The Parent Trap?
Coaching your children can be equal parts reward and frustration. And sometimes, it can be a thankless job where friends and neighbors start treating you like hired help. So, what’s a parent to do?
Shane Eicher, Roy Thompson and Geneva Nicholls have all danced through metaphorical minefields for more than a decade. In short, they have all three lassoed the lion known as coaching your children.
Some families might have been blown to pieces by that scenario, but these are strong, determined and loving parents. The children would likely agree with that statement if you were talking about their parent; maybe not so much if you were speaking of their coach, even though they are the same person.
“I’m coach first and parent second on the field,” says Eicher, the head softball coach at 6A Owasso High School. “I try to quit being coach at home.”
“Try” being the key word.
Eicher, who has been named an Oklahoma All-State Coach twice (2005, 2012), has coached his daughter, Allie, in softball since she was 3 and now she’s prepared to take her skills to the college level this fall at the University of Central Oklahoma. As a senior at Owasso, Allie earned all-state honors for her play in the dirt as a shortstop. He believes the bond with his daughter has been strengthened by his being her mentor on the field.
“I’m her high school coach too,” says Eicher. “We have access to the facilities, and sometimes it’s just me and her playing catch out there on the field or she and I hitting alone. It can’t help but bring us closer.”
“I think if you ask the kids, they would say the same,” he says. Thompson has coached his daughters, Morgan and Maeci, through softball for over 20 years.
Nicholls has been a coach to her two daughters and son for many years, and she says in hindsight, she would do some things differently.
“I think, looking back on it, I would have coached my daughters differently,” she says. “My oldest daughter was a lot like me, tough, and could take anything I dished out. But my middle daughter was more sensitive and took criticism much more to heart than her sister. I tried to coach them both the same, and I think it hurt my relationship with my middle daughter.”
One of the most difficult aspects of this genre of coach-parent is dealing with outside pressure from other parents or fans who mistakenly believe the coach gives their child special exemptions, greasing the rails to push them to the forefront, ahead of her teammates.
These coaches think it’s quite the opposite, and two of the three have been lucky enough to dodge those bullets.
“To me, the way we look at it is statistics don’t lie,” says Eicher. “When Allie was a freshman in high school, she could have played for the varsity team, but I put her on JV, even though my assistant coaches wanted me to promote her. But I wanted people to see she earned everything she got.”
That way of thinking, being a little harsher on his own daughter, often led the chickens to come home to roost.
“Allie gets it,” Eicher says. “But sometimes I have to answer to mom and grandpa. But we decided I’d handle the coaching things and her mom, Shanna, would handle the girly stuff.”
Coaching your child can be a wonderful experience when handled well by parent-coach and child. The bonding that occurs can strengthen your relationship with your child. Parents know their child better than anyone and can make informed coaching decisions based on the child’s mood swings and reactions to certain situations. Furthermore, sport organizations need parents to coach to keep youth sports afloat.
However, it is a slippery slope.
Parents take on the role of coach for many reasons. For some, it’s a love of the game. For others, it’s a way to guarantee their kid gets playing time or the position they want. And for others, they don’t want to trust their kid to some well-meaning, but know-nothing volunteer.
“Unfortunately, coaching your child often leads to conflicts at the field and at home,” says Dr. Larry Lauer with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “For instance, the parent-coach and the child continue to argue at the dinner table about missing a sign during an at-bat. Or, your child is frustrated with your coaching tactics and does not want to talk to you for hours after a game. And then there are some unforeseen issues such as team members perceiving that you are only coaching so your child can start and, of course, are giving him preferential treatment.”
Making the decision to coach when your child is on the team is a complex one with no simple answers. Before making a decision, you may want to ask yourself some very important questions and view some of our do’s and don’ts.
Leave conflicts from the field or court on the field or court; don’t take them home and turn dinner table conversations into coaching critiques.
So, why does coaching your child often end in conflict? Usually this conflict is due to the parent’s and the child’s inability to separate the coach and parent roles.
“This means that while you are coaching you have to be a coach, and when you are at home be the parent,” says Lauer. “You must remind yourself to click into your roles depending on the situation. Being unable to move in and out of these roles will create confusion for your child.”
Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
“I’ve tried not to take the problems or issues home with me,” says Eicher. “That’s not to say it hasn’t happened on occasion. Sometimes it’s difficult.”
“If you do take them home, you’re going to have to answer for it with mom,” says Thompson. “That just makes it too hard.”
“In my case, my middle daughter needed more pats on the back,” says Nicholls. “I figured that out when it carried over at home. I could be harder on the oldest because she’s more like me.”
Give encouragement and praise to your kid as much as you do other players.
“My wife [Rita] and I want them to succeed,” says Thompson. “Rita knows how it feels to be pushed. She scored the most points in a basketball game in high school for girls with 68 when she played for Oologah.”
