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Is Youth Coaching in a Slump?

Trevor Shaffer’s first peewee football season got off to a promising start. His coach held a standard, preseason parent meeting, where Trevor’s mother, Karen, recalls him as personable, good with kids — the typical “dad” coach. Under his leadership, the 5- and 6-year-old boys won their first few games.

But soon the team suffered its first loss.

“[The coach] got more and more agitated, and it spiraled down after that,” she says. Normal coach-yelling turned into screaming, and his unreasonable commands to his young players began to sound like verbal abuse to Shaffer and the other team parents.

“What are you thinking?! Why don’t you listen to me?!” he would bellow at the boys for not completing a play. And “You can’t tell me how to coach!” was his response to his coaching assistant’s suggestions to calm down. He finally reached his boiling point, throwing a clipboard in frustration and nearly hitting a nearby parent.

More “Parcells” than “pee-wee” you say? It gets worse. The coach’s uncontrolled fits were not the team’s only problem. Shaffer says she and other parents felt that their children’s coach was unqualified to impart the rules of the game to such young athletes.

“He didn’t teach the kids the basics, but then he was so angry at them when they couldn’t complete a play,” she laments. The boys who were being punished with push-ups had never been taught where or even what a line of scrimmage was.

And, as if verbal abuse and poor instruction weren’t bad enough, Trevor’s coach also had a son on the team and favoritism became the coach’s preferred play. Regardless of skills, the coach’s son was never taken off the field, she says, and it seemed that “his whole mission was to have his son on the team as the star.”

In his first football season, Trevor endured in his first football season what many would consider to be three cardinal coaching sins: inappropriate outbursts, unqualified coaching and nepotism. But, sadly, these coaching faux pas are less shocking and becoming ever more common, making headlines locally and nationally.

Earlier this year, two McKinney ISD school officials lost their jobs over a scandal involving the high school cheerleading squad. The story reads like a made-for-TV script: coaches who couldn’t provide the leadership to corral the bad-behaving cheerleaders and preferential treatment shown by the school’s principal, who happened to be a cheerleading mom.

Last fall, an assistant football coach of 11- to 13-year-olds in Stockton, California, was arrested after knocking down a player on the opposing team after that player made a late-hit on his son. He faces charges of felony child abuse.

Of course the extreme stories make the headlines, but do they also reveal something more disturbing about the nature of coaching and parenting young athletes? Is coaching in a slump and are parents — desperate to raise superstar athletes — increasingly willing to overlook bad behavior? A 2006 study by the American College of Sports Medicine found that most parents surveyed had witnessed harsh forms of discipline or inappropriate behavior by a coach. These same parents ranked teaching teamwork and cooperation the highest of the coach’s responsibilities; winning came in last, but only 7 percent had ever removed a child from a team.

The survey also revealed that almost 6 percent of parents questioned expected their child to have a professional sports career — a number shockingly higher than the slim percentage of kids who will make it to the pros.

With scintillating-yet-desensitizing coaching horror stories grabbing attention and an unprecedented win-at-all-costs mentality dominating youth sports (which is starting at a younger and younger age), it’s more important than ever for parents to examine how the game is being played … and not just by the kids on the field.

‘Not quite at the NBA level’

Most of the coaches young kids will face are volunteers, usually the mom or dad of another player. Often, the only criterion for donning the coaching cap is passing a criminal background check. Those coaches who do step up or are appointed report that they are driven by a love of the game and an interest in developing children; but the best intentions can go up in smoke when the pressure of the game sets in.

Dr. Trent Petrie, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence at the University of North Texas, says the pressure to produce a winner can be high, especially in today’s sports-obsessed culture. It is when coaches focus on winning above all else and lose perspective that they begin to resort to drastic and often inappropriate methods of discipline. In their zeal to win, Petrie says, they may begin to demean their players, yell or refuse open communication with players and their parents. These coaches have lost their perspective of what youth sports are all about: fun, friendships, learning skills, developing good character and fitness.

Plano mom Sheryl Pidgeon says that she has seen the effects of negative coaching and over-emphasis on winning on her kids and their friends. “Some coaches (and parents) clearly get carried away with the competition, and you can see how the children respond, feeling elation and pride when they win and devastation when they lose,” she relates.

