For parents of young athletes, it’s that time of year again: cleats or sneakers by the door, duffle bags in the backseat, uniforms in constant need of laundering, and calendars scheduled full of practices and games. Yes, you may be a pro at managing your child’s sports endeavors, but have you given much thought to the most important part of your child’s athletic experience: her coach?
Every coach has the opportunity to make a powerful impact on your child’s life, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that the impact is a good one. While many coaches give selflessly of their time and make their athletes’ well-being a priority, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
I’ve been surprised how many parents I’ve met around the country who are upset with their children’s sports coaches. As a result, I urge parents to stay aware of how coaches interact with their children, what type of influence they’re having, and most importantly, to hold them accountable.
Parents and coaches alike should remember that what constitutes a great coach isn’t a winning season—it’s a leadership style that builds up, nurtures and mentors young athletes in a way that makes them more confident, motivated, and capable human beings.
Here are eight guidelines for parents to use when evaluating their children’s coaches:
1. Know that harsh words cause damage.
“Motivating” children through fear can do more harm than good. In the short term, tactics like this 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 a child’s life, making her less confident socially and academically.
I believe that some coaches may think that their tactics are working if their teams are performing well or improving. But what they don’t know is that their star player dreads practice and has a knot of anxiety in her stomach for days before a game. Remember, it’s your responsibility as a parent to make sure that your child’s coach is not negatively impacting her love for the game, and much more importantly, her overall self-esteem in all areas of her life for years to come.
2. Think about what a coach’s job really is.
The coach’s goal should not be to build a career, but to teach and guide children 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.
3. Watch a replay of the coach’s motivations.
What is motivating your child’s coach? Is she in it for the win, or does she want to make a difference in young people’s lives? 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.
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… as long as the players’ physical and psychological well-being are still a firm first priority.
4. Has the coach done some emotional intelligence warm-ups?
Everyone knows that a coach should have a broad knowledge of his or her sport. But coaches should also strive to possess a high level of emotional intelligence—to be empathetic, effective communicators, navigate conflict, etc.
A coach—who is also a leader and mentor—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 isn’t benefiting the players and may even be hurting them, don’t be afraid to act, whether you speak to the coach or even try to find a different team for your child.
5. Does the coach score points through caring?
People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. 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.
Coaches should always show love, because most people simply don’t get enough of 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.
6. Does the coach strike out through criticism?
Criticism: it has to happen in order for improvement to take place. But there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about it. First, he should criticize only in private, not in public. A coach should pull a player aside for a one-on-one discussion, not yell 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.
7. Does the coach scout each practice for all-stars?
It’s practically impossible for anyone to hear too many good things about themselves. 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.
And 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 or who give their all in practice. Again, kids will work hard to keep getting recognized because it simply feels good. Who knows—they might remember a coach’s praise for the rest of their lives.
8. Has the coach added “positive thinking” to his or her equipment bag?
All coaches have clipboards, whistles and water bottles—and they should all have a positive attitude, too. 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.”
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.
Reader Feedback: What Makes a Good Coach?
We asked our readers to share what characteristics they think are most important for a good coach to possess. Here are some responses:
- Honest, hard working, fair, unbiased
- Patience, patience and patience
- A person who delights in small victories and wants to see everyone succeed!
- A coach who wants to develop every player’s skills, not just expecting a couple of “star players” to do all the work
- Patient and humble
Thanks to Kami M., Smile Galaxy Pediatric Dentistry & Orthodontics, Sarah D., Karen M., Mandy L., and Judy H. for your feedback! Join in the conversation at www.facebook.com/metrofamily.
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, is passionate about philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy.