This article appears in Sept.-Oct. Family magazine.
Looking for a win as the coach of a son or daughter’s sports team? Make sure the kids are having fun!
“Youth sports coaching is largely volunteer, so we need parents who are willing to spend some time coaching teams,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. “I’ve coached for several years. It’s incredibly rewarding — and I’m not talking about wins and losses. It’s fun to see how the kids improve on your team, not only as athletes but as people. And it’s great, carved-out time in our busy schedules for me and my son to spend time together. Kids get to see their parents in a different environment as a coach — and hopefully the parent serves as a positive role model in this setting.”
Make it count
“The No. 1 thing a parent coach should recognize is the tremendous impact and influence you’ll have. Influence is never neutral. It’s positive or negative. You have to be intentional with your words and actions,” said John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project. The former professional soccer player who has coached from the youth to collegiate levels founded the organization in 2012 to put a little “play” back in playing sports.
Make it fun
“If you’re coaching a beginner’s team, the definition of success is if the kids come back the next year,” said O’Sullivan, host of the Way of Champions podcast.
“Fun is one of the strongest predictors of youths’ continued involvement in sport, and conversely, a lack of fun is a big reason that youth drop out of sport,” said Matthew Vierimaa, assistant professor of kinesiology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. “Of course, fun means different things to different people, so coaches need to get to know their players to get a better sense of their personal goals and motives for involvement.”
For kids to have a winning season doesn’t mean they have to have a winning record. Everyone likes to win, but even better is for kids to experience enjoyment, a sense of belonging and competence through learning, which helps breeds confidence, O’Sullivan said.
“Ultimately, at the grassroots level coaches should focus on ensuring that each player has a positive sport experience and develops some of the basic sport skills that are needed to continue playing in future seasons,” Vierimaa said. “To help with this, coaches should prioritize developing strong, respectful coach-athletes relationships, as athletes often won’t fully buy in to your message until they know that you care about them as people, and not just athletes.”
Lead the way
Parents lead busy lives, so good communication is needed to keep the logistics of practices and games running smoothly and to spread a positive message, said O’Sullivan, who shared a Maya Angeleau quote: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
Since players’ parents often can’t make practices, communicate what the team has been working on and ask them to look and cheer for the skills if they see them in their children, said O’Sullivan. For example, if a parent knows to look for passing in a youth soccer game, they may be less likely to shout for their child to “boot the ball to the other end of the field.”
Be a coach or be a parent
“Don’t play favorites with kids, including your own. It’s a recipe for divisiveness among other kids and parents. In other words, don’t play your kid all the time or at the best positions. Mix it up,” Solomon said. “Let kids make mistakes so they can build confidence instead of giving up on sports.”
“When practice ends become a parent again,” O’Sullivan said. If a child asks for feedback, ask if they want it from a parental or coaching perspective.
Novice youth sport coaches should be careful about emulating professional coaches.
“Kids are not mini-adults, and coaching novice athletes is a completely different ballgame than the professional ranks,” Vierimaa said.
“There are certainly great lessons and examples that can be gleaned from the pros, but novice coaches need to remember that coaching is context-specific.”