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Coaches Contend With a Tough Foe, M.L.S. Project Reveals

When Mike Counter M.L.S. ’14 entered the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at St. Norbert College, he already had his thesis topic in mind. Counter, director of media relations at the college, chose to explore “Parental Involvement in Children’s High School Athletics” due in part to his 20-plus years in television and radio broadcasting.

“I covered a lot of high school sporting events,” he says. “I saw a parent get tossed out of a gym by a referee for foul language. I read stories and heard things from coaches. I had friends who were coaches. It’s not a problem that’s just starting; it’s been around for a long time.”

Counter laid the foundation for his thesis by writing a paper on the topic in his first class in the program, Sport and Society, taught by Paul Bursik (Business Administration). During the next three years, he collected related news stories, data and information.

“I was building as I was going,” he explains. “There is research out there about this topic, but not as much as you think. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a survey?’ So I talked to Dr. David Wegge [director of the Strategic Research Institute].”

Counter’s research focused on two types of parents of high school athletes – “helicopter” and “absentee.” Helicopter parents are the over-involved, those who hover over their children, never allowing them to succeed or fail on their own. Absentee parents are not involved and are sometimes disinterested in their children’s sports.

Wegge suggested that Counter seek assistance from David Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. He submitted a proposal to Anderson, who agreed to distribute the survey.

Counter formulated 10 open-ended questions for the survey, which was sent out to 6,311 Wisconsin high school head coaches and 506 athletic directors/coordinators in November 2013. Surveys were completed by 1,196 coaches, 238 athletics directors and 34 others.

Crunching the numbers
“We had all this data,” says Counter. “I learned a great deal about what goes into coding data. I had to code 15,000 comments. Dr. Wegge and Dr. [Kevin] Quinn, my adviser, directed me to find the answers that kept popping and to assign a number next to it.”

To ensure academic integrity, Sarah VandenHeuvel ’14, research assistant at the Strategic Research Institute, also coded the responses. Quinn used the EViews 8 intercoder reliability program, which indicated that Counter and VandenHeuvel agreed on 80 percent of the responses. They worked together to reach a consensus on their statistical differences as they classified responses according to content. Counter created tables to display the results in his thesis. For example, Table 3 addresses the question, are “helicopter” parents a positive or negative force for the student athlete? Seventy-one percent of athletics directors and 63 percent of coaches surveyed indicated that they have a negative effect.

Athletics directors deal with parents from all sports, so Counter was not surprised that they had a more negative view of helicopter parents.

“Today, parents will bypass the coach and go to the AD,” he says. “That’s when it gets messy. Most of the parents are good. It only takes one or two to really make it difficult on the team, the coach and the athletics director.”

He adds that changes in communication have made it easier for helicopter parents to address coaches and athletics directors. One athletics director receives texts from parents about the game, during the game. 

“One of the surprises we found involved the size of the schools,” says Counter. “We all thought the problem would be greater at the bigger schools and not so much of a problem at the smaller rural schools, but the problem was across the board.”

In addition to processing data from the survey, Counter also conducted interviews with individuals involved in high school athletics. For example, Bill Collar, who coached football for 29 years at Seymour High School, says that he would choose helicopter parents over absentee parents because it is easier to work with parents who are interested. 

“Some parents can’t be involved because they have to work. I get that,” says Counter. “There are those parents that just don’t want to be involved. Coach Collar’s wife would position herself on the field each Parent’s Night so she would be there for the players who didn’t have a parent at the game.

“What they really want is someone in the middle (between helicopter and absentee). It’s important for parents to remember that 7 million kids play high school sports and only 2 percent get full rides [full scholarships to college], and those full rides are not guaranteed.”

Sharing the results
Counter’s thesis drew the attention of local news station WBAY-TV, which ran a three-part series on its findings, viewable at part 1; part 2; part 3

“I hope it helps someone, helps a parent or family pause and ask if their son or daughter is having fun and enjoying their high school experience like they should,” says Counter. 

“I was struck by some words I read in the course of my research: the six words you should tell your son or daughter after a game, and they will bring a smile to their face. Just say, I love to watch you play.’ ”


Dec. 2, 2014