaches that could be out there. I teach in Seattle Public Schools and see the long list of coaching jobs that are open every year, and it’s usually the same schools.”

Todd Beamer coach Darren McKay stands beside a portion of his team that chose to kneel during the national anthem Friday, September 29, 2017 at Auburn Memorial Stadium. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Todd Beamer coach Darren McKay stands beside a portion of his team that chose to kneel during the national anthem Friday, September 29, 2017 at Auburn Memorial Stadium. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Setting guidelines

Darren McKay is the football coach at Todd Beamer in Federal Way because of his worst encounter with parents. In 2012 while coaching at Gig Harbor, the school administration used results of an anonymous online survey of parents as reason to require McKay to fire two members of his staff.

When he refused, McKay was fired despite compiling a 77-41 record in 12 years and building the program into a consistent playoff team.

McKay filed a grievance and more than a hundred showed up to a school-board meeting on his behalf.

“They stopped using the survey,” McKay quipped.

Lake Stevens softball coach Sarah Hirsch said trial and error is how she learned where to set boundaries with parents. As a rookie coach, she remembered parents wanting to debate playing time and in-game decisions after losses.

I know so many coaches who have just stopped coaching because of the parents.” - Kyle Gray

Hirsch, who has coached the Vikings the past five seasons, set a 48-hour rule before talking about games with parents. She doesn’t give out her personal phone number, instead using an app for group notices, and uses only her school-issued email account when communicating with parents.

Now, fundraising is the only vexing part of coaching. Hirsch is preparing for the 2018 season, before which she’ll hold one preseason meeting with parents to discuss the communication rules, playing schedule and fundraiser.

“I try to give them as much information as I can,” said Hirsch, who also coaches at the eighth-grade level. “But if they have questions, I tell them to ask their kid because I’ve probably already given them the information. It helps limit the amount of (conflicts). … I’m thankful I don’t have the amount of players as football. I can’t even image how to manage all of that.”

When McKay accepted the position at Todd Beamer, he changed his policy about what he will discuss in private meetings with parents. They usually questioned playing time for their son. McKay now requires the player to be in the meeting with their parent(s) and be prepared to hear the truth about why they’re not on the field.

Dave Morehouse, who retired after 30 years as the volleyball coach at Shorecrest, said gender also plays a role in how parents react to coaches. He also coaches for an elite volleyball academy.

“I’ve talked to many coaches over the years and the younger (women) coaches have more trouble,” said Morehouse, who was hired by the Scots in 1987. “The parents, for a lack of a better word, bully them to a certain degree. I’ve never had that trouble.”

Follow the money

McKay has started to notice a trend from meetings with parents.

Private training for football is becoming more popular, similar to AAU basketball and club softball or volleyball. And football 7-on-7 tournaments are billed as places to be spotted by college scouts, meaning parents are more influenced by those offseason trainers.

“Now the parent wants to know why their kid isn’t getting recruited when the guru trainer says, ‘Your kid is a Division I athlete,’ ” McKay said. “The fact is, they’re not. The parent sometimes has trouble understanding. That’s getting a little bit worse.”

Mike Hayward sounds like an investment banker when he talks about high-school sports. Annuity, ROI, profiteering — terms you don’t expect when talking about kids.

But to Hayward, a former University of Washington basketball standout, sports have transitioned to dollars and cents. Married to former UW volleyball star Laurie Wetzel, the couple estimates they’ve spent a combined $50,000 on their two daughters’ participation in club volleyball, softball and soccer.

The eldest, Sam, nabbed an athletic scholarship and is a freshman on Nevada’s volleyball team. Younger sister Natalie recently signed to play at DePaul.

The financial aid is that golden ticket that creates the biggest conflict between parents and coaches.

A quality coach is likely still trying to teach life lessons and win high-school games. Most modern-day parents and players, however, want exposure in hopes of getting a college scholarship, especially with the average cost of tuition being $10,000 annually for a state resident at a public school.

According to information provided to Time magazine by WinterGreen Research, youth-sports is a $15.3 billion business and the industry has grown by 55 percent since 2010. Parents are paying for private pitching coaches or “shot doctors” in hopes of a scholarship. Kids are transferring to programs known for getting players scholarships. And the high-school coaches are scrutinized if parents don’t see results.