And what about the nepotism at work when the coach is also a parent of a team member? Even the most principled coaches, with knowledge of the sport and adequate skills to teach it, can let their judgment become clouded by their child’s star-player potential. Petrie says such well-meaning parent-coaches need to remember that playing the sport is not their experience, but their child’s.

“They need to be able to separate themselves emotionally and let their children experience the highs and lows that sometimes come with sport,” he says, and that means no preferential treatment, extra playing time or prime positions without having earned the privilege just like any other player. Pidgeon says she and her fellow parent spectators manage to keep the kids’ coaches in check by reminding them that, “We are not quite at the NBA level.”

Some local schools are even asking the question: should parents even be allowed to coach their offspring? Logan Stout, owner of the Dallas Patriots baseball club and an associate scout for the Atlanta Braves says that although parent coaches can enjoy some quality time with their progeny, it is not always what’s best for the child. “I feel a child needs to have someone outside the home or family take on the role of coach,” he claims. This way, he explains, the child has to earn playing time, learns how to be responsible for his own athletic experience and doesn’t feel the unnecessary stress of being “Coach Dad’s” star player.

Joe Perry, minister of sports outreach for Prestonwood Sports Organization, a recreational league that is home to 8,000 young athletes in North Dallas, agrees. “If children are able to be truthful, they predominantly list two things for leaving [a sport]: pressure and parental expectation,” both of which can reach extreme levels when the coach is a player’s parent.

With bad coaching, pushy parenting or mismanaged teams, it’s also not uncommon for kids to reach their breaking points and lose their love of sport. “By the time a child is 13, 60-70 percent of kids quit sports due to not having good playing-time experience, parents are nasty, or they’ve been forced into the sport,” reveals Mary Margaret Taylor, executive director of Plano Sports Authority (PSA), a recreational league serving 45,000 children in 20 sports.

Are we having fun yet?

There is little debate over what makes a good coach. Having fun and developing a life-long love of physical fitness are paramount, according to Petrie. And, following close behind, are the abilities to model good character and impart life skills.

Most importantly, a good coach is first and foremost a good teacher. Young athletes need to be taught the basic mechanics and rules of their sport before they can be expected to use strategy and win games, and Stout believes the coach should have at least played the sport at a high level — not simply recreate what the pros do on TV. “How can one teach someone to do something they [themselves] have never done?” he asks.

There is a fine line, however, between teaching the skills and subtleties of the game and inappropriately disciplining young players who don’t perform to their coaches’ expectations. While physical discipline, like push-ups and running, does help condition players and instill a sense of control and accountability, it does little to actually show young players how to improve.

The element of teaching is so important, in fact, that most school districts (checking to see if there is a state law on this) require their coaches to be certified teachers before they can take to the field or court. Robert Eppler, a teacher and coach at Carpenter Middle School in the Plano ISD says public-school teachers are hired first to be teachers and can then assume the role of a coach. Both he and Zac Ellis of Rice Middle School, also in PISD, attend coaching clinics and workshops to keep their coaching skills sharp and teacher in-services to hone their classroom skills while learning how best to lead and interact with children.

The reality, though, is that not all volunteer coaches have the teaching credentials or playing experience to make them sideline experts.

Teamwork takes effort (not email)

So how do you best handle a difficult coaching situation? Experts say you have to start with a foundation of honesty and communicate often and early.

Perry says part of the importance of the initial parent meeting is to help parents understand that the kids are playing in part to learn certain values. They are learning to assume responsibility for their actions, both in success and failure. When parents can help kids deal effectively with their losses, this can help keep unpleasant interactions with the coaches to a minimum.

Experts like Petrie agree that coaches should establish expectations for practice times, playing time and their ideal form of communication before the start of the season. You want to hear a coach say that the goal of the season is not to win the league championship — but to accomplish individual goals that support the overall team goal.

Petrie says that parents can keep track of how the player/coach relationship is working by asking the child questions about how they feel playing on the team. “Are you having fun? What are you learning? What has the coach told you to work on/told you you’re good at?” are all good questions to get the conversation started.

