When Sara Stewart stepped up to coach her eight-year-old daughter, Charlotte, in flag football, she knew what kind of coach she didn’t want to be. “In university, I coached T-ball for a team of five- and six-year-olds,” says the Oakville, Ont., mom. “At the end of one game, a boy on the other team had missed a catch, and it resulted in my team winning. As I was packing up, I heard a coach yelling at the boy. After he was done, the boy just looked up at the coach and said: ‘But Daddy, I tried!’ That crushed me, watching that.”
OK, so you know you shouldn’t publicly berate your players. But what don’t you know when you agree to pick up that clipboard and whistle as a parent coach? Here are seven coaching conundrums you may run into and some strategies for handling them.
1. What am I doing?!
Your son’s begging you to coach, but you’re no Beckham on the field. (Or maybe you’ve never even stepped onto a soccer pitch before.) You may want to take a local coaching course or contact a provincial or national coaching association—such as the Coaching Association of Canada, which offers online and in-person courses. Or there are alternatives. “Sometimes getting started is as easy as signing up as an assistant coach or volunteering to help out at various practices,” says Manon Landry Ouellette, the Fredericton-based executive director of Coach New Brunswick. Assisting eases you into the coaching scene without the pressure of being in charge and is a great way to get involved when you’re short on hours to devote to the team.
2. Time out! How many hours are needed?
How much time you dedicate to the team seems straightforward; for an average house league sport, it’s one hour for a game and another hour for a practice each week. But often, there’s at least an extra hour (sometimes several) spent at home on behind-the-scenes work, like setting lineups, organizing practices and games, communicating with parents and dealing with issues that crop up. “It’s like any teaching job: You have to plan what you’re going to work on each week in practice and figure out who’s going to be on the field when, and you want to make it fun,” says Len Tralla, a Toronto dad who coached one of his daughters in soccer. The higher the level, the more time you’ll invest in multiple practices and games, and possibly tournaments, too.
3. When coaching and parenting collide
Ouellette, who coached her daughter in skating, ran into a situation where her daughter didn’t recognize their new boundaries and would call out to her—like she would at home—while Ouellette was coaching. Ouellette reminded her that on the ice she was Coach, not Mom. “I told her that I’m there to help her and her friends have fun and practise cool skating skills to achieve our goal of the day,” she says. “And if she needed my attention in the middle of the drill, she could wait with her hand up until the drill was done.”
Jason Dickson, a former Anaheim Angel who coaches his daughters in softball and basketball, has an agreement with his kids: Once they’re home, the whistle is blown on game talk from Dickson (the girls are, of course, welcome to ask questions whenever they want). “I got into this habit of extending the coaching from the game to the car ride home to getting ready for bed, and that can wear a kid down,” says Dickson. He also had to explain the dad-coach difference. “At one of the first practices, I coached my daughter to hustle back to her position,” he says. “I could tell by her face something was up. Afterwards, she said I was using the ‘You’re in trouble’ voice. I told her it wasn’t intentional—I just had to speak up to be heard.”
4. Balancing rock stars and rookies
If you’ve got some naturally talented players on your team mixed with unsure first-timers, giving everyone equal time and opportunities can be tricky. When Stewart coached, she zoned in on different roles for players so they could be successful. “One boy was brand new to football and the smallest guy on the team. When he threw the ball, he couldn’t cover the same distance the other kids could,” she says. “So I encouraged him to throw short passes to help contribute in the game. I’d say, ‘We just need a few more yards, so I need you to throw us a good, strong, short pass,’ and it made him more confident.”
5. Coaching the parents
Many confess that dealing with parents is the most exasperating part of coaching, whether it’s an overzealous dad playing vicariously from the sidelines or a micromanaging mom who uses a stopwatch to track her child’s playing time. Communication is critical, and Dickson says having a team meeting with parents at the beginning of the season is key. “There, you can set out your expectations for the team and the parents,” he says. This includes not only info on uniforms and schedules but also your vision for the season and ways parents can help. Some coaches will also point out why it’s harmful to coach from the stands or explain the “shush” rule—which means that polite cheering is welcome, but no shouting is allowed.
And what about after the game? (“My kid was benched!” “That kid never passes!”) Kent Kuhn, a consultant with the New Brunswick Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture in the Active Communities Branch in Woodstock, NB, who coached both of his daughters in softball and hockey, often implemented the 24-hour rule. “If parents had questions or concerns, they had to wait 24 hours after the game to contact me. That gave cooler heads a chance to prevail,” he says.
6. When the team loses…again
Celebrate the small victories. “After games, we emphasize to the kids that they were really good at a particular skill, such as hustling or guarding someone. It might even just be that everyone was on time for practice,” says Dickson. “You have to find the good in the bad, because you’re not always going to win.” You might highlight the personal skills that each player has to help rally confidence after a string of losses or organize a “player of the week” designation to keep them working hard.
7. Playing favourites
Fairness goes both ways: While you have to give equal playing time to all the kids, including yours, many parent coaches are prone to making their own kids take on less popular roles because it’s easier than asking someone else. “I put my daughter in goal more than she would have liked, because a lot of kids complain about it, and she wouldn’t,” says Tralla. Sometimes, a second coach can help make sure you’re not always forcing your child to take one for the team. “If you have two coaches, it helps to ensure you’re subbing players in and out fairly,” he says. No assistant coach? See if a parent can help out.
When you hang up your hat at the end of the season, hopefully you feel that you’ve accomplished more than just teaching a group of kids some new skills. “I got to help role model a positive attitude in sport by being a gracious winner and loser, and being a female coach in a male environment,” says Stewart. “And that was along with having the chance to connect more closely with my daughter.”
A version of this article appeared in our June 2015 issue with the headline, “Seven things to know before coaching your kid’s team,” p. 36-38.