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The Coaching Conundrum

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

The ground is still frozen around here, making it hard to think of kids skipping over green fields chasing soccer balls or baseballs or Frisbees. But the local parks and rec department has begun hanging banners near local playgrounds soliciting for youth coaches. Even though we're not heavy into youth sports -- we're still sampling different activities -- I'm tempted. Somewhat.

There is a certain delicate balance between teaching kids the fundamentals of the game and actually winning. As much as everyone wants to give lip service to the idea that winning isn't important, it is. It's important to the kids even at the lowest level, who still know, even when the score is not kept, who ends the game ahead. And as kids get older, the outcome of the game gets more and more important. I'm fairly certain my varsity basketball coach could have done with fewer character-building losses.

When I was growing up, my father spent a lot of spring nights on the T-ball diamond or the soccer field. He had very few rules: only two per sport. For soccer, his philosophy was 1) try your best and 2) don't kick the ball in front of your own net. T-ball was similar: 1) try your best and 2) every kid plays every position. He took great pride in this, even though he took flack for it, especially when he put the hopeless kid at shortstop at the end of a close game. He honestly didn't care about winning. And he may have been the only one.

It's a philosophy I'd love to emulate, which makes me think that the smaller the kids, the better I'd be able to adapt to coaching. But since I'm new to the concept, I'd love your thoughts. At what point do kids turn rabidly competitive? Does that happen before or after the parents make the transition? And what happens when you coach your own kid (or what happens when the mom or dad around the block coaches their kid)?

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at

By Brian Reid |  February 26, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Teens
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Up until the teenage years, the parents care many times more than there own kids who wins/loses/scores/plays the game. The way some of these parents treat the refs is nothing short of abominable. The younger kids care more about the fat pill after the game is over than winning or losing.

My daughter reffed a few seasons of soccer, and boy did she ever want to red-flag some of those obnoxious parents.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | February 26, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

I coached my duaghter's soccer team from 2nd grade through 9th grade and now, as a 10th grader, I'm the assistant coach. I think I've handled it well by trying to treat her as much as possible as a player on the team, as opposed to my daughter on the team. After the practices and games are over, she's my daughter again.

As for competitiveness, it depends on the sport. In Montgomery County, MSI is the major soccer organization and starts a new more competitive league (Classic) at the 5th grade level (called U-11, or under 11). This is when players tryout for teams and begins the more competitive aspects of soccer. Obviously, there are a lot of younger competitive leagues for the very good players, but for the average player, it is generally around 5th grade when the competition dramatically increases. I suspect in other sports it is probably similar. Whenever the children get to an age where they have to tryout for a team, know the competitiveness has increased as well.

Posted by: Dougmacintyre | February 26, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

I've coached girls sports for over 10 yrs, mostly the 12U's... here's what I see:
your program needs to be very clear and specific on it's goals, and the coaches need to abide by those goals. Difficulties arise when each coach has their own coaching philosophy. Parents are great when they understand those program guidelines & see the coaches following them. If you're with a program that is not strong in that regard, things will fall apart quickly.

I see parents start to get competitive/edgy when the kids are around 9/10/11 - this is when real talent starts to emerge & dreams of greatness fill parents heads. By 12/13/14 parents start to realize the kids are either slackers, not good runners, etc. etc., and reality sets in. Really good athletic kids will gravitate towards more competitive teams & programs. Then it seems to rear it's ugly head again around High School when dreams of college glory fill parents heads again & they get in the HS athletic directors face & try to run things.

I have 2 girls - one very athletic and more of a travel type player, and one rec player - happy with her matching socks of friends. Parents need to try and sit back & encourage & love them no matter which way they go. Coaches need to have clear goals and stick with them - come what may from the parents.

I've lost sleep over the kid I didn't let play so I could win a game & I feel ashamed I did that. After those sleepless nights I let the "worst kid" have her equal time - and yes, as a result we lost some games, but you know what? I never lost sleep again, and truthfully, nobody even remembers. But, I know in my heart ALL the kids left every game smiling.

Posted by: hannie | February 26, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Do not miss out on this experience!!! Make a deal with the other coaches to coach your kid and you handle their kid. Have fun!!
I have thirty something adult children and we still talk about about stuff that happened in T-ball. Fun stuff!! In a blink your kids will be adults. Don't miss out, jump in and coach.

Posted by: ckellywallace | February 26, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

I coached U-8 and U-10 soccer and was a trainier for U12 teams. I enjoyed teaching the kids skills to be used in the games. I also tried to teach them to play team ball. I also had the kids play different positions and some of the "stars" thought it wasn't right that they had to play a defensive position. But this was also to give kids with lesser skills and confidence a chance to score or be able to assist in the score. And as always the parents were a problem in some cases. We would always tell the kids not to listen to the parents only the coaches.

