Consider the plight of the parent-coach. Always first to arrive at practices and games and last to leave. Part instructor, part hand-holder, and part sherpa, the parent-coach must contend with not just impressionable/whacked-out children and hormonally imbalanced young adults but also with their vested and often neurotic parents. In the best of times, the parent-coach is hailed as a giver of inspirational speeches, a role model and mentor. In the worst of times, players snicker (and parents bicker) behind their back — or even to their face.
As the father of four, I coached youth sports for 13 years. Coaching baseball, basketball, and soccer, I saw my share of inside-the-park home runs and muffed fly balls, fast breaks, and air balls, beautiful goals and whiffs inside the 18-yard box. I coached boys and girls teams, butterfly chasers and future college athletes, teams competing for district championships and teams racing to the bottom.
I didn’t coach alone — volunteer coaching is rarely a solo pursuit. I had the pleasure of coaching with dozens of well-meaning parents sharing their passion and zeal for the game and making a positive difference in kids’ lives. On the other hand, I coached with some real doozies: former athletes pining for their glory days, coaches obsessed with their 11-year-old making it to the pros, and unhinged adults who yell and scream and equate self-worth with batting averages, goals, and 3-point baskets. I’ve seen it all, and then some.
At the end of the day, volunteer coaches don’t always get the respect or recognition they deserve. Why? The biggest problem — and challenge — to overcome is the perception that parents coach for the wrong reason. As one father remarked, “You can always pick out the coach’s kid: they’re wearing number 7, playing shortstop, and batting third.” In other words, nepotism is a stigma that has tainted parent-coaching since the first papa (or mamma) left the stands and stepped onto the sidelines. “There’s a reason why they’re called parent-coach, not coach-parent,” the father added.
He had a point. I’ve seen fellow coaches anoint their son or daughter as team captain, others label their kid a “starter” before the first day of practice, and still worse, offer nothing but denunciations and demeaning epithets to other players but break into a full-throttled cheer and practically jump out of their socks when their progeny accomplishes the most mundane task, like sending a dribbler to third base or sinking a foul shot. It’s as embarrassing as it is inappropriate.
Despite the sticky conflation of the two roles of parenting and coaching, youth sports would be far worse off without dads and moms stepping up to volunteer. Paid coaches are the domain of club sports — and “pay to play” is a hallmark of social-economic inequality. Youth sports would be inaccessible to a majority of children whose families can’t or won’t ante up stiff fees for club team sports. As one parent put it, “Parents coaching: You can’t live with ’em, and you can’t live without ’em.”
All hope is not lost. Tomorrow’s parent-coaches can get better and learn from the previous generation’s mistakes. To gain long-lasting respect and confidence of youth players (along with their parents) and achieve real success in the pitch, field, or gym (not just on the scoreboard), future parent-coaches should make the following pledges:
Resist the temptation to boost your own child’s position on the team. Don’t make them captain, don’t ask them to demonstrate every new play or drill (as if you talked about it over last night’s dinner). Instead, emulate the ubiquitous sign found on neighborhood lawns and sidewalks: “Drive Like Your Kid Lives Here.” In the same vein, treat your kid like every other player on the team.
Give Your Kid Honest Feedback
It’s a double whammy: If all you offer is praise (in lieu of constructive criticism), your child loses out on an opportunity to improve and is set up for future failure. Constructive criticism is the rocket fuel for self-improvement and developing grit and resiliency. Show me a player who sails through a season without a correction and I’ll show you a player who will plateau and likely choke under pressure. By giving your progeny a free pass and inflating their ego, you’re actually hurting their chances for success, not just on the field but in life.
Keep an Open Mind
Avoid “confirmational bias.” That’s the technical term for pigeonholing — making a judgment on a player based on first impressions. No matter much how the player improves, evolves (or slides backward), you stick to your initial assessment. Why? No one wants to be proven wrong. Confirmation bias is a trademark of an amateur coach. Keep an open mind and be willing to admit you may have misjudged a player’s ability, for better or worse.
Forget About the Score
Don’t focus on the scoreboard or your team’s won-loss record. As I often told my young charges after a game, “Five years from now absolutely no one will remember who won or who lost today. Rather, it’s how you played the game. Did you give it your all and leave it on the field?” Focus on effort, and the result will take care of itself.
After a decade of lugging equipment, sending late-night email reminders, and striving to instill children with a love and appreciation for sports that could last a lifetime, I was rewarded by an exchange after one particularly grueling game. A dad caught up with me while I was packing up the gear. “Good game, coach,” he said. “By the way, which daughter is yours?” I looked around the field and pointed: “She wants to play catcher where the action is, but today she played left field,” I answered with a smile. “Really?” He was incredulous. “I never would have guessed.” It was one of the greatest compliments I ever received.
Jay Solomon is a writer, restaurant owner, youth sports coach, and father of four in Denver, Colorado.