Observing from the sidelines and drawing your own conclusions is one thing, he says, but, “If the child doesn’t want to go to practices or games, or starts to say that it is no longer fun, then it is important to determine why,” he adds. Talk with your kids about what is fun and what is not fun, but also talk to other parents about their observations, he suggests.

Rusty Hill, an unpaid baseball coach in the 18 & Under Premier Division of Boys Baseball, Inc., suggests that, as kids get older, too much parental involvement could do the child a disservice. There can be tremendous growth in a child respectfully approaching his coach independently with a problem. But to avoid interfering with this process, he recommends discussing the child’s potential role on the team before even joining. Parent and child should know up front what the child’s role will be, their playing time expectations and the coach’s teaching philosophy.

Should a situation arise, though, take action, he advises. “If a player 14 years old or younger (prior to high school) is unhappy with their coach, I feel it is appropriate for the parent, away from the athletic field and in private, to apprise the coach of the child’s unhappiness,” he stresses.

Knowing what to say is one thing, but the best way to say it is another. Coaches like Zac Ellis will always let their players’ parents know the most effective and easiest route to conversation. For Ellis, a quick phone call or a face-to-face meeting are always welcome, and in fact, he prefers personal communication to emails where his students and players are concerned.

So how else can you minimize the bumps in the road of your child’s athletic career? The preseason meeting is crucial, but communication should be ongoing throughout the season. Schools have parent-teacher conferences to keep parents apprised of their kids’ performance, and such a structure could be beneficial in youth sports, as well. Midseason conferences are not uncommon in select sports, says Petrie, but at the recreational level, coaches don’t often schedule such meetings in large part due to the hectic lives and busy schedules of most families. However, he has seen coaches take 5-10-minutes for a post-game wrap up at the end of each game, or even practice, to chat with parents and players about the team’s strengths, weaknesses and goals for the next game.

“As long as there’s ongoing communication between coach and parents and coach and team, that really substitutes for that mid-year meeting,” he advises.

When to gut it out and when to quit

Many parents, Karen Shaffer included, adhere to the philosophy of seeing the season through to its completion, which is why she let Trevor hang on with a tyrannical coach. Shaffer also was unsure whether such coaching techniques were normal. She also didn’t want to set a precedent for quitting. But experts agree that any display of abuse such as what Trevor experienced is sufficient reason to take action.

Commitment and loyalty aside, Shaffer knows just how she would handle Trevor’s situation today. “We should have pulled him out earlier or called the league and asked if we could put him on another team,” she shares, but reiterates that, at the time, “We just didn’t know.”

Are there times when it’s OK to let your child power through a difficult season?

Yes, says Stout. He suggests emphasizing the idea of the team and working toward common interests and goals when the going gets tough (barring any abuse). “It is during the ‘less-than-perfect-season’ that maturity can take place if the parents are committed and loyal to the team,” he says.

Petrie offers that instead of quitting, try reframing the situation to highlight what your child can get out of the experience – and put some fun back in, as well.

If the players aren’t enjoying themselves on the field, there’s nothing wrong with arranging more social events, team dinners or other get-togethers to salvage the season. “Reframe in terms of what you can get out of it,” says Petrie. If the team is not going to win all the time, or there is a personality conflict with the coach, focus instead on how the child has improved, what his goals can be for his athletic career, and how much fun he can have with his friends. Instead of asking questions like “Did you win?” or “How many goals did you score?” focus on his progress and what he likes about the sport to de-emphasize the stigma of a loss.

Playing on

Clearly fun and fitness are the names of the game in kids’ sports. With good leadership, and regardless of wins and losses, the expectation is that kids will develop the team skills and character traits they’ll need in life simply as a byproduct of their childhood sports experiences. Bad coaching can leave a negative imprint on kids, especially when coaches let an overriding desire to win get in the way of facilitating development in the kids they coach (and parents go along).

As long as parents keep in mind that athletics provide a time for families to be together and to enjoy each other, rather than to play for a trophy, says PSA’s Taylor, the kids will have a better experience and, more importantly, an experience that is their own.

Luckily, Trevor Shaffer’s football experience didn’t turn him off to sports altogether. As Karen shuffles Trevor and his sister between soccer, baseball, football and volleyball, it’s clear that despite the headlines, good coaches don’t give up, and the Shaffers play on.