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6 Tips To Coaching Your Own Child (and Not Playing Favorites)

It's tempting to want to make your kid the quarterback or starting shortstop. Here's how to avoid being a biased coach.

Being dad is tough enough. Add coach to the mix, and you’ve got a whole new, tricky dynamic to navigate. You want to create a fun experience for your child and help them improve their skills. But at the same time, you have to be careful not to give them special treatment, be it extra playing time, preferred positions, or putting them in the starting lineup when they should be riding the bench.

On the flip side, you also have to avoid dropping the hammer on them every time they drop the ball. It’s easy for coaching dads to subject their kids to undue criticism compared to other players. Ironically, they usually do so in an effort to show they’re not playing favorites.

Even if you are biased toward your own child ⏤ which, let’s face it, most of us are ⏤ you can’t show it. “Whether you go overboard being demanding of your own kid or you are too soft on them, they and the other kids on the team will catch on,” says Reed Maltbie, lead speaker and chief content officer at Changing the Game Project, a youth sports organization that strives to put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’ “There are a dozen other kids you’re trying to create an amazing experience for by teaching them skills and modeling good leadership. You really need to treat every child the same across the board.” And if you don’t, you can expect irate parents, intrateam drama, and maybe even issues on the home front.

Fatherly recently spoke with Maltbie about the challenges of coaching your own kids on the field. These are his six tips for keeping your bias under wraps and being the best coach you can be for the entire team.

Set boundaries with your kid before the season starts

Once you’ve signed on as the coach, Maltbie suggests sitting down with your child to ask how they feel about the situation. Little kids will probably just be excited, he says, whereas older ones could have mixed feelings about you coaching. If they are tepid, tell them why you think this will be a great experience for both of you, and explain that this will give them a chance to step up and be a leader.

You should also lay out clear boundaries for how you two will interact on the field. “Set the tone that your communication may look different during practice and games than it does at home,” Maltbie says. “Explain that you love them no matter what, but you can’t hug them or even say ‘I love you’ when you’re coaching.”

Outline expectations with other parents

“Parent communication is vital ⏤ you can’t over-communicate,” says Maltbie. “The parent meeting at the beginning of the season is key because that’s when you can explain how you are going to do things as the coach and why.” The why is huge, he adds, for both parents and kids. It’s important that everyone understands what to expect and starts the season off on the same page. “And don’t be afraid to give other parents roles such as team photographer or snack planner,” Maltbie adds. “That will make them feel like they, too, have some power and remind them that you’re all raising these kids together.”

Keep playing time equal

Unless you are coaching a competitive team for which playing time is earned, do your best to give all kids the same amount of time on the field. “I am a big advocate of equal playing time, because that’s how kids learn to play ⏤ by getting out there and gaining experience,” Maltbie says. “If you don’t give them each the opportunity to play as much as possible and try out every position, you are not giving them the opportunity to grow.”

However, keeping things fair can be tougher than you think, he adds, because you know what your own child is capable of. It can be tempting to give them their coveted position over the other players ⏤ or, the opposite, to make them play a position that neither they nor anyone else likes, just to make things run smoothly. “If your kid has repeatedly said they don’t want to play goalie, but you know your child is a good goalie, it’s easy to say ‘just get in there,’” Maltbie says. “But then your child will feel like they are not being heard.” This can cause friction between you and your kid both on the field and off. Plus, letting the other kids off the hook doesn’t send a good message about teamwork.

Leave ‘Dad’ at home

Communication and behavioral patterns from your home life can easily, unintentionally, bleed into your coaching. “Realize that you will show up to practice or a game with lingering issues from home,” Maltbie says. “But whatever happened, put it in the trunk and let it stay there until you’re done coaching; then deal with it afterward.”

Pay close attention to your words but also to your body language and facial expressions ⏤ especially if you’re still upset that your kid lied about doing their homework or didn’t take out the trash yet again. “It can’t be that all the other kids make mistakes and you say, ‘that’s OK, everyone misses sometimes,’ but when your kid makes the same mistake, you throw your arms up in the air,” Maltbie says. “Even if you don’t say a word, your body language has planted the seed that you treat your child differently.”

Leave ‘Coach’ on the field

Maltbie says it’s perfectly fine to give your child constructive criticism as a coach. But when riding in the car or sitting around the dinner table, resist harping on how they missed a shot or didn’t play their best. “It’s not fair to you or your child if you are the coach at home, too,” he explains. “As adults, we need to drive those boundaries. I advise parent-coaches to tell their kids they won’t talk about their sport at home unless the child wants to.”

Also, avoid orchestrating extra drills after team practice to give your child a leg up. “Just let kids play while at home,” Maltbie says. “Get them a ball and maybe a net, and stay out of it. Let them explore and learn and grow. They don’t need you micromanaging.”

Recruit a solid assistant

Getting a second coach on board will help shoulder the burden and also help you look at situations more objectively. If it’s another parent, you can try having them be the one who interacts directly with your kid and offers constructive criticism while you do the same for their child. Maltbie also suggests recruiting a local college or high school player who can add expertise but doesn’t have a dog in the fight.