If you have doubts about coaching, do it. It can cement a relationship.
“You get to be up close and personal with your child for so many years and so much of the day that you get to know each other so much better than some parents and their children,” says Eicher. “Of course, the drawback at times can be the very same thing. You can get on each other’s nerves if you spend too much time together.”
Even when you’re doing everything right as a coach — being positive, giving everyone on the team your attention, trying not to be too hard on your own child — they may have a hard time keeping the parent and coach roles separate.
“To help your child comprehend, let them know that they have to understand a few things going into the season,” says Lauer. “Let them know you’re coaching everyone and can’t jump to their every need. They should also be prepared that sometimes it’ll feel unfair with other players and parents thinking your child is only playing because you’re the coach. Just articulating these kinds of issues before the first practice, which many parent-coaches don’t do, can help your child figure it out.”
Have someone video one of your first games so you can critique your coaching personality.
Sometimes you think you are coaching your kid correctly but video can show you that you are too hard on them. Video hardly ever lies. Adjust appropriately.
Have an assistant coach handle the criticism of your child.
This can alleviate a lot of headaches from other parents and your spouse as you return home.
Realize that sometimes practice matters more than games.
Many parents encourage their children to not dwell on the big test at school, but instead focus on what they are learning along the way. But that perspective can be lost in youth sports, where the final score can sometimes overshadow the skill building.
“You have to think about what kind of kid you want,” says Ted Spiker, a contributor to Men’s Health. “One of the values to teach is wanting to win, but it’s also about setting a goal, learning to persist and working hard. The most teachable moments in sports are not always the dramatic or traumatic ones, but rather what happens day to day on the practice field.”
When it feels like it’s time to yell at your kid in front of his or her friends and hundreds of people, count to 10 before you make that decision. It may be the most important moment of your child’s life, when it only seems like another moment to you. Don’t be that coach who lives and dies with each play.
Grow a thick skin.
No matter if you turn out to be the next John Wooden, Bill Belichick, Patty Gasso or Joe Torre, you may never be as respected, appreciated or loved as you hope or think. Almost every parent thinks their child is 50 percent better than they are and no player ever gets enough playing time.
Managing parents is as important as managing your team.
Open the lines of communication with the other parents before the season begins.
“By asking them up front for suggestions and help, you’re less likely to have them on your case later,” says Lauer. “Many novice coaches immediately put up walls. ‘My way or no way.’ If you do that, parents won’t come to you with problems or concerns; they’ll talk to other parents instead, which builds resentment and a negative vibe. So keep the air clear. Tell them, ‘Your young athletes trust that we’re doing the right thing as a coaching staff. Don’t criticize us in public, because the kids will get confused.’
“If a parent has a problem, deal with it one-on-one, not from the sidelines or in front of the kids. Make the boundaries clear.”
If you coach more than one of your children, don’t coach them the same way.
Children have different levels of sensitivity, and hence, need to be coached differently according to their personalities. Treat them accordingly, or you could lose a child or push them away.
Avoid favoritism of your child, but don’t go to the other extreme.
This requires an amazing sense of balance on the part of a coach-parent. This could mean the difference between being run out of town on a rail from one side or the other.
Avoid being shortsighted when assessing your performance.
It might be a good idea to ask your assistants how they feel you are doing when it comes to being fair with your child as well as with other players. And listen.
It’s also important to talk to your kid about what they think about having you as a coach. This can mold your child’s desire to play, or even how they grow with you in your parent relationship.
Don’t live through your child’s successes and failures.
Parents are more involved than ever in youth sports. But when the children’s sports lives become more about you and your needs, you might have crossed the line. No matter if you coach or sit in the stands, keep in mind that you can’t gauge your own self-esteem on how well or poor the players do.
Don’t utilize the car ride home to dissect the game and their play.
Let your children take the lead on whether or not they want to talk about the game.
“There could not be a less teachable moment in your child’s sporting life than the ride home, yet it is often the moment that well-intentioned parents decide to do all of their teaching,” says John O’Sullivan with the Changing the Game Project. “One of the biggest problems on the ride home is that a simple question from you, often meant to encourage your own child, can be construed as an attack on a teammate or coach by your child.
“Many children feel that parental actions and conversations after games made them feel as though their value and worth in their parents’ eyes were tied to their athletic performance, and the wins and losses of their team. Ask yourself whether you are quieter after a hard loss, or happier and more buoyant after a big win.”
Don’t let a lack of sports experience stop you from coaching.
Some parents step up, despite not knowing much about the sport, or having a busy schedule, because they know they’re needed to fill a spot. It’s almost always better to have a well-meaning parent involved than a more knowledgeable one who can think of 10 other places they’d rather be instead of practicing or managing a game.
While it can be amazing for your children when you get involved in their activities, they aren’t the only ones who benefit. Coaches gain a great deal from their experience with sports leadership.
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