Everyone who knows me personally is aware that I am a huge sports fan. I love to support all of my local Boston professional teams. But without a doubt, my favorite sports events of all are those in which my son, Josh, is a player. (This may be a father’s pride talking, but he is a whiz on the basketball court!)
I know I’m not the only parent who wants his or her child to succeed athletically. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as fall sports start up, about what a huge difference coaches can make in young people’s lives—for good or ill. While my own son has always been fortunate enough to work with supportive, uplifting coaches, sadly that’s not the case for all young players. In fact, it is amazing to me how often I am asked by “struggling” parents how they should handle their son’s or daughter’s upsetting coach.
With that in mind, I think it’s very important for parents to first understand that most coaches are doing their best, are not paid, and are giving of their time and energy very unselfishly. But you should also protect your kids by staying aware of how coaches interact with your children and what type of influence they’re having, and most importantly, to hold them accountable. While I don’t advocate becoming a so-called “helicopter parent,” I do think that as a parent you should always be vigilant when your child’s well-being is at stake. Don’t hesitate to step in if you feel that a coach’s attitude or actions are harmful to your child. If possible, discuss the situation with your child before approaching the coach so that your child doesn’t feel blindsided or betrayed by your involvement. And yes, the older your child is—especially if he or she is in high school—you might want to think twice about taking on a coach unless actual harm is being inflicted. Ultimately, though, always remember that no sport or tournament or trophy is worth sacrificing your child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.
So, as this athletic season gets underway, take some time to think about how your child’s coach interacts with athletes. Here are some things to consider when evaluating a coach, as well as some qualities I think great coaches possess:
*Realize that harsh coaching methods do cause damage. There’s no question that harsh coaching methods, such as calling players out, getting in their faces, and “motivating” them through fear, do more harm than good. In the short term, these tactics cause anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem. Over time, a bullied athlete’s weakened confidence and sense of self-worth can eradicate motivation and love for the game. And worst of all, it can transfer to other areas of the young person’s life, making him or her less confident socially and academically. After all, it’s a short step from believing I’m not good enough on the field to I don’t have what it takes to succeed at all.
*Think about what a coach’s job really is. Your child does not play on a professional team. His coach’s goal should not be to build a career, but to teach and guide young people who are in the midst of their mental, emotional, and physical development. Ideally, what a coach teaches during practice will also help kids develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in many other areas for the rest of their lives. When you look at it that way, coaching is as much about growing children through positive motivation and attitude as it is about imparting the mechanics of swinging a bat or kicking a ball. So in addition to making sure that your child is learning the rules of the game, make sure he also feels special, valued, and encouraged.
*Watch a replay of the coach’s motivations. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, make sure that your child’s coach does not use her position primarily to brag about her successful seasons and coaching record. Also, to some extent, a coach’s goals should match the level of athletics in which your child is engaged. For instance, if he is doing YMCA coach-pitch baseball, his coach’s main motivation should definitely be centered around having fun and helping kids. But if your son is a high school baseball player and his team has a legitimate chance to go all the way to the state championship, it’s okay for the coach to put more of an emphasis on winning vs. losing…as long as the players’ physical and psychological well-being are still a firm first priority.
*Has the coach done some emotional intelligence warm-ups? If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional intelligence is a quality that enables you to be empathetic, an effective communicator, to navigate conflict, etc. If you’re emotionally intelligent, you’re better able to manage your own emotions, pick up on what others are feeling, and react constructively to setbacks—all of which are qualities that coaches should strive to have. Remember, everyone, but especially the young, can be made or broken by others’ words. A coach has the responsibility to make sure that he or she is setting kids up for present and future success, not filling them with self-doubt and hurting their self-esteem. So if you’re watching a practice or cheering at a game, try to gauge what the coach’s emotional intelligence quotient might be, based on his behavior. If you come to believe that it is really hurting the players, don’t be afraid to act, whether you speak to the coach or even try to find a different team for your child.
*Does the coach score points through caring? People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And in sports, it’s crucial that coaches care about athletes as people, not just as players. Watch to see if your child’s coach gets to know her on an individual basis and incorporates that knowledge into their regular interactions. It’s always a good sign if, for instance, a coach keeps tabs on your daughter’s academic achievements and compliments her for doing well on a test, or asks her, “I know your family was going to go hiking over the weekend. Did you enjoy it?” Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know of because people, kids included, will do anything to keep getting those things. And when players know that they mean more to their coaches than the numbers on their jerseys, they’ll naturally have a greater desire to excel.
*Does the coach strike out through criticism? Many famous coaches in sports history are known for berating players and shaming them in front of the team. Unfortunately, these approaches tend to only alienate players and make coaches an object of fear rather than respect. In my opinion, a good coach should criticize only in private, not in public, by pulling a player aside for a one-on-one discussion rather than yelling at him in front of the whole team. Also, a good coach should make sure the player knows he cares about more than just the mistake. Ideally, he’ll try to accompany each criticism with a few compliments. Remember, we all tend to be our own worst critics—even kids. Many young athletes will tend to focus on what they’ve done wrong, not the many things they’ve done well. The ratio of compliments to criticism they receive from their coaches can shape their self-perception for a long time to come.
*Does the coach scout each practice for all-stars? On the sports field, compliments act as confidence—and thus performance—boosters, and they also improve motivation, team spirit, determination, and more. With that in mind, a good coach will always start each practice with the intention of catching as many players as possible doing well, then praise them in public and in private whenever the opportunity arises. If she wants to go the extra mile, a great coach might even send out a team newsletter that includes short write-ups of players who improve, who are team players, who give their all in practice, etc. Again, kids will work hard to keep getting recognized because it simply feels good.
*Has the coach added “positive thinking” to his or her paraphernalia? With few exceptions, players will develop their attitudes, outlooks, and expectations based on what they see from their leaders. Coaches should be proactive about getting their teams in a winning mindset by saying things like, “We’re going to have a great practice today,” or, “I know everyone will do their best during the game,” etc. Here’s a great saying I’ve found to be true: People generally perform at the level that is expected of them. So without putting negative pressure on the athletes, your child’s coach should let them know that she believes in their ability to accomplish great things. I can’t help but think of Lou Holtz, the legendary college football coach whose philosophy of positive thinking was instrumental in inspiring his teams to achieve many amazing successes, often against the odds.
In conclusion, I hope everyone has fun and stays positive during this fall sports season. I know I’m looking forward to cheering for all of my son’s teams!