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Appropriate Coaching for Children's Sports Teams

Is the Coach Pushing too Hard?
'Tis the season for wins and losses, cheers and jeers, jubilation and abject frustration in the rink, in the gym, and on the playing field. While much has been made recently of parents' poor behavior on the sidelines, coaches also can lose perspective.

Jim Thompson, Stanford M.B.A., sports author, and youth coach, founded the Positive Coaching Alliance after realizing that few coaches get any training on motivational and team-building skills.

"I was just appalled by what was going on," he recalls of his own experiences as a basketball and baseball coach. "Kids were crying, parents yelling, and coaches screaming. In business school, I'd been trained in positive motivational techniques, and I wasn't prepared for how unhappy this (sports) experience was for so many kids and families."

What Parents Can Do
Thompson's group runs workshops for coaches, parents, and youth sports leaders. He suggests that parents consider their answers to the following questions in trying to assess a coach's behavior:

  • Ask: Is the coach "honoring the game"?
    Does he show respect for the rules? How does he respond when an official makes a clearly bad call (yell, or call a time-out to go over and talk)? Does he demean any player, including those on the opposing team, with comments on or off the field?

  • Observe: What are kids learning about winning?
    A good coach, Thompson believes, focuses not only on scoreboard results but also takes a "mastery orientation" in working with a team. In his workshops for coaches, Thompson uses an ELM tree approach, encouraging them to see winning as the product of Effort, Learning, and Mistakes.

    "Mistakes are going to happen," Thompson reasons. "The question is how you respond to them." If a coach comes down too hard on a kid who makes mistakes, the child will be afraid to risk failure, and risk-taking is essential to winning.

    Thompson teaches coaches to develop a "Team Mistake Ritual," some kind of motion or signal to use when an error is made or a game is lost. One coach he worked with had his team make a flushing sound after a mistake during a game, a signal that it was okay to forget it and move on.

  • Consider: Is the problem chronic?
    Thompson teaches coaches to give five compliments for every criticism. "If kids get a ratio of five to one," he asserts, "they're able to actually hear the criticism and respond to it, rather than be defensive." When considering a coach's behavior, parents can use a similar ratio. Is the coach yelling all the time, or is this an occasional loss of patience that's balanced by lots of positive motivational comments made to kids?
Other Suggestions
  • Recognize and honor the coach's commitment, even if you don't see eye-to-eye. Remember that coaches volunteer to spend long hours with kids, for little or no pay.
  • Get to know the coach, and if possible, offer to help the team. A personal rapport established early on makes it easier to discuss problems later.
  • Talk with the coach, not with your child, about any misgivings you have about the coach's behavior. "Divided loyalties do not make it easy for a child to do her best," Thompson notes.
  • When or if you feel the need to approach the sports association about the coach's behavior, proceed with care and caution. "I'm concerned (because so-and-so did such-and-such). Is that the kind of coaching this organization wants to allow?" Putting the comments in the form of a question, Thompson believes, will encourage an association director to reflect, whereas demanding a coach's immediate removal may result in a defensive reaction.
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