PSA 2000 Informing Parents

I think all coaches should attend a seminar with Tracy Shulman-Jackson on "Informing Parents." Correction: all people should attend. The advice she gave was so well-organized, so instructive, and so common-sense that it would help anybody.

She advised coaches of competitive skaters to have an informal interview process with the parents before the skater is 8, certainly by the skater's second or third lesson. And during this meeting, give the parents a packet containing the vital information that, if you don't provide it first, will keep parents on the phone with you for more time than you can spare. Communicating with parents can take up enormous amounts of a coach's time, but she stressed that they are only people who want to know -- and, speaking as a mother herself, for the prices they are paying, they have the right to be informed.

Here are some things contained in her packet:

1. A contract. This has her rates, her payment schedule, her cancellation policy, and the change in her rates for competitions. She has the parents sign this contract, and keeps a photocopy on file. This way, if there is a dispute over her fees, there is a reference.

2. FAQ.

3. Items a skater should always bring to competition, such as extra laces, a warm-up sweater, gloves that match the sweater and not the costume.

4. Important dates throughout the year, including competitions the skater may be attending.

5. A personal annual schedule, with dates that the coach will be away. This sheet includes phone numbers of other recommended coaches and their specialties.

6. A dress code for both competitions and practice. The skating world definitely expects skaters to dress the part, and it's easier to spell out how than to expect people to learn by osmosis.

7. What to eat during competitions. Avoid sugar (will make you crash), milk (coats your throat), spicy food (combines with anxiety to cause indigestion).

8. Phone numbers of rink moms who will guide others. One is the mother of a competitive skater, one a test skater.

9. Her personal philosophy of coaching, and good sportsmanship guidelines. Again, you cannot expect parents to know automatically that in skating, you do not shout in triumph when your child wins, even though this is done in other sports. Someone must tell them.

10. Policies and procedures. She charges a competition rate, and skaters must sign up for this six weeks prior. A week or two before, she bills for a single all-encompassing competition fee, with an extra rate if she must stay at the competition for more than four days; this is payable a week prior. She always itemizes so parents know exactly what they are paying for. A week after competition, she submits a bill for her expenses. She never charges more than $25 a day for food, and tries to keep her food bill as low as possible.

11. Contact info for other professionals, such as music editor, costume designer, choreographer, hair and makeup, skate supplier.

12. Contact info for all her skaters, so they can keep in touch with each other, socialize, and create camaraderie.

She advised coaches never to give away lessons. If you want to give extra time to a kid for no money, use the barter system, trading skill for skill. She has had parents landscape her yard, babysit for her, you name it. But a coach who teaches for free is saying that their time has no value.

It peeves her when coaches complain about a skater's or parent's clothes, but are no better themselves. She encourages coaches to dress up for sessions, which shows respect for the skater and the work.

One of the most important things is to inform parents right away about what kind of expenses they will incur -- though, she said, she knows many coaches won't do this because it makes the parents run out the door. (I stifled a gasp of horror -- parents have the right to know this!) But she argued that it is wrong to let parents go along until they are forced to tell their small child, "I know you love it and you're progressing, but we just realized we can't do this anymore." She provides parents with a complete itemized list of everything they must pay for at various levels. They will need to make serious financial decisions as a family, and need this information as soon as possible.

She requires each skater to have a notebook. Every two or three lessons, she writes a tip in it, and the parents can help the skater work on some things at home.

She has many ways to involve the parents. One is to explain to them what's on a PSA rating exam, what a rating exam is, what the PSA is. When they see how much work she does and how seriously she takes her profession, it gives her more credibility and they have more faith in her.

She doesn't have time to talk to 15 families individually, so she sets up a voice mail account, records a message once, and it delivers to each family's message center. That way she can remind everyone to bring things to the next day's competition. She also has a mother that starts the phone tree, calling two others, who then call two others, and so on. And finally, she uses e-mail faithfully. That way she can answer parents' questions whenever she has free time, without playing phone tag.

At the beginning of each season, she has parent meetings. She charges $5 for adults and $3 for kids, and they eat and discuss goals for the year. Otherwise, she holds parent conferences on demand. If there is a parent who wants a lot of attention, she will set up a weekly phone call appointment. That way, the contact is limited, which will help the coach's sanity, but it also sends a clear message that the parent's concerns are important enough to merit half an hour every week.

Parents often want to help and feel like contributors. They can figure out hotels and airfare, raise funds (profit goes into an account to be used toward pro fees), perhaps organize a group effort to bring a choreographer to the rink.

Yes, there are sometimes "bad parents," who cause trouble, and just one can ruin a rink. Let them go. Don't retain them out of fear of losing the income.

Be consistent with your policies. If you require full payment for less than 24 hours cancellation notice, state so clearly in writing and collect it, unless you are able to sell that time to someone else.

After a time away, such as at the PSA conference, she holds a training camp the following Saturday, charging $30 a person (bring own bag lunch). During this time, she shares everything new she's learned, and they go over existing goals with the new information in mind. She does not skimp on details, because many of these students will someday take ratings exams themselves, and they need to learn this. In this way, she makes up for some of the lost income from going away, and gets to spread her refreshed enthusiasm.

For coaches who would like to implement this organized system, but aren't sure how to introduce such a radical change, she suggested that they start with the newer or younger students, and gradually make this universal policy. When approaching parents, coaches can say, "I've got this great idea; it will help our communication." The important thing is to give parents needed information before they have to ask for it.

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