Coaching Youth Sports in Public and Private
Pleasing a coach is a powerful incentive. As coaches, our approval can be used to motivate, but also mis-used to punish, if we’re not careful. Keep public coaching positive. When we need to express disapproval, it’s best to do so privately to avoid embarrassing a player. And is it the player or the parent we should be addressing? It depends….
There are countless rules to live by as a youth coach, and we often learn them the hard way. Here are three I was reminded of this season:
I witnessed all three of these coaching tenets broken recently, in one unfortunate episode. Things unraveled this way….
A young player cried after his team’s loss, but not right after the loss. His tears had nothing to do with the final score, or an injury, or poor play, or a rude comment exchanged while shaking hands. He started crying in the post-game team meeting, where just the opposite should’ve occurred. This youngster experienced something that turned his world temporarily upside down, and he didn’t have a way to cope.
He was singled out and publicly criticized by his coach. That’s a bad start. The coach said the player made the coach “upset.” That made it worse. And the coach held the young player accountable for something the player didn’t do and threatened continued disapproval if the player didn’t fix something he couldn’t actually fix. That made it devastating. This situation involved the player’s mother’s decision to have the player miss the team’s next event, and the player was just the young messenger caught in the middle. Three coaching missteps — wrapped into one post-game regrettable outburst — and the player became unglued as a tearful mess ensued.
The coach was may be frustrated by the loss, and then understandably disappointed to learn from the player that he would not be attending the team’s next scheduled event. No matter the player’s age, coaches should deal with individual issues like this individually and privately. If this had been an older, more independent athlete, the coach should’ve ask the player to stick around after the team meeting to unpack those details. But with very young athletes, coaches need to remember that attendance habits and decisions are rarely controlled by the players themselves. Bite your tongue, and make a mental note to approach the player’s parents — privately — after the team meeting. Hold kids accountable, but only for things directly in their control.
We’ve all witnessed a coach “greet” an already mortified player for being late to practice by barking, “Where have you been!?” as the discombobulated player tries to regain composure and catch up to the team. The coach’s comment is unhelpful. The player feels blamed but powerless, and the team infers that it’s OK for them to also make the player remain feeling unwelcome. It’s isolating, and inconsistent with a strong team culture. And it’s unlikely to motivate anyone to perform better or differently, on or off the field.
To a young player in particular, coach disapproval is discomforting. Pleasing a coach is a powerful incentive. Approval can be used to motivate but also mis-used to punish, if we’re not careful. Keep it in the positive and the aggregate. It’s great to tell an entire team that if the members behave or perform a certain way, you will be pleased. It’s not great to single a player out publicly and threaten him with disapproval, especially for things out of his hands. That’s playing head-games with a child, and that’s not right.
When disapproval is expressed in front of the team, even off-handedly , it’s traumatic. In an athlete’s mind, a coach’s opinion means everything. The coach-player relationship is powerful, and potentially damaging, because it is rooted in an intense need to please and earn approval. Being told (publicly, no less) that you have let your coach down is embarrassing. It happened to me once 30 years ago and I recall it vividly. And when it’s over something the player can’t control, it’s non-actionable and therefore paralyzing. Finally, when it involves something that was originally understood by the young player as acceptable by another authority figure (a parent), it’s disorienting. It was this emotional conflict that sent that child into a tearful sprint from the team meeting recently.
A better move would’ve been to limit the post-game feedback to a few actionable items. Eight-year-olds can be asked to hustle, to listen, to maintain passing lanes, to remember their water bottles, and to support teammates. Parents can be asked to keep TeamSnap availability up-to-date, to get children to practice early, and to buy equipment.
As coaches we then need to treat players as players and parents as parents, communicating appropriately with each and holding them accountable only for their respective expected contributions.
If signals get crossed — probably innocently so — about missing a team event, resolve it with a parent off to the side and move on. There’s almost always a reasonable explanation and resolution, and an opportunity to have a productive exchange that strengthen’s the team culture without calling anyone out.
That’s not to say a coach shouldn’t set a high bar. Even with young teams, it’s a good idea to have clearly stated expectations — a few simple rules and team promises that are consistently reinforced. Attendance and punctuality can be part of those promises, and demonstrated by coaches, players, and parents alike, in ways specific to the roles. But then life will unfold over the course of the season, and promises will be unavoidably broken. A coach will miss a game because of an important personal conflict. A parent will get a player to practice late. A player will miss the team photo. So how should these be reconciled within the context of those team rules?
Start by asking: Is this an exception or a pattern? Is this specific to one player or is this becoming contagious? Do I know the back-story? With whom should I address this, the player or the parent? Is this really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and how upset is it worth becoming?
Don’t lose sight of why we’re all out there at this first stage of athletics. Young players are out there mostly to do something fun with their friends. Parents are out there to witness joy (at least, that is primarily why they should be there). Coaches are out there to teach — both the sport and the lessons that are derived from the sport — and to guide everyone through the imperfect journey of the season. We each play an important role, and while it may seem like we all generally care about the same things, we actually don’t, and we need to remember that. Aligning our respective priorities and concerns is not the same as having them all in common.
Over the years, I’ve seen so many wonderful youth sports moments that bring parents and coaches to tears. This season I saw one that was anything but wonderful, and it brought a child to tears instead.
Bruce Reed is a youth sports coach, writer, educator and father of two. He has coached high school and Little League baseball, youth soccer, basketball, softball, and football and is the co-founder and principal of Compass Education Group.