Posted by: Fonz | February 26, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

I don't think kids "turn on" the competitive swtich at a certain age. A lot of kids are born with that competitive drive. My oldest child was competitive from day one. It didn't matter how watered down and friendly the game was, there would always be a winner and a loser, and he was going to give it everything he has to be the winner. At age 4, we had him in the "don't keep score" soccer league. He knew the score at any point in the game, and it was a long drive home after a loss.

My second child could care less about the score. He is out there to try hard, have fun, and bond with his teammates. Perhaps it's his defense against his uber-competitive older brother.

My husband is a soccer coach, and in the last couple of years, has coached his two sons (he is the permanent U8 coach for our competitive soccer club). No problems with coaching the older son, but he has had to hold in a lot of frustration with the younger one. What do you do when you have to pick the best 9 kids for the team, and your own son isn't one of them? Piss off the other parents, or deal with therapy for the next ten years if you don't pick your own kid? It's a fine line he had to walk, and he lost more than a few nights sleep over it.

Posted by: AnotherLiz | February 26, 2009 8:37 AM | Report abuse

What do you do when you have to pick the best 9 kids for the team, and your own son isn't one of them? Piss off the other parents, or deal with therapy for the next ten years if you don't pick your own kid?

Posted by: AnotherLiz | February 26, 2009 8:37 AM | Report abuse

You do the right thing and pick the best 9 kids. If you can't, then you shouldn't be coaching a competitive team. Forget about the other parents, the other kids are going to make your kid miserable because they all know the only reason he's on the team is because he's the coach's son.

As for the overall issue, how you coach depends on if you are coach a competitive or rec team. If it's a competitive league, you coach to win. If it's a rec league, you coach to let everyone play every position and don't worry about the score.

Posted by: dennis5 | February 26, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I agree with AnotherLiz. I met my stepson at 5. He was already extremely competitive and had to win at any cost - including cheating. Losses often turned into tantrums.

We have spent the last year working on this. I can't say he still isn't uber-competitive but at least the cheating and the tantrums have toned down.

Posted by: Billie_R | February 26, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

My favorite quote of all...

"Sports doesn't build character... it reveals it."

You will learn a lot about people & how they parent through coaching. Sometimes it just is not pretty. Most families, however, are really great & make the effort worthwhile.

Posted by: hannie | February 26, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

The coaches son? Oh yeah, he's the favored player who plays shortstop and pitcher and makes the all-star team. Whether the scrawny little runt is any good or not doesn't make a difference, it's a managerial decision.

The corporate world works much the same.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | February 26, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Brian- don't hesitate. Sign up to coach now. At the end of the season, you may decide not to go it again but you'll never regret it and your kids will always remember having you as their coach. They LOVE it when every other kid is looking up to their mom/dad too. The best case scenario is that you find you love it and stick with it for years. It may seem daunting at first, but there are scores of books and websites now that have tips for running practices and drills and games you can run. Look up websites for practice drills and you'll be able to visualize what you're going to do a lot easier.

As for the competitiveness issue- you're going to find a huge spectrum. Some kids will cry when the other teams score, others will be staring into space at the end of a last-second win. You definitely want to make sure to give every kid an equal opportunity to play, but you can still give the best kids more breaks early in the game so they're all on the field at crunch time. My son is one of the best players in his league and I almost always have him on the bench to start games- it's an easy way to show the other parents that you're not playing favorites.

For the parents, I have a very simple rule- nobody yells at the refs but me. Too much yelling at the officials is counterproductive- they learn to tune it out, and also the kids start paying more attention to the officials than the game. They will get their cues about how to respond to adversity from you- use your power wisely!

Posted by: echovector | February 26, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

I've coached two of my kids in multiple sports and am working on my third (T-ball this spring), so I'll take a crack at this:

At what point do kids turn rabidly competitive?

I would say age two, when someone tries to take their toy. :) Seriously, some care about winning, some don't, some care about making sure they're the best player out there, some don't. You can't make a kid who doesn't care, care. However, you can make a kid who cares funnel that energy in the right direction so he or she doesn't make his or her teammates miserable.

Does that happen before or after the parents make the transition?

We shouldn't be shocked that parents are competitive because, at a minimum, they want to see their child succeed, or at least feel like they're not wasting their and their child's time. But it's like the kids -- some parents care, some don't, and the challenge is funneling the energy of the parents who care in the right direction, i.e., staying positive.

And what happens when you coach your own kid (or what happens when the mom or dad around the block coaches their kid)?

I tell my kids before each season that once we hit the field/court, I'm speaking to them as their coach, and that I will treat them equally as other kids. I do that so they don't expect special treatment (which I'm not sure they do), but moreso that if I critique their play they know I'm speaking as a coach trying to help them, not their father trying to be a jerk. My 11-year-old son is so well-trained on this, the moment we step out of the car for a practice or game, he stops calling me "Dad" and calls me "Coach."

