Purpose2Play: Do you think there’s an age/level where it’s inappropriate for someone to coach his/her own child on a competitive level?
Dr. Cheri Toledo: The nature of the parent-child relationship has more to do with your choice to coach your child than your child’s age or level of play. What is the communication like between the two of you? Are you as good at listening as you are at talking? Have you taught your child how to express her thoughts and feelings? Before you agree to coach, have a deep discussion with your child and let him express his feelings and thoughts about you being his coach. In fact, this same conversation needs to take place at the end and beginning of each season.
I spoke with a couple of friends of mine: one who coached her daughters and one who was coached by her dad. Both said, proceed with caution and keep the relationship as the number one priority. It is very important to recognize the important role that parents play in their children’s psychological and emotional development. Because they are role models for who their children will grow up to be, parent-coaches need to ask themselves, “When I coach, am being the person I want my children to be when they are grown?” If they answer is no, then stop coaching. We all know that sports can bring out the best and the worst in all of us.
Don’t be surprised when your child hits or is close to puberty and she says, “Mom … Dad … I don’t want you to coach me anymore.” During the separation and individuation stage of development, adolescents need to complete the development of their own identity. Separating from you, as a parent and a coach, may be part of that development – don’t take it personally. Instead celebrate that your child is becoming an adult and you have had a huge part in that process. This may be a good time to have your assistant coach take turns giving feedback. Also, be intentional about acknowledging your child’s individuality by rewarding specific behaviors. In other words, say “Excellent swing, Sam!” or “Nice pass, Ellie!” Avoid, “That’s my boy” and “Good girl.”
Last and most important, make sure you are aware of your own limitations and aspirations. What are your motivations for coaching? Some coaches are frustrated athletes who are living out their dreams through their children’s sports participation. Others have hit their peak when it comes to knowledge or temperament – that’s when it’s time to let someone else coach your child. What are your dreams for coaching? It is important to help your child express his sports aspirations. Have him write his list of goals. Now you do the same. How do they compare? Remember, it is all about his career, not yours, so make sure that you are helping him achieve his goals. If your drive for success is greater than your child’s, then you shouldn’t coach her. Also, if you determine that your coaching will not further your child’s athletic dreams, then let someone else coach him and you go coach another team. Remember, if you live your athletic dreams through your child, your relationship with her will suffer.
Purpose2Play: Let’s say a parent does take on a coaching role. How can one separate his/her roles as both parent and coach?
Dr. Cheri Toledo: First of all, help your child understand your position as her coach. She must especially understand that she will be sharing your attention with the numerous children on her team. Again, open communication is imperative – she has to be able to tell you if she is feeling jealous or if other players are treating her differently because they are jealous. Be sure that you are spending more time listening than you are lecturing. Look for changes in behavior that are uncharacteristic of your child. In a rerun of the Andy Griffith show from the 1960’s, Andy had a new girlfriend and Opie became jealous, so he faked several illnesses to get his dad’s attention away from Peggy. Jealousy is grounded in a sense of insecurity, so make sure you are providing a stable environment and be looking for changes in your child’s behavior and disposition. Have your spouse and assistant coaches look for these types of cues.
Several experts emphasize the importance of taking off the coach’s whistle when you’re off the field or court. Refrain from talking about the specifics of the game or practice at home. Also, remind your kiddos that at practice or games, they need to refrain from the normal appeals that they might make at home like, Dad, why can’t we … or Do we have to, Mom? Decide if they are to call you Mom or Dad when you are coaching, or if calling you Coach is better. What is best for your child? What will help him keep your roles clear? I can’t say it enough … communication is key. It is the parent/coach-offspring/player relationship that is at stake, so you can’t talk too much about the processes that are taking place in both relationships. The adult in the relationship must be objective and identify the positives and negatives … and then … take the appropriate actions to maintain the most important relationship: parent-child. When you discuss your coaching duties, assure your child that you are committed to treating each player equally, giving helpful feedback, motivation, praise, and guidance.
Last, be sure not to turn your child into your at-home assistant coach. Avoid talking with her about other players on the team. This is inappropriate and puts your child in a very uncomfortable position. Plus it will have a negative affect on the parent-child relationship and your child will lose respect for you as a coach, and more importantly, as her parent.
Purpose2Play: When a parent also acts as coach, there tends to be a nepotism lens on that coach from parents in the stands (e.g. “His son played more than my son because he’s in charge”). What actions can the coach take to minimize this effect?
Dr. Cheri Toledo: You probably already know what I’m going to say … yep, communication … and I’ll add transparency. When dealing with parents, be open and honest – don’t leave anything to their imaginations or speculations. Players are going to have disagreements, make sure you deal with them quickly and openly. By the way, always have an assistant coach with you in those meetings, especially if it involves your child. Involve your assistants in all aspects of team and personnel management – they will help you identify your areas of bias and provide objective perspectives.
When coaching older players and higher competitive levels, playing-time decisions can be justified through data that you collect at practices and games. Teach the kids how to keep those stats – it will become obvious to them why you’ve made the line-up decisions they see and they will tell their parents. If an issue arises, then you bring out the stats and show how you and your coaching staff have determined playing time. During practices, make sure that you are giving each player equitable amounts of feedback and praise. In other words, don’t ignore the best player because she doesn’t need to improve as much as the other players. And don’t ignore the worst player because he has no potential and seems to contribute very little to the team. Your team is a system – each person contributes to the success of the system – the system will only be as strong as the leader. Good boundaries, positive interactions, balanced feedback, and … drum roll … fun! They are kids, not adults. Even at the elite levels, there has to be some fun. It’s not called playing a sport because it’s a gruesome task. Play should be fun, so if you make sure your players are having fun, you’ll have fun, too.
Last, but probably most important, avoid dealing more harshly with your child for fear that others might think you are giving her preferential treatment. Work on being as objective as possible. When you feel yourself slipping, call in your assistant coach for feedback and support.
Purpose2Play: Bringing wins and loses home is only natural for both coaches and players. What are some good ways to transition from games or practices to home life again?
Dr. Cheri Toledo: When we take off our uniforms, we stop talking about the game, practice, or team. So if I want to talk to my daughter about the next practice, game, or match, I have to go into my closet, pull out my coaching shirt, and put it on. If she wants to talk about it, she needs to go put on her kneepads or ball cap. This may seem a little silly, but it will set a much-needed boundary for both of you.
The coach, Sally, told her daughter, “I’m going to treat you like any other player when we’re on the court, because that’s when I’m the coach. When we’re home we won’t talk about the specifics of the game and I won’t coach you.” It’s ok to talk in vague generalities about the match, but resist the desire to coach off the field. Sally added, “Talk about the game as a parent, but don’t let the conversation become a coaching lesson.”
It takes a very special person to be able to coach his or her own child. Hopefully, you’ve learned something that will help you decide if you being your child’s coach is best for your child … after all, that is the bottom line. My friend, Vicki, a former elite tennis player and student of the late great Vic Braden, added, “The deciding factor for a parent coaching a child is the strength of the relationship.” There has to be a healthy balance between the parental and the coach roles. Without that balance the child will get hurt … and so will the parent.