“People are chasing a mirage; they really are,” Hayward said. “I’ve questioned it all the way through with my own kids. The cost of college is so expensive that people are counting on the scholarship to save them. … But you can’t expect an ROI; there’s no return on investment. The funny thing is people ignore the math.”

According to numbers from the National Federation of High Schools, Just 2 percent of the 430,368 high-school girls in the United States who played basketball last year went on to play in college. Only 1 percent of football players earned a scholarship.

It’s difficult for parents to accept their kid isn’t part of that 2 percent. And the more you hear about an underdog story, the more financial gamble a family is likely to take.

Bothell High School quarterback Jacob Sirmon is on track to enroll at UW in January. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Bothell High School quarterback Jacob Sirmon is on track to enroll at UW in January. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

“I feel bad for all of these families chasing these camps,” said David Sirmon, whose eldest son Jacob was the starting quarterback for Bothell. Jacob is a University of Washington commit, whose parents paid for private sessions with quarterback coaches the past two offseasons.

“If these families spent time really watching what’s going on behind the scenes at Washington or Louisville, these kids are good,” David Sirmon said. “I could come out here (to summer camps) and say, ‘That kid’s a possibility, that kid’s a possibility, everyone else no.’ But these families are killing themselves. Man, invest that time or money in chess or coding and now you have a job at Amazon and you’re killing it. There are a lot of games to play, football isn’t the only one.”

Gray said it’s parents’ attachment to watching their child compete over the years that can cloud judgment once the level of competition is raised on the high-school level.

“That can be an emotional experience for people; especially if their child isn’t as good as the one playing in front of them,” Gray said. “If you understand that, you should be able to react accordingly as a high-school coach. It’s a relationship you have to build with parents, which can be a huge help. You might find out more about that child than you ever thought possible that helps you as a coach.”

Coaching up the parents

Pam Thorsen’s son Ryan was a member of Skyline’s first state football championship team in 2000. When he graduated, Pam and her husband Steve wanted to stay involved. At the direction of then-coach Steve Gervais, they founded the Gridiron Club in 2001.

The nonprofit organization has an alumni-only board that coordinates volunteers to fill in gaps the school district or student body can’t. Donations paid for the Spartans’ emblem at the 50-yard line, player-only T-shirts and an estimated $30,000 in college scholarship money through the years. Parents work the sideline chain gang during games, update team websites, are game announcers and cater the Thursday dinner for the team.

This isn’t like youth football. You don’t need to try to help the coaches coach.” - Pam Thorsen

Thorsen also hosts an incoming-freshman meeting with Skyline coach Mat Taylor, parents and players so they can learn about the program and how to be involved.

“It can be a tough transition for some parents,” said Thorsen, who has advised parents on how to duplicate her model for their schools. “So much of the youth program is driven by parent involvement, whether it’s coaching or cutting orange slices. So when they come in as (parents of) freshmen, we try to explain to them that this isn’t like youth football. You don’t need to try to help the coaches coach. What you need to do is encourage your player to have dedication, commitment and remain coachable.”

Thorsen has found many parents like her simply want to be involved in their kid’s experience and need direction.

Gray, meanwhile, advises coaches to have a plan for the program that’s shared with parents and the team, delegate responsibilities, set boundaries on what can be discussed and, most of all, never ignore a parent.

John O’Sullivan, founder of Changing the Game Project, also stresses trust and communication. His company offers blogs, speakers, books and podcasts to help teach parents how to raise athletic kids.

“Parents want to help their kids; they feel like, ‘Oh, if I had these opportunities’ or ‘I wish someone did this for me,’ ” he said. “That’s great, because it’s done with great love. But what they never stop to do is ask their kids is, ‘Do you actually want this?’

“Parents take ownership of the dream, and it becomes more about them. What we encourage first and foremost with your kids is have a conversation. Especially if you’re talking about high-school-aged kids. ‘How can I help?’ I have yet to ever meet the kid that says, ‘It’s really helpful when you yell at the ref.’ ”

O’Sullivan said he’d like to put himself out of business because adults have finally realized they want the player to succeed. But most parents will never stop being protective of their children.

“The best coaches understand this and incorporate parents into their team culture,” he said. “Everyone has to understand and trust that we’re in this together.”