As far as other parents coaching their kids, you do have some who blatantly favor their own children -- often to the child's detriment. I've seen serious meltdowns when a coach kept putting his or her child in nominal position to be the star, but the child instead struggled mightily. It's hard enough on a kid when he or she struggles, but the pressure is even greater when he or she feels he or she is letting down not just a coach, but a parent.

Bob Cook
Parent, coach and youth sports blogger (Your Kid's Not Going Pro)

Posted by: rkcookjr | February 26, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Brian, go for it. You'll regret it if you don't. Plus there's the fact that if you want the kids coached the "right way" - love of game, teamwork, character, sportsmanship - you're best doing it yourself. Don't worry about specific coaching skills; you can pick those up via clinics, DVDs, books, or working with experienced coaches.

I like the two rules thing. I've always had two rules myself. Rule #1 is "do the best you can." Rule #2 is "have fun." I find that proper application of those two rules solves all the problems I've run up against.

(Holy criminey - I just wrote it out and realized that I coached two years of soccer, three years of basketball, five years of baseball, five years of volleyball, and thirteen years of softball. I've coached all levels from 5-year old instructional teams to fairly high level travel. And that's not counting running the softball program for the last four program and a league for five years before that. Now I understand why it is my boss keeps wondering why I get a paycheck. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 26, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

"And what happens when you coach your own kid (or what happens when the mom or dad around the block coaches their kid)?"

To the maximum extent you can, treat your kid like all the others. I handle that by telling them that when the game is going on they're ALL my kids. After the game their parents can have them back.

I had one daughter who was happier having someone else as a coach, because she didn't realize how good she was with just "Dad" telling her. She was convinced that she played shortstop and batted third because she was the coach's kid, and that the other kids knew that. When we had someone else coach her team the next year, and she still played short and batted cleanup, she started to realize that it was because she had a cannon for an arm and could knock the snot out of the ball. (I'm still bummed she dropped softball for volleyball in high school when she had to pick one.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 26, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Were's the Kool-Aid?

Posted by: jezebel3 | February 26, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

"Were's the Kool-Aid?"

This is sports - it would only be Gatorade. (I'll refrain from hollering "Spelling Police." :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | February 26, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

What you first must determine is this a rec league?If so you are there for fun. Is this a competitive league? Then you are there to win. In a competitive league people need to pull their weight and play a position accordingly. The worst is in a rec league when the coach keeps kids from playing so they can "win". We had a BB coach who kept her 2 star players in 4 quarters and sat her two worst players for most of the game. We told the ref that she was in violation of the everyone plays 2 quarters rule, her answer? Tough. The ref was spineless and didn't do anything about it. They won by two points, it was sad to see the parents of those two boys sheepishly sitting in the stands. They won a Y rec game and forfeited their morals for it. Sad

Posted by: pwaa | February 26, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Winning has no value in youth sports. It is a desired outcome, one that every team from the age of 6 strives for,but for every team of kids that win, another loses.The only net positives we as the parents running these games can achieve is that the kids involved get to play a reasonable amount, they have fun and learn to love the sport. Those are the goals, winning is not the legitimate goal until varsity play.And parents are no longer involved.

Posted by: fjm159 | February 26, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

I've coached and refereed soccer and basketball, all for rec leagues. My experience was the boys were overwhelmingly more competitive, at all age levels, than girls. There are some girls who care deeply, and some boys who don't, but generally speaking, that's how it goes. I think a lot of that comes from the kids' natures, but parents do significantly contribute. Parents of girls were far more likely to just chat on the sidelines and cheer mostly during big plays. Fewer dads attended games. Parents of boys were far more likely to yell at refs and get worked up.

Frankly, the best team I ever coached was a coed micro-soccer team of third graders who were all from a neighborhood of subsidized housing. No parents attended the games, I had to transport the kids, and it allowed me to totally set the tone. I didn't assign positions, just rotated the kids in and out, making sure the girls had one quarter to play without the boys, and it worked great. We won every game. My biggest challenge was keeping some of my boys from getting into fights on the field, but I would go in, pick the kid up, and carry him off, with no parent around second-guessing my decision.

My own child is still a baby, but my husband and I have decided that we won't put her in sports unless she independently decides she wants to play on an organized team. I think generally speaking parents have turned sports from something fun that kids play at, into work that kids perform for their parents' benefit. The less parents are involved the better as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: foreoki12 | February 27, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

My daughter participated in elementary and high school athletics. She was recruited for college volleyball. She was born competitive. During instructional softball games the coaches tried to take the focus off of winning and learn the basics. My daughter brought a notebook to keep track of the score! Even so if you ask her today,(she is 25), as much as she loved winning -- she hates to lose even in a card game-- the coaches that helped her the most were the ones who taught her about life, how to improve her skills, how to be a good tam member, and how to have fun.
This is one of my favorite topics as a parent coach as well--

Posted by: coachjamie | February 27, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

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