Youth sports get kids out of the house, help them burn off some energy, and teach them some skills. They should also be fun, but that’s not inevitable. Some kids aren’t into it. Some parents are too into it. Some leagues end up out of control. In most cases, the success or failure of athletic experiences, measure in joy and socialization, hinges largely on the one person who can interact with all parties involved: the coach. In America, most of these coaches are stressed out amateurs so it pays real dividends to know how to approach them in a helpful and productive way.
It should not come as a galloping shock that not every parent does this.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Socializing Kids
But have no fear! Dr. Lisa Vallejos, a psychologist and relationship counselor, is a coach herself — in multiple senses. She not only teaches and encourages adult to open positive and productive lines of communication, she used to coach her son’s flag football team. Over the course of that experience, she says that she was witness to a wide variety of communications and interactions, some positive and many not. She believe parents of young athletes (or just little kids who are trying to play sports) need to be much more sympathetic to coaches and take on more responsibility for cultivating that relationship..
Vallejos offered Fatherly some tips on approaching coaches, bonding with coaches, and working with coaches to settle on a set of reasonable expectations for a child.
Remember that most coaches are volunteers and behave accordingly.
Most young coaches are weekend volunteers, or even parents, who just want to help their kid have fun on Saturdays. Plenty of them volunteer to do so for free. That was what Dr. Vallejos did. When the flag football league started in her town, and no other parents volunteered to coach the team, she decided to step up to the plate.
“Nobody volunteered, so I was like, fine, I’ll do it,” she says. But the problem was that even though the other parents hadn’t volunteered to put in their share, they still wanted to try to coach. “A lot of fathers in particular would want to coach from the sidelines. I felt like, there was an opportunity for them to coach, and they chose not to do that.” In other words, if you didn’t volunteer at the beginning, make peace with that decision. It’s out of your hands now!
Remember that you’re a coach too, whether you want to be or not.
“What I saw the most was parents that were really, really hard on their kids. There was one dad in particular who would be so hard on his son that the little boy pretty much ended up crying during every practice.” That’s hard for a coach to navigate. After all, they don’t want to step on your toes, and even if they don’t agree with your parenting, they understand that you have a right to do what you choose.
But Vallejos found as a coach that she was put in a strange position. “I feel like the dad would break him down, and make him cry, and then he would come back into the huddle and I’d have to build him back up and build his confidence.” Coaches won’t disrespect your authority as a parent. But it’s wise to remember to take a deep breath before you communicate with your kid. After all, there’s a whole team relying on your kid, and another adult out there looking out for your kid, too.
Don’t give kids direction from the sidelines.
Vallejos notes that more than once, overzealous parents would shout out directions to their kids that were often the opposite of the discussed play. That puts the kids in a confusing position: do they listen to their parent, or their coach? “I had to set boundaries with a couple of dads, because the kids don’t know who to listen to, because they’re like, ‘Well, the coach is saying this but dad is saying this.’ and then they freeze. It’s just not a good situation.”
Stop expressing your opinions as facts.
“It’s always about how you approach it,” Vallejos says. “It’s about advocating for your child in the best possible way. Say what you need to say politely, with kindness, and respect. And also, recognize that how you’re saying it.” Try not to be too aggressive, in other words.
It also helps to approach coaches with your concerns by speaking with “I” statements, says Dr. Vallejos. “If you approach your coach by saying, ‘I feel like you were unfair to my child,’ that’s different than saying: ‘You’re unfair and you’re favoring other kids.’ The first sentence takes ownership of your feelings, while the second is just an accusation, which puts the coach on the defensive.
Demanding more playing time for your kid never works.
“Nobody is entitled to playing time,” says Vallejos, adding that it’s unwise to assume that players are being slighted, specifically at higher levels.
With younger kids, it’s easier to make an argument, but that argument should probably be about fairness and equal playing time, not talent or winning.
”The point is to learn skills and to play,” says Vallejos “With younger sports, there’s usually a rotation. This round of kids will play, and this round of kids will play, and you switch it off, so all of the kids get equal playing time.” So ask about playing time if you must, but really consider whether the system is unfair before you do. There’s no sense in requesting exceptional treatment.
“If it is competitive,” Vallejos adds.“I don’t think it’s appropriate for parents to interfere with the coaches decisions. Coaches generally play the kids who are going to help them win.”
Ask how you can help.
Offering to help shouldn’t be a statement of what the coach is doing wrong. It should be a question. “If you want to offer your help, ask, ‘Is there any way I can support you?’ That’s great,” says Vallejos. “Don’t just critique and criticize when you’re not willing to do anything to help. That’s just going to make people feel bad and create tensions on the team.” After all, Vallejos stresses, the coach is the coach, whether or not they’re an expert. And they chose to be there. “Be grateful that someone is willing to invest in the community, and in your kids, in that way,” she adds.