Coaching sports was something I did before I had kids as a fun way to give back. After all, I had the time, and spending Saturday mornings in a crowded, noisy, warm gym was a great way to break up a long winter. What I didn’t realize was how the experience of coaching would serve me well when I had kids of my own. Here are six lessons from coaching youth sports that have helped me as a dad.
1. Sometimes you have to let them figure it out.
I once heard that when his team was panicking and needed a timeout, legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson would often seem aloof, implying that “the players will find me.” While I’d love to try and install a pro-style triangle offense and micromanage every pass, dribble, and shot, I quickly learned that sometimes it’s better to set guidelines and let the kids figure it out. It’s a lesson that is serving me well with a 4-year old. It might be easier for me to do something for him, but the learning happens when he works through problems.
2. Even if you don’t realize it, you’re setting an example for kids.
Middle-school kids can be surprisingly cynical. The kids I coached regarded me as old and out of touch. But when I talked to the parents, I’d often be surprised to hear that the kid would repeat things that I said at practice and lessons I taught them in the gym. It made me realize I had the opportunity to do more than model a proper layup — and also that kids are listening, even when they’re acting like they’re not. With my own kids, it’s something I have to remember every day. Even when I’m stuck in traffic and want to lay into the driver who just cut me off. The kids are listening, observing, and, eventually, will copy your behavior.
3. It is important to control your emotions
Early on in my coaching career, the guy who ran the league suggested I grab a bottle of Maalox and a bag of cough drops. That’s how worked up I’d get on the sidelines. I flung that fancy clipboard to the floor more times than I care to admit. At some point, I realized the histrionics didn’t do much except make the kids cower and I was better off being encouraging, even if my forward chucked up and airball-ed a three-pointer while ignoring a wide open lane to the basket. I think of those moments today when my kid asks for a fifth cup of water at bedtime and I start to get annoyed.
4. You have to recognize the real victories.
I coached the same girls’ basketball team from 3rd to 8th grade, and we won a league championship. But, at some point, I realized — as cliche as it sounds — the real victories came from helping the girls learn how to put aside differences and work together to achieve a goal. The girls are young women now, and there’s more satisfaction in seeing how they’ve grown up to be successful, good people than in any championship we won together.
5. Adapting Is Essential
I had the lineup set. But my forward had the flu and another player showed up late. So you have to change plans and adapt. It’s true as a parent: you planned on a date night, but a kid is sick or the sitter can’t make it. No matter your best-laid plans, things happen.
6. There’s a difference between good and bad support
At some point, my boys may play youth sports and I’ll be the dad in the stands. During my years of coaching, I came across a variety of parents: those who saw practice and games as a free babysitter to those who wanted to help out, to those who wanted to help out too much. I also saw firsthand the effect of a hypercritical parent yelling direction from stands can have on a kid. Coaching showed me how to be a supportive, encouraging dad and not a pain in the team’s butt, or worse, a problem for my kid.